Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Ujamaa Career Conference to Focus on Nurturing Black Excellence

By Neil Armstrong

Photo contributed       Karen Lowhar, Student Success Transitions Counsellor, Toronto District School Board

Black students in grades 7 to 12 in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) will have an opportunity in May to explore their job interests at the Africentric Alternative Ujamaa Career Conference under the theme “Nurturing Black Excellence.”

Karen Lowhar, a student success transitions counsellor with the TDSB, conceptualized the conference after volunteering at the Toronto Black Youth Conference in January this year.

That conference, which was a youth-led initiative created by black youth for black youth and held at the Toronto Reference Library, also had a theme of black excellence

Lowhar said she approached Luther Brown, principal of the Africentric Alternative School, with the idea and he endorsed it.

She then secured funding from the associate director, got her team together and started planning.

“I view this work as part of student success. The data is showing that black youth are not doing well within our system. And, I believe that they need to see people who look like them accomplishing goals so that they can actualize possibilities for themselves. Student success is what I am passionate about, especially for underserved students. Successful outcomes are for all students, not some students,” she said.

On May 11, 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. the Africentric Alternative School at 1430 Sheppard Avenue West in Toronto will host the conference in recognition of the school’s 10th anniversary.

“We came up with the name for the conference because ‘Ujamaa’ means collective economics. Creating career pathways for black youth is how we are going to move our community forward,” said Lowhar.

She said they chose to celebrate the school’s anniversary with a career conference because they “felt that it would have the most impact in supporting black students and build community partnerships for student success, which symbolizes what Africentric Alternative is all about -- student success.”

 The goals of the conference are to provide students the opportunity to explore and learn about a variety of careers that empower them to make informed choices about their future pathways, and to provide students with access to network with professionals from the Black community in a variety of fields, including: engineers, dentists, nurses, social workers, directors, skilled trades, computer programmers, electricians, entrepreneurs, and more.

It also aims to fulfill the mandate of TDSB’s Multi-year Strategic Plan on providing “equity of access to learning opportunities for all students,” to allow students to learn about diverse careers from mentors, and to provide information to parents and caregivers on how they can partner to support their children’s education journey.

The event will also allow students to understand the possibilities that are available to them “by seeing and interacting with people that are from similar racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, and who represent a variety of job and career fields; and stimulate and enhance community relationships and partnerships.”

Overall, the conference provides “an opportunity for mentors and the community to come together to network and receive resources to support their investigation of diverse career pathways.”

The target audience includes intermediate and secondary students, and their parents and caregivers.

Check out the website and register at: bit.ly/TDSBUjamaa

If you have any questions, please contact: TDSBUjamaa@gmail.com

On Friday, June 21, starting at 6:00 p.m., the Africentric Alternative School will hold its 10th Anniversary School Gala Fundraising Dinner and Awards Ceremony under the theme “Our Journey” at the Jamaican Canadian Association, 995 Arrow Road in Toronto.

Friday, 12 April 2019

ANGÉLIQUE scores as a play of bold resistance

A Review
By Neil Armstrong

Photo credit: Andrew Alexander       Jenny Brizard and Omari Newton in ANGÉLIQUE at The Factory Theatre in Toronto until April 21

Award-winning Canadian playwright Lorena Gale’s play, ANGÉLIQUE, is a sharp reminder that slavery existed in Canada but also opens a window into the relations between those with power and those who are dispossessed.
It also showcases a potent example of resistance to enslavement and the idea that one can win one’s freedom from oppression even in death.
 Directed by Mike Payette and running at the Factory Theatre until April 21, it is presented by Factory and Obsidian Theatre as the Toronto premiere of co-production of A Black Theatre Workshop and Tableau D’Hôte Theatre.
In 1734, Marie-Joseph Angélique, an enslaved Black woman known for her outspoken disdain towards servitude and her masters, set fire to Montréal, completely destroying a hospital and dozens of houses including her owner’s residence...or so the story goes. Despite there being very little evidence against her, Angélique was convicted, tortured and publically hanged for her “actions.”
Informed by historical transcripts from the infamous trial and set against the backdrop of Nouvelle- France, Lorena Gale’s award-winning musical play investigates Angélique’s life in the years leading up to the fire, seamlessly weaving between Canada’s oft-denied history of slavery to the timelessness of systemic racism in contemporary culture.
Under Payette’s direction, the action moves from one scene to another on a minimalist stage where the shifting of a platform determines if it is indoor, outdoor, escape and freedom or servitude.
Arriving in Toronto following an engagement at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the cast features Jenny Brizard as Angélique, Chip Chuipka as Ignace, Karl Graboshas as François, Olivier Lamarche as Claude, Omari Newton as César, PJ Prudat as Manon, France Rolland as Thérèse, accompanied on stage by a live score performed by the SIXTRUM Percussion Ensemble.
Brizard fully embodies the character of Angélique who everything on stage revolves around. It is her disdain of slavery and of her owner and her agency to love who she wants to and to resist which propels the actions in the play.
The play also seamlessly moves from the past to the present as we see Brizard being tried and changing into modern-day prison garb. It is fitting that a dance of resistance but also of victory of one’s spirit is included in the powerful storytelling.
This reminds one as Payette puts it in his director’s notes that: “Lorena Gale’s proposal in reimaging and embracing the legacy of Angélique is to place her and the story in a world where now is then, then is now. Through the backdrop of 18th Century, Nouvelle-France, she asks us to recognize the cyclical and systemic nature of the oppression inflicted on people stripped of their power – those who are discarded, silenced, and ultimately tortured for their otherness.”
The actors are very strong in their characterizations and the lighting, set and costume and live score make for a thrilling production.
Born in Montreal, Gale was also an actress, director and writer who worked extensively across Canada.
In 1998, ANGÉLIQUE, which was her first play, won the du Maurier National Playwriting Competition and was nominated for Outstanding New Play at Calgary’s Betty Mitchell Awards. In 1999, it was published by Playwrights Canada Press and received an off- Broadway production. She passed away in 2009.
Payette is a Montréal-based actor and director who is the co-founder and former artistic director of Tableau D’Hôte Theatre, former assistant artistic director of Black Theatre Workshop, and current artistic director of Geordie Theatre.

