How would it feel to know that as a person of color you are 3 times more likely to be arrested than your white counterparts for weed? Or how about the fact that people of color only make up less than 5% of the entire U.S cannabis industry. Sounds fucked up right? Well, it is! To have your whole life ruined by an off tilted justice system over an incredible flower and to see those now legally profiting from it. It’s mind-blowing! Something has to change and we at Black Cannabis want to do our part to change the narrative!
Here’s a short background of Black Cannabis. Black Cannabis is an organization that was created by three individuals with like-minded thoughts on the cannabis industry. Philippe Dume (Haitian), a former U.S. Army veteran turned cannabis advocate. Philmore Charles (Antiguan) a longtime New Jersey activist and media producer. Finally Damon Williams (African-American) a new cannabis entrepreneur and activist. Together we formed like Voltron and created Black Cannabis. Sorry for the old head reference. But seriously after going to countless events, conferences, and expos — we just kept seeing the same old stuff. Truly a lack of diversity in many of those rooms, also a lack of our voice on media platforms as well. We agreed it is time to create a platform for the voice of the new generation in the cannabis industry. There is a lot of diversity in the industry that is not getting the shine it deserves. Also, there is an audience that is being ignored that wants to learn about this industry.
We want to provide a platform for people of color, women, veterans, and the LGBTQ community to have a voice and to learn of what’s happening in the cannabis industry. And to know there is a space for all in this industry! Just because you don’t have the money to own a dispensary or a grow house doesn’t mean you can’t be a part of this amazing industry. If you’re good at social media there are companies that need this. If you’re good at accounting there are plenty of companies that need it. Anything you believe you are good at just take that skill and repurpose it to the cannabis industry. You just need the drive to go out and do it! DO NOT accept no as the answer. Carve out your own path in this industry.
Another way we have provided an opportunity for marginalized communities is through our partnership with a hemp company by the name of Cola Hemp Co.— this partnership has given these communities access into the cannabis industry. Together we launched a program based in New Jersey called the Social Equity & Economic Diversity Cooperative or the S.E.E.D Co-Op. This program gives BIPOC/ , women, and veteran’s access to 500,000 square feet dedicated to growing premium cannabis CBD. Our program provides groups who sign up with the product and education needed to launch their own CBD brand from seed to sale. The program has courses on cultivation, marketing, and branding. Also, it provides access to a CBD distribution network. If this is something that may interest you please visit our site at black-cannabis.com/s-e-e-d/.
We believe this is a budding young industry and it is still up for grabs. Think in these terms, if you got a chance to jump into a developing industry that is projected to make 30 billion dollars by 2025 would you miss out? Like we said earlier there is plenty of space for all. You just have to be willing to put in the work. Also, you must be willing to be an advocate for the cannabis culture. You just can’t have it any other way. We are still fighting for legalization in the U.S. The fight continues and we all have to be willing to do our part. Black Cannabis will be here for the long run. Are you trying to come for the ride?
The Dandelion Initiative (DI) is an organization founded, staffed and governed by survivors, for survivors. I started the organization in 2016 on the steps of city hall after the Ghomeshi hearings and since then we have grown to develop programs (like Safer Bars & Spaces and our policy work) that prevent and respond to gender based violence. I was inspired by the resiliency of Dandelions, and I figured it was a good name to describe how incredibly resilient survivors and women are.
When we started envisioning what we wanted the “Heal and Thrive series to be, we knew that survivor-centered peer support and knowledge sharing had to be at the top of our priorities. We all wanted a space where survivors could connect with one another, see themselves in one another, learn and grow together, and create a community where we were the experts in our own experiences.
We also knew that prioritizing the safety of all women and trans survivors was vital while creating opportunities for cis-men who identify as survivors to participate throughout the series as well.
Creating safer spaces for survivors to heal or to thrive means: planning ahead, building trust with your community and facilitators, paying these community members for their knowledge and work, de-colonizing your online or in-person practices, and using trauma-informed and survivor-centered principles.
We have served over 250 survivors through 12 workshops over 1 year with 3 staff and 7 facilitators. It was incredible, hard and endless work, and worth every single second.
Dandelions can grow through concrete and through anything, anywhere. Some look at this plant like a weed, something common and replaceable. But in fact the dandelion is a pretty magical plant. Dandelions are one of the most vital early spring nectar sources for a wide host of pollinators; they can be eaten raw or cooked, made into tea, and used in traditional herbal medicine and tinctures. I look at survivors as dandelions, people may underestimate us and our value, but we are so important and resilient, especially a field of dandelions; powerful.
The DI is a small grassroots nonprofit. We have 2 full-time staff and a dedicated volunteer board of directors. Since COVID-19 we have lost over 80% of our core revenue from our Safer Bars & Spaces training, workshops and policy development work. This means we have no funding to provide free services and programs for survivors without the support of our program fees.
