A Bridge to Equity: A Personal Journey in Transforming School Systems That Colonialism Built
By Jill Jensen
Edited by Peter Senge and Art Kleiner
While not Nisga’a herself, Jill Jensen has developed a deep appreciation and love for the Nisga’a Nation and people. For the Nisga’a school district in British Columbia, where Jensen is superintendent, that means a focus on decolonizing education – and honoring the inherent knowledge and wisdom found in the Nisga’a language and culture. This work is part of a broad effort throughout Canada: reinventing western education to include the teachings and learnings of Indigenous peoples, including their inherited understanding of human and community development. Schools can be a key vehicle for this journey, and education leaders like Jensen are dedicated to helping make it possible.
The Nisga’a in particular are engaged in a long process to revitalize their language and culture, in a way that encourages all Nisga’a to participate fully in modern Canadian society as well. The Nisga’a are a sovereign nation whose autonomy is protected by a treaty based on rights explicitly written into the Canadian legal system. The Nisga’a nation thus differs radically from a “reservation,” where first peoples live under the control of a dominant nation state. By law, the Canadian government must relate to the Nisga’a Nation as it relates to any other sovereign nation, such as the US.
The Nisga’a treaty, which was signed in 1998 and took effect in 2000, is the first modern treaty in British Columbia. It resulted from 113 years of relentless struggle and negotiation, and especially from almost three decades of pioneering work by a group of Native lawyers. The concept of land tenure, at the heart of this treaty, is an example of the kind of ideas that the Nisga’a school district is now determined to include. As Sákéj Henderson, one of the lawyers who worked on the treaty, puts it, the Nisga’a cannot “own” the land and neither can any other group or individual. Instead, people are “trustees of the sacred order and territory for the future generations,”1 and thus are continually responsible for renewing and sharing land and its resources.2
This article focuses on the personal aspects of Jill’s journey. The Nisga’a School District faces many daunting practical challenges, including the critical shortage of teachers that currently affects many BC districts, especially in rural Northern areas. She explains here how her own personal developmental work – along with respecting Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, and continually learning and being open to possibilities – makes a difference in her ability to help and be of service in all aspects of what lays ahead.
— Peter Senge
“The Memorial is a Step Toward Healing”
Learning is holistic, reflexive, experiential, and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place). 3
—British Columbia First People’s Learning Principles
At the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia, Canada, there is a tribute in memory of children who did not come home from the residential schools. These are the schools that were forced on Indigenous people in Canada between 1876 and 1997, removing children from their families and culture. The tribute has been there at the gallery since 2021. On May 30, 2021, the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves were found by ground-penetrating radar at the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School (1890-1978). Since then, thousands more graves have been found across the country. By intention, the mere existence of residential schools was unknown to many Canadians. That this was surprising to so many speaks to the devastating success of colonization in making the Indigenous peoples of Canada invisible.
The school system I grew up in taught me nothing of the First Peoples of British Columbia, their diversity, and their language, culture, and territories. Rather, I was taught that the vast, beautiful, and wild lands and waters of British Columbia were “discovered” by explorers from Europe. I was taught that my ancestors “owned” the land they farmed and that it had not belonged to or been occupied by people prior to their arrival. This is a false narrative. The lands I have lived on my whole life were cared for, stewarded by, and home to First Peoples since time immemorial.
At the art gallery, volunteers stay onsite 24 hours a day to guard and protect the memorial display, which stands as a visible tribute and reminder of our country’s truth. Volunteers regularly talk with visitors; some apologize, some make donations, and some are overwhelmed by the message. There is evidence of listening and opening of the mind and heart from non-Indigenous visitors. As one volunteer told me, the memorial is healing for former residential school survivors, and for others who were personally affected.
However, there are also visitors who express anger at the volunteers, simply for being there. These visitors try to discredit the theory of discovery, or they defend their colonial conditioning and false theories. They are willing to listen, but only to what supports and conforms with their personal opinions. That the memorial challenges personal beliefs, conclusions, and assumptions about Canada’s history continues to make some uncomfortable; it does not fit with the narrative they have been taught and hold to.
