In honour of Black History Month, UTM’s Women’s Centre hosted Black is the New Black in the Student Centre last Thursday. The event featured influential people of colour who shared their stories of success and hardship and offered advice for their peers in the black community.
The evening was kicked off with a spoken word piece before the panellists were introduced. Among the panellists were Rose Streete, Jade Nixon, Raymond Kingu Jr., Selvin Lennon, and Sandra Danial.
Streete, after moving from a small town near Ottawa to Toronto, “found her wings here in the GTA”. She dropped out of university after having her second child, but resumed her education in college two years ago. She’s currently running for the position of Mississauga city councillor in Ward 8 and is the 2013 YMCA Peace Medallion winner for her work on anti-violence initiatives. “I don’t preach anti-violence, I preach anti-conflict because before violence, there’s conflict,” Streete said. “And when we address that, we’re miles ahead.”
Selvin Lennon moved from Jamaica to Ottawa in 1989 and lived there for eight years before coming to Toronto. “I went to school in a bad neighbourhood,” Lennon said. “I grew up in Rexdale, so I’ve seen the worst of the worst and, fortunately enough for me, I had a praying mother and never became a product of my environment.” He studied psychology, graduated, and was awarded a basketball scholarship, with which he went on to win a national title in 2008. Six months later, he played professional basketball in Germany, then came home to start his organization.
“We provide opportunities, the same opportunities that I didn’t get growing up,” Lennon said. “I think one of the biggest problems in the black community is lack of knowledge. So we try to foster that in our young people today.”
Danial, who studied philosophy, political science, and gender studies, worked for the Women’s Centre on campus as the social outreach coordinator. “I loved that position because it gave me the chance to do exactly what I love and work with people in the community and to have a voice on campus,” she said. Danial also worked with Amnesty International and an international human rights organization at Ryerson. “Human rights has always been a passion of mine,” she said. “That extends to women’s rights, human rights, black rights—everything. So I stand for it all.”
Danial recently applied to law school. Her reason for applying, she says, was that she saw some of her friends go to jail and serve unjust sentences because they were black. “I look forward to getting my law degree so I can fight for people who have been marginalized and people who have been trivialized and people who have had their voices taken away from them,” she said.
Jade Nixon, who majors in English and sociology at UTM, was born in Mississauga, then a predominantly white area. “I felt excluded in my educational journey,” Nixon said. “In Grade 11, my average was 49.5%, and I wanted to prove myself. The following year, I raised my average up to an 88. Since then, I’ve been striving towards academic excellence and helping my community.” Having been told she wouldn’t make it to university, Nixon started the UTM initiative Project Code Noir, which seeks to empower black students to pursue postsecondary education.
Kingu Jr. comes from a difficult environment. At a young age, he wanted to be his own boss, start his own business, and work for himself. Now, at 26, he owns a clothing company and a health and fitness company. “I didn’t get to finish school, so when I hear all this, I really commend those who are in university and secondary education to finish and still stick with it,” Kingu Jr. said. “It shows a lot of initiative and discipline.”
Kingu Jr. didn’t always see eye-to-eye with his father, and after a fight, he was thrown out of the house. “It was between living and going to school,” he said. “I had to survive. I had to make a choice. It was either that I stayed in school or I had to go work.” Kingu Jr. was forced to drop out of college two years in and join the workforce.
His bilingualism meant he easily found work with large corporations. “It didn’t give me an advantage [over] those who were in school, but it helped me to understand how the real life workforce was,” he said. “And that’s when I went ahead and started my own business and started working and started getting into investments.”
After the speakers’ introductions, questions were asked of the panel in general. The first question asked was, “How do you feel your ethnicity has helped you in achieving your goals or realizing your potential?”
Streete answered first. “I was the black girl with no hair. I’m still the black girl with no hair—this is a wig,” she laughs. “Not a problem—I had brains. I was what they thought was a child prodigy. I skipped two grades, and the thing about my ethnicity—that was my tool—was that because I was a smart girl, I made sure the door was open for everyone else behind me. I was the underdog. I was so unlikely to succeed in their eyes, not realizing what they were up against.”
“For me, my ethnicity, coming from Jamaica, there wasn’t much for young black kids,” Lennon said. “One thing I think furthered me in where I wanted to get to was, as young black kids, you don’t give up on anything. It’s that stick-to-it attitude that you always have and hold dear.
“Being in an environment where you’re not supposed to succeed or you’re not supposed to get ahead or you’re immediately placed in the back because you’re a certain skin colour—it made that goal, that dream, that drive, a lot harder. I really wanted to do that much greater. For me, I saw it as a positive. They saw it as a negative. But I’m here today and a lot of them aren’t.”