We are working really hard to release our report “Don’t Rebuild On Our Backs” which will showcase the impacts of our programs, current information on gender-based violence and finally, the report will highlight policy recommendations to our government, partners and community to help us continue our important work and collaboration.
Anyone can help us by either donating, sharing our work, sharing grant opportunities with us, all of these things are helpful.
My name is Yasmin Mumed and I am one of the main organizers of the #BlackonCampusGuelph rally, which took place November 18th, at the University of Guelph. We started out with a rally where we had staff and students share their various stories of what it means to be black on campus Guelph which led into a march. The event was a part of a larger movement where Black Students took over social media and campuses internationally, to express our solidarity with black students resisting and fighting for the rights at Mizzou.
This created a space where black students could begin sharing our stories of being black on university and college campuses.
At the University of Guelph we saw stories from students who face anti-black racism in classrooms, residences, campus services, and within social spaces. This was so important for students who voices have been silenced front the moment they stepped on this campus. So many people shared stories of being entirely abandoned and ignored by the administration in dealing with anti-Black racism. We ended off the action by marching into the admin office to drop off a list of demands we are expecting to be met.
Post- rally we received an immense amount backlash from people on various forms of social media such as yikyak,liveleak, and Overheard at Guelph. Due to the several hundred immensely racist comments from students at the university black students felt unsafe being on campus and in their classrooms and were left with no support.
The CJ. Munford Center, a club on campus that promotes racial diversity is the only space that supports Black students on campus. The Munford Center is seriously underfunded compared to other student groups on campus. The only paid staff at the centre was let go by the administration only a few years ago because of budget cuts. Black students are left to deal with the brunt of a legacy of anti-Blackness without any form of support from the administration.
The #BlackonCampusGuelph protest was an act of courage and a way for black students on campus to show the school administration that they were fed up with decades anti-black racism on campus. It is imperative for us not to view what is taking place in Mizzou in isolation. Students across Canada and right here in Guelph experience both subtle and overt manifestation of anti-black racism in every aspect of our education. We will no longer tolerate being silenced or erased. It is time the administration meet our demands and take accountability.
I was born in Hararge Oromia. I came to Canada when I was 8 years old but my heart and my memories are still in Hararge Oromia. I believe I am here in Canada for a reason and have a purpose to serve both here and in my home. I am proud to call myself Oromo and Muslim and Black. I feel like my ancestors have left me with many teachings and gifts that I’m constantly trying to listen to. I am a revolutionary because that’s the legacy I was born into.
I still remember the first Allied Media Conference (AMC) that my daughter and I attended. It was June 2008; I was in the final editing stages of my first book and wanted to start talking about resistance and organizing among women behind bars. My daughter, who was 7 years old and already experienced in children’s programming at various political events, was eager to check out the conference’s newly established “Kids’ Track” that offered a handful of age-appropriate workshops about different types of media.
So I pulled her out of school and we headed for Detroit to spend three days among media makers from across the country. While I attended a training for women of colour, she and the other kids learned about the basics of block printing. While I participated in a panel discussion about incarcerated women’s voices, she learned how to design and cut out stencils, then spray paint them safely wearing a respirator and latex gloves. In between these workshops, she and the other kids (and adults) had a chance to play and have unstructured fun. She cried when it was time to leave; she had made new friends, learned new skills, and had an amazing time.
We returned the next year and were amazed to see that the Kids’ Track had ballooned from three children (and an occasional baby) to nearly two dozen. Since then, the Kids’ Track has grown even more into the “Kids’ Practice Space,” with several workshops specifically for children.
The AMC isn’t the only conference working to ensure that people with children can attend. Though conference policies—and the conversations around them—continue to evolve, many recognize the importance of ensuring accessibility for parents, caregivers, and children, especially when organizing for social change. When this happens, it not only enables caregivers and kids to attend a conference, but sends the message that they are valued members of and contributors to larger movements.
The annual Civil Liberties and Public Policy (CLPP) conference, entitled “From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom,” is in its 31st year and has always provided child care.
“It’s not any harder than any other aspect of event planning,” Lucy Trainor, CLPP’s associate director, told Rewire. “It takes time and money to plan catering, it takes time and money to plan events, and it takes time and money to plan child care.” CLPP views accessibility as integral to its mission to fight for reproductive justice; thus, the conference not only offers child care, but also pays for speakers to travel with their children and, if necessary, pay for another adult to attend and help care for those children. “For us, it’s part of a larger commitment to access,” said Trainor, noting that the conference also provides financial support for speakers with disabilities to travel with their personal care attendants and language interpretation.
CLPP’s conference costs $285,000 to plan and produce. It takes place each year at Hampshire College in western Massachusetts, which provides in-kind support, such as classrooms and lecture halls for the conference, as well as year-round office space. The college also allows conference organizers to draw on students for child care, which limits those expenses to only a few hundred dollars for supplies. But, said Trainor, “even if you do have to pay for child care, you budget for it.”
