Lessons we can learn about EDI training, mental health and humility from the tragic case of a Toronto principal
August 2, 2023
The tragic death by suicide of a retired Toronto school principal following an equity, diversity and inclusion training program has sparked renewed debates about EDI initiatives: how to conduct them effectively and safely, and whether they’re necessary at all.
We believe promoting EDI is a moral (and sometimes a legal) imperative. So is preserving the dignity and mental health of everyone involved. As personal tragedy intersects with polarizing social debates, let’s take a step back and ask what we can learn from the case of Richard Bilkszto.
If you haven’t been following the story, Richard was a principal who continued working on short-term contracts after his retirement. During an EDI training session in 2021, Richard disagreed with the trainer’s claim that Canada is more racist than the United States, having taught in both countries.
According to a lawsuit Richard filed against the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the trainer responded with vitriol, accusing Richard of being an “apologist” for racism and saying it wasn’t his place as a white man to contradict her about Black people’s experiences. In a follow-up session, the trainer allegedly held Richard’s comments up as an example of white supremacy and encouraged participants to push back when others are “accosted by white supremacy” like Richard’s. Afterward, Richard’s contract with the TDSB was not renewed, unexpectedly and without cause.
The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) accepted Richard’s claim for chronic mental stress benefits, finding the trainer had bullied and harassed him. The WSIB said the trainer’s conduct was “abusive, egregious and vexatious” and found she was trying to “make an example” of Richard.
In 2023, Richard died by suicide. Media reports have implied it was related to the training session two years earlier.
Another side of the story
The trainer, Kike Ojo-Thompson, released a statement offering condolences to Richard’s loved ones and welcoming a Ministry of Education investigation. She pointed out that she and her company, the KOJO Institute, were not parties to Richard’s lawsuit or his WSIB claim, so she never had the opportunity to defend herself. The WSIB found that Kike harassed Richard without ever getting Kike’s side of the story, and she claims his allegations are “false.” She adds that Richard’s tragic death is now being “weaponized to discredit and suppress the work of everyone committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Kike and her staff are apparently receiving online threats and vitriol for her alleged role in Richard’s death.
What can we learn?
The Ministry of Education will investigate, and it’s far too early to know exactly what happened. But here are some lessons we humbly suggest considering in the meantime:
- Mental health is complex: Richard’s death was a tragedy. Media too easily sensationalizes tragedy. Suggesting a training session two years earlier “caused” Richard’s death is too simplistic, and it would be wrong to use any single incident as an argument against EDI training.
- We can’t address harm by causing harm: There are real racial inequities in our society that must be addressed. The question is how to approach them in a way that protects everybody’s dignity. Berating and “making an example” of someone doesn’t change behaviour – theirs or anyone else’s. Challenging topics must be approached with sensitivity and care. To be clear, we don’t mean tiptoeing around racism, pandering to “white fragility,” or whitewashing to avoid discomfort. Racism is uncomfortable, and being confronted with that discomfort helps drive change. But as trainers, we need to create a safe environment for uncomfortable conversations – to help people feel okay with discomfort. There’s a huge gulf between discomfort (which we want) and the psychological unsafety caused by bullying, berating, and using someone as an example of what other participants must fight against.
- Meet participants where they are: Training should be nonjudgmental. What is obvious to the EDI practitioner might not be to training participants. If the goal is to change behaviour, we must invite participants in, not shut them down. Again, this doesn’t mean tiptoeing, condoning unacceptable behaviour, or avoiding discomfort. It means meeting participants where they are and guiding them in a positive direction.
- Focus on behaviour change: While it’s commonly assumed that you must change someone’s attitudes and beliefs before you can change behaviour, research suggests the opposite. Change behaviour first, and people will adjust their attitudes to match the new behaviour. Convincing a training participant that Canada is more racist than the United States, even if successful, would not necessarily reduce Canadian racism. Richard already acknowledged Canadian racism is a problem that needs addressing. Empowering him with concrete actions to do so would likely have made a greater difference to his workforce and broader society, even if his personal views remained the same. And on that note:
- Focus on empowerment, civility, and bystander interventions: In the wake of this tragedy, many have pointed to research suggesting that EDI training rarely works. They argue that if it can cause harm, and it doesn’t work anyway, why not scrap it altogether? But this argument neglects that the same research speaks to why traditional EDI training fails: it focuses on legal definitions instead of behaviour change. And research supports that other training styles do work! By giving participants concrete tools to combat discrimination along with training on civility, microaggressions and bystander interventions, trainers really can promote EDI in an empowering way.
- Avoid rushing to judgment: Many people have assumed Richard’s allegations are accurate. But what if they aren’t? His lawsuit was never proven in court, the WSIB decision was made without Kike’s input, and Kike claims they are false. Kike is a Black woman providing EDI consulting and anti-Black racism training, and racist stereotypes about Black women sadly persist in our society. Might biases, conscious or unconscious, contribute to many people’s willingness to accept Richard’s allegations at face value? Would a white male trainer receive the same online threats if one of their trainees died two years later? Of course, the Ministry of Education’s investigation may eventually confirm Richard’s allegations. Or it may not. The key is to practice humility and avoid rushing to judgment, and then to learn whatever lessons arise from this.
We have the deepest condolences for Richard and his family. Hopefully, this tragedy can also be an opportunity for learning about how to best approach complex and sensitive discussions about racism while also providing a psychologically safe space to engage those essential conversations.