New for 2022-2023 the “Know Your Rights Series!”
The Know Your Rights series engages conversations with leaders, administrators, and practitioners from a range of professions to learn from their experiences and expertise to gain tips and resources to guide and support the community in navigating challenging circumstances within a range of institutions.
Episode 2 – Navigating Racial Discrimination and Harassment in the Workplace – Lavinia Latham
Interview by Jodie Glean – Member, PR and Communications Committee
Lavinia Latham worked as a Criminal Defence Lawyer and an Estates Litigation Lawyer before finally settling into Human Rights Law as a Staff Litigation Lawyer at the African Canadian Legal Clinic.
Today, Lavinia works for the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) as the Human Rights and Equity Advisor (HREA) to the Director. In this role, Lavinia founded and developed the TCDSB’s HREA office which promotes and upholds principles of human rights and equity across the school board. Lavinia’s HREA office is an independent and impartial body that is essential to the integrity of the internal TCDSB human rights complaints process. In addition to receiving complaints, Lavinia conducts human rights training for TCDSB staff members, reviews all TCDSB policies with a human rights lens, and facilitates effective communication between stakeholders and TCDSB members.
Join GTAAC member, Jodie Glean, as she speaks with Lavinia on how to handle a human rights complaint within the workplace. You can watch this informative video on our YouTube channel.
**The content presented in this video is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice, the practice of law, legal advertisement, or an endorsement of any particular legal provider. Viewers are encouraged to obtain professional legal advice with respect to any of the matters presented in this video
Episode 1: Navigating Discipline in the School System
Dr. Joseph Smith – Vice Principal of Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute and co-founder of the non-profit organization, Generation Chosen
Interview by Jodie Glean – Member, PR and Communications Committee
Join GTAAC as we speak with Dr. Joseph Smith, Vice Principal of Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute and co-Founder of the non-profit organization Generation Chosen, about key factors Black and racialized parents should keep in mind if they are navigating their school/school board’s disciplinary processes.
Key quotes from the interview:
“When I was in grade 2, I had an encounter with a teacher who thought I was a behavioral child because I was very talkative and very curious, during story time she cut out a square of the carpet and put it in a separate corner of the classroom. Every time we had Storytime, I had to sit in that corner.”
“Suspensions do not stay past your K-12 record, they don’t get passed on to universities.”
“The relationship building between the parent and teacher really reduces the overreaction of some teachers.”
“Try to give teachers a narrative that they can hold on to, so they can interpret your child through that narrative. Be proactive and get ahead of the type of interpretation you want them to have.”
Interview dropping on our YouTube channel on September 9. YouTube
Yamikani Msosa – Creative and strategic consultant and facilitator
Interview by Jodie Glean – Member, PR and Communications Committee
Yamikani Msosa (they/them or ze-hir) is a black genderqueer Malawian arrivant-settler currently living within the Dish With One Spoon wampum treaty territory, who grew up on Algonquin Territory. As a creative and strategic consultant and facilitator, they love building containers for connections to be forged, and holding space for individual, community, and systems transformation. Yamikani is committed to a practice of anti-racism & anti-oppression, using popular culture, creative facilitation , emergent strategy and digital engagement.
Ze completed hir Master’s degree in Women and Gender Studies at Carleton University and Certificate from Michigan State University on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Organizational Change. In 2013 Yami founded UBUNTU Consulting, which focuses on equity, anti-oppression, inclusion training, conflict resolution and organizational development for grassroots organizations and nonprofit agencies. As a strategic troublemaker, Yami has worked with Amnesty International Canada, Greenpeace Canada, Association of Women In Development, the Canadian Women Foundation, City of Toronto, Peterborough Pride, Tools for Change, LGBT Youthline and more.
Yamikani has held positions such as Black Academic Success and Engagement Coordinator at Humber College and Vice-Chair of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centre. In hir spare time Yami teaches yoga to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
May Lui – Activist, ally, and resister against all forms of oppression
Interview by Jodie Glean – Member, PR and Communications Committee
Born in Montréal, Québec, Canada, May (she/her) is mixed-race and light-skinned, a settler/immigrant descendant of Chinese and white/ European/ Jewish background. May is an activist, ally, and resister against all forms of oppression including colonialism, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, sexism and misogyny, classism and consumer capitalism, homophobia and Transphobia, ableism, and ageism.
May Lui has a Master of Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education / University of Toronto. May has been facilitating anti-oppression training and education since 1997.
May has worked in non-profit organizations for over 30 years. She has worked as casual, part-time, and full-time front line staff, manager, executive director, board member, and volunteer. She has progressive, practical, and dynamic perspectives about how all the different roles within non-profit organizations work and function.
