Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Operation Black Vote Canada Holds Black Youth Political Summit at City Hall

By Neil Armstrong

Standing, from left: Caspar Hall, Brittany Amofah, Denise Andrea Campbell, Tiffany Ford, Tiffany Gooch, Yanique Williams, Ariel Gough, Peter Flegel and Bobby Adore. Seated, from left are: Kevin Modeste, Velma Morgan, Marva Wisdom and Kyle Elliott at the Next Generaion Black Youth Political Summit held at Toronto City Hall on Oct. 28, 2017. Photo credit: Gwyn Chapman

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.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

'Blood Ticka Dan Watah' Hits the Right Chord About Family

By Neil Armstrong

The closing scene of 'Blood Ticka Dan Watah.'     Photo credit: Danae Peart

Love, honesty and forgiveness are important in healing tensions and disruptions in families.

This seems to the key message of Marcia Brown’s new play, “Blood Ticka Dan Watah,” which premiered in June in Toronto and is still on stages in various parts of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA).

It was in Brampton at Central Peel Secondary School on Oct. 22 and will be presented at Toronto Perth Seventh-Day Adventist Church on Oct. 29 and at Lighthouse Fellowship Assembly on Nov. 25, both in Toronto.

The Caribbean Association of Waterloo Region will present the play at Humanities Theatre (Hagey Hall) in Waterloo on Nov. 5. This is a scholarship fundraiser for the Congress of Black Women Waterloo Chapter and the Caribbean Association of Waterloo Region.

The storyline is: Dorothy (Andrea Smith) emigrated from Jamaica to Canada many years ago leaving her twins – a boy, Percy (Jermaine Cowie), and a girl, Percynella (Ashley Simms), now 17 years old – with her mother, Mada May (Marcia Brown). Dorothy starts a new family with her husband, Fred (Kevin Adams), and their children, 15-year-old twins Ajah (Rochelle Robinson) and Tayshan (Tyrell Previtt-Reid), and younger daughter, Tiffany (Allison Campbell). After 15 years or so, she files for her Jamaica-born children to come live with her family here. However, this was a secret she kept in her heart over all those years and did not disclose it to her husband until a few weeks before the children were to arrive. Her Canada-born children were given much less notice and so there is resentment and lots of tension in the family.

Compound all of this with the arrival of Mada May – Dorothy’s religious and outspoken mother who having raised Percy and Percynella for so many years decided she would not allow them to travel by themselves – so she accompanies them.

What a bangarang! The ‘culture clash’ is fast and furious.

An early scene from 'Blood Ticka Dan Watah.'    Photo credit: Danae Peart

Brown, who is adept at bringing real stories to the fore on stage, with much mirth but also an underpinning solid message has done it again in “Blood Ticka Dan Watah.”

She does so with a cast of new and young actors who get in character to portray the roles that are apt to what is unraveling in the family.

Mada May meets a new way of life: one in which her Canadian grandchildren are called kids, the family attends church once a month, she thinks the children (Tayshan and Ajah) are disrespectful to their parents, and she meets the reality of a daughter who has carved out a life for herself and seems to have strayed from the Godly principles she grew up with in Jamaica. Mada May, Percy and Percynella are accustomed to attending church every Sunday – a totally different way of life.

Fred, Tayshan and Ajah resent that Dorothy kept the fact that she had children in Jamaica a secret until recently. The twins concoct a plan to get their Jamaican siblings in trouble, with the ultimate aim to see them return to their homeland. It backfires and what unfolds in the mounting action in the play is a story of love, honesty, forgiveness, redemption and recovery.

There are some really funny moments – the school uniforms, experiencing hot water in the faucet, bucking as an act of defense, and more.

Mada May, the central character, is really the linchpin of what happens in the family. She is the one who rescues one of her grandsons when he makes a misstep that could have dire consequences. Her intervention results in the conversion of a bully-rescuer-turned-bully-himself played by Tarick Glancy.

Director, Douglas Prout, centres most of the actions of the family in the living room and viewers have to imagine what lies beyond the doors of the rooms of Tayshan and Ajah. 

Percynella, Percy, and Fred in 'Blood Ticka Dan Watah.'   Photo credit: Danae Peart

The space on stage is used wisely with actors moving through doors, around furniture, from the outside to the inside easily, interactions of the actors, and every action seems to have a natural flow, instead of being contrived.