Facing Race, a three-day biannual conference dedicated to racial justice, does just that. Organizers have made sure to include child care in their budget since the 2010 conference in Chicago.
“A huge number of people in Facing Race are parents and caregivers,” explained Rosana Cruz, the organization’s leadership action network director. As the conference grew from 1,000 attendees in 2010 to more than 2,000 in 2016 (plus a waiting list of 500), organizers have pondered how to grow to accommodate families and caregivers. “After each conference, we think, ‘That was great, but we can do better,’” reflected Cruz.
For instance, she recalled that the 2014 conference did not have a room for nursing or pumping. As any parent who has ever breastfed can tell you, nursing or pumping requires a space that is quiet; a refrigerator is needed to store breast milk. This year’s conference included a breastfeeding and pumping room. “We also bought screens for privacy and rented refrigerators,” added Cruz. For the 2018 conference, organizers are thinking about expanding to offer programming for children and youth similar to the AMC’s Kids’ Practice Space.
The challenge for Facing Race, which takes place at a hotel in a different city every two years, is ensuring that accommodations work for children and caregivers. “We need to secure a space in a hotel room that’s big enough,” explained Cruz. The size of that space dictates how many children can be in child care. Child-care costs also include paying licensed and insured child-care providers as well as renting cribs and a projector to screen movies when a quieter activity is needed. But organizers see these efforts as integral to building their movement: “What makes it accessible is what makes it a great conference,” Cruz said.
“It’s a little extra brainwork for people who have never had to think about this,” Cruz, who is the parent of a teenager, reflected. “But if you’re determined, this is just a given. Just like you’d value amplified sound or a keynote speaker.” Plus, when put into the context of the entire conference, child-care costs are negligible; for Facing Race, organizers say paying child-care workers and buying supplies makes up less than half of 1 percent of the total conference.
AMC, meanwhile, costs more than $400,000 each year. Child care and the Kids’ Practice Space are only a fraction of that price tag, costing $1,400 and $2,500, respectively. The value of not only accessibility, but creating relationships with future media makers and movement builders, goes far beyond that fraction, Morgan Willis, the conference’s program director, said.
“The money comes next,” said Willis. “Once you figure out what you want to do, then you figure out the money.”
The AMC has never encountered hesitation from funders about child care and kids’ programming costs, which are explicit budget lines. Willis noted that, when seeking funding, AMC organizers explicitly talk about how accessibility—whether for people with disabilities or people traveling with children—can be expensive. “We articulate to grant makers what we’re asking for and why,” she explained. “We’ve never had pushback around accessibility. Funders have responded extremely well to that.”
When the Allied Media Conference began, she said, “none of us had kids. We weren’t thinking of ways to include kids; we were in our 20s.” While the conference has always offered child care, she recalled that the parents and caregivers in attendance pushed them to do more to include the youngest attendees in conference goings-on.
As the years went on and the Kids’ Track evolved into the Kids’ Practice Space, conference organizers, in turn, challenged presenters to make their content more accessible. “What does it look like when someone with very little experience is in your space?” mused Willis. “That’s where we received the greatest amount of pushback, from people used to traditional forms of presentation.” The pushback didn’t last long; instead, what ended up happening is that considering the presence of younger attendees encouraged speakers to present information more clearly, making it more accessible to everyone who attended, regardless of age.
Unlike CLPP, the AMC is not connected to the university where it takes place each year. But, Willis said, Wayne State University has never balked at having child care or kids’ programming on site. Of course, there were questions and concerns about liability, reflecting what Willis described as “a conception of kids exclusively as a liability,” but the conference and university administrators worked through it.
It’s not just conferences centered on social justice that make accommodations for caregivers and children. When Natalie DeYoung Ricci was asked to read her essay about death at this year’s BlogHer, a conference for women in social media, she was pregnant and expecting her first baby to be born the day of the conference. Knowing that first babies often arrive later than expected, she said yes with the caveat that she might not be able to attend. Rather than write her off, the conference organizers agreed to include her. Furthermore, they offered to have her Skype in from the hospital if she gave birth earlier.
Ricci’s son was born a week early. She contacted the organizers and asked if she could bring him. Not only were organizers willing to accommodate the new mother and infant, but they encouraged her to take as many breaks as she needed, bring him on stage with her, and bring her husband to take the baby from her if needed.
Exhausted from giving birth four days earlier, Ricci only stayed for her session. She said that not only organizers, but attendees welcomed her and her young son. The experience inspired her. “This is my first baby,” she told Rewire. “To know that I could still have a professional life outside of being a mother meant a lot to me.”
The experience also set her expectation that other conferences will be as flexible. “It demonstrates goodwill towards inclusivity of families,” she said. “Many writers struggle. Child care is not always affordable, or even an option.”
