Jean Samuel, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at OACAS, talks about the significance of her new position for child welfare in Ontario

Jean Samuel Quotation

Your position as Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is a new one at OACAS. What is the significance of this position for child welfare?

Ninety percent of the children and youth that Children’s Aid Societies support come from marginalized experiences. Over the last fifteen years many agencies have been trying to do good work with children and youth who come from diverse experiences through the introduction of anti-oppressive practice. Nevertheless, we still hear stories about the disparaging and inequitable services of marginalized children and families. My new provincial role will help us to centralize equity in our work as a sector. It will help ensure that equity conversations, training, and resources are not just happening in central and south-central agencies but at agencies across the province. If we do not centralize equity in this way, we will continue to get disproportionate numbers, particularly for the marginalized children and families we service.

Do equity issues impact agencies differently across the province?

Today we are working on Indigenous reconciliation and anti-black racism because this is where our immediate crisis is, and we must turn the corner on these issues. Much work has been done but much more is still needed. As we wrap our minds around the current inequity for Indigenous and African Canadian families, we also must to do better to meet the needs of all the children and families we service. My department will be approaching equity in the broadest sense.

When we focus on equity initiatives many organizations struggle to think about race, and often very little effort goes into tackling the issue of racism because it is systemic and structural. But we must be mindful when we do child welfare work that equity is broad and individuals are never a single identity or single story. This means we have to ensure that we are using an intersectional lens to do our work. Agencies located in rural areas where they may be serving a largely white population, are in fact mostly serving very poor, white people. Another marginalized population that most, if not all agencies are serving, are children and youth who are LGBT2SQ. In equity conversations Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism are often downplayed, and we know xenophobia is alive and well today. I would say the same for people living with disabilities and with varying types of mental health – issues we need to get in front of, as this could be a pending crisis for the sector if we don’t focus our attention on them.

Phase two of the One Vision One Voice: Changing the Child Welfare System for African Canadians has recently come to a close. How will you make sure that this important work continues?

Thanks to the work of Kike Ojo and the One Vision One Voice team we have an in-depth picture of the overrepresentation and disparity of outcomes for African Canadian children and youth. The OVOV team recently released report cards that assessed where agencies are at in terms of their journey in addressing anti-black racism and these report cards showed that most agencies are the very beginning of their journey, if they are even touching the issue at all. So, the One Vision One Voice work is at a pivotal moment, and it saddens me that they released this great provincial assessment and now they are gone. I hope and pray that the Ministry will allow us some funds to implement phase three of One Vision One Voice so that we can have the staffing and the resources to support implementation of the recommendations, such as the Aunties and Uncles program and the wraparound framework being piloted at Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. Anti-black racism is so deeply ingrained in the system that agencies will not be able to undo it without tools and supports. The One Vision One Voice assessment gave a lot of recommendations, but we know that without the people who are continually asking the questions and providing the guidance and the help to take the fear of addressing anti-black racism away, the work doesn’t get done. My work in the next while will be to support agencies to get comfortable with the next stage of the conversation and to help them engage with their local African Canadian community organizations to find solutions.

What would you say is one of the biggest challenges for child welfare in doing equity work?

That’s a big question. We are on a good path, but the lack of identity-based data is a real frustration. Black and Indigenous communities are asking us to tell them how many children and youth from their communities are receiving services and we can’t concretely do that as a province. Individual agencies can to varying degrees, but we don’t have a provincial data set that can tell an accurate story of where the issues lie. The same with data for LGBT2SQ youth. There is no data that shows that they are overrepresented in receiving services, and yet we know that this is true. How are you going to shift and change practice if we don’t know who we are serving? That’s a huge problem and it’s very frustrating.

Another challenge we are facing is that there also seems to be a shift in our current societal environment in terms of having an honest conversation about racism, islamophobia, etc. If we can’t name what we are trying to change, we can’t change it.

These are challenging issues in a challenging time. Do you have a favourite inspirational quote that motivates you?

“Do all the good you can, by all means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” This is a quote by John Wesley. I just found out he’s a Methodist and I was brought up in a Methodist church, but today I’m not religious at all. I like to think of myself as a spiritual person – can we dare say spirituality belongs in child welfare work? Wouldn’t that be an interesting conversation!