Nixon added: “As a black girl in high school, it helped me because mediocrity wasn’t an option. I couldn’t just be mediocre because I felt excluded, so I had to be better. I had to always set the bar high, and it’s helped me set higher goals for myself.”
Danial said that, like Nixon, she felt she stuck out in elementary school, teased by the teacher and made to come in after class. Once, while she was cleaning the chalkboard, her teacher bent down and told her, “You are nothing but a little coloured girl [who] won’t amount to anything.”
“I graduated from university. I have a degree from U of T and she doesn’t,” Danial pointed out. “Those words motivated me and they pushed me. Don’t let anyone dictate who you are or what you’ll do.”
Next, panellists were asked, “Was there a significant event in your life that motivated you to get to where you are now?”
“What really hit was the first time I got arrested,” Kingu Jr. said. “That was shocking, being in there [with] real criminals who committed real crimes. I didn’t commit a crime […] it was just because a police officer comes and says, ‘Oh, you’re a black man? You’re gone.’ Just like that. I couldn’t even explain myself.
“That experience alone helped me understand how valuable time and life is. It helped me really understand that I never wanted to be a statistic. I always wanted to be that perfect black guy. I never tried to get into any trouble. Never smoked, never drank, never did anything like that. But somehow, trouble still found me. And I learned from that.” Kingu Jr. said that he left jail with even more fire, set on being a role model, and trying to stop similar things from happening to others.
Lennon answered second and said, “I think it was the first time I had a gun pointed at me. It’s a scary thing and it forces you to understand life is extremely short and extremely fragile.
“After that point I sat in my house and said, ‘No matter where I go, no matter what I do, I’m never feeling that feeling again,’ ” he said. “I never want to feel like I can’t get past a situation like that. For me, growing up in a poverty situation was no greater drive. When you wake up and you don’t have and you go to school and you see kids who do have, there’s no other motivation that you need other than that.”
The third question, asked solely of the women, was: “As a woman in your position as it stands now, what are some words of wisdom you can offer?”
“Belief is a very powerful thing. I stand on that,” Streete said. “When I took a leap of faith to be at the service of the people, I fell flat on my face. And that’s why I was homeless and lost it all. Remember that you’re a humanitarian first and foremost. Remember that you must have unconditional positive regard for every man, woman, and child, regardless of where you come from.
“The fact that I’m a black woman speaking about issues that relates to black people—it just means I’m speaking from my vantage point. But that doesn’t mean I can’t understand pain from another person. […] It just means I understand it just a bit differently,” she continued. “For women, it doesn’t matter if people don’t believe in you, as long as you believe in yourself. Don’t let spiritual warfare from other people stop you from achieving your dreams. I had to leave my common-law husband of 16 years because of spiritual warfare, because I wanted to work in the community.”
Nixon stressed the importance of being oneself and self-love, a point also balanced by Danial’s reminder that “we try to be independent and to be a go-getter, and we tend to be so focused on ourselves that we forget to rely and lean on people who have been there for us from the get-go”.
The next question was, “How are your values reflected in the work that you do today?”
“My values come to God above all; everything else comes second,” said Danial. “It doesn’t mean that family or friends don’t have an even playing field, but make God the centre of your life. At the end of the day, people will be drawn to what you believe in.
“With the work that I do, it’s about leadership and teaching these young girls that there’s something you need to work hard for. And never let what anybody tells you deter you from achieving any goals you have or deter you from who you want to be.” Danial added that, for her, the best way to identify herself wasn’t her race, class, or sexual orientation, but her Christianity. “As a Christian, it’s all about love. So I try to preach love in how I behave and act and how I treat others,” she said.
“I just wrote down a couple words: faith, hope, love, authenticity,” Lennon said. “I deal with a lot of young people. The word ‘authentic’ is probably the most genuine word you can use because I know, as a young person, young people see through the lies and the foolishness. And if you’re not authentic, they don’t trust you.” He added that being authentic is vital in a position of leadership.
“I’m also a Christian, and my personal belief is love one another as you love yourself. And if you do that, all other things will fall into place,” he continued. “If you love someone, you won’t do somebody wrong. If you love anything, you won’t want it to affect anything else you do in life.
“I tell my young people, ‘You can hope for anything. Nothing in this world is ever limited. You can achieve anything you want to and it just starts from a small grain of mustard seed, which is faith and hope.’ Those are key components I use to drive my young people to the final destination.”