Peel School Board Approves Recruitment of Black and Indigenous Teachers

By Neil Armstrong

Photo credit: DSiFunPhotos.com       Kathy McDonald, Peel District School Board Trustee

Trustees of the Peel District School Board (PDSB) have approved a motion to embark on a targeted recruitment initiative to hire Black and Indigenous teachers.

The Board says this will further support the work of We Rise Together - the action plan to identify, understand, minimize and eliminate the marginalization experienced by Black students, and the Indigenous Education Action Plan - the action plan to identify, understand, minimize and eliminate the marginalization experienced by Indigenous students.

Championed by Jamaican-Canadian Kathy McDonald, school trustee for Wards 3 and 4, the motion states that: 

“Whereas, based on several research reports and studies conducted, the Peel District School Board created We Rise Together, the action plan to identify, understand, minimize and eliminate the marginalization experienced by Black male students in the Peel School Board, and the Indigenous Education Action Plan to identify, understand, minimize and eliminate the marginalization experienced by Indigenous students in the Peel School Board,

“Whereas, the intentional hiring of Black and Indigenous teachers who are equipped to create inclusive teaching and learning environments that promote the intellectual engagement of Black and Indigenous students and who reflect their narratives, interests, strengths and cultural perspectives, will contribute to a learning environment that is authentic and meaningful to all students:

“Be it resolved, that the Peel District School Board embark on a targeted recruitment initiative to hire Black and Indigenous teachers.”

Presenting the motion at the PDSB meeting on March 25, McDonald, who was first elected as trustee for Wards 3 and 4 in 2014 and was re-elected in 2018, said there were countless studies, including research from the Board, “that have scientifically proven that having black teachers, even one black teacher, can make a difference in a child going to college.”

She referenced several studies to buttress her argument noting that the presence of black teachers has a role modeling effect and such teachers have a high expectation of their black students.

McDonald also alluded to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for action that relates directly to education – to create appropriate curriculum, and to provide Indigenous teaching methods in the curriculum.

She emphasized that Black and Indigenous students are not graduating at the rate of their peers and that seeing themselves reflected in the classroom is important for student success.

“This is about doing what’s right for our vulnerable students,” McDonald said.

During the debate, trustee Nokha Dakroub supported the motion noting that the conversation has been going on for a long while and the HR committee helped to fine-tune the motion to make it something they could defend, if needed.

Trustee Will Davies said he loved where the motion is going but he “has many South Asian and Oriental people in his ward” and would like them represented as well in the proposal to address their underrepresentation in the staff-studio ratio.

David Green, also a Jamaican and trustee, said they did their homework and there have been many reports and research demonstrating the need for them to take action “to address the inequity that is happening within our community when it comes towards our marginalized, especially our marginalized black male students.”

He said as the longest-serving trustee at the table various other communities have come to the Board and quick actions were taken to help those groups so he wants the trustees to listen to the voice of the students, community and parents who have said they need help.

Brad MacDonald, another trustee, said the motion only talks about two groups and he finds it very difficult to support the motion because it does not include all the groups who want their face reflected in the staff.

John Marchant said young black men are “treated horribly by the educational system in this country, their graduation rates are remarkably lower than any other group within the population and that they are suspended and expelled at a much greater rate than any other group in this population, they have police called on them into schools for behaviours that other students are apologized to for.” 