Visit her website https://www.maylui.com/ for more information about her work. Watch her interview with Jodie Glean:
Tee Duke – Assistant Director, Indigenous Initiatives with the UTM Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Office
Interview by Jodie Glean – Member, PR and Communications Committee
Tee Duke is from the Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty 3 Territory – Northwestern Ontario but has resided in the Ajetance Treaty 19 Territory (North Mississauga – border of Brampton) since 2010.
Experience: Prior to University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), she worked with the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres developing and delivering training and supporting staff in Friendship Centres across Ontario. In Tee’s work with the OFIFC, she also coordinated the integration of traditional, cultural-based approaches into program design, development, and implementation.
Current Role: As the Assistant Director, Indigenous Initiatives with the UTM Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Office, Tee brings to the University of Toronto Mississauga 20 years’ experience working within Indigenous communities and organizations.
Background: Tee is very proud of her grassroots and has been dancing Jingle for many years. Tee’s education background is in Early Childhood Education, Social Service Work and Indigenous Adult Education. During her studies, Tee was also an Indigenous Student Ambassador for Seneca College and York University, which provided opportunities to go throughout campuses to discuss/educate students and faculty about Indigenous cultural safety with a focus on Residential School history. Tee recently completed her Master of Education – Urban Indigenous Cohort at York University.
Goal: Tee is also a world traveler with her journeys taking her as far as Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea and South America. However, Tee’s main ambition in life is to continue educating others about the importance of restoring Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships around the globe and continue to work and support the Indigenous student community on their education journey.
Stachen Frederick – Executive Director, Frontlines Toronto
Interview by Jodie Glean – Member, PR and Communications Committee
Ms. Frederick is the recipient of a number of awards:
– WXN Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada
– Award Recipient of Several Awards including Top 10 Women of Worth by L’Oreal Canada
She is a Professor at Sheridan College and Executive MBA Candidate 2021 at Ivey Business School. As well as being the Executive Director of Frontlines Toronto (https://frontlines.to/), Ms. Frederick is also the Founder of BrAIDS for AIDS- HIV/AIDS Innovation (www.braidsforaids.com). She has done consultancy work for organizations such as The Spot, AIDS Committee of Toronto, Gateway for New Canadians. She has facilitated grant writing workshops for a number of organizations including Carleton University, the Jean Augustine Centre for young women empowerment and the City of Toronto.
Watch her candid and informative interview below:
Lori-Ann Green Walker – Executive Director, Women’s Health in Women’s Hands
Interview by Jodie Glean – Member, PR and Communications Committee
JG: Kindly introduce yourself to our viewers, sharing more about your role and the organization Women’s Health in Women’s Hands.
LGW: My name is Lori-Ann Green Walker and I am the current Executive Director at Women’s Health in Women’s Hands. Prior to this role, I served as Director of Primary Health Care Services within the organization. Women’s Health in Women’s Hands is the only community health center with a gender specific focus to provide primary health care across the life span for women 16yrs and older. Clients range from across the Greater Toronto Area primarily from African, Black, Caribbean, Latinx and South Asian communities. We provide holistic services and programs that respond to the social determinants of health including racism and support women making decisions about their health.
JG: What does community service mean to you and where did your journey begin?
LGW: Community service means using my natural spirit given talents, abilities and resources to give back to those with limited resources or with less access.
Growing up as a First Generation American to Jamaican parents, giving back is just what you did and it was expected. From donating to church, food banks and providing free tutoring to students in communities. Throughout my adult years, I continue to ensure that community service remains a fundamental part of my life. During my undergraduate years, my involvement in Black student associations helped to broaden my perspectives. When I lived in America (Lori-Ann relocated to Toronto from New York), I also belonged to a Book Club, The Nubian Sisters Jammin’ wit Lit – I was surrounded by the wisest most compassionate women I have ever known. We read books by Black authors and facilitated community outreach events – mentoring young black women, fundraising to provide scholarships to assist with those needs etc.
Community service is very important to me.
JG: Your professional career in the health care sector is rich and extensive, what would you say are some of the myths associated with Black and racialized communities and caring for their health? In the midst of the COVID -19 pandemic, what are two things you will like to share with the community to encourage them to protect and care for themselves?
LGW: Many believe that Black and racialized communities do not care about their health. This sentiment feeds into the myths that we do not have the time to take care of their health or that we hold distorted thoughts about our health. It is important to note that Black and racialized communities are not a monolith. Experiences of racism has a lot to do with how people engage with the health care systems. Health interventions and financial resources should be redirected to populations with highest level of health risks and disparities – Black and communities of color. Folks in leadership should be held accountable to these communities.
