Sylvia Martin has become a familiar face in Ottawa’s LGBT community. A longtime activist, she has sat on the Ottawa Police Service’s GLBT liaison committee and was present at We Demand, the first gay and lesbian protest on Parliament Hill. She also had a long career as a teacher and educator and has taught art therapy to seniors.
On Oct 27, Martin will seek election as school board trustee in Zone 11, which is home to seven schools, including Bayview PS, Brookfield HS, Carleton Heights PS and General Vanier PS. Xtra spoke with Martin by email about her decision to run and the issues she believes are most important for Ottawa schools during this election. Here are her edited responses.
Xtra: You’ve had a long history of activism and involvement in Ottawa’s LGBT community. What led you to want to run for school board trustee in Zone 11?
Sylvia Martin: My many years of activism in Ottawa began rather early, actually. I can remember the year, 1967, when this boy in the schoolyard . . . was being bullied by [another student named Brian]. No one stopped it. They just gathered around and watched and cheered. I couldn’t believe it. I grew up where you helped each other out all the time, no questions asked and nothing expected in return. That’s the kind of parents I had.
So I ran into the circle, grabbed Brian, spun him onto the ground and sat on him till the bell rang to tell us recess was over. [The] kids all went in, [and] there I sat on Brian until the principal . . . came out and called Brian and me into her office. I didn’t [say] why I was sitting on him, so he was allowed to go to class and my parents got the call. Brian never bothered [the other student] again, and from that time forward, if I see something that doesn’t seem right, I [have been] compelled to help out. It is what makes us all good citizens.
Why school board trustee? I woke up, stood on my front porch on a nice day in September, listened to the laughter of the children and the words of their parents who stand in front of my house every morning waiting for the school bus, and I thought, you know, I love my community so much and I have the time. I have a passion for learning and teaching [and] what can I do for my community. I need to give back. This community has been wonderful to me. I looked at the families standing there, and thought, School trustee. It makes sense. And if I am not elected school trustee, then I will approach the trustee elect and tell them, “I’m here, now put me to work!”
Do you have your own children, and did this motivate your decision to run?
I have two of the most amazing adults in my life. Two daughters. They came into my life when they were just eight and 13. I loved them both the moment I met them for the first time, and despite my parenting techniques (or lack thereof), they are two truly amazing women who, because of their own determination and constitution, went on to attend post-secondary education. Both are educators and continue to teach and educate in the historical/museum environment. Education is a big deal in our family. We all love to read. We all love history. We all love to teach.
You’ve mentioned before that the OCDSB is very committed to its policy on anti-bullying. What kind of programming would you like to see in Zone 11 schools in support of this policy?
The OCDSB has zero tolerance for bullying . . . and the teachers’ union also has zero tolerance for bullying. And the parent associations have zero tolerance for bullying. It all looks so great and amazing and wonderful on paper and on their websites and in their campaign material, [so why is it] that at the school bus-stops parents are talking to each other about their child or children being bullied on the school bus, in the school yard, in the hallway of their schools between classes, during lunch and recess periods [and] in close contact of another student in phys-ed when that applies?
We have this awesome zero tolerance anti-bullying system . . . but the reality is, parents, teachers, the board, trustees, the media, everyone needs to vocalize, “what exactly is bullying, and this is the consequence if you have difficulty understanding why it needs to stop.”
Do you think the anti-bullying policy does a good job of reaching all students?
No it doesn’t. To reach the students it has to reach the parents first, and it isn’t.
The reality is, everyone is under one kind of stress or other, and usually — it’s cliché I know, but true — we take it out on the ones we love [and on those weaker than ourselves]. Now tell me, how is [a] child [who is] already bullied at home going to be able to process and turn that “bully button” off? They can’t. [There] are children going to go to school feeling hurt, upset, ignored, and so they redirect that reaction upon another student. It does start at home. [It’s a question of] how to relay that to parents so they get it.
What are some ways that you feel the school board can provide support and safe spaces for students who face bullying and homophobia at home?
This question turned around is actually the answer. How to provide a safe space for students at home who face bullying? . . . Provide a fun learning club or organization that is student-directed, after school, where students share [and] talk in a [safe, non-judgmental space] about what is going on in their lives; their frustrations, their fears. Maybe it is a student-led/-directed hotline to maintain anonymity. I have seen recently on a TVO production that there [are] a few such programs in schools in BC and [they are] having an incredible success rate . . . We need to involve the students and still maintain a supportive role and include the parents as well . . . As a trustee, I would hope to initiate a program like this in my second or third year.
If elected, how would you represent not just LGBT students, but families and teachers as well?
The teachers, the students, the parents [and] the families of Zone 11 deserve more from their trustee . . . My hands are tied to some degree, and this is where I hope I will approach things differently than how they have been approached thus far. I will actually be going to the seven schools in my zone on a weekly basis, making myself available to listen to students on one day and the teachers and support staff on another. And all issues [brought up by] those who come to meet with me or drop off a note or send me an email will be kept in strict confidence . . . I will be their voice.
All students should be able to consider their school, where they spend more time than their home, a safe place. It is school-board policy that the school be a safe place. Well, let’s make it that way! . . . To do this we need to listen to the students and staff and hear from them what would make their school a safe place for them. Then we . . . address these concerns and ideas immediately. We don’t take till the next electoral term to do that. It is every student and every teacher’s right to study in and learn . . . and teach in a safe place. We guarantee this safety to every Canadian . . . School has to be that safe place.
What do you feel are some of the biggest challenges facing Zone 11 schools and some ways you’d like to address these challenges?
I understand that the OCDSB is incorporating homework to be completed online. In my neighbourhood alone, not every family has a computer, let alone internet, so this is proving a stressor already for families.
[Another issue is] the family who has a son that is being bullied on the school bus and none of the other kids will say anything because they are all afraid of the bully. And the driver isn’t seeing it and is busy driving. Parents have no car to drive their son to school, so it continues.
Communication with the electors/taxpayers/parents and teachers . . . needs to be consistent and [done] with a lot more regularity. And that’s what I will be doing. Trustee or not, I will be holding satellite meetings monthly with communities, in their own neighbourhoods, to discuss education issues, ideas [and] solutions. I think it helps, living in the ward, to be accessible to the stakeholder. I also want the students to have more say. Two of the trustees we have at the table are students, but again, we all know when we were younger, we didn’t necessarily feel comfortable having a say about anything . . . We will change that.
You’ve also had a long career in the arts; do you have any thoughts on arts programming in schools and whether funding should be made available for those programs?
Sadly, and historically fact, the arts are usually the first programs to be cut when any organization or business has to tighten its . . . purse strings.
I remember [the first art class I taught]. It was a Grade 8 class [at] St Mark’s Elementary. The school is gone now and the building sold. There was this student, Rocco. [It was his] second year repeating Grade 8. Class bully big time. No wonder: the teachers made fun of him for being “stupid.” And that [gave] the kids permission then to keep up with the teasing . . . So Rocco had an attitude problem.
I had a few old super-8 cameras lying around the house, so [I decided] for their next assignment they would make a film . . . Rocco shone. He came to life. He became an active participant. He became part of a team. [At the] end of the year, the school invited all the kids to the gym to watch all the films. It was a great teaching tool, and it had a positive impact on [a student who was bullying and being bullied].
As trustee I would be influential in making sure there would be an arts program at all the schools, [even] if I have to teach them myself and bring in the supplies . . . If I’m not elected as trustee, then that is something I will pursue on my own.