The next question asked was, “Did you face any form of discrimination on your journey and if so, what impact did it have on you?”
“Having a business or company, I kind of discriminate against myself,” said Kingu Jr. “I never really wanted to be the face of my brand, because I felt like […] people wouldn’t even want to buy my product because I’m a young black guy. I always stayed in the background. It’s because of the people I had around me that make it like it’s so rare to see a successful black person own a company. Now that’s changed. I believe in myself. You’ve got to change your mindset to change your circumstances.”
Streete recalled how, in Grade 1, she finished her workbook in one month, prompting the school to advance her to grade two. “Beware of the hidden and overt dangers, we’re all telling you positive things, but I have to be honest or else we’re not being authentic,” she said.
“My Grade 3 teacher wrote the word ‘thier’ on the board and I said, ‘Mrs. Bishop, is it t-h-e-i-r or t-h-i-e-r?’ And she turned beet-red and at recess, she took me into the furthest point of the playground and she pointed to this rock. And she said, ‘Kneel on that rock.’ And I said, ‘Mrs. Bishop, why are you making me kneel on the rock?’ And she said, ‘Just kneel on the rock.’
“She made me kneel on the rock for 30 days. Every morning and afternoon recess. And the kids would say, ‘Why are you kneeling on the rock?’ And I said ‘I don’t know, ask Mrs. Bishop.’ ” Streete recalled that she told her mother, a custodian at the school, of the incident, but she was afraid to cause trouble.
“I said to her on the 29th day, ‘Mom, if you don’t do something about Mrs. Bishop making me kneel on the rock, I’m going to take a rock and stone her,’ ” said Streete.
The next morning, Streete’s mother spoke with Streete, Mrs. Bishop, and the principal, but the only apology Streete received was Mrs. Bishop saying, “I didn’t know it was hurting her feelings.”
Streete’s father told her, “Never let people know how smart you are, because they’ll hurt you.” Streete’s school sent her on a two-week trip to university when she was in Grade 7.
The second-last question asked was, “How does your work impact the community and what effect do you wish it had?”
Kingu Jr. said that his company is starting boot camps in the summer for young people who are looking to lose weight and get in shape. “When you tackle [obesity] early, you give yourself a chance later on,” he said. “So we’re starting boot camps. I’m coaching a basketball team right now.”
Lennon says his company has contacts in the Jamaican Canadian Association, who’ll be offering seminars on proper money management for young men and women this summer. “Finances in the black community is something that’s not really talked about,” Lennon said. “In my household, you don’t ask. It’s really hush-hush. The common thing I heard when I was younger was ‘You have to save’. But how do you save?”
Employees of Lennon’s company will also be working together to help the homeless.
The last question was an earlier one, turned this time to the males: “As a black man in your position, what are some words of wisdom you can offer?”
Kingu Jr. said that the biggest thing is that the way you perceive yourself is how other people perceive you. “If you feel like you’re a failure and you can’t do it, you’re a failure. If you feel like you can win, you will win,” he said. “If you want to be a doctor one day, start thinking like a doctor. If you want to be a lawyer, start dressing like a lawyer and you’ll become one.
“We’re in a prison in our minds as black men sometimes,” he continued. “It’s really sad to see how that affects us. I see a lot of potential in a lot of young black men but they don’t see the potential in themselves.”
“You gotta be a server,” said Lennon next. “I think anything you do in service of others, it can’t help but turn out well. When you serve people, people will in turn serve you.
“Perseverance—there are days you’re going to wake up and say, ‘Why am I doing this? How can I do this?’ ” he added. “But when you know that ‘why’ […] you’ll be able to understand and get over that feeling of ‘I don’t wanna do this, I don’t wanna get out of bed.’
“Persistence. I never understood the word ‘persistence’ until I heard the word ‘no’ 10 times in a row. I went to get a grant from a company and I heard ‘no’ from the CEO, the financial accountant, the business advisor, and I thought, the word ‘no’ is not a bad thing. It just furthers you along, it pushes you to be more persistent to getting to that yes.
“Use wisdom,” he concluded. “I believe the first thought you have is usually the right one. Whatever is deep inside, no matter what it is, you can do whatever you want to do. It doesn’t matter unless what you want to do is what you want to do.”
This article has been corrected from the print edition. Among the misprints: Rose Streete dropped out of university, not high school; she resumed her education in college, not university; she is running for Mississauga city councillor, not board; and she was sent on a two-week trip to university, not enrolled in it, in Grade 7. A notice will be printed in the March 10, 2014 issue.