There has to be an equitable COVID-19 response. Black and racialized communities should be advocated for and to advocate for themselves to get access to COVID 19 testing. An equitable response means bringing testing sites to the communities and not solely relying on them to go to the hospital. They require access to culturally relevant information as to how to protect themselves and their families. As well as culturally relevant information about the vaccines – what does it mean to not be vaccinated? What are the ingredients in the vaccine? – People need to be fully informed about the vaccines. Black, Indigenous and racialized communities should have priority access to these resources and priority access to health care.
JG: What project/initiative has brought you the most amount of joy?
LGW: A huge part of the work of Women’s Health in Women’s Hands is to advocate with and for community in regards to public health policy. Whether it is extensive breast cancer screening for Black women or advocating for access to certain tests. We place a huge emphasis on health promotion and community engagement. It is hard to name one great initiative because there has been so many successful initiatives. Seeing the resiliency of our clients means a lot to me. We completed a project – a community based toolkit on how to disclose your HIV status to your family, friends, and employers. The toolkit provides support to an individual that needs to address an aspect of their life that still has a lot of stigma attached to it. Hearing the client testimonies about how their practitioners have changed their lives. That is what keeps me going and brings me a lot of joy. For more information on resources available at Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, please visit: http://www.whiwh.com.
JG: Please share your personal motto or affirmation that motivates you, that you wish to share with future leaders.
LGW: One quote that I really like is an empowering quote by Iyanla Vanzant –
When you have a vision, stand for it, stand in it and stand with it. Even if it means you have to stand in it by yourself.
As a leader, you have to make very challenging decisions. People will not always agree with you or share your passions – this quote says to me stand in your truth.
Let’s talk about racism in the travel industry by Anne Ruppenstein
Travel Courier Digital – June 2020 Newsletter
Shalene Dudley can list off too many examples of the times she’s experienced racial discrimination while travelling — like being completely ignored in the check-in line for priority seating for flights or having to provide additional ID to prove her business platinum AMEX truly belongs to her.
“A DMC representative in Cancun that I pre-arranged my transfer with, refused to believe that my final destination was the luxury five-star I showed him documentation for. I waited for over an hour until they received a phone confirmation. Even after this, he insisted that I must be a celebrity,” Dudley, the owner of Latitude Concierge Travels, tells Travel Courier. “Or the looks I sometimes receive when my unapologetic afro and I, take our seat in business class. I just stop and stare back before I request my glass of Riesling. There are so many more instances. More than I can list. Recalling them all truly exhausts me.”
Dudley sees educating oneself as the first step towards taking an active stance against any social injustice, such as racism, which she says is rampant in the industry.
“It is far too easy for one to state that they don’t believe in the existence of an issue simply because it has not been experienced personally,” she points out. “To dismiss a peer or neighbour’s feelings, experiences and traumas as over-exaggeration or imaginings is a clear indication of how we value the well-being of others. Racism is very prevalent in our industry and we need to acknowledge its existence in order to open minds and allow for sustainable change.”
In order to have greater representation across the industry, she says sales teams, business development managers, executive teams and boards need to display more diversity.
“The marketing and messaging that is sent internally and externally should be inclusive and genuine. This includes tourism boards and brand managers. Consumers want to feel valued, represented, and safe. I am personally tired of the narration that suggests we are not a significant segment of the travel industry,” she says. “Qualitative and quantitative data is available that clearly identifies that BIPOC are major consumers in the tourism industry, yet we are extremely unrepresented. The talent pool is too vast for me to believe that I can still find back of house staff filled with minorities and have senior management be comprised predominantly of white men and on the rare occasion, a woman.”
As a travel designer and certified destination wedding planner, when she visits properties and off-site venues in the destinations she sells, Dudley says she looks at the photos of the management team and is almost always disappointed.
“When I delve further and ask about their career paths, I see a common distressing theme: The assistant manager or supervisor has been in that position for 10 years and is a valued and respected team member. While the GM position has constant turn-over, populated by a steady stream of candidates from outside of the country. That’s just the Caribbean — a small portion of the world. Take a closer look at other destinations or even here at home and take notes,” she reflects. “The situation regarding representation can be improved but it will take bold moves and dedicated change-makers willing to expand and collaborate to break through a system that is so deeply rooted in our consciousness.”
As Black travellers have only been offered the freedom to “move about the world” seemingly freely in the late 20th century, she says this more recent history of expanded travel brings some misconceptions. (Take a look at The Green Book for context and understanding of the times before 1960.)
