jeewan chanicka joined Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) as director of education in August 2021. Prior to that, he served as a York Region District School Board principal, as Superintendent for Equity, Anti-Racism, Anti-Oppression with the Toronto District School Board, and at the Ontario Ministry of Education.
He spoke with The Wilmot-Tavistock Gazette about the first six months in his current role.
What have you discovered since you became director, and what are you hoping to accomplish?
One of the things that was really important was to think about how we can engage the multiple communities that comprise Waterloo Region District School Board. Part of that required me to get to know the landscape of Waterloo Region.
Since October, (I’ve) been going out to schools to meet students, staff, sometimes families, and I started in the townships. It was really important to get out into the townships and hear what people were feeling and thinking, what mattered to them, and to think about, as we grow as a district, how do we make sure those voices are included?
There are a lot of assets in our rural communities that we can really learn from. My grandparents were farmers, so I grew up on farms and on the land. For us, it was dairy, but we also had sheep and ducks and chickens. We also grew a lot of fruits and vegetables. Every summer, it’s still the thing that I do. I grow a lot of my own food.
We’re preparing kids for life in a very different world than the one you and I graduated into. They don’t talk about, when they graduate, wanting to live in the same community and do the same kinds of jobs. They’re looking at (other) countries because of how connected everything is. So, what are the skill sets and competencies that children need for that world?
Education as an entire sector is a couple hundred years old. We haven’t drastically changed anything, but they’re going out into a world with all kinds of challenges that we never had to think about, where they’re exposed to so much information that we never had access to.
We needed to memorize information, because if we didn’t know it, we wouldn’t have it when we were out in the work field. Now, they have these things (holds up his cellphone), and they can give you all of the answers to everything. Those are definite challenges.
We help ensure that the children who are successful in the system the way it’s set up continue to be successful, but recognize that it hasn’t worked for all children. That provides a challenge, but I think that being in Waterloo Region, Canada’s innovation hub, the challenge is actually our opportunity. We have a chance to do things differently that will help set us apart in the world.
There have been incidents of racism in local schools over the years. How do we deal with this to protect children?
As an education system, we’re part of a wider society. Systemic racism is a reality. I experienced it growing up, and I still experience it even now, as the director. It’s not a strange thing for me to hear that. Students experience that.
We recently set up the Indigenous, Equity, and Human Rights Department, and we now have a reporting tool in place that people can access.
If you’re here in Waterloo Region, you belong here, and you belong here in the fullness of whoever you are. It could be multiple things that are all combined together: queer and trans children, children who are coming out of poverty, the non-neurotypical kids who don’t live the same way as everyone else.
I come at this both professionally as the director, but also as a father of two boys who are racialized – Black – during their high school career, and the challenges that they face. (I’m the) father of a child with special needs, and know what parents go through, so I’m constantly reflecting on what else can we do better, what’s going well, and then how do we keep strengthening it?
We have to make sure that our schools are inclusive. I don’t want any child to feel like they have to hold back who they are because they will be harmed in some way. There are things that they can’t hide, like your skin colour, for example. They’re able to be in a space and be able to be their full self.
The point of equity work is not to make people who are white feel bad about being white. Equity work doesn’t want anybody to feel bad about their identity. Our identities are huge parts of who we are.
What’s a positive highlight as WRDSB director so far?
We have about 122 schools in our district, and one of the things that I’ve been committed to has been to getting to know the region and getting out to them almost every week. That has been absolutely my most favourite thing. I’m now at about 118. I’ve met grandmas and grandpas, and moms and dads, hundreds of students.
There’s a deep commitment among staff to try to do better for all students. That’s been really heartening to be able to hear and see.
One final, obvious question: Why do you spell your name all lowercase?
I’ve been doing that for years now, and since I took this role, it’s been one of the most asked questions.
It’s the way that I decentre myself. It comes from Indigenous ways of knowing, and the idea that when we think about ourselves, we capitalize our names in English. There’s this idea of importance and being “more than.” We don’t capitalize grass, or trees, or animals, or rivers, or oceans.
It’s important that we understand our place in the world. We are part of a symbiotic system; we’re all part of an ecosystem. I’m not more important than the water that flows in the river.
As I have been going out, students love to ask me that question. When I explain to them, they’re like, “Yeah, that makes sense.”