Even among those who listen, I wonder how many are fundamentally changed. It is not clear how much generative listening there is and how much personal transformation has happened as a result. The museum posted a sign that reads: “We are not accepting verbal apologies this year, only changed behavior.” They kept that sign up for over a year; it is no longer there. I’m not sure that behavior has changed much.
Experiences like those at the Vancouver Art Gallery are now part of the zeitgeist of BC and the lived daily experience of all who live here. The same is true across Canada. In my role as superintendent of a BC school district, which is located on the ancestral lands of the Nisga’a nation, I see these experiences as a call to telling the truth. Acknowledging truth is a first step to realizing equity.
Equity is not a side issue in schools today. It’s at the core of the education transformation “challenge.” Students continue to be treated in different ways based on background and a variety of other variables. The exact nature of that inequity – of who is treated poorly – may vary from place to place, but it is always embedded so deeply it is difficult to see. Until we habitually see the children in the schools, and their families, and are willing to listen to them with open hearts, the system cannot change. Thus, until there is real equity, the system will not change.
In my role, as superintendent of the Nisga’a School District, it is my responsibility to foster real equity.
Bringing School Home to the Nisga’a Community
They said: You come to the bright lights — this is where education is. And we said, no, we can bring education home rather than export our children in all the schools throughout the province. We said we will import the school and educate our children right here in this valley.
— Simoogit (chief) Eli Gosnell4
Established in 1975, School District 92 Nisga’a was the first Indigenous school district in Canada. It continues to be the only Indigenous school district in British Columbia. The district was created because the Nisga’a no longer wanted to send their children away from home to attend school; they wanted all the benefits schooling could offer. They also wanted the school to teach and help preserve Nisga’a language, culture, and identity. This is a complete turnaround from the neglect, separation from the community, suppression and erasure that had been established policies and practices – in residential and day schools – just a few decades before.
The Nisga’a Unity pole, carved by chief Eli Gosnell, was raised at the opening of Nisga’a Elementary Secondary School in Gitlaxt’aamiks, to honor bringing control over schooling home to the valley. It was the first time a pole had been raised on Nisga’a lands in over 100 years. This was an historic moment for the nation. The Unity pole continues to stand outside the school, a daily reminder of the nation’s commitment to education.
23 years after taking control of their children’s education, the Nisga’a signed the historic treaty in 1998 in Gitlaxt’aamiks, giving the Nisga’a control over their land. Nisga’a leader Frank Calder – a lawyer and an elected member of BC’s Legislative Assembly, serving intermittently between 1949 and 1979 – fought for Nisga’a land title through the courts. After losing two cases in British Columbia, he took the case to the Supreme Court of Canada in November 1971. Much was at stake for indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world.
By a vote of six to one, wrote local historian Joan Harper, the Supreme Court of Canada “accepted the concept that the Nisga’a had enjoyed Aboriginal title before the Europeans arrived. They agreed that Aboriginal title was a concept recognized in the British Common Law and as such has been accepted throughout the British Empire.”5 When the treaty was signed in 1998, Simoogit Gosnell shared these words:
To the Nisga’a nation, a treaty is a sacred instrument. It represents an understanding between distinct cultures and sows respect for each other’s way of life. It stands as a symbol of high idealism in a divided, fractious world. That is why we fought so long and so hard.
Some may have heard me say on several occasions that a generation of Nisga’a men and women have grown old at the negotiation table. And sadly, that is true. Words can only hint at our feelings…. Our ancestors were torn from their homes, exiled to reserves, forbidden to speak the Nisga’a language and practice our own beliefs. In short, subjected to a system of cultural genocide for 130 years. It still breaks my heart to see our young men and women sentenced to a life of seasonal dead-end jobs….
Look around you. Look into the faces of our people. You’re looking into the faces of people who have survived. We’re survivors…. We intend to live in this land forever with our neighbors. And I believe under the treaty, we will flourish. I believe that this treaty represents a monumental achievement for the people and for Canadian society as a whole. It shows that reasonable people can sit down and settle historical wrongs. It proves that a modern society can correct the mistakes of the past and ensures that minorities are treated fairly. As Canadians, I believe we should all be proud.
