By Neil Armstrong
Toronto councillor, Michael Thompson, says a lot of cool things are happening in the city and Black Canadians must want to be a part of it.
He is encouraging more to run for political office and noted that being at the table is important because there is so much that a person can do there.
Councillor Thompson, a sponsor alongside the Toronto Education Workers of the Next Generation Black Youth Political Summit, organized by Operation Black Vote Canada, was speaking at the event held inside Toronto City Hall on October 28.
“We need to make sure that we are a part of the decision-making that takes place in City Hall,” he said, noting that fifty-two per cent of people are in the majority group in the community.
He emphasized that “the only way we are going to effect change for our lives is to be agents of that change.”
The summit was for black youth to hear from political and government staff about volunteering on political campaigns, internships and job opportunities at all three government levels.
The goal was to provide them with information so that they are aware of the career opportunities in government and the skills needed to obtain them.
Among the speakers were: Tiffany Ford, Toronto District School Board trustee; Kevin Modeste, executive assistant, NDP House Leader’s Office; Yanique Williams, policy advisor, Minister’ office International Trade Government of Canada; Ariel Gough, policy advisor Employment and Social Development Canada; Peter Flegel, Michaelle Jean Foundation; Tiffany Gooch, public affairs consultant, Enterprise Canada; Casper Hall, Ontario Cabinet Office, director of policy, research and strategic initiatives (Anti-Racism Directorate); and Denise Andrea Campbell, director, Social Policy, Analysis & Research – City of Toronto.
Responding to questions from the moderator, Brittany Amofah, each spoke about their reason for being involved in their sphere of political or governmental participation.
Ford said she was born and raised in the Jane-Finch community and attended Westview Centennial Secondary School.
She said ten years ago it wasn’t that great of a school and civic engagement was not really there in the community.
“I wanted to inspire others around me to vote for the first time, to see someone on the ballot that actually came from the community. I still live in that community. It’s really important for me to be there and witness everything that’s happening and make change within that community.”
Ford said she has inspired some young people and they are working together to make tangible changes.
She wants to ensure that the motions she puts forward at the Toronto District School Board actually help to improve black students.
Gooch, who is from Windsor, said she got involved in the Liberal Party when she was in high school.
“I was lucky that I had women leaders that were around that were running for office. They weren’t black but they were female and they were both really fierce advocates for my community and then pushing to try to make sure that Windsor was getting its fair share in Ontario politics and Canadian politics. A lot of people think Ontario ends in London and we were always pushing to get that voice heard. Windsor was facing a really odd change through auto and its changes and struggling and so I was really inspired to see women leading that discussion.”
She built a relationship with them and started working in their constituency offices. She first worked with Sandra Pupatello, former MPP, Windsor West of the Ontario Liberal Party, and that was her entrance to politics.
“Politics is everywhere whether it’s in your partisan party work. I would say some of the best learnings I got for politics weren’t in the party they were in the churches I was involved with over time.”
She sat on church boards and got involved in the church politics and while there she had a lot of black female leaders that were available, including her pastor.
“I always sat at tables knowing that I could speak and should speak and should bring a voice to it.”
Gooch was also involved in student politics, which she considers one of the more valuable experiences, to bring to party politics.
“I think that entrance for me was just seeing people who I really was inspired by doing that work. But the next line for me was deciding which party ultimately really aligned with what my values were and what I was working towards and what I wanted to do and it took a long time. And, I think that it is important to spend that time researching and seeing what stances they take on earlier issues and what they believe in right now, and what kind of vision they might have for your local community and how do you want to get involved. And for me that became the Liberal Party and I got very involved.”
When she came to Toronto, she became the executive director of the Ontario Young Liberals and worked to organize young people across the province.
Williams says she was born in Jamaica and immigrated to Canada when she was eight so the Jamaican community is very important and her mother is a staunch community mobilizer.
She said growing up with her mother’s strong leadership she wanted to be active in the community.
The policy advisor was involved in the Jamaica diaspora organization and so attended biennial conferences where she interacted with officials in the island and when they came here.
She said there were people working at the community level but she saw a need for wanting to tap into the formal mechanism of government -- something she saw as a gap and wanted to bridge it.
Williams said she went on her own search to find a party that reflected her personal values and got involved in the Young Liberals organization.
She attended an event and saw that Gooch was the head of the Young Liberals and decided that she had to meet her to find out more about becoming involved.
Williams said when she was finishing her Master’s in public and international affairs she attended a Black History Month event at Queen’s Park and saw Michael Coteau, a government minister, who she asked about volunteering.
She said a job opportunity came up which she applied for but did not get, but she persisted with volunteering. Another opportunity came up in Minister Coteau’s office and she applied and got it. She was able to work with Velma Morgan – then a political staffer, now president of Operation Black Vote Canada – and other leaders.