“People assume black consumers have lower budgets to spend on travel. The world dismisses our spending power. They assume we don’t have ‘good credit’ or available funds. People assume that those of us who travel are rich or celebrities. Many assume that black travellers only take cruises. Many assume that we are not interested in the adventure travel segment. Some people assume that we don’t even have passports. They assume we aren’t interested in volunteering trips,” she says. “Contrary to popular belief, black travellers are journeying to all corners of the globe. They are coming back home and encouraging a friend or relative to save up, pack their bags, and begin their journeys.”
She says recruitment and career development will help drive more inclusivity within the industry.
“We need to create environments where our workplaces reflect reality. The talent, knowledge and experience is out there waiting for an opportunity to interview or even intern to show the industry what they are made of,” she says. “Countries across the globe have study abroad programs. Historically Black Colleges and Universities all across the US have accredited and highly-rated hospitality and tourism programs. In Canada, our college and university diversity and inclusion departments should find more opportunities to showcase quality Black, Indigenous, and other students of colour at their institutions and partner with potential employers. In turn, marketing on all levels needs to follow suit with the commitments and bold statements we have been witnessing on social media. It is one thing to say you are an ally. It is another to actually live by your new bond to work towards an inclusive community. Other industries reach back and recruit on campuses for diversity. We need to broaden our reach. These action need to consist of a true and sincere spirit that will lend to open-mindedness, genuine partnerships universal growth.”
Looking forward, she hopes to see more representation in destination wedding promotion or a cruise advert.
“Can I see a black family #lethawaiihappen? I want to hear success stories about BIPOC graduates who did not give up their undergraduate dreams due to lack of opportunity, development, exclusion or promotion,” she says. “And it would be a wonderful day when I finally see some representation and respect on the black communities’ financial contributions to the growth and stability of our global travel and tourism economy.”
During this time, Dudley says those in leadership roles in the travel industry need to step up and encourage the change first by broadening their own narrow-mindedness with new ideas and experiences that can only be found when they expand their network of connections past the colour of one’s skin.
“Leadership should also support and foster environments where we do not have to fear repercussions when we speak out, defend ourselves/others and reveal our truths,” she adds. “Mark Twain said: ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.’”
Diverse Representation Feature – June 2020
Every month we feature an African-American agent, attorney, manager, publicist or financial advisor in the sports and entertainment industry. This month we are featuring Laura Wilson-Lewis, an entertainment attorney.
Where are you originally from?
Born in London, England, and raised in Toronto, Canada
Where do you currently reside?
What prompted you to get into the entertainment industry?
I entered law school with the goal of practicing intellectual property law. I earned an undergraduate degree in Physics from Alabama A&M University, a graduate degree in Medical Biophysics from Western University in London, Ontario, and I wanted to become a patent lawyer to help inventors protect their inventions. When I graduated from law school, I struggled to find an associate position in this niche area (and I did not want to write the patent agent exam), so my career went in a different direction. Happening in parallel, the music scene in Toronto was continuing to garner interest and opportunities from international industry leaders and audiences, and there became a need for people who understood the culture and the law. When my good friend, an artist manager in Toronto, asked me to review a contract for his artist, I saw an opportunity to engage in intellectual property law through copyright and help creatives protect their art. That’s when I decided to start my law firm.
Please outline the services you provide for clients and any specialties.
I draft, negotiate, review and advise on agreements specific to the business of the music industry. I also assist clients to navigate the grants system in Canada, which, subject to varying eligibility criteria, provides financial support to creatives (for example: artists, songwriters) while they are developing their art.
What type of clients do you typically represent? What factors do you consider when deciding which clients to take on?
I typically represent recording artists, artist managers, songwriters and producers. My clients have a range of experience within the industry, but many of them are in the early stages of their career, with at least one song that has been commercially released or that is commercially satisfactory and soon to be released.
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about your profession? What is one of the biggest misconceptions?
There is a misconception that becoming a music lawyer is the achievement of peak success if you are a music fan. While there may be some occasional perks (at least there were, prior to tour cancellations and people sheltering in place), it is a complex, technical and ever-changing business and area of legal practice. One must be diligent to stay ahead of the steep learning curve, but there is great satisfaction in helping to protect your client as their star rises.
What are some challenges or obstacles you have faced as an African-American in this profession?
At my current intersection of race, age and gender, the desire to over-prepare and over-perform is ever present. Being relatively junior in the industry and in sole practice, I’ve developed deep reserves of patience and resilience that, among other things, have tempered my thoughts of having to prove myself when I felt like my abilities were questioned or undervalued. Maintaining my integrity and professionalism under these circumstances, and my confidence in my ability to advocate for my clients, have allowed me to gain and retain my clients’ confidence and trust.