He said Indigenous youth are killing themselves in record numbers in Canada. Marchant said he has no problem supporting a motion for these two specific groups that are marginalized and disenfranchised within the community. 

Robert Crocker supported it but said he was concerned about where the motion might go because he was not convinced that the “depth and breadth of consultation” that should have taken place happened. 

Susan Benjamin said she believes in being proactive and bringing about positive change so she would support the motion as it will result in “helping our young Black and Indigenous students to be more successful.”

Balbir Sohi was supportive of it because it helps these marginalized students while Laura Oris-Naidenova, student trustee, said she was wholly in support of any motion that would allow students to see themselves reflected in their own community.  

Carrie Andrews agreed that the motion was well-intentioned, however, said there are other voices in the very diverse Peel and she thinks the motion should include all marginalized students.

In closing the debate before the vote was taken, McDonald said, “This motion seeks to serve and address the marginalization of our students. All Peel students are not marginalized. I’m addressing the students at the bottom of the totem pole. This is not about addressing equitable hiring, it’s about intentional hiring to address the fact that Black and Indigenous students are doing far worse than their peers.”

She noted that, “South Asian students, Oriental students are not failing and not graduating at 40 per cent dropout rates -- they don’t have that.”

McDonald also said they were not being suspended for 20 days for using the F-word, like Black students have been.

“We have to look at the most vulnerable students in our system – they are Black and Indigenous,” she said urging her colleagues to remember that “equality is not equity.”

The We Rise Together initiative to support marginalized black male students was created as a result of her advocacy.

[This story has been published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, April 11-17, 2019.]

Saturday, 6 April 2019

City of Toronto Recognizes the UN Decade for People of African Descent

By Neil Armstrong

Photo credit: City of Toronto   Mayor John Tory presents two proclamations regarding the UN Decade for People of African Descent, 2015-2024, and March 25 - International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade to Aina-Nia Ayo'dele Grant, manager of the City of Toronto - Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit at City Hall on March 25, 2019

The City of Toronto has formally recognized the United Nations' Decade for People of African Descent, 2015-2024, and reaffirmed its commitment to its Confronting Anti-Black Racism Plan.

Aina-Nia Ayo’dele Grant, manager of the city’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit, said in their few months working at the City of Toronto they quickly realized that the city had not yet proclaimed its commitment to the International Decade for People of African Descent.

“While the Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism certainly addresses the themes in the Decade it does not replace the City’s acknowledgement,” she said, noting that although the acknowledgement was a few months ago they wanted to do it on March 25 -- International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

“It’s really important that we don’t forget why we came here and why we are continuing to do this work.”

She said the day was also chosen to acknowledge those who have been tirelessly working for justice, recognition and development.

Over 1000 Black Torontonians worked with Grant and Denise Andrea Campbell, director of social policy analysis and research, to bring the Action Plan to fruition.

Grant also recognized the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) for partnering with the city for the first phase of this initiative – a public campaign aimed to provoke conversation about anti-Black racism in Toronto.

She also thanked community conversation facilitators that worked with her team over two-and-a-half months to have conversations with over 1000 Black Torontonians.

“It’s because of you and the leadership of the city, the leadership of council, Mayor John Tory, because of the leadership that we had at that time that we now have an Anti-Black racism Unit at the city that is enhancing collective abilities to identify and remove systemic barriers experienced by black employees in the city.”

The unit is also working with city staff and leaders to strengthen the city’s abilities and activities as public servants to make services, spaces and policies fully inclusive and accessible to Black Torontonians.

Grant noted that the unit is strongly supported by its Partnership & Accountability Circle (PAC).

“I wanted to use this moment to be a moment of thanksgiving because I don’t want us to miss that we are not here alone, that we’re here because of Black people’s power. And I want to say that we are already seeing the impact of our work. Tonight is an example of one. We’re seeing that people are asking us, city staff, city leaders are asking us to look at their policies so they can make sure there is an anti-Black racism analysis in their policies.”

She said they are also being asked to help divisions with service planning and training, and they continue to be consulted by governments across North America.

Also involved were subject matter experts who worked with city staff to create the 5-year work plan, researchers, graphic designers, photographers and caterers, Black and Indigenous elders, and others.

Grant also thanked Jean Augustine, Mitzie Hunter, Ontario Black History Society, Black Action Defense Committee for their work and Black Lives Matter for their ignition and bringing attention to anti-Black racism in March 2016.

Mayor John Tory said the very strong representation of the senior ranks of the public service of the City at the event was an indication of how important the work of the anti-Black racism team is to the City.

He said the 5-year Action Plan was done on purpose so there would be “five years of work to do step by step by step that we will know exactly what we’re doing going forward, so that we also could be accountable to you and to, I think, a very unique mechanism we’ve set up here where we have an accountability circle I think it’s called where some leaders from the community come together and hold us to account for what we have done or not done.”