No longer beggars in our own lands, we now go forward with dignity, equipped with the confidence that we can make important contributions social, political, and economic to Canadian society. And the Nisga’a treaty proves beyond all doubt that negotiations, not lawsuits, not real blockades, not violence, are the most effective, most honorable way to resolve the Aboriginal issues in this country…6
Listening for the Nisga’a Story
It’s frustrating for any group of people when you know that your culture is going out the window and never, ever to come back. So it’s up to us to struggle to maintain that culture. And this is exactly what we aim to do to maintain our identity, our culture, and our language.
— Simoogit Eli Gosnell7
I took the position as superintendent in 2020, just 20 years after the treaty came into effect. Since then, I have been blessed to be part of the educational journey of the Nisga’a school district, striving to be of assistance and contribute what I can.
As previously mentioned, I was not taught or told the truth of Canada’s history in school. It was not until I was an adult that a good friend who is Tahltan bluntly told me that I had been lied to and did not know the truth. She filled me in and I was shocked. What she told me failed to align with what I thought I knew about the country I had always been so proud to be part of.
Since then, I have been on my own personal journey of truth, as I strive to do my part in reconciliation (if it is possible) and creating space for equity. My role in the Nisga’a school district has caused me to further reflect on my identity as a Canadian and on my personal responsibility as a teacher and as a citizen. Implicit in what I was taught – and in what I was not taught – is a view that Western colonial knowledge is superior, and that some beings (human and non-human) ought to be privileged above others. I no longer accept these concepts and teachings, even as I continue to see and witness their persistence in our institutions and many of our mental models (our ways of understanding the world).
As superintendent, I recognize the significant responsibility of using my voice and position to forward truth. I cannot help but think that if we were more aware of our collective history, and truly understood the genocidal efforts made by newcomers to eradicate the Indigenous peoples of this land, we would not have been so shocked by the 215 children whose unmarked graves were found at Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc in Kamloops.
“Canadians have spent too much time looking away,” writes educator and author Jo Chrona. “Looking away from overt and systemic racism, from pain or death caused by racist attitudes and actions in health care, in policing, in criminal justice, in child welfare systems, in government policies and practices, and yes, in education.”8
I hope that we heed the voices of the children who did not come home. I hope we will listen.
As a human being, I have a responsibility to listen, and because I am in a formal leadership role, I have public responsibility for how I show up and how I am able to create space for others to show up. It is humbling and an honor to be trusted with this leadership responsibility and I am acutely aware of continuing to build my capacity to listen.
The Nisga’a have a long, rich cultural history and in the Nisga’a school district we are actively working to promote and preserve their language and culture. We work closely with families, communities, and village governments. It is a small district, where Nisga’a language and culture are the roots of identity, where adults work to support the well-being and learning of students, and where learning is a way of life.
Sim’algax, the Nisga’a language, is spoken in our schools and staff and students are encouraged to participate in place-based learning. As was shared by Nisga’a matriarch Sigidimnak’ Sayt Gibuu: “All of our being is tied to the land.”9 Land, language, and culture are intimately connected and the laws, ethics, and traditions are all tied to the land. Everything comes from the land. As a district, we believe that deep and meaningful learning happens everywhere in the community, especially when it is connected to place and real-life experiences. The traditional harvesting calendar serves as a guide for place-based learning. Students learn how to harvest and preserve many plant and animal foods that are available seasonally. Hoobiyee, Nisga’a New Year celebrations, take place in February, and all villages come together to share song, dance, and culture.
The Nisga’a school district follows the British Columbia province-wide curriculum, the School Act. We also have the ability to create local curriculum in collaboration with knowledge keepers and elders. The district is governed by an elected board of trustees, each representing a different Nisga’a village, and with one trustee representing non-indigenous children. As a rural and remote district, it has been challenging to recruit and retain qualified teaching staff. We continue to struggle with this while working to transform our district into an exceptional model of place-based teaching and learning that honors Nisga’a knowledge and ways of being. The BC Curriculum, through its Core Competencies and First Peoples Principles of Learning, encourages and offers space for learning of this kind and aligns with reasons the school district was created.