What do you think can be done to improve diversity with regards to representation?
We can improve diversity by representing clients across various genres of music, making referrals to other diverse professionals, and recommending diverse creatives when collaboration opportunities arise. I think it is also important to educate and empower the incoming generation of diverse lawyer candidates by finding ways to expose them to the business and the law through programs like workshops, arts incubators or mentorship opportunities, before or during law school. In Toronto, there are a number of cohort-based, year-long industry mentorship programs that build capacity among artists and budding executives by developing the hard and soft skills to help navigate the industry. I am involved in one such mentorship program, as a mentee, that is focused on building the capacity of women in the industry and it has been insightful and empowering. Creating a similar mentorship program for diverse lawyer candidates would require time and commitment from the entertainment law bar, but it has the potential to increase the number of diverse lawyer candidates who may be interested in building a career in this practice area. I am currently mentoring an aspiring law student (because I believe there is always information that you can share, regardless of what stage you are in in your career), and as I achieve future professional milestones, I look forward to sharing what I learn as freely as my mentors have shared with me.
What advice would you have for other African-Americans looking to enter this profession?
Build your team of mentors within the legal community and the music industry, in general. Find a way to bring value to them, be intentional and genuine about your relationships, and be respectful of their time. In my experience, senior lawyers on both sides of the border have been incredibly generous with sharing their insights, and have helped me to avoid some obstacles that they had to overcome along their journey. While you’re looking to your seniors, remember to also look to your peers. The value of lateral mentorship should not be underestimated.
What is the best way for people to get in touch with you?
People can reach me via email at email@example.com, and we can stay connected at @WilsonLewisLaw on social media.
Finding ways to become involved; Toronto Caribbean Newspaper and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated volunteer at the CIBC Run for the Cure, 2019
BY SIMONE J. SMITH
There was a time that the first thought that came to mind when a person heard the word cancer was, “Does this mean that I am going to die?” It is a word that has been dreaded and feared by many, and anyone who is reading this can acknowledge a person in their life who has been directly or indirectly affected by this disease. Regardless if you are an individual who subscribes to conventional ways of dealing with cancer, or complementary and alternative treatments, there has always been a push to explore ways in which to give a person who has been diagnosed with cancer some feeling of control over their health situation.
In 1992, a small group of volunteers decided that they were going to find a way to control the narrative by beginning a movement in Toronto’s High Park. It brought together 15,000 people to raise awareness and $85,000 for breast cancer. What this small group of volunteers did not recognize at that time was that they had started a movement that would become Canada’s largest single-day, volunteer-led event in support of the breast cancer cause, the CIBC Run for the Cure. In 1997, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation began their partnership with CIBC, and today, the Canadian Cancer Society CIBC Run for the Cure has over 80,000 participants (both in the 1K and 5K all ages run/walk) and raises $16 million annually in communities all across Canada.
I received an email from Lisa Wilkinson, President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated (Toronto Chapter), asking Toronto Caribbean Newspaper if they wanted to participate in one of their community outreach projects. This is why on Sunday, October 6th, 2019, I made the trek downtown to join with the sisters to volunteer at the CIBC Run for the Cure. Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated established their first Canadian chapter on April 14th, 2018, and since then, they have been making their mark here in Toronto. Their goal was not only to establish, and strengthen Greek Letter Organizations here in Canada, but to also carry on the legacy of community involvement and sisterhood. They have done this by following the five major programs of the sorority also known as the organization’s Five-Point Programmatic Thrust that includes: Economic Development, Educational Development, International Awareness and Involvement, Physical and Mental Health, and Political Awareness and Involvement.
Along with all the work that is done internally, they have also found ways to network with members of the community who are not sorority members by including them in initiatives that fall under each of the Programmatic Thrust. As breast cancer continues to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Canadian women, it was only natural that members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated would be involved in an event that gives families, friends and supporters the opportunity to join together to honour and celebrate loved ones fighting breast cancer.
When I arrived, the team that would be helping that day was already there. Lisa had sent me all the information I needed to volunteer for the Run, and lucky for me, the Delta’s had decided to volunteer at the Food Tent. At the Food Tent, volunteers were responsible for handing out: bagels, apples, and a variety of protein bars to participants of the 1K and 5K run/walk. As I walked towards the tent, I saw Nelly Meira (Program Planning and Development Chair) speaking with Janelle McCarthy (Toronto Chapter Member) and Carolyn Smith (Cleveland Chapter Member). As soon as they saw me, they came over and gave me hugs, and introduced me to the other helping hands that had joined them that day.
