Four years ago, Donna Blackburn told an Xtra reporter that she would be elected as the first openly gay trustee on the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB). At the time, her confidence seemed overwhelming, but she was right. Blackburn was sworn in as trustee for the Barrhaven/Knoxdale-Merivale area in 2010.
One of her first orders of business was to propose that the OCDSB should march in the Capital Pride parade, which it did for the first time in 2011 and has continued to do. Now, with the 2014 municipal election looming ever nearer, Blackburn says she’s determined to keep her seat.
In her time as trustee, Blackburn has seen both great strides and great tragedy at the school board. Following the 2011 suicide of gay student Jamie Hubley, who had endured years of vicious homophobic bullying, she spoke out about her own experience as a closeted teen in high school. “Looking back on that time of my life, which is over 20 years, I can tell you that one of the main reasons I suffered from depression was because I was living under constant fear — I was trying to be something I wasn’t,” she told OCDSB members at a board meeting held in October 2011.
In the time since Hubley’s death, the OCDSB has adopted a firm stance against bullying that includes programs like Roots of Empathy, aimed at students from kindergarten through Grade 8, and GSAs in many if not most schools. In 2012, Ontario also adopted provincial anti-bullying legislation, which required school boards to establish bullying-prevention plans.
But these days, Blackburn says, it’s not all about bullying. “What we read is always about bullying, and don’t get me wrong — it’s very serious. But we have to think in more broad terms outside of just bullying.” She says she is concerned not just about gay students, but parents and school staff as well.
“It’s not just GLBT kids I worry about — I worry about the kids who have GLBTQ parents,” she says. “I worry about our GLBT staff who might not feel safe at work and why, and how can I fix it.” She says that although Zone 3 is suburban, there are many LGBT families living in the area who support her.
A particular item on Blackburn’s radar is gender-neutral washrooms, which she says she’d like to see in all new schools being built and in high schools and middle schools wherever the existing architecture or the construction of additions will permit. “If there is a need that’s expressed, then I think we should do our best to get it done,” she says, pointing to the addition being constructed at Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School. When the board consulted with her about the plans, Blackburn says, she stressed the need for gender-neutral washrooms. “They didn’t hesitate, they didn’t balk . . . but they hadn’t thought of it.”
It’s the things that go unnoticed that Blackburn is concerned with, things like school forms that still call for the signature of a mother and a father or in-class activities that focus on typical family structures when the reality for some children may be different. “How do you handle that so that the dignity of the child is not impacted in a negative way, that that child doesn’t feel that there’s something wrong with them?” she asks.
It isn’t just LGBT families Blackburn is concerned with — single-parent families and families where the parents don’t live together can also fall through the cracks. She points out the difficulty of getting schools to send two separate report cards to parents who have separated. “Just send one to each parent!” she says. “Sorry, we might have to kill one inch of a tree, but that’s the way it is.”
School overcrowding and the need for social workers on staff are also major concerns for Blackburn. “We have to look at student mental health — all students and their mental health and what [we can] do as a board to fix that,” she says. By adding social workers and psychologists to school staff, Blackburn says, students who express suicidal thoughts can be assessed right away instead of following the standard procedure of calling police, ambulance and fire services to the school.
Blackburn’s commitment to her job is evident. She frequently refers to “her” schools, and a big part of the reason she’s running again is that she simply loves her job. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had in my life. I love it. I work for less than minimum wage and I don’t care.” It’s the immediate impact she’s able to have at the trustee level that she says makes it so rewarding. “I answer all my own calls, I answer all my own email, I have no staff . . . I do everything. So when I help somebody, I get that immediate gratification.”
She’s also proud of what she has achieved as the first openly gay woman on the school board. “That’s a legacy that I’ve achieved that nobody can ever take away from me. I’m very proud of it, and it has had a positive impact on the board. But first and foremost, people who run for trustee should have the background qualifications to do the job.”
As a former social worker herself and now with four years of experience under her belt, it’s clear that Blackburn is qualified. As she campaigns to be elected for the second time, she still maintains the confidence that put her in the seat the first time around. “I’m quite confident I’ll win,” she says. “But if I don’t win, I’ll find another way to serve my community.”