Research Chat

Exploring the activist experiences of African Canadian Girls in Ontario’s high schools, Esther Hayford, Faculty of Social Work

Episode Summary

The first episode of Research Chat Season 2 features Esther Hayford (she/her), a PhD Candidate in the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work, Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research focuses on African girls and activism in high schools in Ontario. Esther is completing her data collection with Dr. Ann Curry-Stevens and Dr. Edward Shizha at Laurier. In episode 1, Esther shares her research with Deb Shelley, who is completing the Masters of Community Music program at Laurier. Both researchers’ use their personal experiences to focus their research interests to make a difference in the lives of others.

Episode Notes

The episode features:

Episode Transcription


WLU Research Chat S02E01 Deb interviews Esther


students, esther, research, girls, experiences, black, african, interview, ghana, deb, school, realised, high schools, hoping, laurier, people, participants, university, canada, activism


Debra Shelley, Esther Hayford, Shawna Reibling



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Shawna Reibling  00:04

Welcome to the second season of Research Chat. In this season, graduate students share the details and challenges of their research work at Laurier with each other.



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Shawna Reibling  00:19

In this episode, Deb Shelley will interview Esther Hayford. Deb Shelley, pronouns she/her, is passionate about the value of music in our lives, offering leadership to various community vocal groups over many years. Her current research investigates the lives of those who choose to sing beside someone who is dying, what motivates them, and what keeps them doing it are the questions she is exploring. Deb is analysing her data with her supervisors Dr. Amy Clements-Cortés and Dr. Lee Willingham at Laurier. Our second guest Esther Hayford, pronouns she/her, is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University. She qualified as a lawyer in Ghana in 1993, and holds an LLM from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and a master's in Development Studies from York University. Esther enjoys working in the community and has worked with community and government agencies, post secondary institutions, as well as private law firms. She's been involved in HIV AIDS activism and was the first coordinator of the African and Caribbean Council on HIV AIDS in Ontario. Some of the institutions and agencies she has worked with include Aids Alert Ghana, a Ghanian NGO, the Ghana Law Reform Commission, and the Faculty of Law at the University of Ghana. Her current research focuses on African girls and activism in high schools in Ontario. She is completing her data collection phase of her PhD with Dr. Ann Curry-Stevens and Dr. Edward Shiza at Laurier. Welcome to both of you. I'm glad you can both here together to discuss your dissertation research. First, I'll turn it over to Deb, to interview Esther. 


Debra Shelley  02:07

Thanks so much Shawna, lovely introduction. And Esther it's wonderful to meet you and to be able to learn more about you and your research. I'm excited to do that. I was wondering, Esther, maybe if you could start by summing up your research topic and maybe a sentence or two for us?


Esther Hayford  02:27

Thank you, Shauna, and Deb for the wonderful introduction and the kind words. In terms of my research, there's evidence to show that despite efforts made to ensure that all high schools in Canada are safe spaces for all, some Black students in Ontario experienced systemic discrimination at school. Students push back in different ways, and this includes disengaging from school. There are students who push back at practices considered oppressive by joining or forming social justice clubs, but there is limited information about the advocacy related experiences of such students. This study fills in the gap by learning about how Black students, particularly African girls, are using their agency to strengthen efforts to create equitable schools in Canada.


Debra Shelley  03:28

That sounds intriguing that you're zeroing in on the experience of these young Black girls in particular, and and ways that they can lead into activism. Could you describe a little for us what a social justice club would look like or do?


Esther Hayford  03:44

So, a good example is students who join, let's say, the Multicultural Club at school, or Black Students Association or Muslim Students Association. And all these groups work towards creating equitable schools to make sure that all schools are safe for all students.


Debra Shelley  04:10

What prompted you, Esther to begin researching this topic? I feel like your whole life has led to this.


Esther Hayford  04:17

I've always been interested in human rights. And my background, as a lawyer, allows me to do that. So I decided to work on this topic because I also have two daughters who are African and Canadian. My daughters went through elementary school, high school and university and during these periods of their lives, we have several conversations about the experiences. Some of the experiences were excellent, others were not so good. 


Debra Shelley  04:54

So you had conversations with your daughters over the years, and they expressed that sometimes what was happening in their schools were good things and other times there were not good things.


Esther Hayford  05:07

Yes, and to focus on the not good things, some of the bad experiences include low teacher expectations. And so, there were times when they would raise their hands in class and the teachers wouldn't call them and maybe another students would raise, of a different race, might raise their hands and the teachers would call them.