The play could easily be summarized as good sense prevailing when a traditional matriarch visits and decides to knock sense into some wayward family members.

But it is more than that – it is about the strong bond of family, even when the challenges are many there is a path to resolution.

It is about confirming that “blood ticka dan watah.”

Check marciabrownproductions.com to see what next Marcia Brown who has been doing this for 17 years is up to!

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Heritage Singers' 40th Anniversary Celebration Evokes Memories

By Neil Armstrong

The Heritage Singers in "Reflections...A Walk Down Memory Lane" at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in Toronto. Photo credit: Eddie Grant

When Grace Carter-Henry Lyons, founder and musical director of Heritage Singers Canada promised that their 40th anniversary celebration would be exciting and uplifting she wasn’t joking.

The Heritage Singers dug deep into its repertoire to take patrons who attended the sold-out matinee, and later evening show at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on a journey of “Reflections…A Walk Down Memory Lane” – the theme of the production.

Known for their Caribbean folk songs and songs from Ghana and South Africa, the singers began the show with where the idea for a group started – inside a home.

“Heritage Singers began in 1977 when a group of friends who kept meeting periodically to sing, after our first Christmas Eve get-together in 1976, was asked to perform at the Harbourfront Centre. Before that we were meeting just to have fun and sing songs to get rid of the winter blues,” says Lyons in her welcome in the printed program.

“Reflections…A Walk Down Memory Lane” opened with that Christmas Eve scene with friends and then segues into a Jamaican folk song and then a conversation between Aunty (Sandra Whiting), a veteran storyteller, and young actor, Jimmy (Kaden Stephen), who wants to know more about his Jamaican roots.

Later in their conversation, Louise Bennett-Coverley (Miss Lou) is mentioned and Jimmy is so mesmerized by the story that Aunty tells him about her that he considers the celebrated folklorist, cultural historian, storyteller, poet and author, “Queen of Jamaica.”

The Heritage Singers included a tribute to the Jamaican cultural icon and also had the world premiere of a teaser of the upcoming full-length documentary, “Miss Lou Say So!,” created by Fabian Coverley and a creative team of partners. The film will be featured at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018.

Bennett-Coverley lived in Toronto for almost twenty years and was a collaborator and supporter of the work of the singers.

Joan Andrea Hutchinson            Photo credit: Eddie Grant
As narrator, Joan Andrea Hutchinson, a well-known Jamaican writer, storyteller and poet, infused the show with anecdotes and epigrams in her introductions to the segments. She was also a character in it – a “Maddah” (a ‘spiritualist’) whose counsel is sought by a grandmother whose grand-daughter is heading to Canada.

Hutchinson plays a very convincing role as “Maddah” dressed in red and white with  a wooden staff to boot.

“The consultation leads to Maddah extending an invitation to a Pukumina/Revival Meeting where the migrating relative can receive a blessing,” notes a synopsis of the scene.

The Heritage Singers performing a medley of folk songs recreating their first performance at the Harbourfront Centre in 1977. The group celebrated its 40th anniversary at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Oct. 21, 2017. Photo credit: Eddie Grant
The show involved a medley of Jamaica’s award winning festival songs, and the nostalgic mento music played on the authentic rhumba box -- a favorite among visitors to the island.

Lloyd Chung, a member of the Heritage Singers, sang “Song Bie” or (Bidding Goodbye) reflecting on his Hakka Chinese ancestry and the journey of his forebears to the Caribbean and Guyana in the mid-1800s. He also played the role of Maas Salah, the shopkeeper in one of the scenes.

Chung met his family in China for the first time on a visit there in 2008, which he describes as “a very intensely emotional event on both sides, which I will never forget.”

The group also performed the Taiwanese song, “Mei Hua,” – from their favourite tour to Taiwan -- accompanied by members of the Toronto Taiwanese Choir.

Showing their dexterity the Heritage Singers also sang to choreographed movements as they showcased some of their past pantomimes – Hallelujah Pepperpot, Zuzuwah, and Olde Tyme Country Wedding -- drama and various dance forms.

They included Kumina, a dance-ritual originated by the people of the Congo; and Quadrille, a European dance seen almost exclusively at festivals. It originated in France at the end of the 18th century, spreading across Europe and eventually to the colonies in the Caribbean.