The personal work of facing history.
But there come times – perhaps this is one of them –
when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;
when we have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a severer listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowding the wires.
— Adrienne Rich, Transcendental Etude10
What we understand “school” to be is connected to our own personal experience. When historical understanding of school is tied to residential and day school experience, it creates an inevitable tension. In the Nisga’a district, we confront the “comfort” of colonial structures even as we seek to disrupt and dismantle them. We grapple with choices about what counts as knowledge and what is worthy of attention. We speak of “dancing in both worlds.” We want students to be proud of who they are: able to speak Nisga’a language and stand in their power as Nisga’a citizens. We also want them to be prepared for whatever they may choose to do in the world beyond, and to stand in their power in the global community.
It is unsettling to come to terms with a truth, a history, and a “reality” that are not what we have known or experienced. I believe that it is time for settlers to be unsettled. Equity will follow, but first we colonizers have to face our history.
By colonizer, I mean settler, newcomer, descendant of people whose families came from elsewhere and subjugated those who already lived here. I am a colonizer of Celtic and Scandinavian descent. I am not Indigenous to the lands we now call BC.
I am also a superintendent of the Nisga’a schools, where I participate in conversations about Indigenous teachings and learnings. The tension between these two identities makes me a little bit hesitant to speak up. While I am required to speak and be the voice for the Nisga’a school district and the provincial education system, I am always aware of the tension this creates.
What I have tried to share here is based on my understanding and experience, and my commitment to walk alongside my Indigenous relatives. In matters of language, place, culture, and Nisga’a knowledge, I cannot speak; and I defer to those who can. As Nisga’a education connects to education more broadly, I tread cautiously but find my voice becoming increasingly more powerful as I grow in my understanding of injustice, inequity, and resistance to truth.
I have to listen and realize that for many questions, I do not have answers. I also cannot rely on my cognitive, rational knowledge. I have to turn to other ways of being, to listen with an open heart, and to connect in ways that honor heart, spirit, body, and mind.
We are living in an historic moment for Canada. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) was adopted by the UN in 2007. British Columbia was the first province to adopt legislation based on UNDRIP in November 2019. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 94 Calls to Action in 2015. The British Columbia Auditor General’s report on Aboriginal Education was released the same year.11 All provide clear calls and recommendations for acknowledging and teaching the reality of the treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada, including the genocide of residential schools. There are also new guidelines for creating educational and economic opportunities for Indigenous Canadians.
These developments – and the new conflicts that go with them – are now part of the mood and reality of British Columbia and the lived daily experience of all settlers and First People who live here. The same is true across Canada. We are seeing changes, such as land acknowledgements, where we recognize the First Peoples of the land on which we live, thrive, and prosper. However, these often feel scripted and superficial, more of a check box. Much remains to be done in the institutional, political, and economic realms if we hope to realize equity and truth.
Personal work and individual journeys will be necessary if we hope to see larger system transformation. Ideals like equity, truth, reconciliation, and anti-racism gain meaning only when they are understood as personal work. Transformation needs to take place within individuals before we can successfully transform institutions. We tend to forget that we have created the institutions we want to transform. We may attempt to address equity, truth and reconciliation, and anti-racism in institutional ways through policy and legislation, through Calls to Action and recommendations. But for too many years, we have seen too little change in the lived experiences of people: those who know inequity and racism directly, and those of us who don’t – who are privileged enough to be beneficiaries of continued colonial practices.
Setting aside what we think we know and understand is not easy. Recognizing and telling the truth is a necessary first step in reconciliation: in healing the generational wrongs that have been inflicted. Beginning to see and understand the many ways all of us have been colonized, the many ways we have accepted the colonial narrative, is essential to de-colonizing, to shifting our practices, our language, our actions, our daily interactions with each other. I feel the tension directly.
