Harm Reduction: A Temporary Tool Towards Real Reform

Jeanelle Suarez

May 16, 2021

2020 will be historically remembered for the abundance of unprecedented change it endured. The COVID-19 outbreak has undoubtedly been the most significant catalyst to the changes we see today – at work, how we interact with others, and especially in our daily lives. While environments and operations pivoted to accommodate the virus, this subsequently uncovered existing gaps that are – and have been prior to the onset of the pandemic – in desperate need of change. In Canada, the first viral wave quickly revealed the weaknesses within our workforce: we saw how rampant job instability was across the country, and how essential workers such as grocery store employees were among those who were making less disposable income even while their health was most at jeopardy.¹ These were not simply problems that COVID-19 caused, but rather long-standing issues that were highlighted under pressing circumstances.

Changing the education sector 

Similar gaps have been exposed in the education sector. As social distancing became mandated, the need for distance learning prompted discussions around its accessibility. Distance learning was a solution that required students have reliable access to internet, a working space, and a device to communicate with their class and complete coursework. These conditions are not standardized across the country, and shortfalls largely impact lower-income communities that are disproportionately made up of Black and Brown families and individuals.² In an effort to address these issues, other inequalities that these groups face throughout education became glaringly obvious. Administration has consequently attempted to mitigate certain obstacles that prohibit the success of diverse students: in July, Ontario announced a plan to end academic streaming in order to prevent racial bias from influencing how students’ academic capabilities were grouped.³ Within post-secondary, students have similarly come forward to share their own experiences of systemic discrimination and are urging institutional reform.⁴

But how do we do more than demand? Are these demands reasonably attainable within the timelines we would prefer? To accurately answer this question, we must first explore what reform looks like at a systemic level and unpack how education operates under a systemic structure.

Why reform isn't immediately actionable, and what is

The purpose of education is a subject that continues to spark debate. Under a capitalistic model, however, we can assume that the goal is to equip youth with substantial information and knowledge with which they can consciously choose how to live. And in order to even earn a wage that is considered livable, most youth will have to enter the workforce with the expectation that their education has prepared them for such. ‘Success’ in this context is contingent on the specific career an individual aims to achieve, and its associated educational requirements. If we think about education as a pipeline into the workforce, we can examine the relationships between each tier within both stages. For example, education begins with kindergarten or grade school, transitions into high school, and eventually offers post-secondary options. Completing this optional route is often the most basic academic requirement for many jobs that generate livable income. In November 2019, the living wage in Toronto was $22.08 – nearly $10 above the minimum wage of $14.25 at the time.⁵

Immediately, we see how the education model is a system: if a student does not progress past a certain stage, their lifestyle opportunities are limited. Completion rates at the high school level are cause for concern,⁶ and it is at this stage where several institutional issues begin. You cannot reform the institutional policies that limit the admission of diverse students into prestigious post-secondary schools, for example, until you reform the conditions that deter those same students from graduating high school. In order to reform those conditions, you must have the capacity to steadily support students navigating the significant shift in environment that follows. Making these adjustments would impact many intersecting pillars that are often unconsidered, and while necessary in an equitable society, involves time in order to do so both responsibly and successfully.

With this understanding, it is clear that short-term or immediate reform is a paradox. Institutional reform (at the degree it is required to be considered true reform) cannot be achieved in the near future. In order to manage realistic expectations, our attention should be directed towards implementing harm reduction strategies to alleviate existing damage to affected groups; we can pursue this simultaneously with reform.

So, what is harm reduction, what does it look like, and what role does it play in the process of reform?

Harm reduction is a term that is primarily used in the context of substance use. It describes a spectrum of evidence-based strategies that aim to reduce negative repercussions against individuals without stigmatizing them.⁷ We can borrow the essence of this definition and apply it to the educational system. In this article, harm reduction refers to various approaches that minimize damage to individuals who are more likely to face barriers throughout education. This includes any person who faces oppression on the basis of their race, gender, religion, class, having one or more disabilities, sexuality and/or other factors out of their control. Harm reduction is not a permanent solution to oppressive frameworks, nor a viable replacement to institutional reform. Instead, harm reduction should be considered a temporary, reactive response that can help keep institutions accountable to equitable practices that are achievable in the short term. Below, we investigate three harm reduction strategies and how they can eventually transform into or produce feasible reform.

How we can make education more affordable 

Harm reduction: Application-based scholarships that target marginalized communities

Financial aid is a necessary service in post-secondary institutions that enables students to further their education and acquire an appropriate credential. While scholarships are an incredibly helpful resource, they can be highly competitive especially when they reward students for their accomplishments. If a generous award is available to any one student, the consequent large pool of candidates increases the likelihood that the recipient, while still potentially deserving of the award on merit, may already have other stable options to finance their post-secondary education. Offering scholarships that specifically aid marginalized communities helps to increase support for students who are more likely to solely rely on this financial aid option. To some students, financial aid is the only attainable avenue for students to afford post-secondary at all.