The group’s 30 members are from various Caribbean countries and other countries such as Ghana and Pakistan. Founding member, Valerie Laylor, says she is still enjoying the group after 40 years.

Their repertoire includes secular, religious, and traditional folk songs in thoroughly engaging performances.

The singers are also accompanied by musicians playing instruments such as the keyboard, banjo, rhumba box, steel pan, guitars, and drums.

As ambassadors of culture, the Heritage Singers celebrated their fortieth in fine style showcasing a potpourri of songs, traditions, dances and colourful costumes as they preserve their folk culture.

Apart from Whiting, Stephens and Hutchinson, the other guest performers were: Clive Forrester, who played the minister at country wedding; Tony Pierre, musician;  Robert Owen, tenor; Tanisa Lisbeth Hernandez, who performed Miss Lou’s ‘Colonisation in Reverse’, and Hudson Forde, drummer.

Production team included Amah Harris, director; Douglas Prout, director; Fabian Coverley, technical consultant; Joan Pierre, stage manager; and Nadine Miller, props manager.

Heritage Singers Canada is a Toronto-based, non-profit, volunteer organization, dedicated to the development, promotion, and appreciation of Caribbean and African folk songs.

Members come from diverse cultural backgrounds, and the songs are sung in various languages—Jamaican dialect (usually called patois), English, Ghanaian, French, and Spanish.

Since 1977, the choir has introduced this aspect of cultural heritage to international folk festival audiences in Holland, Germany, Taiwan, Mexico, Venezuela, the United States, and Canada.

Play Explores Stories of Women Whose Men are Incarcerated

A Review
By Neil Armstrong

Virgilia Griffith and Shakura Dickson in "Other Side of the Game" at Aki Studio in Toronto. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz

“Other Side of the Game,” Amanda Parris’ debut as a playwright provides an insight into the survival of black women whose partners are incarcerated and they are the ones left to pick up the pieces.

Presented by Cahoots Theatre and Obsidian Theatre, it has its world premiere at the Aki Studio in Toronto until November 5.

The play is a “time-spanning work that tells the story of these silenced black women who organize communities, protect loved ones, battle institutions, and live each day by a ride-or-die philosophy.” 

According to Parris, the term “ride-or-die chick” became popular in the 1990s through rap music and referred to a woman who was down with the cause.  

A Hip Hop spin on the popular mythology of Bonnie and Clyde, the ride-or-die chick refers to a woman who has undying loyalty for her partner and is willing to stand by them through anything, even in the face of death, notes “The Ride or Die Project” for which Parris is a co-founder.

“For the purpose of this project, we are interested in exploring the idea of being ride-or-die as a phenomenon that has transcended time.  Our exploration refers to someone whose loyalty is not only to their intimate partners but also to their families, friends, communities, and even to political movements; recognizing that though the recipient may change, the patterns of self-effacement are consistently applied.”

The playwright interviewed women in Halifax and Toronto and the result is this play thatgives voice to black women who support their men, their families and communities, even in the face of dire consequences.”

Set in Toronto, straddling modern day and the 1970s black civil rights movement, the play is evocative and lyrical in its presentation of a population under siege.

Parris’ awareness of history and place is evident in the references to parts of the city where black people live and work – Driftwood, Falstaff, Scarborough, Randy’s, Third World Books and Crafts – and the backdrop with the CN Tower, tags and graffiti. 

In finding out about the rich history of black activism years of activism in Toronto and about women like Akua Benjamin, Makeda Silvera and Ayanna Black, Parris said she wanted to “put those women center stage.”

Her keen ear for the language of the Hip Hop generation and that of the older first generation Caribbean immigrant to this city which is evident in all of the characters, especially Shakura Dickson, who plays Shevon and Beverely, and Peter Bailey, as Elder and Winston.

The play opens with all the characters in a visiting room at a prison waiting, forever it seems, to talk to their incarcerated partners.

Four years ago, Parris sat in the waiting room of the Don Jail on a visit to an incarcerated friend. 

Her observation of the women around her also waiting inspired her to consider their stories.

Under the direction of Nigel Shawn Williams, the characters moves seamlessly from  their dual roles and storylines – Virgilia Griffith as Nicole/Akilah, Ryan Rosery as Devonte/Khalil, and Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Social Worker/Cop – and different locations.