My job is about building a bridge, but because I live in history it is not possible to build it completely. The bridge I am building is a bridge in myself. My role as an education system leader requires me to learn how to get across it — and to encourage others to do the same. Five practices have helped me do this: Listening, reflecting on our habits, shaping the social field, advocating for equity, and choosing a good life path. These practices are ways of being in the world with other people and many of the Compassionate Systems tools support me in growing these practices for myself and in sharing them with others.
I do not know if you have ever examined how you listen, it doesn’t matter to what, whether to a bird, to the wind in the leaves, to the rushing waters, or how you listen to a dialogue with yourself, to your conversation in various relationships with your intimate friends, your wife or husband.
If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate we hardly listen to what is being said. In that state there is no value at all.
One listens and therefore learns, only in a state of attention, a state of silence in which this whole background is in abeyance, is quiet; then, it seems to me, it is possible to communicate.
— Jiddu Krishnamurti12
It starts with listening. Otto Scharmer’s work on the levels of listening outlines downloading, factual listening, empathetic listening, and generative listening. As we move towards generative listening, we are in a better position to set our own beliefs aside and truly connect to the speaker (communicator – some communication has no words). To be educators, we must listen and learn. Learning – if it is holistic, reflexive, experiential, and relational – requires the ability to listen with our entire being. We listen not just with our logical brains but with our bodies, hearts, and spirits, so we can sense the energy of the beings (human and non-human) among us. Generative listening of this kind opens and connects us.
If we do not listen, we live asleep, unawake, as somnambulists, going through the motions of living but disconnected from ourselves, from others, from the place where we are, and from the world. Listening in an authentic way requires a suspension of our own ideas and perspectives, a stepping away from self so we can be open to the new and to the ‘other’.
What does it mean to listen, really? How does it different from “hearing,” the sensory taking in of aural information? Generative listening creates an energy which expands understanding. I have noticed when I am in space with Indigenous colleagues and friends there is deep gratitude for those who listen. There is always an acknowledgement of listening, of willingness to share from the heart. There is always thanks and appreciation given. I practice listening daily; I have so much to learn.
Tools like the ladder of inference and ladder of connectedness are ways to develop generative listening which allow us to create space to listen. But change is not in the tools any more than music is in the instruments. With each of the tools and practices, what matters is how they are lived or embodied, how they become part of who we are and how we live.
Reflecting on Our Habits
This is the setting out.
The leaving of everything behind.
Leaving the social milieu. The preconceptions. The definitions. The
Language. The narrowed field of vision. The expectations.
No longer expecting relationships, memories, words, or letters to mean
What they used to mean. To be, in a word: Open.
— Rabbi Lawrence Kushner13
For as long as I have been in education, there has been discussion about system change and transformation. There is an ongoing search for the best way to do things, or at least a better way, for the answer to creating high-performing systems of learning. In my experience, this has always meant the view that students should leave the system able to contribute to the economy. Success and flourishing have been tied to career and professional accomplishment.
Our relentless pursuit of change in education is a habit that helps the system avoid deeper transformation and maintains a focus on graduating in order to contribute to the economy as the highest priority. It distracts us from the deeper reflective work we need to do. We need to step back from the system to see habits like these as norms we take for granted. It distracts us from the work of being and becoming human beings with personal and collective responsibilities. Tools like the ladder of inference allow us to question, challenge, and understand our habits.
Another schooling routine or habit is prioritizing individual accomplishment and “success” rather than collective well-being. We know that when minds and hearts come together we create and generate so much more than when we work in isolation. Yet we continue to promote and support this individualistic premise in schools. While we have always included personal and social responsibility (citizenship) in curricula, we measure and celebrate academic achievement much more. What we measure is what we pay attention to, and how we measure the “success” of the system. The BC curriculum allows for our attention to be on areas other than academics, but academics remain the priority and we continue to focus on students as individuals, not in relation to each other.
