By RON FANFAIR
Keren Brathwaite taught at the University of Toronto for 34 years before retiring in 2003.
Last week, at its convocation ceremony for Bachelor of Education and Diploma in Technological Education graduates, Canada’s largest institution of higher learning honoured Brathwaite for her contributions — which included co-founding the highly successful Transitional Year Program (TYP) — with an honorary degree.
A long-time and passionate advocate for access and equity in higher education, Brathwaite played a leading role in creating the TYP in 1970 after two previous summer projects presented the program as a model of university access for students under-represented at the U of T.
She volunteered to work with Syracuse University political science professor, Horace Campbell and other leaders in Toronto’s African-Canadian community, on this unique access initiative that emerged from the Black community and the civil rights movement in North America in the late 1960s.
“For over 30 years, Keren has made a contribution to the field of higher education through her pioneering efforts and she has been a champion for equity and access through the TYP,” said Professor Eileen Antoine, who delivered the citation. “She was central to the development of this program.”
U of T Chancellor, David Peterson, conferred the honorary Doctor of Laws degree while TYP director, Rhonda Love, hooded Brathwaite who – having graduated from the same institution 40 years ago – said she was extremely honoured to receive the recognition in the presence of the graduating class of teachers from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/U of T.
Brathwaite reminded the graduates that they are entering a profession that will be both challenging and rewarding.
“You are entering a path that continues to demand the highest quality training, practice and commitment,” she said. “But let me assure you that there are deep sources of inspiration in education to lighten your journey if only you allow yourself to discover and utilize them. I stand before you today because I was fortunate to find such inspiration which served to sustain me for more than four decades and I am still learning from them…Education is inspiring, exciting, if we endeavour to make it so. It is challenging, but also enormously fulfilling.
“It can be all of this and more if we are agents of change at the same time as we are practitioners in the public schools, colleges and universities…My experience has taught me that a good dose of inspiration will help a teacher take on the challenges in concert with others rather than hide from them in the classroom.”
She told the graduating class that three venues of learning stand out as beacons for the profound engagement in education she was privileged to experience. They are her first school in Boland Village, Antigua, where she was born and raised; the Organization of Parents of Black Children which she co-founded in 1980 and which, she says, stands out as one of the most exciting venues of her informal learning, and the TYP.
“I was invigorated in the TYP by the students once considered the drop-outs from Ontario schools who accessed U of T through TYP and were able to shine academically and earn undergrad professional degrees and even doctorates,” she said. “This is the intense environment with an inclusive pedagogy where I was privileged to interact with students who allowed me to experience education as an exciting pursuit.
“The TYP was a source of my understanding and inspiration in education, for had I not helped to establish this ground-breaking program 40 years ago and had I not contributed to guiding it through the years, my understanding of education possibilities would be far less developed today than it is.”
In her convocation address, Brathwaite acknowledged community colleagues with whom she said she experienced the trenches of Toronto: Her deceased parents, Edgar and Martha Williams, for placing her on the path of knowledge and understanding; late U of T professor, Dr. Fred Case, for his influence on her work and Horace Campbell, for his visionary contribution to the establishment of the TYP.
She also encouraged the graduates to embrace the possibilities that their profession allows.
“Learn from life’s myriad classrooms and employ your training to tackle the problems of your age which continue to struggle with old themes of equity, access, student engagement and parents’ involvement,” she said. “Bring your skills and your spirit, your excitement and your entity into your classrooms. Walk into your future with confidence, flexibility and the desire to be continuous learners.
“Be kind to your students and they will be kind to you and value parents and community involvement in education. It’s always useful to remember that everyone’s life is touched by a teacher. That is how pivotal your career is.”
A University of the West Indies graduate, Brathwaite taught English Literature and Writing at the Antigua Grammar School and at the UWI Extra-Mural department in her homeland before securing a Commonwealth scholarship in 1967 to pursue graduate studies in Education at OISE/U of T where she earned a Masters in Adult Education.
In addition to the OPBC, she has worked with many other organizations, promoting equity and anti-racism in education. They include The Canadian Alliance of Black Educators; the International Languages and Black/African Cultural Heritage Program; the Black Educators’ Working Group and the Toronto District School Board Community Equity Reference Group. She has also spent many hours voluntarily counseling parents and students who experience difficulty navigating the province’s public school system.
“Keren has been a mentor to me and many other students who have had success because of her,” said University of Toronto Black Alumni Association president, Shawn Knights. “She’s a living example of what I aspire to be.”
In her more than three decades at the U of T, Brathwaite served on many committees and task forces and played a lead role in the Black Faculty Caucus and the Race and Ethnocultural Equity Faculty Committee.
She has been the recipient of many honours and awards, including the U of T Alumni Association Award of Excellence, the Jos Human Rights prize, the Distinguished Alumni Award for Innovation in Education, the City of Toronto Award of Merit and the Urban Alliance on Race Relations Award to mark the organization’s 25th anniversary in 2000.