Beyond organizing community protests and championing social justice publicly, the characters all grapple with personal challenges in their daily lives and become vulnerable beings.

“Amanda has given this company of artists an opportunity to look back and learn from the men and women who shaped Black activism in Toronto,” says Williams.

Parris was born in London, England, and is of Grenadian and Venezuelan ancestry. She was raised on the south side of Jane Street in Toronto. 

The host of CBC TV’s Exhibitionists and CBC Radio 2's Marvin's Room, Parris is the co-founder of the alternative education organization, Lost Lyrics, and founder of the critically acclaimed artistic collective, T-Dot Renaissance. 

In 2014, she joined Cahoots’ Hot House Creators Unit and was their 2016 Playwright-in-Residence.

Williams is a four-time Dora Mavor Moore Award-winner as both actor and director. His theatre credits include The Merchant of Venice for Bard on the Beach this past summer, five seasons at Stratford Festival, four seasons at Shaw Festival, as well as performances in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. 

He is also heavily involved in new play development and mentoring young and emerging artists through the difficult transition from training schools to professional life.

A meeting place between the urgent activism of the 1970s and today’s unapologetic Hip Hop generation, Other Side of the Game is a deft illumination of resilience and struggle amidst the simmering tensions in black and other marginalized communities, notes a media release.

The play is definitely worth seeing as it pays tribute to black women whose activism is recorded in archives like the “50 Years of Black Activism” project which is a part of the Akua Benjamin Legacy Project at Ryerson University.

It also speaks to the activism of today, reflecting on how the past informs the now. Important lessons abound.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Social Justice Activist Invested with Honorary Degree at York University Accepts with a Powerful Speech

By Neil Armstrong

Photo credit: York University. Angela Robertson delivers a moving speech after receiving an honorary doctorate, Doctor of Laws, from York University at its Fall Convocation on October 19, 2017.
York University has conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws degree on a well-known social justice activist, advocate for women's and low-income people's rights, and a York alumna.

Angela Robertson, executive director of Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, was celebrated for her achievements at the Fall Convocation of the university on October 19 in Toronto, Canada.

“Angela is a passionate advocate for people and communities facing marginalization, discrimination and poverty. Her advocacy which is focused on community support demonstrates the tremendous impact that a single individual can make,” said Rhonda Lenton, new president and vice-chancellor of the university, while extending her congratulations to Robertson for her commitment to equity and social justice – values she said that York holds dear.

She also received congratulations from the chancellor, Gregory Sorbara.

Robertson grew up with her great grandmother and grandmother in Industry Cove in Hanover, Jamaica and came to Canada to join her mother, a domestic worker.

“This afternoon, we honour Ms. Robertson, the type of fighter we yearn to have on our frontlines battling discrimination, poverty and marginalization. She’s a passionate feminist leader whose activism and career focus on community and social justice,” said Professor Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

She noted that Robertson is dedicated to championing the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and the disadvantaged.

“When these places were envisioned they did not have me and those who look like me in mind, and I’m here despite that restraint. And I say thank you, first to all who have toiled, being victorious, being made sick and those who have died making bread out of stone to keep me alive paving a way to make this possible,” said Robertson who in the 1990s worked as an editor of social issues manuscripts at Women's Educational Press.

She thanked those who never made it as they entered ‘the door of no return.’

The former executive director of Sistering – A Woman’s Place said she accepted the degree for her mother, Leita Campbell; her great grandmother, Muriel Harris; her grandmother, Violet Maud Harris, better known as Aunt Kitty; and “the community of women who nurtured me as a young feminist in the Toronto Black Women’s Feminist Collective and with the men in my life who work continually to undermine patriarchy.”

“It is important for me in these kinds of gatherings to locate myself as my own history informs my analysis and the impact I want to have on the spaces I occupy and negotiate. History -- which is not unique to me -- the history of my grandmother and my mother as the work that I do and the impact I strive to have is inextricably linked to their histories and the histories of other women across this city who catch the first bus and train to low-income wages to support their families.”

She said it is her relationship to this collective history that has shaped her commitment to social justice and striving always to create new ways of being in the world.

Robertson said her great grandmother’s husband died leaving her with six children to support. Her grandmother, Aunt Kitty, the second child, went to work at 13 years old to help support the family never having the opportunity to attend school.