Modeste said he worked with a non-profit and ‘fell into’ working inside the constituency office for Frances Lankin, MPP, New Democratic Party (NDP). He had the opportunity to oversee the tax clinics for seniors and to be involved in what he considers crisis management at the office.
“Most people don’t call the constituency office to say, hey, I’m having a good day. They call the constituency office because they don’t have power. They’re calling the constituency office about their social assistance that has not come in that month, or they’re having problems with the worker. There’s some kind of crisis that’s the reason why they’re reaching out to you.”
Modeste said for him politics was a way to make a difference in someone’s life.
Regarding challenges faced, Ford said money was one and not having the resources, like individuals to help knock on doors when she ran for the position of school board trustee.
When she started campaigning she didn’t own a car so had to borrow her cousin’s vehicle to get around.
She said another challenge was running as an independent against a millionaire and running against people that had a party backing them.
“I spoke to somebody the other day and I said running is not about winning, and for me it’s all about winning. You may want to run to bring awareness to something or bring attention to yourself. But to me if you’re bringing awareness to something who’s going to implement it. You need to get there so run to win.”
Gooch said she ran in student politics in university and then helped to run many campaigns.
“One of the difficult things that I recognized early and I think it’s important to point out is that there can be a lot of negativity in campaigns.
In high school and university people would ask her if “her skin is thick enough for this or can she handle the pain” that comes with campaigns.
“A huge challenge, depending on where your heart is in all of this, and my answer to it has very much been to try and build a family of really authentic relationships around you that you can check in on where there is abuse coming to try to figure out if there’s something you need to be changing to deal with that. Sometimes you need to let it roll off your back and we talk a lot about these campaigns but those people that are around you can also become your family and be such important parts of your life.”
Flegel told the young people in the room that: “It is possible to achieve the impossible, particularly if you’re surrounded or immersed within an ecosystem of support and nurturing which will uplift you in such a way that you will uplift others when you enter into the political space of opportunity.”
He said he was born in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti, as an orphan, and “yet in the space of around 27 years I found myself working in the highest public office in Canada as a speech writer, as an advisor.”
Flegel said he never did the research looking for opportunities but just found himself in circumstances which he soon learnt to see each as either a lesson or opportunity to move forward.
He noted that Haiti is the first independent country of Latin America and the first that liberated most of Latin America from the yoke of European colonialism.
Coming from that legacy and from forebears who defeated the three strongest empires of Europe at the time, Flegel said he is from a history of resistance, of struggle and transformation.
“That helped me overcome initial experiences of racism I had when I was a child.”
He said in his country of birth there was a coup d'état and so at the age of 13 and 14 he started to go to protests on the streets.
Flegel said that soon, because he was the only Anglophone, the media came to interview him about what was happening. He would appear on various television and radio stations. This allowed him to develop and hone his public speaking skills.
At the age of 13 he got to join a gospel choir, an adult gospel choir at the oldest black church in Quebec. Usually members would start at the age of 18, but for a variety of reasons he was allowed to join at the age of 13 which opened up a host of opportunities, like singing backup for Michael Bolton.
“It also got me an entry point into a strategic place within Quebec’s political ecosystem because every single political leader – whether provincial, federal or municipal – had to pass by that church to get votes. So there were some critical opportunities that were there which would come in handy, particularly later after I graduated from university.”
He created a black youth organization, which started locally and found itself at the United Nations in Geneva and elsewhere. “They provided me with a space for the organization to exist,” he said.
From there he was able to meet Cabinet ministers and get a job working for a minister and later was interviewed by Michaelle Jean who would become Canada’s first Black governor general. She later called him to join her team.
“This is all about looking at your surroundings. What are the critical opportunities, who are the critical people that are around you and how can you leverage that to move ahead,” he said.
Modeste said one of the things he realized is that sometimes in the search for mentors there might be none that looked like him but there were others that could contribute to his development.
Amofah underscored his point, noting that: “Your mentor don’t need to come specifically from your background. They don’t need to directly align with your work at this moment in time but they could be somebody that you admire, somebody that you look up to.”
Gough of Nova Scotia said she kind of fell into politics. When she was 16 she was working at a clothing store and the manager was a Liberal Party member and sought to convert everyone to her politics.
She (the manager) told Gough that there was provincial election going on and she should volunteer with the candidate in her riding.
The candidate just happened to be at her church one Sunday and she approached him about volunteering.
She volunteered in the provincial election and afterward got involved with the youth wing of the party.
“And then through people just knowing my name and knowing that I was involved in social media I worked for the provincial party. And then from there I worked federally,” said Gough.
