Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Black High School Students Organize Conference to Combat Stereotypes

By Neil Armstrong

Tonika "Toni" Morgan and d'bi.young anitafrika at the second annual Black Brilliance Conference at Downsview Secondary School in Toronto on November 21, 2017.

Several black secondary school students from fifteen schools in the Toronto District School Board recently gathered at Downsview Secondary School in North York for the second annual Black Brilliance Conference.

The student-led conference is committed to shifting the negative perception people have of black youth through student advocacy, education and encouraging black youth to use their voices for change.

Approximately 150 students met on November 21 to share their experiences in student-run workshops that covered topics such as hair, micro-aggressions, police brutality, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, toxic masculinity, and housing. 


Housing: Yo what are your ends?
Do you want to understand why the feds are always circling your block? Does where you live impact your chances of getting to post-secondary? Understand the stats that reveal the strategic containment of black people.

Microaggressions (Racism): Why You Sneak Dissin’?
Are you tired of being sneak dissed? Find out how racism and microaggression connects and how to deal with the issue.

Toxic Masculinity: Poison Da Mandem
Are you tired of the man code? So much stress on da mandem, come free up.

Don't Touch My Hair: Are the gyals tired of people saying your hair is fake even though it's real? Are the boys tired of hearing their hair is too nappy? Do strangers feel they can touch and comment on your hair? Are people surprised to see that your hair can grow past your neck? Come and can comb out your problems.

Microaggressions: Yes I'm here early, yes I have 2 parents and No, I don't know how to braid hair. Put a stop to : the Sneak Dissing' and Come thru.

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: Why are your parents always on your case? Come learn how the effects of slavery can be passed down from generation to generation.

Police Brutality: Watch out for the OPPs
This workshop will talk about everything from racial profiling to intimidation and how to deal with the “jakes.” Find out about your rights and how to use them.

Carvela Lee, a member of the executive committee of the Black Brilliance conference.

Carvela Lee, 17, a Grade 12 student and a member of the conference’s executive committee, said this was an opportunity to bring some of her ideas to life.

The other executive members – all in Grade 12 – are Shon Williams,
Shenel Williams and Audrey Sanchez-Figueroa.

“I felt, like, by me joining the committee I could get my ideas out there and to make an impact in someone else’s life.”

She said they chose the topics based on what’s going on in their lives and how well they can relate to certain things.

“This year, mine is Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and what I’m doing in my workshop is basically focusing on the generational gap between parents and their children, and how that affects us. And how slavery played a role in our relationships and how we navigate the world.”

Lee said that at the end of the event she wants “everyone to be real with themselves because these issues are real.”

“People are just pretending that things aren’t happening so what I want from this is people to start acknowledging so that we can get better.”

Shon Williams, who facilitated the workshop entitled “Toxic Masculinity: Poison Among the Mandem,” said they discussed “difficult topics that highlighted the expectations around "manliness" of a black male and how their role is played out throughout our community.”

“Things got very intense when students were asked about how a man would be judged if they didn't act according to the expectations around being a "man.” We were able to expand by breaking down the elements of a stereotypical black man, and expressing our inner feelings in an intriguing mask exercise. We asked guys to write on the front of the mask what they show to the world, and on the back of the mask, what don't they let the world see. I could definitely tell that they were ready to let go and just take over the workshop, but that’s what made it the workshop to be at. It was so amazing to be around that atmosphere, it brought out a vibe that I couldn’t deny at all,” he said.

Tinuola Akinwande, an organizer of the first Black Brilliance conference held at Downsview Secondary School in 2016.

Tinuola Akinwande, 18, who organized the first Black Brilliance Conference in 2016 at the school and is now a student at Carleton University studying political science, said the conference is a response to a school-based trip to Harvard University organized by Tonika “Toni” Morgan. Forty-three students were on the trip.

“Basically, coming back from that trip I felt inspired. I felt empowered so I just thought what I felt was a once in a lifetime chance, especially, like, I felt so lucky and so grateful that I needed to share some of the experiences that I observed in Boston here.”

She said at Harvard the graduate students held workshops where they talked about things that applied to her as a black woman.

“So because of that, I’m just, like, we need this, because as I see in my school or in my community, too many people who are like me, too many people my age are just not motivated. They don’t know their purpose. They don’t know what they can do, despite their colour or their gender or their orientation or anything else.”

Akinwande saw Black Brilliance as being a platform for students, especially in the TDSB, for marginalized people to speak about their issues “especially in an education system that doesn’t really educate people upon other diasporas and histories.”

She said Downsview Secondary gave her a place to grow and a place to express herself and although Black Brilliance is student-led it could not happen without the help of the administrators and the adults involved, including Amita Handa, student equity program advisor at the TDSB.

Morgan, who was able to do a Master’s in Education at Harvard through crowd-funding in 2015, has graduated and just completed a fellowship there and is based in Boston. She flew into Toronto for the conference.

“It’s incredible, it’s humbling to watch it just play out in the way that it is because I think we often underestimate what our students have the potential to do. I think the only goal was to kind of show them a new world, not realizing that you’re actually a torchbearer. And by showing them this world, you’re handing the torch over to them,” said Morgan.

She said the students took that and they ran, and when she saw that she imagined how much more she should have done with them on that visit to Harvard.

“It’s changing me at my core because education is something I’ve always valued but I always felt like I’ve been denied for a number of reasons. I’ve always had to prove my worth to some teacher,” Morgan said, noting she had to do so on the day of the high school conference too.

Morgan took ten years to gain a Bachelor of Arts in equity and diversity studies at Ryerson University, which she attended while supporting herself and working in various jobs.

When she was accepted into Harvard, she turned to crowd-funding to help pay her tuition and living expenses. This resulted in donations amounting to $95,000.

The keynote speaker, d’bi.young anitafrika, a celebrated African-Jamaican dub poet, said she had to show up for young, brilliant black people.

 “The incredible thing about black brilliance and black excellence is, I feel that it is intrinsic to us. It takes black brilliance and black excellence to not only survive but to thrive internally, spiritually, and yes, we’re facing enormous challenges because of the historic scenarios that we have experienced as a people. For us to be where we are right now you can imagine the kind of internal resilience and perseverance and strength. We have to acknowledge that,” she said.

Morgan said the students came to Harvard in April 2016 for a conference about what it means to be black “with the age of Trump kind of looming over us as a possible outcome of the election.”

She said that was the grounding workshop, which she organized, where they got to talk about those kinds of things.

And just before that they were with students at the law school talking about these things. The law school students taught them things like the Socratic method and to ask their real questions.

“I remember one student said, ‘Tell us how you reconcile the fact that you are attending the oldest and probably most racist organization, one of the first racist organizations in America, as a black student. You’re going to graduate, that could very well mean it’s going to suggest that you embody the same values as the institution. How do you reconcile that as a black person?’”

Morgan said all the topics explored at Black Brilliance came up on that visit to Boston where the students discussed what it means “to be black and excellent and brilliant at the most prestigious university in the world, knowing at the same time that it was built on a legacy of injustice and oppression.”

Anitafrika said while growing up she was exposed to spaces where she was taught to critically think.

This was from being around the dub poets for whom critical thinking was an important part of discussions.

She was elated to see this opportunity for critical thinking by the high school students gathered at the conference.

Students from the following schools participated in the conference: Emery, CW Jeffreys, Westview, Northview, Lawrence Park, Runnymede, Humberside, Central Tech, North Albion, George Harvey, Marc Garneau, Oakwood, Richview, and Lakeshore.

[A shorter version of this story has been published in the NA Weekly Gleaner, Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2017.]

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