Mayor Tory presented two proclamations to Grant: one in recognition of the International Decade for People of African Descent, and the other recognizing International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Giuliana Carbone, deputy city manager, said it was important to recognize the significance of March 25 to remember and honour the 15 million men, women and children that were victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

She said it was incumbent on everyone to understand the present and real dangers, the impacts of racism, discrimination and prejudice that unfortunately still exist in the world today.

“For the city, I think it’s important for us to reflect on how far we’ve come but even more important to reflect on how far we have yet to go.”

Photo credit: City of Toronto   George Elliott Clarke, 4th Poet Laureate of Toronto and 7th Parliamentary/Canadian Poet Laureate, presenting the keynote address at City Hall

George Elliott Clarke, the 4th Poet Laureate of Toronto and the 7th Parliamentary/Canadian Poet Laureate, author, playwright and academic, was the keynote speaker.

He opened his presentation by recognizing the legacy of Black leaders such as William Peyton Hubbard, Dudley Laws, Charles Roach and Austin Clarke.

He said Austin Clarke’s first novel was entitled “Survivors of the Crossing” published in 1964 and he suggested that, “today in remembering the victims of slavery and of the transatlantic slave trade we’re talking about also the survivors of the crossing.”

Clarke said it also reminds him of the great poet, Derek Walcott, Nobel Laureate in his book, Omeros, who wrote this line – “But they crossed, they survived. There is the epical splendour.”

He said there is a great need for everyone to recognize the historic, transcendent contributions of people of African descent and of Africa itself to the development of modernity, to the development of the Industrial Revolution, to the great leap forward of all of humanity based on extraction, the forced labour of our ancestors that built up the riches and the wealth of the northern half of the globe. Over 400 years of naked blunt oppression.”

He said the UN declared 1990-2000 the International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism.

“We still want it to be eradicated, we’d like to eradicate colonialism towards Indigenous People. We’re only just beginning on that road. I want to suggest right now that if we really want to take steps, get rid of colonialism within Canada itself we need to reopen the Constitution and make Article 1 of the Constitution a recognition of the fundamental indigeneity of this country and that all of the laws and all of policies enacted must be interpreted in light of the fundamental indigeneity of this country and no excuses.”

Clarke said the province proclaimed the Decade for People of African Descent in 2017 but there were no events, funding commitments or actions that were put in place.

“Words are empty, often, too often empty; words are especially empty if there is no money attached and when there is no policy to direct the expenditure of those monies on behalf of the citizenry.”

He noted that the federal government recognized the Decade on January 30, 2018 but no funding commitments were announced until the most recent federal budget on March 19. It announced $25 million over five years to support projects that provide support and fund projects to help Black Canadian communities thrive in recognition of the Decade

Held inside the Members’ Lounge at Toronto City Hall, the event entitled "Blackness & Belonging: Towards Justice, Recognition, and Development" featured live performances, a visual art exhibition and a Pan African ceremony.

There were a land acknowledgement by Mo Shuriye, a libation ceremony by siphon kwaku, and a performance entitled “Daughters of the Middle Passage” by Natasha Eck and Mosa McNeilly.

Photo credit: City of Toronto    Dancers Natasha Eck and Mosa McNeilly performing in Daughters of the Middle Passage at "Blackness & Belonging: Towards Justice, Recognition, and Development" recognizing the International Decade for People of African Descent at City Hall in Toronto on March 25, 2019

“In proclaiming this Decade, the City joins the global community in recognizing that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected. The Toronto Confronting Anti-Black Racism Plan demonstrates the City’s commitment to the Decade’s themes of recognition, justice and development for People of African descent,” notes the Call of Action which was presented by Grant and Anthony Morgan, community development officer at the CABR Unit.

The Call of Action continues: “We ask that YOU: 1.) Visit the IDPAD website and the CABR website to learn more, 2.) Read the Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism and the United Nation’s program of activities for the IDPAD, and 3.) Pledge to take action and share on social media platforms with #IDPADPledge and with the CABR team (@CABR_TORONTO).”

To begin confronting anti-Black racism in Toronto, City Council adopted on December 5, 2017 the Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism. This is the result of a collaborative effort between the City and Torontonians of African descent.

The Action Plan includes 22 recommendations and 80 actions the City pledges to take to address anti-Black racism.

Photo credit: City of Toronto     Dancers Natasha Eck & Mosa McNeilly performing Daughters of the Middle Passage

Dr. Wesley Crichlow, a member of the Anti-Black Racism Partnership & Accountability Circle which guides and supports the full implementation of the Action Plan, presented the closing remarks.

The ceremony ended with the singing of the South African national anthem “Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" led by Mosa McNeilly, Natasha Eck and Quammie Williams.

[An edited version of this story has been published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, April 4-10, 2019.]