Debra Shelley  05:30

So they were aware of inequities, as grew up.


Esther Hayford  05:36

Yes they were aware of inequities. I realised that the stories had to be told, because I realised that even with the challenges associated with school they pushed through, you know, and they graduated all the same.


Debra Shelley  05:52

At what stage in your research are you currently working through?


Esther Hayford  05:56

I almost done collecting my data. My goal was to interview 20, African Canadian girls, and to organise to focus groups to learn about the experiences.


Debra Shelley  06:09

So and you've managed to interview all 20, or you're close to that point, now?


Esther Hayford  06:13

I have three more interviews to go and two focus groups.


Debra Shelley  06:18

I'd love to ask you more about those things, if I may. How did you find the interview process?


Esther Hayford  06:25

I enjoyed talking to the participants of the study, because they were all African Canadian girls. But there were also sad moments during the interview, because some of the girls broke down when they were talking about the experiences at school, the bad experiences. Of course, there were also girls who enjoyed school, but just thinking about the experiences they had, what they had faced at school. So, it was a difficult interview sometimes.


Debra Shelley  07:04

And will your focus groups then be made up of these 20 girls?


Esther Hayford  07:09

Well, I have two focus groups of six girls each. So I will be talking to 12 girls in total for the focus groups.


Debra Shelley  07:20

Just to backtrack a little bit your 20 participants, are they, how many different schools do they represent?


Esther Hayford  07:27

Maybe about 15 different schools?


Debra Shelley  07:33

So you're getting a broad spectrum. Are they all from the same urban area? Or how far spread out are they?


Esther Hayford  07:40

I have students from Durham Region, from Kitchener Waterloo, from Peel Region, Halton, Toronto. My focus is on southwestern Ontario. So and then I was hoping to find, you know, Africa is a continent. And so, if I'm writing about African girls, it has to be diverse. So I was hoping to find students or participants from as many countries in Africa as possible. I haven't been too successful on that front. So far, I have only about five students, well five different countries represented. But I also see this as a start as the beginning. So there's room for future studies, which would include more students from different countries, so that it's really an African research, as opposed to five countries speaking on behalf of the whole continent. Because, I mean, there are so many cultural differences on the continent.


Debra Shelley  08:53

That's the thing with research, eh? Once you start, you see all the places that could go and develop and dig deeper. It's like you just scraping the top off and discovering what else is out there. If you could start the process all over again, Esther, is there anything you would do differently?


Esther Hayford  09:13

Initially, I wanted to, this study was a participatory action research project. So I wanted more involvement by my participants. But, because of COVID, I had to change it to a narrative inquiry. And so the level of participation by the girls is less than what I would have hoped for. So assuming I'm redoing this and there's no pandemic, I would love an opportunity to meet the girls in person and to spend more time with them even generating resources for when the project is over. 


Debra Shelley  09:58

Have you been surprised, Esther, by any of your findings so far?


Esther Hayford  10:02

Well, yes, I'm surprised that racism still exists in some of our high schools. And that sometimes no action is taken by school authorities when it happens, even though they are policies in place in some of these schools. From the interviews, I realise that students who complain about such acts are often met with silence, nothing happens. And, I probably shouldn't be surprised looking at all that's going on in the world, but I kept hoping that perhaps some some of the interviews would contradict what I already knew. But the fact that the interviews confirmed what I already knew was, in some strange way, also a surprise.


Debra Shelley  10:54

So this next question may dovetail with that. Have any of your findings been disappointing to you?


Esther Hayford  11:02

I've had excellent findings, findings that have made me very happy, and also disappointing findings. The findings, I'm most disappointed by the fact that racism still exists in some of our high schools, and that no action is taken by school authorities when it happens. Of course, there are policies in place in some of these schools, but students who complain about such acts are often met with silence, I think, well, I think about the Me Too movement or victims of assault, and how there's the fear and nervousness about going forward because they feel like their claims will not be validated or listened to. It strikes me as a very similar situation for these girls who are experiencing racism. Well, yes, I mean, that's a very important observation. Because if you look at what's going on in the world, worldwide, regarding race and even the right to speak about race, I mean, you realise that sometimes when people talk about race, others see it as we are turning ourselves into victims, and we are turning ourselves into people who don't want to take responsibility. So, but the reality is that racism is still an issue.


Debra Shelley  12:34



Esther Hayford  12:34

It's people are mistreated, because they are Black people. And it's what I found in, in Canada is that there's this whole discussion about how I discovered I was Black. A lot of Black people talk about that, because I grew up in Ghana, and we were 99%, Black. And when I graduated from law school, for example, we were 100 Black students, or 60, or whatever number it was back then. But then once I came to Canada, I realised that there were other ideas associated with my colour. So criminality, high sexual desires, etc. And so I realised that Black people are placed in this deficits framework. And so that is surprising, you know, that. And sometimes, for example, when I talk, I mean, people are sometimes surprised by how smart I am in quotes. And then at the back of my mind, I mean, not to be coy anything, I always say, "well, you know, I've been through university, I've been through these processes." And that is what happens when somebody I mean, whether Canadian, Nigerian, whatever, when we go through the processes, those are the expectations. So why are you surprised that I have been through all those processes and I am smart? And that is sometimes because I'm not expected to be smart, according to the framework that I am placed in.


Debra Shelley  14:22

And so you've experienced that personally? 


Esther Hayford  14:25

Oh, yes. One of the reasons that I... I mentioned earlier that I started this research because of my children's experiences. But it was so easy for me to conduct this research, because I have also been to, I've spent a longer time than necessary in schools in Canada. And so as I've sat through all these classes, I have seen some of these experiences now. I'm in no way talking about my experiences at Wilfrid Laurier. University because that is really recent. But my first experience, I mean, I've been in schools in Canada since the 90s. And so I've seen a change. I mean, this is over 20 years ago. So I've seen changes, there has been progress. But there still needs to be, more needs to change. Because... more needs to change in the society, Which is sort of the tie in for your research, because you are looking at how these girls engage in activism in their own settings? Yes, I'm looking at how, because to qualify for the study, all the participants must have been involved in social justice clubs or must have organised an event at school, let's say a Black History Month event, at school. And so, I'm interested in finding out how they organise the activities, what some of the reasons are for organising the activities and the events, and whether these activities have promoted or promote racial equity in schools. 


Debra Shelley  16:30

How do you hope, Esther, that your research will be used?


Esther Hayford  16:34

I am hoping that, first of all, I'm hoping to demonstrate that African girls have agency and that they are part of the group of students pushing for change in high schools. And secondly, I'm also hoping that the information gathered would be useful to guidance counsellors, administrators, and all those interested in school reform, in terms of learning more about how to support girls who are involved in activism at school.


Debra Shelley  17:19

I feel like I'm just starting to formulate more questions for you. Are there any questions that, or any details about your work that you feel people should know that I haven't questioned you about?


Esther Hayford  17:31

You've questioned me about this one but, it's something I'd like to highlight again. When I was looking at, when I was conducting my literature review. One, okay, one of the reasons I focused on African girls is, when I conducted the literature review, I realised that there's a lot of information about, let's say, Black girls. So in terms of Black youth, there's information about Black males, there's a lot of information about African males. There's a lot of information about Black girls, but then Black is also amorphous. And somebody asked me, "Why are you dividing us? We are Black." And I said, "No, I'm not dividing". There is also strength in knowing that, as Black people, we are diverse. And there's a lot of history in the various groups under the umbrella of "Black". And so it's important to highlight these histories, because these histories also influence how we act. And so, one of the reasons I decided to focus on African girls is because not much is written about African girls. There's a lot of information on Black girls, Caribbean girls - I found one which focused on West Indian girls. I mean, some of these terms are outdated, but I guess they use those terms because of when the research was conducted. But African girls are silent, or considered silent or almost invisible, in the literature. So I wanted to highlight their voices by focusing just on African girls, rather than all the other, all the other groups represented under the umbrella of "Black". 


Debra Shelley  19:39

Removing that invisibility cloak.


Esther Hayford  19:42

Yes, and highlighting that we are diverse, Black people are diverse.


Debra Shelley  19:47

Well, this has been fascinating and very insightful. I'm looking forward to reading your research when you're done, and I hope that the next time we chat it's in person and over a cup of tea and there's no time limits. So thanks so much, Esther. This has been lovely.


Esther Hayford  20:04

I look forward to hearing more about your research in the next episode, and I also look forward to meeting you in person.


Shawna Reibling  20:14

Bye for now.



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Shawna Reibling  20:23

Please subscribe to Research Chat on your favourite podcast player to hear new episodes. Visit to read a follow up article, show notes, and related links. Research Chat is a partnership between the Office of Research Services, the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, and the Laurier Library. Thank you to everyone who's contributed to the creation of Research Chat. The gratitude list can be found on our webpage.



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