Let me introduce the Tolerance Foundation.
On the fourth floor of an innocuous building on René-Lévesque, a quiet revolution against intolerance is getting its final touches.
The office is buzzing with nine bilingual animators mapping out interventions for schools across Quebec. The teams will give over 1,000 workshops this year to students in French and English public and private schools. Their work has been recognized by some of our most important institutions. The Tolerance Foundation was awarded the Rights and Freedoms Prize from the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse and the Peace Medal from the YMCAs of Quebec.
They are trained to spot and combat discrimination and bullying. They teach kids how to identify and counteract abuses of power. They have imaginative tools, including using the "Tolerance Caravan." It’s a travelling exhibition zeroing in on prejudice, discrimination and the evil of genocide.
They also use live theatre to generate discussion about harassment and bullying. It’s an inspiring team.
One of the animators is 22-year-old Mikhala Lantz-Simmons, a graduate of McGill from the programs of French literature and international development. She came to the foundation with a terrific background, having already been involved in working with high school students on anti-discrimination workshops, identifying incidents of discrimination based on sexual orientation, race and language. Her enthusiasm is infectious.
"I love my job. I love the atmosphere and the enthusiasm of the animators. And I love the students and their desire to understand. Sometimes they come to us and tell us stories – like the kids in Rosemère who described how a bus driver would not stop for them after their basketball practice because they wait in a group… and they are black."
Caroline Nantel is trained in social work and theatre, and a graduate of UQAM. She has a powerful and direct way of expressing what is for her a vocation. Before the Tolerance Foundation she worked in Parc-Extension and Montréal Nord on issues around poverty, racial profiling and women’s shelters. Nantel loves the performance aspect of the work. She calls her approach "invisible theatre."
She likes going into the schools, creating situations and then getting the students to jump in and experiment with various scenarios. The idea is not to "péter une coche" and lash out, but to figure out how to lower the temperature and find a way of resolving the conflict.
Nantel points out that the foundation has a long history of doing successful Caravans on the subject of discrimination and the importance of human rights. Two years ago they started doing anti-bullying workshops in high schools. What she would like to do is take those anti-bullying workshops into primary schools as well, to talk to the younger kids about fairness and equity because so much of a kid’s life story is established in the younger grades.
She explains the difference between discrimination and bullying. "Discrimination is when your human rights are undermined. Someone has made a decision about you, without necessarily saying anything, and has decided not to be fair with you, not to rent an apartment to you, or hire you, or to stop the bus for you. Bullying is a cruder form of discrimination. You are being verbally and even physically abused in an obvious way. I want to give a voice and empower victims, and I want their voices to be respected."
Anne-Marie Boucher studied sociology at UQAM and lights up when she talks about social justice and theatre. "We try to break down the fatalism that kids feel about being cast in the role of loser. We try to introduce the idea of changing those roles, showing that they do not have to swallow the negative judgment of others. Why is it okay for one group to have contempt for another? We are all equally important and deserve respect."
"The best thing of all," says Nantel, "is when the school forms a committee after we leave that keeps on working. Perseverance is what is needed, because sometimes kids make a little progress and then give up. If there is a group of teachers and other people in the school who care, kids can move to another level. There is a school in Grand-Mère, a really poor town, where two of the teachers run self-esteem workshops and give the vulnerable kids challenges – say one week it is to keep their chins up, literally, and look people in the eye." Nantel says that kind of ongoing personal help can make a huge difference.
Nantel, Boucher and Lantz-Simmons agree that bystanders play a key role in all of this. One of the main points of their presentations is to encourage witnesses of discrimination and bullying to break the silence. To say "That is not okay, I do not agree." Even if you don’t halt the discrimination and bullying that time, you might stop it next time. Every team member is bubbling with good stories.
So – this is my astonishing new job, director general of this fabulous foundation, working with a generous and creative volunteer board, and with motivated and dynamic young people, all shining with the light of inclusion and cooperation.