In our desire for educational transformation, we tend to view “education” as something distinct and detached, its own system. But education is part of a larger, complex, social system embedded in norms and assumptions. Our educational institutions reflect what’s important to society and what we value.
Still another habit is the insatiable appetite for achievement and growth. We confuse need with greed, relationship, and connection with success, and being with busy-ness. We lose our grounding in the process. The dangers of insatiable appetites and selfishness, and how they lead to disconnection from the natural world, is a core teaching of many native cultures. The Windigo is a dangerous being that people were warned about in traditional oral teachings. The more the Windigos consume, the hungrier they become. It seems that our individualistic, competitive system fosters this desire for more.
We also act, as I mentioned earlier, as if schools and other institutions “have a life of their own,” as Linda Zerilli puts it, separate from ourselves.14 We forget that they are fashioned and formed by human beings – and that we, as educators, helped to create them in the first place and still help to maintain them. Our habits hold us. When we become distracted and disconnected, it is easier to do what we feel is easy and comfortable. Rather than think what we are doing in our teaching and learning, we follow the common script of schooling, fulfilling the roles of teacher, student, parent, or principal. Rather than try something new in the classroom, we continue with a well-scripted program, or a lesson we have used for years. It seems to work well enough. Rather than living and learning together as human beings, we focus on outcomes, results, tangibles – things we can measure quantifiably. We focus on covering curricula, passing tests, completing assignments, and functioning at “grade level” (whatever that means. Who determined that?).
Finally, we get in the habit of ignoring what we don’t want to acknowledge or accept. A prevailing attitude seems to be: If it doesn’t affect me or my personal lifestyle and comfort, I can and will support change. If I need to give something up: “No thank you.” We only engage in ways that reinforce our established habits of judgment – and our belief that the sources of problem are others, not ourselves.
To break these habits, we need to step back, look at them, and talk openly about them. Our institutional role “is always conditioned, but in no way determined,” says Zerilli. How do we come to understand other perspectives?15 How do we begin to see beyond ourselves and our own lived experiences so that we can understand and care for others? How do we begin to wonder about and reconsider the yarn we are using to weave our understanding and other people’s experiences and worldviews? The ladder of inference offers a way for us to break with what we see as given and engage with curiosity about how our beliefs have come to be.
This type of dispassionate self-awareness is especially important when we spend all our time in public. Immersed in the busy-ness of our lives, and the automatic responses from other people, our attention becomes arrested. When we live this way, there is very little space to question our assumptions, presumptions, beliefs, values. And when we only hear reaffirming narratives, we are caught up even more in our own ideas. We listen only to what affirms us, and we stop questioning. Our openings become fewer.
We need to practice reflecting on our habits, and teach students how to do this as well. Maxine Greene said that as educators, we have a responsibility to help children “break with the taken-for-granted, what some call the ‘natural attitude,’ and look through the lenses of various ways of knowing, seeing, and feeling in a conscious endeavor to impose different orders upon experience.”16 We need to find ways to help children (and adults) find their voice in the midst of diverse and various voices, create space for them to attend to the world in new ways, and to take a stand for (and know) what they believe.
Shaping the Social Field
Listen, there are words almost everywhere. I realized that in a chance moment. Words are in the air, in our blood, words were always there…. Words are in the snow, trees, leaves, wind, birds, beaver, the sound of ice cracking; words are in fish and mongrels, where they have been since we came to this place with the animals…. Words and thoughts retain their capacity to create, to cause and to change.
— Gerald Visenor, “Landfill Meditation 8”17
A key idea of the compassionate systems framework is that we, and especially those of us in leadership positions, have greater responsibility for shaping the quality of the social field amongst us. The social field is the collective presence of relationships and interactions for a group of people. The energy and connection among individuals ignites and illuminates, for better or worse.
The compassionate systems tools, when put into practice allow us to grow our personal and collective awareness, and as our awareness deepens, the tools become vehicles for shaping generative fields that enable both understanding and collective action. The language associated with compassionate systems is new, but it resonates deeply with traditional Indigenous cultures like the Nisga’a. As my Nisga’a language teachers said, “That’s called being Nisga’a. Compassionate systems is the Nisga’a way of life.”
As each of us act in the world, our actions ripple outward affecting those around us – though how each action, each word, and each deed affect others can never finally be known. Once we act, we cannot control the outcome. We cannot take back our words or actions, which is why it is so important that we are thoughtful, reflective, and aware of how we are contributing to the social field.
This is especially true for educators. Education, notes Deborah Meier, “requires an appreciation for the complexity and interconnectedness of people and other living things, if we have any hope of maintaining both the planet and our democratic institutions.”18 The outcome is not just about jobs and possessions but about expanding the soul, about becoming who we are, developing and attending to the parts of ourselves that make us human. We each have a responsibility to help set things right. This can only be done together with other people.
Thinking What I am Doing
Thoughtlessness – the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial and empty – seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition19
Equity work is grounded in the conviction that all people have equal dignity.20 This is now such a fundamental idea that it is hard to imagine speaking out openly against it. Yet inequity persists.
How can we ever move towards equity if we are not willing to sit together, to suspend what we think we know and, as Hannah Arendt put it, to think what we are doing? Thinking in this way requires the generative listening and awareness of generative social fields, it requires us to be present, in the moment, as we think what we are doing to our place, to other people, to ourselves. It is deeper than “thinking about.”
When I act as superintendent, I often have to think what I am doing. To me, that phrase means paying attention to the social field, to the quality and depth of my own speech and action in the moment. The more I work to grow my practice, the more growing I realize I need to do. There is no mastery, there is only the ongoing journey of cultivating awareness and compassion.
Without intentional attention to practice and listening in only cursory, shallow, ego-centric, downloading ways, it is all too easy to act in thoughtless ways, that will perpetuate inequity. Our conditioned colonized mindsets and habits perpetuate actions that uphold the status quo and make it difficult for us to see in new ways. However, if we are willing to learn from each other, listen with open hearts and begin to address our collective colonization, we may be able to create truly equitable spaces. “The pain of the past is carried in the bones of the present,” writes Jo Chrona. “There is no moving past – only moving through – surfacing the dark into the light and air that comes with acknowledging, and with sitting in witness.”21
For me, equity is about sitting together in witness as we take care of, respect, and love – self, others, and place – as we work together to set things right. If we love, we will care for and respect the self and others. Amor mundi is love of the world as it is. Equity appears when love of the world is important to society.
Genuine education relies on equity and helps to create it. Education of this sort is not about the predictable, but the possible. Living in relationship to others means that we confront multiple, diverse, and unpredictable perspectives. We need to acknowledge and work with them rather than working to control them. In this way, our actions make a case for equity, with a spirit of love and connection, that everyone understands.
“It is this freedom of the will mentally to take a position that sets man apart from the rest of creation,” wrote Arendt.22 As superintendent, I take the position for equity carefully and wholeheartedly, conscious of the commitment involved.
Choosing a good life path
Wind shakes the big poplar, quicksilvering
The whole tree in a single sweep.
What bright scale fell and left this needle quivering?
What loaded balances have come to grief?
—Seamus Heaney, “The Poplar”23
Living within a first people’s nation reminds me regularly of the Indigenous ideal of living a good life. This is at times referred to as striving “to always think the highest thought” in Indigenous teachings.
“Thinking the highest thought,” wrote Gregory Cajete, “means thinking of one’s self, one’s community, and one’s environment richly. This thinking in the highest, most respectful, and compassionate way systematically influences the actions of both individuals and the community. It is a way to perpetuate “a good life,” a respectful and spiritual life, a wholesome life.”24
In the pursuit of knowledge, of understanding, of education, and of learning, we can continually bring ourselves back to this way of thinking. If we open our minds in a compassionate way, we may move toward improving our perception of what the mind is and how thought is processed. We may come to see how anything and everything affects our consciousness as human beings, and how we are interconnected.