BlogHer does offer child care for attendees. “It’s very key for us,” Jenni Ottum, the public relations director of BlogHer’s parent company SheKnows Media, wrote in an email to Rewire. “We actually have a digital storytelling and a media literacy program called Hatch that takes place live during our conferences so kids have a place to go where they learn while their moms do the same thing.”
Some conferences are already seeing children return as teens and young adults ready to participate in the larger conference goings-on. Trainor has seen people who initially came to CLPP as children with their caregivers returning to participate in the larger conference as adults.
About one-third of the children and youth who attend the AMC return the following years. And now, conference organizers are beginning to read workshop proposals from people who first came as young children.
“We reached an interesting challenge in 2015 where the content for the Kids’ Practice Space was so good that the adults were knocking down the door,” recalled Willis. The number of adults crowded out children from attending two of the kids’ sessions. Another conference organizer asked, “Can we ask some of the adults to leave so kids can get in?”
Recalling that particular scenario, Willis added, “With over 350 sessions, you’d think you’d find something that wasn’t for kids!” But the popularity of the workshops indicated the quality of the programming offered to children and youth.
“I’m sure that there will be a very short time before we’ll be seeing people say, ‘I was 12 at the conference in Baltimore or Dallas and now I want to present my own workshop,’” reflected Facing Race’s Cruz.
The organizers of Facing Race, AMC, and CLPP see accessibility for families with children not only as essential, but, as Cruz puts it, an act that “pushes back against the rugged individualism that is a hallmark of white supremacy. So it’s not, ‘I don’t have kids’ or ‘I don’t need translation,’ so why should I pay for this? It’s ‘I love this conference because people who are monolingual, people who are deaf, people who have kids can come here.’”
They also note that, while child care is offered, none of the conferences require children to stay sequestered in separate spaces. “We think children deserve to be in these [conference] spaces,” said Trainor. “It’s positive to have younger members participating in these discussions. Children are not a distraction.”
Vikki Law Victoria Law is a freelance journalist focusing on intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance and the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. Her next book, Your Home is Your Prison, critically examines proposed “alternatives” to incarceration and explores creative solutions that truly end mass incarceration.
a person (or organization) with original ideas about what the future will or could be like.
i remember first meeting generation FIVE in 2001 when i started working for the Harm Reduction Coalition as the Training Coordinator for the SFDPH training program contract. my job was to coordinate a quarterly training calendar for service providers under the HIV Prevention section of SFDPH, and work with trainers to develop both content and their facilitation skills. At the time Staci Haines, a Co-founder of generationFIVE, was co-facilitating trainings on the connections between trauma and drug use for the quarterly calendar. that is how i was introduced to the organization and its vision to end child sexual abuse within five generations or 100 years. Over the next 10 years my relationship with generationFIVE deepened. first i began attending trainings to increase my knowledge of child sexual abuse (csa) and understanding of trauma. Eventually i became a training assistant, and then a lead trainer of the 3-day training on Child Sexual Abuse and Transformative justice. in 2007 generationFIVE hired me as staff and as a program team member to help develop and build our TJ work in different sectors. that summer we released ‘Towards Transformative Justice’, and joined our partners in bringing CSA and TJ work to the first US Social Forum in Atlanta. i finally left the organization completely in 2011.
generationFIVE has a long history of bringing together and working with many different leaders, communities, and movement sectors. the organization itself was started after a series of 13 community meetings that engaged over 100 community leaders in the question: “what would it take to end child sexual abuse within 100 years?”. As the work grew, and deepened collaboration became a core principle and practice toward building transformative justice more broadly. this is reflected most in the collaborations and partnerships leading to the writing and publishing of ‘Toward Transformative Justice’ and the TJ workshop series at the 2007 USSF in Atlanta. Additionally, our study into action process and efforts to build TJ Collaboratives in the Bay Area, Atlanta, and New York reflected a strong commitment to collaboration. organizing, and building in this way allowed for a depth of knowledge, creativity, imagination and experience that greatly enhanced the thinking and practice of TJ.
2. Willing to Take Risks
generationFIVE was at the forefront of articulating child sexual abuse as a social justice issue, and addressing it through community organizing and movement building instead of through service provision or the criminal legal system. This was a very new approach in the field of child sexual abuse response and prevention at the time, and not widely understood (or accepted) by funders or other organizations doing work around child sexual abuse. even today only a very small group of community leaders/innovators are working to address and end child sexual abuse in transformative ways similar to generationFIVE. additionally social justice and movement building organizations were not yet working on, or even talking about child sexual abuse as a social justice and/or movement issue. trauma and especially child sexual abuse were still primarily considered personal issues not political ones. however, the ‘Towards Transformative Justice’ document clearly articulated the connections between csa, systems of oppression and state violence in ways that had not been done before. and it issued a ‘call to the left’ that challenged social justice movements to understand child sexual abuse in a political context, and to include an analysis of trauma in their fight for liberation. the journey was not easy. navigating constant funding challenges, pushback from state institutions, isolation from more traditional csa response/prevention work and inside of social justice movement spaces, etc. took a heavy toll on all of us. yet despite all of that and more, we were not afraid to be “the first” or “the only”, and continued to take risks that we knew were necessary for the vision and the work.
