One of York University’s hallowed traditions, the Faculty of Education Summer Institute (FESI), may have bowed to COVID-19 in terms of format, but it is unbowed in terms of mission and content.
For 2020-21, the institute has morphed into a series of five free webinars titled Up Close and Personal: Conversations on Anti-Oppression. Two of the seminars are complete and available online at https://fesi.blog.yorku.ca/. The next is scheduled for Nov. 25 and two others will follow. The upcoming webinar in November will focus on decolonizing mental health.
“There has been an increased focus on mental health and trauma-informed practices over the past five to 10 years,” said Vidya Shah, an assistant professor of education, who is a member of the FESI organizing committee. “So much of that discussion is decontextualized, ahistorical and separate from larger systems of oppression, perpetuating the myth of neutrality and pathologizing the individual. We want to think about how trauma and intergenerational trauma from colonization and other intersecting forms of oppression affect our health and well-being.”
FESI has long been a force for change in the education landscape.
“As is the long-standing tradition with this conference, FESI 2020 will continue to challenge and question long-held educational beliefs, policies and practices that have become embedded and normalized in educational landscapes,” reads the website. “It aims to disrupt the taken-for-granted assumptions, ideas and practices of what constitutes education, who has access to it, and which values are legitimated by it.”
The institute was created about a dozen years ago by renowned Faculty of Education Professor Carl E. James and his colleagues, and it continues to be a force for change in education. James, the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora and the University’s senior advisor on equity and representation, sits on the organizing committee, along with Shah, Jack Nigro, a superintendent of Education for Ontario’s Durham District School Board, and the co-chairs, who are usually educators in the public system seconded to York. This year’s co-chairs are Sultan Rana and Sayema Chowdury.
“FESI began as a desire to foster deep connections between the academy, schools, families, policy-makers, teacher candidates and community organizations serving young people,” Shah said. “The goal is to address relevant and timely issues of schooling through dialogue, research and connection, and to honour the knowledge that exists in communities, the families and the classrooms.”
Each year, the co-chairs work with a larger committee of 20 or more representatives from school boards in the GTA and community organizations, as well as teacher candidates and researchers, who decide on the conference themes the co-chairs suggest to them.
“The leadership rotates,” said Shah, who co-chaired FESI in 2016 and 2017 when she was a teacher seconded to York. “It allows for fresh perspectives and different experiences. We tackle important topics that educators are grappling with in schools every day.”
FESI also tries to bring a different lens to these topics.
“We try to provoke dialogue, not simply give answers; it’s in the conversations that we acknowledge and grapple with multiple perspectives and work collectively towards justice-oriented change,” Shah said. “FESI has built a reputation among school boards as a place you can express questions, think differently, and join a network of people committed to anti-racism and anti-oppression in education.”
In the past, FESI took place on campus toward the end of the summer when schools were preparing to return to class. It offered educators and faculty an opportunity to get re-energized and focus on valuable issues.
“We’re excited about this year’s format,” Shah said. “We always wished we could extend the institute throughout the year to keep the conversation going and that possibility has now opened up.”
The new format has been successful, too. In addition to the live participants, 1,000 viewers have watched the first webinar and almost as many have viewed the second.
The opening webinar looked at designing systems and structures that center anti-racism and anti-oppressions at every stage and in every aspect of decision-making, and “designing to imagine new futures,” said Shah.
The October webinar explored anti-racist approaches to the child welfare system, something with which educators come into contact with time and again. On Nov. 25, as noted, FESI will explore decolonizing mental health.
“Given the increased challenges with mental health now as we live through the pandemic, it’s important to make sure we understand the systemic issues that inform and harm our mental health and that we are inclusive of many knowledge systems,” Shah said.
As always, the conversations are presented in ways that will promote action.
“This year, we are developing lenses, skill sets and habits of mind to see how systems have continued to oppress certain populations, hoping it affects practices within school boards,” Shah said. “FESI is a space in which decision-makers, parents, educators and community members are all in conversation about how to create more just and humane conditions for schooling.”
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer