CPCO Black Heritage and Excellence Series 2024: Tyrone Dowling

Tyrone Dowling - Director of Education at Waterloo Catholic District School Board
Interviewed by: Christine Cosentino (Member of the EDI Standing Committee)

Tell us about yourself and the journey that led you to become a leader and mentor of the Catholic faith and education.

Tyrone: I have been working in Catholic education for thirty years now. My career began in 1993 with the Lincoln Separate School Board, which is now a part of the Niagara Catholic District School Board. I worked there for about two and a half years before moving to Waterloo Catholic. In 1995, I returned as a teacher and continued in that role for three more years before becoming an administrator. For 21 years, I was an elementary principal at five sites within Waterloo Catholic, including Kitchener and Cambridge. Later, I served as a superintendent for two years with Wellington Catholic before returning to Waterloo Catholic in September of 2022 as the Director of Waterloo Catholic. Both of my parents were educators, but I had always wanted to become a lawyer. However, my perspective changed when I worked as an unqualified substitute teacher for grade 10 at Resurrection Catholic Secondary School. One day, a student asked me a question that I didn't know the answer to. We worked on it together, and at that moment a light bulb went off. From there I began to pursue a career in education and applied to teachers' college.


Did you face any barriers to becoming a Catholic School Leader?

Tyrone: I have faced some obstacles in my career, but I have also had many people who supported me along the way. When I applied for a Vice-Principal position, I was surprised to be offered the role of Principal. Looking back, I realized that my previous supervisors had placed me in leadership positions without me even realizing it.

I applied for the Superintendent Officer position multiple times earlier in my career as an administrator. However, after unsuccessful attempts, I gave up as I thought that I hit the glass ceiling and there was no room for me to grow beyond the principal-ship position. But the people at Wellington CDSB took a chance on me. A former superintendent in Waterloo persuaded me to apply to that job. Despite my reservations he continued encouraging me and even told me he saw something greater in me. I finally applied for the position and to my surprise, I got the job!

Follow-up (Christine): It sounds like the narrative has changed. You went from saying, maybe I'm not what people want, and then, obviously, there was some change.

Tyrone: I think people in the industry changed. People in the industry started to recognize the importance of using their privilege to speak out and have conversations that could potentially put them at risk. 


Why is it important to take the time for Black Excellence and Heritage Month to reflect, think back, and celebrate Blackness in all its forms?

Tyrone: I believe it's essential to recognize that dedicating just one month to celebrating diversity isn't enough. However, setting aside a specific time for reflection allows us to learn more about the various equity-deserving groups, such as Indigenous and Asian heritage, and their contributions to society.

I recall a project at Waterloo Catholic that aimed to recognize black saints, which surprised me. Growing up, I had never learned about them, and this project was an eye-opener for me. It sparked discussions about representation and faith, particularly among minority students who sometimes struggle to find role models that resemble themselves. Traditionally, saints have not been accurately depicted, which makes it even more important to teach our students about these remarkable individuals and highlight their stories.


Who has been your biggest inspiration as a black Catholic School Leader?

Tyrone: I thought about this question, and I was thinking I've never had a black Catholic administrator or teacher growing up. With that being said, I would say my children would be my biggest inspirations, particularly my daughters. When I hesitated to apply for my current role, it was my kids who encouraged me to apply. Black administrators and teachers are so few and far apart, something the entire family has seen and experienced and so they wanted me to apply to ensure that under-representation does not continue to happen. By applying and getting the job, I would be a visible sign to the kids in our schools. 


What has been the most profound event from your history or even black Canadian history that resonates with you today?

Tyrone: Two events stand out for me as I contemplate this question. The first was the election of former President Barack Obama. I remember being in the gym with several students watching his inauguration, and the bell rang, and I turned the television off. I got a phone call from a white parent complaining that it was such a moment in history and how dare I turn it off. That took me by surprise, and I had to take a step back.

The second would be the murder of George Floyd. I remember the extensive media coverage, the conversations and actions that followed. I had people come to me apologizing for things they may or may not have done or said to me in the past. I thought nothing would change, like Rodney King in 1991. After George Floyd’s murder, I watched the marches, heard the conversations and thought things were happening. I have seen the pendulum swing back and forth since then. Something Dr. King's son mentioned today during a radio interview on Martin Luther King Jr. Day left me in deep thought while I was driving. He said, “I'm not sure if we're better than when my father lived, but I'm wondering if we're in worse shape”.


How do you reconcile being a minority leader and the Catholic Faith?

Tyrone: Historically, the church has done many things that are controversial and not acceptable. If we consider ourselves part of the church, then it is our responsibility to educate the church. Lately, I have been having conversations with people regarding the value and respect for every human being. To me, this is what reconciliation means. We need to make sure that we are honoring the life and dignity of every person we meet. We had the opportunity this fall, on our spiritual development day, to listen to Dr. Ansel Augustine, a speaker from New Orleans. During a session with a group of black youths from different high schools, a consultant present was moved by a young woman's statement. She mentioned how nobody has ever tried to learn how to pronounce her name correctly. This statement resonated with the staff member and me. When we talk about reconciliation, we should consider the life and dignity of every human being. Therefore, if saying someone's name correctly is the least we can do, then we should try our best to do so.

 Follow-up (Christine): How important is that?

Tyrone: I recently heard Gloria Purvis speak at one of our administrator conferences, and she spoke about how we are all made in the image and likeness of God according to Genesis 1:28. She challenged us to examine whether we truly believe this and how we treat each other as a result. We have an advantage in this regard, as we can look to Catholic social teaching to guide us in promoting equity and inclusion.


If you could change or add anything to the present school system to foster greater equity and inclusion, what would that be? 

Tyrone: Listening. So, I had a conversation with our Senior Manager of Equity who pointed out that during meetings and interactions with parents, a lot of educational jargon is used, and parents are not given the chance to speak. She suggested conducting a meeting with a parent and counting the number of times they are interrupted. As educators, our greatest challenge is to actively listen to others and understand their opinions and feelings. This is essential in improving the educational system and the way schools are run. When we listen to the concerns of parents, communities and organizations, it provides them with hope that things can get better.