Reform: Transitioning into a completely needs-based financial aid model and standardizing tuition costs

The problem with awards that involve applications is that they necessitate labour from students, which is then susceptible to subjective and potentially biased evaluations. Many students may not even have the opportunity to apply even if they are as academically capable as their peers. For example, if a student lives in a low-income household, they may need to work a part-time job. This would limit their time and ability to explore leadership opportunities and consequently affect their eligibility. A needs-based financial aid model ensures that all students have the opportunity and autonomy to attend their preferred institution. Targeted applications are useful in mitigating gaps, but they can also present value in learning what is needed for reform. By collecting demographic data from these applications, we can identify trends that may reveal important considerations for needs-based awards.

How we can diversify our schools

Harm reduction: Mandate spaces (clubs, student groups, etc.) for students to safely celebrate their identity

While post-secondary is typically remarked as a fulfilling and worthwhile experience, it can be incredibly isolating for many. This is especially true for students who don’t see their communities represented in the student or administrative body.⁸ At best, lack of representation cultivates detachment that can contribute to pre-existing stress from academic responsibilities. At worst, it subjects students to harmful discrimination that might not be appropriately reprimanded. Creating on-campus spaces for specific communities can sometimes be a controversial topic, with its biggest critics claiming that it creates divide. On the contrary, these spaces help students who already feel divided experience inclusion. They can also function as a centre for relevant resources that may otherwise be difficult to locate.

Reform: A recruitment approach that penetrates all streams into post-secondary 

Student clubs where members share identities should be additional sources of support – not the sole one available. A student should not have to resort to a club to find the only people at their institution who relate to them. Lack of representation is a direct shortcoming in current recruitment approaches. Many leading undergraduate programs and institutions do not visit certain high schools⁹ in order to maintain their pipeline of competitive prospects. This ultimately disadvantages adept students who attend these high schools. By missing the opportunity to interact with a representative of the program, these high school students are unlikely to accept an offer, ultimately resulting in the clear disparity in the program and institution’s demographic makeup. Clubs comprised of the students who do attend the institution are important provisions for reform, as their legitimate affiliation with the school allows them direct access to work together with administration to expedite change.

How we can support vulnerable students

Harm reduction: Offer and promote accessible resources and events for underrepresented candidates

Opportunities after graduation are an important factor that students consider when choosing which college or university to attend. However, their decision may ultimately be determined by other urgent considerations, such as affordability or location. As a result, a student may choose to attend a school that is more financially feasible at the expense of their exposure to another school’s industry connections. It is helpful for both academic and corporate institutions to organize opportunities for students who are more likely to experience barriers to entry. Black TAXI is an example of a structure that accommodates the lack of Black talent in advertising; an industry historically dominated by White professionals and recognized for nepotism.¹⁰ Introducing these models establishes an alternative route towards an otherwise inaccessible goal.

Reform: Empower students’ autonomy by introducing them to industry concepts and options early on

Many students understand the importance of networking to secure job opportunities. While there is nothing inherently wrong with acquiring a job through a connection, normalizing this strategy can perpetuate unproductive expectations. Students may feel obligated to attend events catered to them in order to communicate their qualifications, but might never receive tangible value in terms of actual professional or personal growth. Many students even ‘settle’ for any reputable job offer without possessing any real interest or ambition, which often leads to stagnation. By prioritizing job security, they may fail to develop meaningful relationships that optimize learning – which is what these events should accomplish. If students were able to gain industry exposure prior to post-secondary, where the pressure to secure jobs is paramount, they could then comfortably focus on growing their skills and relationships in the areas they truly want to impact. The growing number of targeted events is an effective bridge to fill gaps in representation, but more importantly, can pique the interests of individuals who want to investigate how to prevent these gaps from expanding.

In tandem, not independently

While there is a valid case for harm reduction throughout education, it is important to acknowledge that it is understandably criticized as an easy alternative to the hard work that reform involves. Harm reduction is not meant to be a conclusive solution that we become complacent with. It is a strategy that targets symptoms, while reform amends the systems that produce them. Without harm reduction, it is difficult to protect and support communities presently while in-tact policies continue to affect them. There is a risk to placing too much focus on harm reduction though; similar to placing a bandaid on a bullet wound, these tactics do not proactively prevent the reoccurence of these systemic barriers to the extent that reform would. For change to occur and be most effective, the two must be pursued together. Our own streams within EDGE ensure that both approaches are being implemented in our holistic goal of making education more equitable.


[1] Lemieux, T., Milligan, K., Schirle,T. and Skuterud, M. Initial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Canadian labour market. Canadian Labour Economics Forum. June 2020.

[2] Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on low-income communities. Pathways to Education. June 13, 2020.

[3] McQuigge, M. Ontario to end academic streaming in Grade 9, early years suspensions. The Canadian Press. July 6, 2020.

[4] Robbins, C. P. How students at Canadian business schools are using Instagram to call out racism. The Globe and Mail. September 15, 2020.

[5] Living wage by region. Ontario Living Wage Network. November 2019.

[6] Education Highlights Tables, 2016 Census. Statistics Canada. 2016.

[7] Principles of harm reduction. National Harm Reduction Coalition.

[8] DasGupta, N., Shandal, V., Shadd,D. and Segal, A. The pervasive reality of anti-Black racism in Canada. Boston Consulting Group. December 14, 2020.

[9] Jaschik, S. Where colleges recruit…and where they don’t. Inside Higher Ed. April 2018.

[10] Calabretta, D. Taxi is launching paid internships for Black talent. Strategy Online. October 2020.