although generationFIVE was very successful in bringing people together, we were not always good at actually working well with others. partners did not always feel respected or well treated, and sometimes we reacted, mainly out of fear, to control how TJ was built and implemented. at times we acted as though we were the only experts and knew best which felt arrogant and dismissive to our partners. often we moved too fast, and didn’t take the time to truly get input from people we were working with. i believe that fear and lack of trust made it difficult for us to truly collaborate in the way we wanted to. because we were working around intense trauma and violence everything felt so big and the stakes always felt so high. holding the weight of that triggered a contraction inside the organization that sometimes negatively impacted how we interacted with, and related to others. certainly that was not our intention, however, that does not change the serious impact of how we sometimes behaved and operated with our partners.
2. Unsustainable Organizational Infrastructure
visionaries are not always good at managing the practical details of implementing their ideas, and we definitely struggled in this area. like many others the co-founders of generationFIVE decided to create a 501c3 organizational structure to build their vision. however, non-profit status made us part of an institutional system that ultimately created challenges that were harmful to our work, and did not allow the organization to create or maintain a sustainable organizational structure. the majority of funders and foundations did not understand our work, or value our approach. those that did were often too afraid to fund us because of the innovation of the work, or unable to because we didn’t fit into their funding categories. Additionally the funding world itself is not set up to fund long term change, especially the kind of focus on long term change that creating a world without child sexual abuse requires. most funding relationships last 3- 5 years at best let alone 5 generations. There were times when staff did not get paid on time because the organization did not have the money to do so. there were times when people were asked to contribute significant amounts of time and labor for free because the organization did have the money to pay them. at the time of my leaving in 2011, the organization was still in debt to its founders. this type of financial uncertainty created a level of chronic instability that negatively impacted the organization and the work.
meeting the current needs of individuals/communities experiencing violence while working towards building the long-term vision – we don’t have what we need to deal with violence and trauma happening right now:
one of our biggest challenges in building transformative justice work was the complexity of holding both the vision of where we wanted to be and the realities of where we currently were. when responding to incidents of trauma and violence we were asking people to think, believe, and act in ways that moved us towards the vision. however, the current conditions people were navigating most often did not reflect that vision, or even necessarily share a commitment to it. the reality was (and continues to be) that we didn’t have many of the things we needed to actually effectively practice transformative justice on the ground, no matter what our vision was. we didn’t have the resources (alternatives to prison, safe houses, healing/change models, etc.), level of acceptance and buy in needed, power to assert leverage (different than force), political backing, or organizational capacity to bring transformative justice to scale in ways that could meet the levels of trauma and violence people were actually experiencing. sometimes it was very hard to still hold on to the long-term vision when people you love and care about are experiencing trauma and violence right now.
all organizations have strengths and challenges. no one is perfect and perfection should not be the goal, we have to be able to make mistakes. however, we must also acknowledge the very real impact and harm that happens inside of many organizations doing visionary work. often we are afraid to openly name the harmful dynamics or ways of being, however, this only serves to hurt the vision not protect it. what i learned most through my work with generationFIVE is the necessity of having strong systems of support and accountability in place from the beginning to deal with things that come up. because they will come up. as an organization we had a lot of support, however, not a lot of accountability. there were no individual or organizational community partners that were actually holding generationFIVE leadership accountable for the mistakes that were made and harm that was caused. ultimately that caused many great people to leave the organization, and/or not want to work with us. vision alone is not enough. building visionary futures requires that we also stay connected to the present moment and current reality of people’s lives. it requires that we remember that how we get there is just as important as the future we are trying to create. most of all it requires us to be courageous. courageous enough to believe in and move towards something we might never see in our lifetime. and most importantly courageous enough to admit that even though we may have incredible vision we don’t have all the answers, don’t always know the way, and sometimes make mistakes that cause harm.
those were extremely transformative years for the organization and for me personally. along the way generation FIVE’s vision also became mine, deeply developing and shaping my current work around trauma and practice of transformative justice. i am extremely proud of the work we were able to do and the contributions we made to the development of transformative justice (TJ) and community accountability models more broadly. however, i also hold the contradictions that existed inside of the organization and the complexity of the ways in which we did not succeed, and even caused harm. so when i received this opportunity to write about building visionary ways to address violence and heal trauma, i knew i had to write about generation FIVE and transformative justice. this piece is not about transformative justice itself, but rather a partial reflection on the path that generationFIVE as an organization took to build TJ as a way to address violence, and heal trauma. it’s about some of our organizational strengths and challenges in trying to build a visionary future of a world without child sexual abuse using a visionary approach transformative justice.
