By Sara Austin
“What is happening?”
My nine-year-old son asked me this question last week. He was confused by the images he saw flashing across the screen in our living room. Thick crowds of people. Protesters holding signs. Tears. Tension. Frustration. He didn’t know how to piece it all together. So he turned to me for answers.
At that moment, I had a decision to make: say nothing or engage in an honest conversation.
In words he could understand, I began to explain what was happening. I told him that George Floyd was a Black man who was killed by a white police officer. I told him about the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet after her mother called a police officer to their home. I told him that it’s not fair, and it’s not right. These were things he could understand. We both listened and learned from each other. And with that, it opened a conversation about racism.
As a mother, I’m committed to having hard conversations with my family – including the privileges we benefit from and our role in the fight against racism. But I get to choose. Black mothers don’t have that luxury. They need to talk with their children from an early age to keep them safe.
Children First Canada’s 2019 Raising Canada report named discrimination as one of the top 10 threats to child health. Racism has a profound impact on the health status of children, adolescents, emerging adults and their families. Race-based data reveals that racialized children are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, grow up in poverty and be involved with the child welfare system. As a result of the toxic stress they experience in childhood, studies also show they are more likely to face adverse outcomes to their physical and mental health throughout their lifetime.
In the last moments of his life, George Floyd called out for his late mother. This heart-wrenching plea quickly became a call to action. In the anti-racism demonstrations following his death, a popular sign emerged: “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd called out for his Mama.”
Mothers have an important role to play in responding to this crisis. In times of trouble, children look to them for love and guidance. This is why talking with them about racism is so important.
We can’t leave these conversations to Black parents and think the problem will be solved. All parents and guardians have a role to play. We need to start these conversations when our kids are young and continue throughout the years to come. We don’t need to be experts. Sometimes the best teaching we can do is to model a sense of curiosity and learn together with them.
At Children First Canada, we stand in solidarity with Black children and their families who experience systemic racism every day. One of the ways that we’re responding is by engaging children and youth in confronting racism. Many young people are already talking about these issues and are leading the way; they are on the front lines of the protests and posting their views on social media. We need to do a better job of listening to them, and they need culturally and psychologically safe spaces to be heard. Most importantly, young people should be involved in decisions that will transform their lives and the lives of their peers.
As a leader of a national organization, I also want to acknowledge that we have much to learn. We can do better. This process begins with establishing greater representation at all levels of our organization. As a board and management team, we are talking about these issues and are willing to take action.
I can’t begin to imagine the emotions that Black Canadians are experiencing right now. But as a mother and an advocate for kids in Canada, I can say this: I am listening and learning, and I am determined to do better.
Sara Austin is the founder and CEO of Children First Canada.