Kameka Morrison was sitting in a classroom watching a teacher explain segregation to elementary school students when she noticed something was wrong.
A Black student - the only one in the room - was clearly struggling to process the information, which was being delivered with little explanation about what led to those events in U.S. history, who was responsible and the sacrifices that Black people made at that time.
"I asked for permission to pull her outside," says Morrison, who was a teaching assistant at the time. "I gave her a hug and told her: ’You matter. That’s not all there is about you. There is so much more to your story.’
"I cried and so did she. She was holding all that shame."
From that day forward, Morrison vowed to redefine how Black history is taught in Canadian classrooms. Now, she’s studying adult education and community development at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), where she’s working on developing an educational program, as part of her coursework, that aims to teach Black history through an emotional intelligence lens.
"The teaching of Black history must be done in such a way that it mitigates harm to Black bodies and Black students’ emotions," she says.
Morrison is one of four scholars this year being supported by the Scholars-at-Risk Fellowship. Awarded by the School of Graduate Studies in a partnership with Massey College, the fellowship provides $10,000 to outstanding graduate students who are seeking asylum or refugee status in Canada, or whose study has been affected by political upheaval in their country of study. It also grants recipients the status of Scholar-at-Risk at Massey College.
Morrison, who came to Canada four years ago seeking asylum, has long advocated for Black voices. She has also helped women raising children without support from family or partners, newcomers adjusting to a different culture or women living in poverty.
"I want to gain relevant skills to challenge the experience of adult learners - mostly women - who come from all over the world and had led full lives in their own countries, but who are now learning English to meet language requirements for a fulfilling life in Canada," she says.
Morrison also works as a resilience and mindset coach with Black and refugee women. "Starting over is hard, it’s very difficult and I can relate to it very much," she says.
"My passion is to help women, especially those who are raising children by themselves."
Morrison took a circuitous route to Canada.
In her home country of Jamaica, Morrison was the lead teacher in an English department, as well as a communication instructor with Heart Trust, the country’s technical vocational education and training institute. But she left in 2014 in search of a better life for her family.
She worked as an English, history and literature teacher in the Bahamas. However, Morrison struggled to make ends meet on a single income. She earned enough for rent, but not enough for other expenses.
Morrison eventually settled in southern Ontario, but soon realized her life wasn’t playing out the way she envisioned. A single mom of two at the age of 37, she was finding it difficult to start over in Canada.
Then came a chance encounter at Toronto’s Union Station that changed the trajectory of her life: a stranger - an alumna at OISE, as I turned out - handed her a mug and tote bag that were emblazoned with the University of Toronto’s crest.
"She said to me, ’I felt led to walk over to you and give you these,’" Morrison recalls. "I thought it was the most strange and amazing thing. I had never heard of OISE before. I said, ’Wow, this is where I need to go.’"
"I went home and immediately looked it up. It felt like serendipity," she said. "It felt like something was giving me direction."
Morrison applied to several programs at OISE and was accepted into all three. She chose to study adult education and community development because it related to her work as an ESL instructor with the Durham District School Board.
Morrison hopes the educational program she’s developing at OISE will help guide teachers and raise awareness of the emotional impact Black history has in the classroom.
"A key consideration is for non-Black educators to demonstrate an appreciation of the responsibility that is inherently attached to the teaching of Black History with disclosure and congruence, and with a consciousness that does not diminish the realities of Black experiences within the community," she says.
She hopes this approach opens doors for policy-makers and administrators to make space for more Black educators to share their own history.
She plans to continue the development of the program after the course ends. Her work with Black and immigrant women will also continue.
"If I could share anything with another woman who is facing challenges, I would say that no part of our life or our experiences is ever wasted. Experiences come to provoke us to move forward and if we examine each encounter, we will find that it came to teach us and once we learn and implement then we are prepared for the next lesson and with it, the next victory.
"Identify your core beliefs. Those are your non-negotiables. Hold those close and keep moving forward."
Graduate Students Massey College Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Scholars at Risk School of Graduate Studies
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