Janelle McCarthy explained to me that when the organization participates in events like this, they like to invite other Greek Letter Organizations to join them. That day they were joined by Veronica Nnensa (Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.), and some brothers from the Canadian Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Claude Olugbala and Philip August as well as Nolan L. Fontaine from Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. I had a lot of fun because the entire crew made me feel like I was part of the family, even though I had just met some of them that day.
I had a chance to steal Nelly away before the rush of runners came to the tent, and I inquired about some of the other work that they had done this year. “This sister had a wonderful time volunteering at the Margaret Housing (formerly known as Margaret Frazier Housing). They provide housing and support services for individuals facing mental health challenges. Two weeks ago, we went to Margaret Housing and donated personal care items; we provided nail treatments and helped serve dinner. We saw the need that there was for understanding and support, and we support the holistic model that is being used at Margaret Housing to empower individuals who are suffering from varying mental illnesses.”
Overall, I had a great day with the team, and I encourage members of our community to take a more active role working with organizations that they may not have considered working with before. You never know what you will learn, and the memories that are gained are priceless. For more information on how you can become involved with Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated outreach programs, contact Nelly Meira at GTAACPrograms@gmail.com.
One-on-One with Dr. Nicole West-Burns – Mother, Educator, Doctor, Visionary, Delta
By Nicole Chrysostom-Murray
Distinguished author, sociologist, activist and co-founder of the NAACP Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois once said “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” So, it’s no surprise that our Soror, Dr. Nicole West-Burns counts this renowned trailblazer – and her mother who insisted she write about him for her fifth grade ‘Famous Americans’ book report – amongst her heroes. She also credits that elementary school assignment for both her foray into education and her unwavering dedication to influencing the influencers to move education toward more equitable practices and outcomes for all students. A Herculean task for sure – especially given the entrenched, systematic philosophies that have hindered a more culturally informed approach to teaching and learning – but one that this multi-hyphenate trailblazer, in her own right, is definitely up for having journeyed across countries (literally, she’s an American, who recently became a Canadian citizen) to achieve great success thus far. But, to quote this woman-on-a-mission “there’s more work to be done!” A sentiment we wholeheartedly share – along with our first names, unconditional love of our families, desire to give all children access and opportunities, passion for our illustrious sorority, American expat status, university alma mater, and extremely busy schedules; the latter the reason why, despite our best efforts, it took several months and multiple e-mails to finally connect for our illuminating chat. But, as everyone knows where there’s a will, Deltas will surely find a way:
NCM: I love living in Toronto, but there are things I miss about the U.S. Is it the same for you? If yes, what do you love/miss?
NWB: Yes, definitely. I moved here in 2007 and stayed for personal and professional reasons. I love being in such a cosmopolitan city, I especially appreciate the diversity; (laughing) but I’m not a fan of the winter weather. What I miss most is spending time with family and friends in the U.S. I was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Maryland, but my schedule doesn’t allow me to get back as often as I’d like.
NCM: When did you receive the calling to be in education? I say calling because I truly believe teaching is God’s work, one of the most important and noble professions.
NWB: As a student, I was an inquisitive, voracious reader; I knew how to navigate school and excel in the things the system rewarded. But I noticed early on that many Black students, especially males, didn’t have access to the same opportunities to ensure achievement. My curiosity and observations made me interested in the back story in schools, I wanted to know more about what goes on behind-the-scenes in educational environments.
NCM: How did our alma mater University of Maryland, College Park prepare you for your purpose?
NWB: I earned two degrees there, but my most pivotal influences were the wonderful female mentors at UMCP who not only supported me; but worked tirelessly to create and sustain equitable opportunities for Black students on campus.
NCM: So, you gained both academic and first-hand knowledge about the crucial role positive reinforcement and advocacy plays in creating more inclusive and fruitful learning environments.
NWB: Exactly. Acquiring the skills is one thing, applying them in real-world situations is another; and I was fortunate to not only be the beneficiary of culturally astute, on campus programs and organizations; but after graduating, still being influenced by mentors there, I went on to further my education, which led me to an Africentric school in Baltimore as a participant-observer, researcher. That experience was life-changing for me, as a person and an educator.
NCM: Did seeing those dynamic women in action at UMCP draw you to Delta Sigma Theta?
NWB: Delta represents strong Black women, committed to scholarship and service. I saw the Deltas on campus, undergrads and the sisters who worked there, doing positive things, being positive women; I wanted to be a part of that work and sisterhood. My line, Spring ’87 – Kappa Phi Chapter – remains very connected and supportive of each other, personally and professionally. This summer, we’ll celebrate our 32nd year with a trip to Montreal.
