A warm smile spread from cheek to cheek, Masa DeLara virtually greets me with confidence and tenderness.
She exudes positivity, like a breath of fresh air. But when people think of a Black woman in a predominantly Caucasian society, that’s not necessarily the first association.
This is exactly the work DeLara does for a living. She works with individuals and organizations to help uncover their own biases.
A mother of two teenagers, DeLara is an award-winning educator and has worked extensively in the United States with preschool and high school children.
She was born and raised in Burnaby and she has spent most of her adult life in the U.S. but decided to move back home in 2020. Currently a resident of Maple Ridge, DeLara’s role was never that of a typical educator.
She worked with school children who immigrated from Alaska and other parts of the world. This included children from Indigenous communities in the U.S. as well as a multicultural program with students from Haiti, Bolivia, and Vietnam. However, something was missing.
She realized there was a gap between students and educators, so she worked alongside her colleagues to change that.
“I realized that something needs to be done differently because [these] students and their families are newcomers to the U.S. and there’s a disconnect between teachers and students. We delved deeper into that and created trauma-responsive environments and ours was very successful,” she said.
Trauma responsive environments are a way to help newcomers settle into an alien environment. She started professional development work called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES).
The idea behind ACES is to work around childhood trauma and create spaces that will not re-traumatize individuals, whether that be classrooms or health services.
“When someone comes in with a lot of trauma how do you greet them? How do you treat them? Oftentimes when people step into a social service agency, classroom or whatever, they are re-traumatized,” DeLara shared.
She has worked with school districts, social service centres and police forces across Washington state to educate them about anti-racism and anti-oppression.
Most of her work is remote and called REACH, an acronym for Respecting Ethnic And Cultural Heritage. During these sessions, she focuses on how people can become aware of their implicit biases and think about how they interact with other communities.
Sometimes, people claim to not be racist and contradict themselves the next minute. For DeLara, people have told her that they don’t see her skin colour.
“When you say that you don’t see colour at all, it hurts my feelings. People have told me that they don’t see me as a Black woman. If you don’t see me as a Black woman then, first of all, it’s hurtful. You don’t see me as I know myself to be. You don’t see the joy and beauty and the amazing pieces of being Black. And then, you’re also not acknowledging all the trauma, hurt and pain of being Black.”
The responsibility of representation
Being BIPOC is a challenge in itself. Oftentimes, a person of colour is placed on a pedestal and held responsible for educating and sharing information with others. It’s something DeLara has experienced.
The summer of 2020, she felt overwhelmed. After the murder of George Floyd and the number of people who reached out to her for questions.
It was the same summer when a Black professor was birdwatching at Central Park and a woman started filming him.
“That whole summer was exhausting. I did have lots of people contacting me with questions or advice. And that was exhausting where I would share a link and say that it would be great if you check this out. I do feel responsibility because I feel I am in a unique position because of my work as an educator,” DeLara shared.
But, she tries to limit her work, counteracting it with stories of Black joy and celebration, not just Black trauma and pain.
Recalling covert racism
Despite all the self-awareness and confidence, her life is not free of covert racism encounters.
After COVID-19 delays and months of searching for a nail salon, she booked an appointment at one over the phone. For DeLara, getting nails done is a treat. But her joy wasn’t greeted the way she expected.
“Over the phone, they were so friendly and when I got there, I was greeted with this glazed-over look. Almost like ‘who are you and why are you here?’ or like my voice didn’t match my face, I don’t know. It felt so wrong to be there but I stayed anyway.”
Another instance was when she was at Shoppers Drug Mart and a security person followed her through every aisle.
But she believes her education, experience and work have made her a confident and self-aware woman. So, such experiences no longer bother her.
Although racist encounters sting initially, she wants everyone PoC to know that someone else’s judgement of you is not your problem.
“If someone judges you for how you look then it’s their problem because the judgement is coming before I even speak.”
Teaching diversity in classrooms
When she was working with children, she had honest conversations around skin tones with preschoolers.
“Preschoolers are so innocent and honest, you know. We would talk all about skin tones because there [were] all different skin tones in my class. It was trendy before to have crayons, markers and paper that represented different skin tones and not just the “flesh” coloured crayon, as it was called before. I made sure every child could see themselves in a book, poster or whatever,” DeLara said.
Although it sounds simplistic, she stressed that honest conversations with love is all it takes to teach children about diversity.
Through conversations and her work, she hopes to sow at least one seed for change.
“When they say the Titanic, it just had to move one degree and eventually that totally changes the whole course of the journey. This person might be totally resistant to change but, if I’ve planted one seed or shared one new idea, that makes a difference.”
She also hopes that when people read these stories and learn new perspectives, they will take a moment and consider it.
“That’s one of the things I teach, like when you engage in multiple perspectives when you see that other people have a different perspective than you do, it changes things, right? It opens the door for more compassion and empathy and understanding. And that’s what I think we all really, really need more of right now.”