Antonio Michael Downing—artist, musician, creator—is the first mentor in Waterloo Region District School Board’s (WRDSB) Black Artist-in-Residence program. He is doing his residency at his alma mater, Glenview Park Secondary School in Cambridge.
The program is similar to some programs in post-secondary institutions, museums and other places of intersections between art and learning. It aims to connect students with mentors and ongoing culturally responsive material.
“I want to give these students the inspiration, the empowerment and the safe space that I wish I had when I was them,” Downing said.
Downing said it is important for people to see themselves reflected in their leaders, especially as students step into wider society after high school. This is also true for white students preparing to enter a world with more diverse members.
“Just seeing someone that looks like you in a position of leadership empowers you and makes you more comfortable and makes you more secure in your identity, and therefore makes you more capable of doing all the things schools supposed to do like, learn, grow, dream, vision out your career and what you might want to do with your next step of your life,” he said. “All these things become easier when you feel empowered within a space.”
Teneile Warren, equity and inclusion officer at the WRDSB, stated that engagement with Black mentors in safe spaces helps students to have more positive experiences, increase well-being and have better self-confidence
“A school community that creates safe, belonging and identity-affirming opportunities is a benefit to all students,” they said. “Joy is infectious. Being seen and held with care spreads positivity. The students will take the knowledge and experience from the residency into other classrooms; they will be positioned to empower their peers…Representation is a manifestation of a young person’s dreams. It sends the message that my aspirations are within reach. This benefits everyone.”
Downing moved to Canada at 11 from Trinidad. He moved between five high schools around Ontario before transferring to and graduating from Glenview Park. In the 1990s, there were very few Black students at the school.
At the time, he was not the preferred person among his classmates. Downing recalled how, upon reacting to being bullied on the bus, he had the police called on him. Despite being a bookish and introverted student, Downing was perceived as a thug who would inevitably cause trouble.
“[Basically, the students] all had stories about things that happened because there’s no Black teacher there…People assume you’re not smart when you’re in classes, that’s a big thing. People assume you’re more trouble than you actually are. They almost default to you being a bad kid,” Downing said.
He called these assumptions false narratives and said they create negative experiences for Black students.
“[It’s] really about the false narratives. It’s about people see your skin colour and they just assume a bunch of things about you that they really don’t really know—they don’t really understand, they just assume these things. And then they treat you as if these assumptions are real,” Downing said.
“And I think that’s a very, very common thing for all minorities, but it’s a very dangerous thing when they’re students in high school because all high school students are just kind of figuring out who they are,” he said.
Many of Downing’s classmates became educators and returned to Glenview to teach. However, this is the first time that Downing himself has returned to his former high school. For the white alumni that returned, Downing said, high school was a place where they belonged and where they felt comfortable spending much of their adult life. For Black students, including Downing, that is not the case.
“[If] high school was the place where you always kind of felt—like I was kind of comfortable but I never felt like I fully belonged. Then, then nostalgia for high school takes on a whole different a whole different point of view,” he said. “I found out that almost a dozen people I went to school with became teachers and many of them went back to Glenview Park to teach…these people were so comfortable with their high school experience that they wanted to spend essentially their entire adult adult lives in the same halls that they went to high school…”
There are fewer Black students now than there were in the 1990s in Glenview Park. Despite the small numbers, Downing hopes to help his students learn more about storytelling so they can take charge of their own narratives.
This also opens the door to learning technical skills and more. The creative process, Downing said, includes many steps: dreaming, technical skills, perseverance, presentation and fulfillment.
“Storytelling is really important to people of colour because, very often, we find our stories get erased; [especially] when you’re a minority in a school, that culture tilts towards the majority. And so it might be hard for you to not only see your own face in other things, but the stories that are being told and the way they’re being told, don’t necessarily relate to your identity,” Downing said.
Despite barriers and difficult experiences, Downing flourished. He said people of colour undergo many trying situations, however, in surviving, they become more exceptional.
“[People] of colour are constantly being disadvantaged by system and situation and the false narrative. We’re resilient and we’re innovative and we’re creative and we’re generous and we’re caring and we’re compassionate…These are all super powers that they forced us to have,” he said.