Making the invisible visible: math and social justice

One of my kids is sitting at the kitchen table, working intensely in his sketch book. He is drawing a portrait of a man he met near Eglinton and Yonge Street earlier in the day. Slowly, ‘Sammy’ emerges with his reddish beard, long hair, and orange vest. Slowly, the invisible becomes visible, which is to say that Sammy, who amongst other things, is homeless, has etched his way into my son’s consciousness.

My young one is trying to figure it all out. Why on earth, in the dead of winter, is that person sitting on the cold, icy sidewalk asking for money? Where did he come from? What is his name? And why is nobody looking at him, even when he speaks?

In the world of unschooling, we have just been put on notice. Kathy and I shift into gear.

If you want to know anything real about poverty and homelessness in Toronto you need to be connected to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). They let us know that a crucial vote was coming up at City Council, one in which a 4.3 million housing stabilization fund to support people getting off of the streets was on the chopping block. We wrote a letter to our City Councillor, who wrote back detailing her support. Somehow, the action felt hollow and disconnected.

On a frigid Friday when the temperature had plummeted below minus 30, we went to the store, collected some food, and headed downtown to a newly opened city warming centre for people on the streets. An atrium in a government building now had a couple dozen chairs, surrounded by velvet rope barriers. No privacy, no beds, no warm meals. Men in suits swished by, glancing over at the intrusion.

“There are only 5 people here,” my young one notices. “How many homeless people are there in Toronto, mom and dad?”

I am a mathematics teacher by trade. And my lifetime’s work in this field has been to link mathematics to social justice issues. It’s not as odd as you might think. As a type of language, mathematics offers something that other languages struggle with: a window into patterns and trends, quantities and comparisons, correlation and causation. Perfect to talk about justice.

My five year old and I open up Excel. We talk cells and data, bar graphs and trend lines. Axis lines and titles. And then, using the City’s Report Card on Housing and Homelessness, he and I create the following:

More questions emerge. “Why is the number of people who are homeless going up and the number sleeping on the streets going down?”

“Do you have any guesses?” I ask.

I am fully aware that when you don’t know what you don’t know, generating ideas can be painfully impossible. And yet, without leaping in to save him, he slowly begins: “Maybe the shelters got cleaner, so more people came? Maybe the shelters got more beds for people? Maybe more shelters were started? Maybe it was colder in 2009 and 2013? Maybe they didn’t count all of the people when they did the survey?” The eldest sibling pipes in, “The number of people who are homeless may be going up because the the population of the city is going up.” She understands proportional reasoning.

All complex stories begin as simple stories. Mathematics is crucial on that journey, one that can take us from a human connection on an icy cold sidewalk, to a place where we are more likely to know how best to make a difference.


My book of 50 lessons is called Maththatmatters: a teacher resource linking math and social justice, published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.



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