i’ve chosen to focus my reflections on the years 2007, when i was hired as staff, through 2011 when i left the generationFIVE. those were the years that i was most deeply involved with the organization, and the years we were most active in work around building TJ. what i offer here are reflections from my own perspective based in my long history and many years of direct experience with the organization. i can’t speak for the many other staff, program teams members, volunteers, partners, supporters, etc. that worked with and/or engaged with generationFIVE over its 12 years of active operation. reflection and evaluation are incredibly important for all visionary work. so that is what i offer to you here. a reflection. an evaluation. a reflective evaluation from someone that was right there doing the work. my hope in offering this piece is that it will serve as a useful tool for others engaged in creating visionary futures, and building visionary ways to address violence and heal trauma.
micah hobbes frazier micah hobbes frazier is a black queer mixed-gendered facilitator, somatic coach/healer, and magic maker; living, loving, laughing, and building in Oakland, CA and Tulum, Mexico.
In the summer of 2017, the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) – Guelph launched the People’s History Project with the goal of creating a digital archive that holds the history of social movement building in Guelph, Ontario (Dish With One Spoon / Mississauga of the New Credit traditional territories). To start off the project, I decided to begin to document racial justice organizing carried out by and for racialized students at the University of Guelph, a predominantly white institution in a predominantly white community.
It comes as no surprise that the rich history of anti-racist student organizing is largely unacknowledged.
Above: Protest in the UC for the National Day of Divestment in South Africa on March 21st, 1979
As an institution that ranks fourth on Maclean’s magazine’s list of top universities and boasts “Changing Lives, Improving Lives” as its slogan, it certainly doesn’t benefit the University for racialized students to know the history of ongoing racial discrimination and administration’s broken promises, or the successes of student organizing and the erosion of some of those gains over time.
What follows is a timeline of racial justice organizing at the University of Guelph in recent decades. Though currently incomplete, it is my hope that this ongoing project can offer racialized students a resource that can inform future organizing.
It’s important to note that though I use the term “racialized students,” the majority of the organizing documented here has been led by or involved Black students. Additionally, I have yet to research or conduct interviews with regards to Indigenous students’ organizing, so that critically important history is missing from this timeline.
1977 – Michael Clarke, a white university student, returns from 3 years in Sierra Leone where he worked as a teacher through an NGO called CUSO. He is moved by his development work in Africa and is appalled by the South African Apartheid Regime and Canada’s involvement in this regime. Although South African Apartheid has been in legislation since 1948, organizing against South African Apartheid in Canada only begins to gain traction in the mid-1960’s.
Michael wants to demonstrate to Canadians how Canada is implicit in this regime. He also wants to organize to disrupt the Canadian and South African economy, who are both benefiting from South African Apartheid. He researches the concept of divestment and contacts the African National Congress (ANC).
Alongside his life partner Suzanne and a colleague at the university, they align themselves with the ideologies of the African National Congress and begin to organize an event in Peter Clark Hall, with speaker John Saul from York University, to talk about South African Apartheid. They make a sign at the event which reads “Guelph Campaign for Divestment in South Africa”, and have a sign-up sheet for people interested in getting involved.
November 11th thru 15th 1978 – The African Student Association (ASA) hosts a week long conference called “Africa Week” which highlights the resistance to South-African Apartheid amongst a series of other topics involving African empowerment, economics, autonomy and self-representation. The “Guelph Campaign for Divestment in South Africa” is officially formed after the conversations that come out of the conference. The newly founded organization is made up of white students, who work very closely with the African Student Association. This is largely attributed to the fact that all of the ASA students are international students who do not want to put their status at jeopardy, as well as the fact that the majority of these students are in mathematics or science and cannot contribute the same amount of time to the campaign. The campaign joins OPIRG Guelph as a working group and sets out the following goals:
Put on a series of events which raise awareness on the regime of apartheid
Educate Canadians on how they and the government of Canada are implicit in apartheid
Finding ways to assist in the process of change ie. raising funds, divestment…etc
Getting individuals to join the movement
A National Day of Action for divestment is set for March 21st which the campaign plans to take part in. Members of the campaign plan to call on students and organizations to withdraw from the 5 banks involved in lending money to the South African government ie. CIBC, TD Canada Trust, RBC, Scotiabank and BMO. The date of March 21st is chosen because it is symbolic to when the Sharpeville Massacre occurred in 1960 in South Africa.
From January leading up to the Day of Action, the campaign calls bank managers and trust company managers to get their positions regarding investment in South Africa, they create informational posters and pamphlets, begin circulating a petition for disinvestment of the university, hold information tables, show movie screenings, and host fundraisers.
During this time, Michael Clarke joins the Senate as a representative of the Graduate Students Association with the sole purpose and strategy to bring up a motion for the university to endorse divestment as a means to urge the Board of Governors of the university to divest.