NCM: Are there other personal and professional milestones that helped shape your work as a “critical friend,” consultant, co-facilitator and co-researcher for the Toronto District School Board’s Black Student Success and Excellence Initiative?
NWB: After earning my Ph.D. from Syracuse University focused on Africentric Education, I worked with the New Jersey Department of Education coordinating teacher professional development. From there, I moved to Toronto and landed a research officer position with OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) at the University of Toronto, which led to seven years as the Director of School Services within the Centre for Urban Schooling at OISE; followed by three years on the faculty of OISE’s Master of Teaching Program. These roles unquestionably helped establish the framework for my current work with the TDSB and my educational equity consulting business. Working with Canadian school boards for many years to facilitate workshops tied to Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogy (CRRP) and asset vs deficit-based approaches to helping students learn and excel is also a key reason I am able to do this work now.
NCM: I like that – asset vs deficit approach, can you expand on it?
NWB: It’s critical for success that teachers see the strengths in students and what they can do and don’t perceive or label students as less than or incapable because of any marker of identity, where they are from, or where they live or their socio-economic situation. These pre-judgements limit educators’ ability to see past the students’ present to their future. There are many examples of successful people who thrived because someone believed in their potential. Students from historically marginalized communities sometimes have extenuating social circumstances that can be challenging to navigate, but we have to think about what we can control. We can control our attitudes, work on checking our biases, work on building in curriculum that is relevant and work on finding and building upon students’ strengths and the knowledge and experiences they bring. A deficit approach writes students off and doesn’t give them a chance. My experience with some educators is that they are less willing to acknowledge that these circumstances or even disparities within the system exist; they think the system is “fair” and that we are “post-racial” even. When I started having equity conversations in Canada about 10 years ago, a teacher told me “those are issues in your country, not here.” Even today, although I would like to believe that more people are aware of educational inequities, we know they still exist for many students across Ontario and Canada. We need to look at what we’re doing, and not blame the students.
NCM: Wow! I guess that provides a lot of opportunity for you to leverage your insight and experience to broaden perspectives and shift not only the thinking around these issues, but the policies.
NWB: Absolutely. In 2015, I started my consulting business while still teaching some classes at OISE. My business is growing so I stopped teaching last year because of the opportunities that have been coming my way. One of which was co-creating and co-leading professional learning with the Education Equity Secretariat’s Office within the Ministry of Education tied to CRRP– an approach that has become more popular in recent years in Ontario as a means of addressing equity issues in schools because it recognizes that in order to make changes, educators must look at their own attitudes, dispositions and practices. Through the CRRP initiative, I have worked with almost 40 school boards across the province and connected with many wonderful people. I will continue trying to make an impact, especially for the students for whom the system has not worked.
NCM: What’s the number one piece of advice that you give to students? Educators?
NWB: For some students, school isn’t life-affirming – it can lead to hopelessness; but I want them to know that there are educators and entire communities working hard to make things better for them. And to educators, I say – I know we work hard; but we still have work to do! We have to be brave and we have to challenge ourselves to make school a more positive place so that ALL students have choices and can take the next steps they wish to take in life.
NCM: This has been extremely enlightening and inspiring, but it also sounds very intense; are there any hobbies or pastimes you enjoy to balance the weight of your work?
NWB: Several years back, I realized that I had to take better care of myself in order to do equity work – which is hard and heavy. I realized that fighting injustice required that I first treat myself better. One of the ways in which I find balance is through yoga. I started hot yoga a few years ago and it has been a true blessing. I also try to say “NO” more. You can’t say “yes” to everyone and everything and still do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Nature walks and Netflix don’t hurt either!
One on One with Herman Ellis Jr.
By Nicole Chrysostom-Murray
Herman Ellis Jr. loves his job. How do I know this? The short answer, he told me so. The proof, his actions. Our first interview lasted only five minutes as Herman walked through the door of his home away from home – Scadding Court Community Centre – doling out and accepting “Good Mornings.” I promise it wasn’t something I said; but rather a situation that required immediate attention, to which he responded immediately. His response was not surprising given his role as the Program Director for one of the Greater Toronto Area’s most highly-regarded and essential centers, supporting the well-being and advancement of underserved communities for 40 years. But as I discovered during our second interview, which lasted well over an hour, Herman’s passion for the place where customer service and camaraderie converge is fueled by much more than duty; his fierce dedication to positively impacting the lives of those who seek support is personal, a mission that began when he, as a youth, relied on the generosity of the people and the tenets of the programs at SCCC to nurture his journey into adulthood.
Here’s more of our discussion:
NCM: When did you start working at Scadding Court Community Centre?
HEJ: Truthfully, I feel like I never left. I started attending the programs when I was young and then worked my way up through various levels of the organization until I became the program director.