“I’ve been considering the phrase ‘all my relations’ for some time now,” wrote Richard Wagamese. “It’s hugely important. It’s our saving grace in the end. It points to the truth that we are all related, that we are all connected, that we all belong to each other. The most important word is ‘all.’ Not just those who look like me, sing like me, dance like me, speak like me, pray like me or behave like me. All my relations. That means every person, just as it means every rock, mineral, blade of grass, and creature. We live because everything else does. If we were to choose collectively to live that teaching, the energy of our change of consciousness would heal each of us – and heal the planet.”25
Nisga’a schooling is back home and the Nisga’a Nation has control of their lands and resources. More and more across BC and Canada awareness is growing, Indigenous voices are rising up and speaking out, and truth is surfacing. We sit in witness. With witnessing comes responsibility. If we take that seriously and journey together, the effect may be greater than people expect. We collectively share this time in our history and each of us need to make decisions about how we will choose to be, who we will choose to be, in this moment and the next and the next. It matters. “It would seem that the Elders of North American cultures have something that they want us to know for our survival,” writes Walter Lightning. “Not only physically, but spiritually as well. How do we move toward a life of balance and harmony with all of life, for our holistic survival? How do we become human once again?”26
- James Youngblood (Sákéj) Henderson, “Mikmaw Tenure in Atlantic Canada,” Dalhousie Law Journal, Fall 1995, vol. 18 no. 2, p. 232.
- “First People’s Principles of Learning;” Jo Chrona, “Welcome,” First People’s Principles of Learning website, November 26, 2014.
CPAC Archives, Address by Joseph Gosnell, Sr., at Nisga’a Treaty Ceremony, August 4, 1998, YouTube.
- Joan Harper, He Moved a Mountain: The Life of Frank Calder and the Nisga’a Land Claims Accord, Ronsdale Press, May 15, 2013, p. 97.
Address by Joseph Gosnell, Sr.
Address by Joseph Gosnell, Sr.
Jo Chrona, Wayi Wah! Indigenous Pedagogies: An Act for Reconciliation and Anti-Racist Education, Portage and Main Press, 2022, p. 38; Jo Chrona, “The Power of Tension and Hope,” Jo Chrona website, 2021, https://luudisk.com/2021/06/06/the-power-of-tension-and-hope/.
- Personal communication.
- Adrienne Rich, The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984, W.W. Norton, 1994.
Catherine Bell and Sarah Lazin, A Selected Review of Federal and Provincial Legislation Implicating Indigenous Heritage in British Columbia, First Peoples’ Cultural Council, March 2022; Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Calls to Action, 2015; Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia, An Audit of the Education of Aboriginal Students in the B.C. Public School System, November 5, 2015.
Jiddu Krishnamurti, Saanen 1967 First Public Talk, Juddu-krishnamurti.net.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, “A Playful Midrash for Shabbos,” Red Hot Pawn/Spirituality, posted by vistesd, February 10, 2006. Quoted in Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, Walk Out Walk On, 2011, Berrett-Koehler.
Linda Zerilli, A Democratic Theory of Judgment, University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 543.
Linda Zerilli, A Democratic Theory of Judgment, University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 543.
Maxine Greene, Variations on a blue guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute lectures on aesthetic education. Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2001.
Gerald Vizenor, Landfill Meditation: Crossblood Stories, Wesleyan University Press, 1991.
Deborah Meier, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem, Beacon Press, 2002
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 2nd Edition, 1958: p. 5.
Gipson, T., S. Giroux, N. Lomborg, T. Selvey, “Equity as a way of Life,” Center for Systems Awareness www.systemsawareness.org
Chrona, Wayi Wah!, p. 38.
Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Thinking, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1978, p. 136.
Seamus Heaney, “The Poplar Tree,” The Spirit Level, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1996.
Cajete, G., Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education. First Edition, 1994, p. 45. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED375993
Richard Wagamese, Embers, 2016, p. 36.
Lightening, Walter, Compassionate Mind: Implications of a Text Written by Elder Louis Sunchild, 1992, pg. 6. https://www.learnalberta.ca/content/aswt/worldviews/documents/compassionate_mind.pdf
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