Educator and author Dr. Danielle Hyles says her faith motivates her desire for racial justice. Michael Swan

Faith drives fight for racial justice

  • January 31, 2021

For Dr. Danielle Hyles, Catholic faith and equity in education go hand-in-hand.

As a Black woman, she sees diversity as a principle inherent in her strong religious beliefs which drive her desire to see racial justice in all areas of society. Through her work as an educator and an author, the vice principal at Father Fénelon Catholic School in Pickering, Ont., has charted a course she hopes will lead to a greater representation at the administrative level in school boards across Ontario.

“I am Catholic to my core and I believe in equity to my core,” said the 43-year-old Hyles. “Both of them are the foundation of who I am. My religion believing in Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit is based on the foundation that we love everybody from wherever they are in the world. We embrace them and we want the best for them in terms of learning and in everything in their life. That’s how I purport myself to the universe and in my school as a vice-principal and hopefully a principal one day.”

As a young athlete Hyles earned a soccer scholarship to Howard University, an historically Black college in Washington, D.C., where she completed her Bachelor of Music Education in 1999. Howard is also the alma mater of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black, first South Asian and first woman to hold the office. Hyles says she takes special pride in Harris’ accomplishment.

“At Howard, we have this saying, ‘HU’ (and the response is) ‘You Know,’ ” said Hyles with a chuckle. “I always envisioned, if I was ever to meet her, we would have that camaraderie that we share that experience at Howard, and that she would call it back to me and embrace me as a sister. There’s a sisterhood and a brotherhood at Howard University that we support each other.”

Hyles completed her Master of Education at Harvard University in Administration Planning and Social Policy in 2000 and earned her Doctor of Education degree from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto in 2008. She has taught in seven different countries: Japan, India, United Kingdom, South Africa, Ghana, Trinidad and Tobago and the United States.

Her first book, Bridging the Opportunity Gap, was based on her doctorate research — a comparative study exploring social differences, leadership and career mobility in Canada and in Ghana. Inspired to see her now nine-year-old daughter Vivien’s life represented in literature, Hyles has also published five children’s books. The latest, We Can’t Stop Now, was published in December and centres around the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died as he was pinned to the ground by a white police officer, seen through children’s eyes and highlighting the power they have to use their voice to bring about change to this world.

“My faith is what propels this book forward because we need to stop racism within our society,” said Hyles. “We know that children are not always treated well. When my daughter came home saying that someone was making fun of her skin, I had to teach her how to stand up for herself and that the best way to go about it is to tell a teacher. Right now, things are happening to children and they need to know that they have a strong, powerful voice that can’t be silenced.”

Fellow children’s book author and Harvard alumni Christine Way Skinner believes that when children see themselves represented in literature, it makes it easier for them to internalize messages that can help to build character and faith.

“It’s important for our books to be really inclusive,” said Way Skinner. “The more kids see and hear themselves in books, the more that they can take those stories and integrate them into their lives.”

Before becoming a vice principal with the Durham Catholic District School Board where she has worked for the past seven years, Hyles spent a decade teaching in the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

Everton Lewis, a community relations officer with the Toronto Catholic board, sees the importance of people like Hyles in what she represents visually and in the way she executes as a teacher. Lewis says as an educator focused on equity, Hyles has been a leader when it came to exemplifying the important teaching method shift from the multicultural perspective to the more useful anti-racist perspective.

“Lots of students are not seeing themselves reflected in the curriculum,” said Lewis. “(Hyles) was actually doing that type of work in how she engaged her students. Because she’s doing the work, others see her doing the work and then that’s where the buy-in comes in so maybe now this culturally relevant pedagogy does not seem so scary to educators.”

Hyles’ said her greatest inspirations have come from her own family. Her mother, Dianne Prevatt-Hyles, worked as a social worker and has also been involved in equity work through her organization Liberation Practice International, while her aunt, Yvette Beach, was a principal in the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board. It was Beach who inspired her to become an educator and continues to be a mentor to Hyles to this day. Her siblings Nicole and Jeff are also an encouraging support in her career and in the faith as she continues on the quest to improve children’s education in the province.

“As a Christian, I want to make sure that the children in my care feel loved, feel that they’re important, feel that nothing could stop them and that they are strong within their identity,” said Hyles. “That confidence comes on the cloud of faith, lifting them higher and higher.”

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