March 20th 1979 – The University of Guelph student senate passes a motion that endorses divestment and recommends to the Board of Governors that the university should divest. The amount of money held by the university in banks is around $85-$90 Million at this time.
March 21st 1979 – The National Day of Action for Divestment takes place. There is a march organized in the University Centre (UC) and student activist Ben Loevenstein chains himself to the front door of the CIBC located in the UC. Over 250 students withdraw funds, and organizations including the African Student Association, the Photo Arts Club, the Biological Science Student Council, CUSO, OPIRG, the politics club, and the West Indian Student Association all withdraw. In total $180,000 is divested on that day. The National day of Action is seen as a wide success.
April 26th and 27th, 1979 – The Board of Governors is set to vote on whether or not to divest the University of Guelph’s funds. The Board of Governors votes to not divest despite the huge amount of pressure from the campaign. Organizers are crushed. Many stop organizing, get back to school and/or graduate and the movement dies down.
Early 1980s – A new wave of students are on campus and after taking classes led by Professor Clarence J Munford on Black History, Precolonial Africa, African politics…etc,. They want to get involved in organizing in some way (1.)
Among them is a student named Gayle Valeriote who approaches OPIRG and begins organizing against South African Apartheid as an OPIRG working group under a new name: the South African Interest Group (SAIJ). The new group is again a predominantly white group who continues to work very closely with the African Students Association. At this time the tactic of organizing changes. The group, who is taking action under the direction of the African National Congress (ANC) moves away from divestment and towards boycotting South African products instead; primarily wine. They host boycotts and pickets, and organize anti-apartheid awareness events and fundraisers.
1. Although this is the first time Clarence J Munford is mentioned, it is important to note that Munford is a bit of a legend at the university. At this time and until he leaves the University of Guelph, Clarence J Munford is widely regarded as the go-to for black students on campus to express concerns and to voice frustration about racism on campus. He is the only one at this time teaching classes relating to Black History and radical African politics.
Among them is a student named Gayle Valeriote who approaches OPIRG and begins organizing against South African Apartheid as an OPIRG working group under a new name: the South African Interest Group (SAIJ). The new group is again a predominantly white group who continues to work very closely with the African Students Association. At this time the tactic of organizing changes. The group, who is taking action under the direction of the African National Congress (ANC) moves away from divestment and towards boycotting South African products instead; primarily wine. They host boycotts and pickets, and organize anti-apartheid awareness events and fundraisers.
1981 – The Latin American Solidarity Group is formed as a working group of OPIRG by two chilean political refugees, Augustine Lobos and Goly Medina, who are living in Guelph. At the time, there are civil wars and dictatorships all across Latin America. They want to raise awareness about the human rights violations and repression occurring in Chile and in the rest of Latin America. They also want to fundraise and send donations to communities that need them. They operate for 13 years and in that time organize music shows, coffee houses, speaking panels, attend protests and also work in solidarity with other groups and raise many issues affecting other countries and communities through their group. They also work very closely with the African Students Association and the South African Interest Group.
1982 – Students from the of the South African Interest Group approach the administration asking to confer an honourary degree to Nelson Mandela for his work with the African National Congress in fighting against South African Apartheid. Although this is largely a symbolic gesture, they want the university to take a formal stance against South African Apartheid through this action. The university administration denies the request saying that they cannot confer an honourary degree to someone who is in prison.
June 4th 1986 – After a lack of support fro the university to confer an honourary degree to Nelson Mandela, SAIG takes matters into their own hands and organizes an alternative convocation which will take place the same day as the regular convocation on the other side of Johnston Green. They decide that they will create their own honourary degrees and give them to Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Nyembe and Ahmed Kathrada. Over 100 students attend the alternative convocation and members of the ANC accept the degrees on behalf of these individuals.
1990 – The Race Relations Association (formerly the multicultural club) is created by a faculty member named Leon Hall. The group is open to all racialized students, faculty members and administration who want to discuss and raise issues related to racism on campus, visibility, representation, policy and space. They try to bring attention to issues happening outside of campus as well and connect them to the racism occurring on campus and in Guelph generally. The Oka crisis and killing of Dudley George spurs conversation around colonization and racism against Indigenous people in Canada. They also begin acknowledging police brutality towards Black Canadians and anti-black racism occurring in different parts of Southwestern Ontario.
Members of the group also attend actions outside of Guelph. One former member recounts how members of the association attended the Yonge Street Riots in 1992 in Toronto, as well as the protests that came afterwards.
During this time Clarence J Munford is also working with the Race Relations Association, and independently to bring speakers to give lectures on campus. One of the biggest speakers Clarence J Munford brings is Stokely Carmichael, a Trinidadian born civil rights activist from the US.
