Strong schools are key to an inclusive community

Show me the state of your nation’s schools and I will tell you about the health of your democracy – which right about now should make us all of us a little bit nervous.

Schools have always been both microcosms and battlegrounds in our society’s culture wars. In today’s context, it is more important than ever that the defenders of an open, inclusive society focus thoughtfully and comprehensively on empowering and supporting students to be intellectually curious, open-minded, compassionate and resilient in the face of intolerance.

In the past year, teachers and principals report that sexist, racist, homophobic and xenophobic incidents in schools have exploded. Clearly this isn’t happening in a bubble, but is part of a larger coarsening of civic discourse.

It’s easy to blame political events in the US, starting at the top with Donald Trump riding a wave of resentment and perceived exclusion right into the White House. But please don’t think Canada is immune. The violence recently visited on a Quebec City mosque is an extreme example of blaming “the others”. Just look and listen just as carefully at reprehensible online comments to news articles, social media and tirades at the next booth in the coffee shop. The acceptance of intolerance and the scapegoating of immigrants, refugees and minorities is creeping insidiously from the political fringes into our mainstream.

Put all this in the context of declining public trust in civic institutions, and you have the perfect storm for those who want to stick it to the “elites” in government and media.

It would be bad enough if this toxic brew was restricted to the adult world, but of course our children are listening carefully, learning how to behave from the examples we set. Worst of all, while “safe spaces” are being created for disseminating falsehoods and prejudices, the actual safe spaces for our most vulnerable citizens are under threat. The very institutions that have taken such a hit in public trust in recent years need to refocus on connecting with the public – and especially people living in vulnerable circumstances, who are too often written off and forgotten in public policies.

One of the ways the Hamilton Community Foundation is working on this in Hamilton is through a web of programs designed to reach at-risk children to understand the challenges they face and provide real, practical and useful support to ensure they remain in school and reap the rewards of full participation in an inclusive society. I’ve written before about the ABACUS program and its groundbreaking, evidence-based strategies to help more kids reach their full potential.

But it’s easy sometimes to get lost in the policy details and forget about the larger context. The stakes are now higher than ever. If people feel left out of the promise of a fair and just society, it becomes more appealing to listen to those voices who want to destroy an inclusive society, because they feel they have nothing to lose.

Public schools remain one of the few places that are accessible to all, regardless of means, background, culture or sexual orientation. Ideally, schools are places that prepare us for life, not just through education in the classroom, but also by equipping us with the social and emotional skills and resilience for the future.

There may not be much to do to stop bad behaviour on the world stage, but locally we can create places where young people build understanding and empathy for our differences and commonalities. If we are thoughtful and principled, we can show our children that there is a better, more hopeful way for them to connect while recognizing the strength of diversity, openness and inclusion.