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Do not remove the ladder after you’ve climbed it

I vividly recall heated discussions with two of my friends who had been promoted to school principalships in their respective school boards. This was 1980’s and 90’s Canada, a time when even broaching the subject of racism with white colleagues, peers, and friends resulted in strange looks, aggressive comments, and blank stares. Like me, my two friends were black men within a Canadian educational system which was systemically racist and actively denying us entry into the top administrative leadership roles in our respective school boards. I praised both of them for their trailblazing accomplishments and enquired what they intended to do to open pathways for other black teachers to follow, people who were in search of employment and equally deserving of promotion.

I was shocked, and sadly disappointed, by their responses. They both informed me that in actively seeking to support the growth and promotion of other black teachers and advocating for racial diversity that I was taking very dangerous risks, especially at a time when there were few vacancies in my school board. It must be noted that I am referring to well-qualified, highly trained teachers who had attended the same teacher’s college from which both of these gentlemen had graduated. What these teachers needed was not a handout, but a way to get their feet in the door of Canadian school boards which actively employed, mentored, promoted, and fast-tracked white teachers at the expense of all other qualified groups.

Understanding the obstacles stacked against black educators, I had chosen another path. Using my power and influence as a vice principal, I had employed six well-qualified black teachers on my staff of thirty teachers. Although not immediately understood by all, this racial and cultural diversification of the teaching staff had obvious and far-reaching beneficial impacts on the other staff, administrators, students, and parents in our community. While I took these strides towards greater inclusivity, my two friends warned me that my actions would have dire negative impacts on my career. They were not wrong in their assessment, but my sense of justice and equity motivated me to act despite these risks.

In my opinion, my friends were clearly examples of people who climb the ladder of career success and then remove it before others can do the same. What is most disturbing about their (in)actions is that they consciously did nothing to aid their fellow black teachers even when their newfound positions of leadership gave them the authority and access to do so. What saddens me to this day is understanding how the ripple effects of my actions helped to transform my board and how their parallel actions could have done the same for countless others, decades ago.

For any group of people who experience systemic oppression, fear can understandably become an immobilizing emotion. But the path to change and social transformation is forged by the brave. This does not mean that we do not feel fear, but that we do so and take the right and just action anyway. This does not mean that we do not notice or even dread the possibility of retaliation, but that we understand that doing nothing results in nothing getting done. Transformational change can only come when good people stand up for what they believe in, regardless of the cost. So when “climbing the ladder” – corporate, academic, cultural, whatever – be sure to leave it in place for the next person to follow. Or better yet, find a way to build a few more ladders so that those who will follow you have more options and pathways to get to the top than you ever did.