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Tackling equity takes daring

March 24, 2015 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor

Darren Lund delivers a talk on Saturday, March 14, at the DEHR conference at Barnett House, in Edmonton.

Social justice veteran Darren Lund relates the ups and downs of getting involved

The world has come a long way toward accepting people’s differences, but there are still a lot of hateful sentiments out there, so anyone working to advance diversity, equity and human rights causes can expect to face some backlash.

That was one of the many messages conveyed by University of Calgary social justice professor Darren Lund during his keynote address, kicking off the annual DEHR conference at Barnett House on March 13.

This was the third year that the Alberta Teachers’ Association has hosted a conference for DEHR, which stands for diversity, equity and human rights.

During his keynote, Lund related how he, as a young, first-year high school teacher in the 1980s, was assigned an English 13 class that was populated by a group of hardened non-academics. Despite everyone’s low expectations of this “dummy class,” its students would go on to form a longstanding and award-winning group called Students and Teachers Opposed to Prejudice (STOP).

Rob Benn of Positive Culture creates an image in real time depicting the content of Darren Lund's keynote address at the third annual DEHR conference on March 13 at Barnett House in Edmonton.

Although part of the appeal of the project for the students was that it allowed them to get out of class to make presentations at other schools, Lund saw how students can come alive when allowed to pursue a real project of their own creation.

“These young people were actually leaders so long before we were even able to listen to them,” he said.

Years later Lund would help other students at Red Deer’s Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School to form the province’s first gay-straight alliance.

Lund’s involvement with social justice efforts, both at Lindsay Thurber and at the University of Calgary, has brought him many awards and accolades, but it has also exposed him to nasty, hateful sentiments.

“I actually would get letters mailed to my office saying, ‘your blood will spill on this campus. I watch you every day,’” he said. “I’ve actually had to have a panic button installed in my office, and my door has to be locked, and I have a little peephole in it.”

While the world has changed, nastiness endures. In recent hate mail he’s been called an “ignorant faggot,” “sodomite” and “evil sinner.” He’s also been told, “If you get AIDS and die, I will have a party.”

Lund warned conference attendees that they too “will face some backlash” when they take on social justice causes, even if their efforts aren’t as high profile as the ones he’s been involved in.

“You might get mild backlash from people. You might get the odd little, ‘whoa, what’s this all about?’ or you might get the, ‘that’s disgusting,’” he said. “Or you might get anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night or crazy things happen to you.”

Conversations around diversity issues can be difficult and awkward, but this is why they’re necessary, he stressed.

“This is what we need to be doing,” Lund said.

Despite the nasty underside that it sometimes exposes, it’s still worth it to work toward making the world more accepting, he said.

“The world has changed. The wave has come, and I think people just realize now that the kids were right all along,” he said. “My final advice to you is to keep listening to the kids when they come up with awesome, dumb ideas, even if it’s just to get out of class.” ❚

The DEHR conference featured a day of sessions on topics ranging from First Nations, Métis and Inuit education; human rights and employment; gay-straight alliances; religious diversity; and social justice and antiracism education. Each ATA local was eligible to send two delegates.

DEHR committees exist in nearly half of all ATA locals, quadruple the number that existed when the first DEHR conference took place in 2013.

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