“She worked in cane fields, she worked cleaning houses, cooking and cleaning classrooms in schools like this. In her work life, she, literally and figuratively, fought to not have her rights trampled upon. I grew up knowing that I want to have half the fighting spirit she had and a clear sense of entitlement to fairness and justice to those around me.”

Her mother, Leita, left Jamaica when Robertson was five, joining hundreds of Caribbean women who were enrolled in what was then called the Caribbean Domestic Workers Scheme, now called the Live-in Caregiver Program, to work as domestics in Toronto and across Canada.

“When I joined my mother I heard her stories of struggle against exploitative employers who, then and today, continue to treat live-in caregivers as their personal slaves.”

Robertson said her mother had the insight to apply for landed status near the end of her contract behind her employer’s back.

She was successful but not before taken to small claims court by her employer for the price of the plane fare and medical bills that paid for her travel to Toronto, and at the same time the cost of steak – “meat, steak he claimed she ate without his authorization.”

Campbell was able to repay the money for the plane fare and the steak.

“In witnessing these struggles I made a promise to myself for the line of mothers and grandmothers that I would sign myself up wherever possible to fight and change those things that devalue black women’s lives, women’s lives, low-income people and working people’s lives that produce poverty and shame, rage and illness, hurt and silence, inequality and injustice.”

Robertson said she did not attend previous convocations for her undergraduate and graduate degrees at York because the university taught her to rebel against systems and institutions.

She said this denied her mother the opportunity to celebrate so she thanked Professor Leslie Sanders and supporters for nominating her for the honorary degree “so I could return to this place to right that wrong.”

“I regret that my grandmother, Aunt Kitty, is not here to witness this moment as I know that this honorary degree of law for her would mean that she could be fiercer, taking actions against injustice because now in her analysis she would tell the oppressors that she had a granddaughter with a law degree that could defend her. But I would have to remind her that it really isn’t that kind of degree,” she said, eliciting some laughter from the audience.

Angela Robertson being presented to Fall Convocation as the candidate to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

Addressing the over five hundred graduands, Robertson said President Lenton’s remarks focused on the anchoring principles that will guide her tenure at York: excellence, access, connectedness and impact.

“What is the impact you want to have as you use these degrees that you have just gotten from this institution? You get these degrees at the time of tremendous pressure in the world which manifest itself in the rise and the unmasking of the Right, giving way to Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, the use of the threat of national security by the governments as rationalization and justification for the limitation of rights and large-scale military intervention to so-called ‘keep us and this world safe.’ And to return us to some romanticized notion of the past when we were all safer and stable. Many of us in this room have lived with instability and insecurity and that is not a romantic notion – this past for us.”

Robertson said there has also been a doubling down of patriarchy to “keep and put women in our place which is not in the public sphere of leadership and we have seen our leaders talking about grabbing us in our wherewithal and groping us all about.”

“We leave armed, you leave armed with your degree at a time when your actions and/or your inactions will have an impact because there is no neutrality in not interrupting injustice and inequality. You get these degrees when everything around you would suggest that your work and you work for your individual needs to get your piece of the proverbial pie, and/or to get rich or die trying.  I compel you to use your knowledge to push against that sentiment as the stakes are too high for all of us if we fail.

“In the words of poet Audre Lorde, ‘If we fail, women’s blood will congeal on a dead planet.’ Hence with your knowledge and the privilege of this degree and these degrees we must band together to take action – big and small – that will have an impact of creating more equity and justice. It is in your interest to fight for a higher minimum wage, it is in your interest to fight for the organization of work that reduces precarious working conditions. It is in your interest to fight for a social assistance system that enables people to move out of poverty. It is in your interest to support unions and unionization because we know there is a unionization advantage for racialized and women workers. It is in your interest to push and demand for investment in publicly funded educational system -- this is what it can produce. It is in our collective interest to fight against cutting or limiting investment in social programs as a way to reduce taxes on the middle class. It is in our collective interest to have equitable immigration and economic trading policies because the lower prices of the clothes we wear are directly linked to the poor working conditions and low pay received by workers in the global south.

“Violence against women and girls is our interest because it says something terrible about the valuing of Indigenous women’s lives when we have here in this country over 800 recorded murdered and missing Indigenous women. This is the population of a small town in Ontario. This warrants more than government’s apology; it requires our collective indignation and action. The issue of male violence against women and girls is men’s concern because it diminishes your humanity.”