Eventually, she became frustrated with the public relations aspect of her job and the fact that “there were so many comments and questions that weren’t being responded to when people were providing their perspectives on policies.”
As a result, she left the world of politics in April his year and started her own strategic communications company where she focuses on helping public leaders to “really listen to those voices and engage with the communities in a meaningful way.”
Campbell was born in Jamaican and came to Canada when she was five years old to live in Oshawa, Ontario.
She didn’t grow up among many black people but as she was doing so she struggled with a number of issues, some of them personal, such as family violence.
“I got involved at a school level and then community level which led me to national organizing when I was sixteen because I was trying to heal myself. I was trying to heal myself and in doing so I thought that it was really important to try to make the world better in the process of healing myself.”
When Campbell went to a national youth conference when she was 16, it was an escape for her.
“A teacher told me and I went because I got to be out of my house for one week and that was a big motivator.
She met some incredible young people and she started to realize that there was a mix – those who are “doing awesome in school and those are the people we often hold up but there was a bunch of young people who was just struggling to make it through and became activists because they were struggling to make it through.”
She has been working at City of Toronto for 13 years and does not describe herself as working in politics.
“I work in government, I work in the public service but I deal with political issues of communities every day,” she said.
She said she didn’t decide that she wanted a career in government or in politics.
Campbell went from activist spaces to activist spaces and by the time she was 19 she figured that she was doing things nationally so now it was time to do things at the United Nations.
“I met Peter a long time ago because we were two of the only small group of black kids and kids of colour who had the audacity to believe that we had a voice in these international forums. And those opportunities just grew from one thing to another. One of the threads that I’ve heard in a number of our stories is that doors started to open for us and we just had to be brave enough to walk through them.”
Campbell said it’s not that she ever had a ten-year plan; she just appreciated and saw the potential and opportunity to learn something new or try something new that then led to other things.
She said most of her teenage years and twenties was really about federal and international political spaces because it “was sexy, that’s what I understood, like many people, it really is where power is at.”
But when she was 26 she got offered a city contract to support some youth engagement work that Toronto was doing and she was leaving one opportunity and trying to figure out the next thing.
She didn’t think city government was particularly interesting but what she learned there was “this is the government closest to the people and many of the things that people on a daily basis struggle with gets attention in this space so it’s a powerful space.”
Her little contract turned into two years and thirteen years later she is still there.
“This is a positive and a really important space because I’m one of nine in an organization of 36,000 employees. I’m one of nine black people at senior level. There is a lot of room for us but we have to push,” she said.
Campbell said staff are retiring “left, right and centre,” and so one of the privileges she has had as she moves up the chain quickly there is to open the doors to hire other black people, people of colour, LGBT folks into this organization and then to see the ripple effect of their hiring “because we need more of us in here.”
For the last year, she has been developing the Anti-Black Racism Action Plan working with communities and with the mayor directly, and spending her time with the mayor, particularly, helping him understand the diversity of the Black community and the importance of doing this in partnership “out there in the open, not just here in the towers of City Hall.”
“There’s an ability inside government at the policy level to have a huge influence on the types of issues we take on, on the parameters on which council has the discussion, on the matters that are in front of them and the resources.”
Campbell told the youth to not underestimate the power inside bureaucracy.
Hall spoke about opportunity, persistence and resilience, and continuous improvement.
Hall noted that 54 per cent of Toronto is a visible minority or racialized, however by 2031, 40 per cent of the province will be racialized.
“Even a more powerful statistics I came across last week was that 48 per cent of the province by 2036 will be racialized,” said Hall who is from the Ontario Public Service, “probably the largest employer outside of the federal government.”
He said there are many opportunities in the sector, and “public services should represent the public that it serves.”
Hall mentioned the Ontario Internship Program which, he said, is a fantastic opportunity for black youth to get in and grow.
Regarding persistence and resilience, Hall told them that once they get their feet through the door there has to be continuous improvement to push themselves to the next level.
Flegel announced that the National Black Canadians Summit, a convergence of 400 people of African descent and stakeholders, will be held at the Toronto Reference Library from December 4 to 6. An impressive list of speakers from across Canada will be involved.
The Federation of Black Canadians, being coordinated by Justice Donald McLeod and others, will be launched during this gathering.
Marva Wisdom commented on the camaraderie that she saw at the meeting, while Morgan noted that Operation Black Vote Canada will be doing more of this kind of outreach to the Black community.
Operation Black Vote Canada is a multi-partisan, not-for-profit organization which aims to educate, motivate, promote and support Black Canadians to participate in Canada’s government (agencies, boards, commissions and civil service) and in the Canada’s political process at all levels.
It was formed the summer of 2004 and its activities include training, resources, workshops, mentoring and events.