A huge part of the work we try to do at Raising the Roof is to raise awareness and breakdown stereotypes of homelessness. In this blog post, we have a special guest blogger, Emily Wright, who will share an intimate look into her background, lived experience, and career trajectory – all in an attempt to break down these false stereotypes!
Emily Wright is a powerful educator, advocate and public speaker. She is a member of two speaker’s bureaus and is a regular guest lecturer at the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, George Brown College and various elementary and secondary schools across the GTA. With a special ability to speak to people of all ages, Emily tries to make a difference in the world by using her personal voice and story to confront stigma and create awareness on important topics such as homelessness, bullying, mental health, and addiction. Emily Wright has a Master’s degree in Teaching from the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education where she conducted research on stereotypes about homelessness depicted in children’s literature. She currently works as a curriculum consultant, speaker, and teacher for the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
As an educator, I consider myself a strong advocate with a love for social justice and picture books. At the age of 18, I experienced homelessness on the streets of downtown Toronto. Although I did not write this paper because of my own experiences, my own experiences are intertwined within this paper as they played a role in the way I analyzed data and the lens I used when digging deeper into the content and illustrations. Therefore, when I began my studies at The Ontario Institute of Studies in Education I decided to focus my research on homelessness because I believe it is a topic that is often forgotten within the school context. From the work I had already done in classrooms, I knew that my students came into the classroom with their own stereotypical views and ideas about homelessness and the people who experience it.
Need for the Project:
If we want well-rounded students who are not only going to become thriving adults but also have the critical thinking skills required to function in the 21st century, we must equip them with the skills to decipher messages they receive through all forms of media. Further, students must gain the skills to voice their own views and opinions on important topics.
From my personal experience, bringing the issue of homelessness into classrooms can be challenging. I think one such reason is that there is this societal value that our children should be kept innocent as an act of protection.
Summary of Key Learnings:
Only when educators develop a consensus regarding the meanings of social justice terminology and are critically able to dismantle, not only obvious stereotypes represented in media, but also the nuanced ones within their own viewpoints, can they gain the skills required to be “explicit about integrating value in the curriculum” (Mackey, Alphen, 2016, p. 356).
Educators teach children about stereotypes that exist in society through their own personal biases, whether explicit or implicit.
When encountering stereotypical images of homelessness in books, educators need to present students with relevant “counter messages” (Burke et al., 2016, p. 273), such as, not all people experiencing homelessness live on the streets, and homelessness exists all year round.
Picture books about homelessness can challenge and change students perceptions and biases. When given the tools to critically examine the books they read, children can, in turn, become ‘teachers’, who can help others recognize stereotypical images when present in books, encouraging increased awareness about homelessness.
Stereotypes depicted people experiencing homelessness as mainly white, middle-aged, non-disabled men, often viewed as dirty, dishevelled and socially inferior, carrying bags, sleeping in cardboard boxes, and searching garbage bins for food.
Some authors are attempting to dismantle familiar stereotypes by incorporating a wider range of character identities and representing people experiencing homelessness as ordinary people.
Interesting, three of the four picture books examined showed support offered to those experiencing homelessness during cold winter months, suggesting a seasonal bias.
Personal Request for Educators:
My only request for educators, and all of my readers, is that you take the time to reflect on your own thoughts, opinions and biases on the topic of homelessness. Try to remember how you first came to understand these biases and how these biases affect you today. We all carry our own biases but it is only with awareness of where these biases come from that we can begin to create students who are change makers, becoming one ourselves in the process.
You can read Emily’s article here!