Robertson thanked the educators present who “inspired us, who gave me access to the tools and language to make a case against inequality and for just social change.

“And you have now given me the privilege of this honorary degree to add to my tool kit for just social change.”

Speaking of the impact of educators, Robertson named a few such as Professor Leslie Sanders “who in that summer’s black writers course gave us that very long reading list. But among that list was the book, The Black Poets. Leslie, you inspired me to see the value of poetry’s ability to speak succinctly and from the soul about my reality, and how poets can paint with words the just world we fight for but cannot see,” she said, choking up resulting in a spontaneous applause of support.

She named other professors who introduced her to topics and ideas such as: bell hooks, women and work, the dangers of Caribbean nationalism, liberation theology, race and migration, the role of Caribbean literature in nation building, racism in the police services, an interrogation of Frantz Fanon, Marx and critique of liberal democracy, and Foucault.

She also thanked administration staff – one in particular who helped her and other students “to navigate the morass of administration form filling.”

“Thanks for feeding activism and creating space for critical engagement and strident disagreements. You too will have your own names and I encourage you to affirm those who have had an impact in giving you tools to shape the world you want to live in and leave behind.

“The women and men who live with indignities of poverty and homelessness with whom I’ve worked and my activism in the black women’s and LGBTQ communities have taught me that movements, work and organization with a social purpose and actions of resistance for equity require only the commitment of a few who can risk saying no. And the faith to discard notions of all requirements about being practical as practicality can limit actions for just change. In justice-seeking work practicality often means compromising and muting our public dissent and disagreements with the status quo for fear of what might lose.

“My recommendation is that every day we strive and we need to strive to live our values with purpose and urgency no matter how impractical. Every day we need to try and make visible our acts of resistance against oppression and build alliances with communities facing because our privilege come at their expense. We need to be mindful not to separate service provision work from social justice change work as doing so means committing ourselves to the institutions of programs for poverty, homelessness and violence and not changing the social conditions which create and give rise to those issues.

“I believe that no act of interrupting oppression is ever wasted. They serve as inspiration to others. They affirm the struggle of others, near and far, and they affirm the moral imperative that it is our individual and collective responsibility to work for what is just and right.

“Thank you to the communities of women, men and trans folks to whom I am committed and who have worked with me as an ally and to whom I am in alliance. They have survived abuse, they have lived with immeasurable loss, have suffered the indignities of poverty, the stigma of mental illness and substance use, the brutality of racism and homelessness and the immense loneliness they all bring. They have taught me that some of what we all need the most – compassion, dignity and recognition of each other’s humanity – have been hardest to find.

“Thank you to the colleagues and allies I work with as it is the strength of our collective efforts that will make and sustain just change.

“So, I accept this award with a plea that you see the impact of inequality, that this impact looks like poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, colonization, to name a few. And, that you claim your ability to have meaningful impact by taking individual and collective actions to interrupt inequality.

“Finally, I believe that to deliver on this we must rely on ourselves and on each other to be allies in our struggles. Your struggle for justice must be my struggle for justice because there is no justice in achieving access and equity for some while leaving inequality in the path of others. We may be tired. The leaders we have at the moment in the world make the task daunting but we must be relentless and constantly vigilant.”
She concluded her Convocation address with an excerpt of “Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater,” a poem by Dionne Brand in which the poet looks at the photograph of Mammy Prater, an ex-slave who was 115 years old when her photograph was taken.

She dedicated it to “all those who have gone before us who have been waiting to see us arrive safely” and received a thunderous applause at the end of her speech.

Robertson served as an advisor to the Minister Responsible for Women's Issues, was a manager at Homes First Society and the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, and was a director at Women's College Hospital.

She been recognized with a number of awards including: the Urban Alliance on Race Relations Award, the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for Social Change, the Rubena Willis Women of Distinction Award for work on violence against women, the Women's Post Top 20 Women of 2010 Award, and the Fred Victor Centre Mary Sheffield Award for work addressing poverty and homelessness in the City of Toronto.

The new honorary Doctor of Laws recipient has also been recognized by Toronto's NOW Magazine as one of the top 10 community activists on social justice issues and one of six Toronto LGBTQ heroes worth celebrating.