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Feb 9, 2021
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Marlene Green was an activist and leader in many capacities. In this feature we celebrate her contributions to challenging anti-Black inequality and racism, particularly in the education system. 

Green came to Toronto from Dominica in 1960, the start of a decade that would see over 60,000 people emigrate from the Caribbean to Canada. In the late 1960s, while in her 20s, Green founded the Black Education Project in Toronto. There were deep concerns about the disproportionate streaming of Black students, high drop-out rates of Black students, lack of quality education for Black children and youth, and excessive identification of Black students as having special education needs or as requiring placement in behaviour classes yet little identification of Black students as warranting placement in programs for gifted students.

The Black Education Project undertook a number of initiatives. It ran educational programs, after school programs, tutoring and summer camps. It advocated for Black students. It promoted Black history. It worked with Black parents to be able to raise issues with and navigate the school system. It worked with communities and the education system, reflecting what former Black Education Project member, Lillian Allen, has called Green’s approach of “revolution by transformation but from the ground up.”*

The Black Education Project created an affirming space that engaged and promoted Black activism. It was involved in organizing protests against racism in Toronto schools, in policing, and workplaces.

Marlene Green eventually became a community relations officer at the Toronto Board of Education. While in that role, she co-wrote a report on race relations in the education system for the Toronto District School Board. In 1979, this was a pioneer effort in Ontario schools. Green has been described as a “big, bright voice” who was “very clear” and a key message from that 1979 report was similarly big and clear: “To those who say racism can’t happen here, we say it has. To those who say we can’t do anything about it, we say we can—and we cannot afford not to.” She challenged that the issues identified in the system would not be addressed with a multiculturalism approach of accepting cultures generally because, more fundamentally,  what was at issue was race and racism. 

Green later assumed leadership in CUSO in the Caribbean and Africa where she supported anti-apartheid work.

On Green’s death in 2002, writer, activist and Order of Canada recipient Dionne Brand reflected on Green’s life and leadership, commenting: “She taught me and my generation that struggle against injustice is not only our obligation but our duty to ourselves and to those who come after us.” * The eulogy on Green given by her sister has been quoted as describing Marlene Green as a “larger-than-life-persona” with a “sheer expansiveness” of character and an “ability to walk so powerfully in the world and inspire so many others.”

Marlene Green saw injustice, she spoke up, she educated, she worked for change, she encouraged others to do the same and she created the means and capacity for others to join her in this: the very essence of a leader in human and civil rights movement.

*Marlene was honoured as part of the Akua Benjamin Legacy Project at Ryerson University. For more information, see the film, “Who is Marlene Green,” directed by Ella Cooper and created as part of that project: it includes a number of personal reflections on her achievements, including those of Lillian Allen. Dionne Brand’s reflection is an article “Marlene Green 1940-2002” published by NOW Magazine, dated November 7, 2002.

 

Special thanks to Sheilagh Turkington for her assistance in preparing this feature.

About this feature: The Cavalluzzo LLP features series, Reflections: Labour, Human and Civil Rights, highlights some of the leaders, events, and milestones that are historical underpinnings to the current landscape of Canadian human rights and labour rights. Reflections may reference abhorrent historical realities: as we bear witness to those, we also recognize with gratitude the courage and commitment of the changemakers who continue to inspire strides in social justice. Each instalment in this series has been authored or contributed to by Cavalluzzo LLP staff, articling students or lawyers. 

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