NCM: So, this is truly “home away from home” for you?
HEJ: Definitely, and the people – both the ones who work here and those who rely on us – are my family.
NCM: Speaking of those who work here, how do you and your team support the vast amount of services the center provides?
HEJ: We have approximately 70 full-time employees, who do an amazing job of keeping things on track, but we’re also very fortunate to have over 200 volunteers per year, many university students lend their time and talent to help us achieve our goals.
NCM: But despite all the help, I’m guessing a day in the life of the program director for such a large collective is hectic.
HEJ: Very! On any given day, I supervise seven to eight department heads, answer questions from staff and clients, liaise with funders to keep them abreast of what’s happening at the center, meet with developers regarding more land for the markets. There’s also a lot of administrative work, proposals, reports…whatever it takes to get things done.
NCM: Wow, that’s a lot of ground to cover in one day.
HEJ: It is, but it’s also very rewarding.
NCM: What’s the most rewarding part?
HEJ: When someone shares with us how the center has helped them in different areas of their life, particularly the youth. We can’t reach them all; but knowing that our efforts are changing the way many see themselves, their lives and their future is extremely fulfilling…it encourages me to keep pushing forward.
NCM: Is there more that you wish you could do?
HEJ: Of course. The best programs are the ones that pay young people, especially those in danger of becoming involved in the criminal justice system. We had a pilot program, called Catalyst, paying more than minimum wage to out-of-school or unemployed at-risk youth, they worked at the center in various capacities and it was great. We saw first-hand how earning a living changed their perceptions and improved their willingness to take responsibility for their actions. The program literally saved lives. Unfortunately, we could only do it for three years; but I’m always pitching for more funding for this program and others, they are essential means of intervention.
NCM: The goal of saving lives is obviously the impetus for your Toronto Cares Challenge. The list of sponsors is impressive, but not surprising given the spate of gun violence currently gripping the city.
HEJ: Yeah, that challenge is very necessary because the need to help stem the rate of unnecessary deaths is urgent. Since most of our clients are harder-to-reach, underserved children – some facing incredible personal challenges from a very young age that make them susceptible to a life of crime and violence – it is crucial that we are proactive in finding partners to help in meaningful ways. Although we typically use sports to engage the younger population, we’re confident that using the arts to encourage people of all ages to voice their commitment to safety and peace will be effective, especially since the anti-gun, anti-violence message is so personal for so many people.
NCM: Well-said. We’re all grateful that organizations like SCCC are standing in the gap for our city and truthfully, our survival. Let’s switch gears, as you know our sorority is deeply committed to supporting initiatives that enhance the well-being of marginalized communities, which is why we’re thrilled to be partnering with SCCC on the three-part employment seminar for women. How will our collaboration help advance the center’s agenda?
HEJ: One of our core focuses is role modeling, so having accomplished, relatable women speak to our female clients aligns with our strategic objectives. There are also fewer limitations when you partner with a non-government agency. We’ve collaborated with agencies on youth employment workshops in the past and although it was beneficial, there isn’t much flexibility with regards to tailoring the content and broadening the scope of what’s covered.
NCM: In addition to helping facilitate workshops, how else can our chapter assist SCCC?
HEJ: Since our services are also intended to combat various social issues, it would be helpful to have the women of Delta Sigma Theta participate in brainstorming sessions with our teams. We’re always open to insight from people with expertise in certain areas, who are engaged in activities that have proven to be beneficial to those in need, or who are simply willing to present practical ideas and solutions.
NCM: What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned over your 35-year affiliation with the center?
HEJ: That words don’t always translate the way you think they do or the way you intended. If I had learned this lesson earlier in my career, there would have been less miscommunication, especially with young people who don’t always view every situation as a learning experience. Everyone doesn’t perceive information the same way and that’s OK. It’s my job to ensure that I’m communicating effectively. Now I try my best to repeat, demonstrate and then clarify, as needed.
NCM: Finish this sentence, “my #1 wish for Scadding Court Community Centre is…”
HEJ: Expansion. Our building is at capacity, so we need a bigger space. A redevelopment project is in the works and I’m excited about the opportunity to help more people and provide more services. But it’s hard to give just one wish; I have so many, like creating a major social movement around gun violence – but one that offers real solutions, not just slogans. And, I wish that we never forget why this center was established in the first place.
NCM: Three wishes are usually what’s granted, and those all sound amazing. Thank you so much for a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening conversation. We look forward to doing great work with you and your team.
HEJ: Thank you. These questions made me think, which is a good thing. I’m confident that collaborating with Delta Sigma Theta will deliver great results.