It is important to note that during this time there is an exceptional amount of Trinidadian students studying at the University of Guelph, and as a result, this time is seen as the height of the West Indian Students Association. However, one past student that I interviewed highlighted the distinction that it was often students born in Canada who were engaging in critical discussions on race and racism in Canada, while international studen were more focused on hosting cultural events and parties and did not necessarily engage in this dialogue as much.
During this time the Black Women’s Society is also created and serves as an open space for black students to specifically talk about issues affecting black women in Canada.
March 6th 1990 – Students protest the speaking event of widely known white supremacist Paul Fromm, whose right wing organization C-FAR (Citizens for Foreign Aid Reform) booked the space called The Albion under false pretenses. They find out about the event after a student places an unclassified ad in the Ontarion the week before. The Albion denounces the event, but under the guidance of student activists, the Albion gives away all of the tickets so that student organizers can take up all of the seats during the event. As Fromm is speaking the students unanimously turn the chairs around and turn their backs on him. Things get heated but there is no physical violence. Students from OPIRG, the Race Relations Association and the Guelph International Resource Centre all attend and the protest is seen as a widespread success to curbing racism in the city. As a result, the Albion issues an official statement stating that they are against all forms of racial discrimination.
Above: An Anti- Apartheid picket in Guelph in the 1980s
June 1990 – Members of SAIJ travel to Toronto to meet with Nelson Mandela during his cross Canada speaking tour, after his release in February. During this month, community members and students at the University of Guelph also travel to Ottawa to protest South African Apartheid by calling for the closing of the South African embassy in solidarity with Black South Africans fighting for their right to vote.
1992 – A subcommittee of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Educational Equity begins discussing a race relations policy for the university. At this point, there is a Human Rights Advisor named Indira Ganase Lall working at the university, but no human rights policy exists at the university.
During this time, a Canadian Graduate Educational Equity Survey demonstrates that in Canadian universities 30% of students of colour are discriminated against based on their skin colour, 51% based on their race, and 46% based on their ethnicity.
Out of this growing awareness of racism on campuses across Canada, the Presidential Task Force on Human Rights is created in Guelph. Clarence J Munford is accredited to being one of the strongest backers of this policy and sits on the Task Force. There are also members of the Race Relations Association on the Task Force as well and old members of the South African Interest Group.
In 1993, the Task Force is renamed to the Presidential Task Force on Anti-Racism and Race Relations. They meet once a week from January to May, and realize that is crucial to not only create a policy but release a report on the realities of racism on campus and to highlight the experiences of students of colour on campus. Many students are pushing for this taskforce and one former member jokes that they would have people knocking on the door wondering when it would be released. She adds that the process took such a long time because they wanted to make sure they had covered all of their tracks and created a useful document for the university to actually implement changes.
When the report is finished, it is dense and breaks down understandings of race, racism, and how it plays out in universities. It outlines that these issues are the result of systemic racism, white privilege, and eurocentrism at all levels of the university. It also gives a historical timeline that demonstrates the different racist laws that have shaped Canadian policies, economy, culture, society…etc. It is the first document ever created at the university that demonstrates how racism plays out in universities, and shares specifical in-depth examples of the racism students have experienced on the University of Guelph campus.
Many recommendations are made and go into great detail as to how these recommendations can be implemented. Some main recommendations are:
The formation of an overall human rights office
That at least one counsellor of colour is hired and one Indigenous counsellor is hired
That enrollment must reflect the racial diversity of the country and that the recruitment system is monitored to eliminate systemic barriers to accessing university
That the admissions Committee members be required to attend seminars on racism, systemic racism and inclusivity
That space and funding be allocated to the Race Relations Commission for the creation of a Student Resource Centre for racialized and Indigenous students and that funding should allow for a permanent paid employee to coordinate the Centre
That a core course be developed on human rights issues as soon as possible to become a permanent course offering
To assess the curriculum in different departments in regards to racism, as well as having the curriculum reviewed with input from students of colour and Indigenous students so that there is a wider range of racial and cultural issues covered in class.
That all course descriptions should be reviewed for accuracy. If the course doesn’t match its description it should be renamed ie. Topics in the History of Women should be renamed Topics in the History of Western white Women if it is only about white women to be consistent.
Creating a monitoring system to track employment equity and that the practices are actually being followed, evaluate the ability of candidates for faculty positions to teach courses on the basis on anti-racism and in a cross-cultural context
To ensure that representation of people of colour and Indigenous people does not fall below current levels; vacancies should be filled by a qualified person of colour or Indigenous person
That one full-time-equivalent Advisor be appointed to assist the current Human Rights Advisor in dealing with complaints of a racial nature
A guideline for a systemic review of all of the University’s services and programs and a ten year implementation plan
That the following groups attend an anti-racist training annually: President, Vice-President, Deans, Academic Advisors, Board of Governors, Academic Councils, Management Advisory Groups, Program Counsellors and Departmental Faculty Advisors, Graduate Coordinators, Student Housing Administration and University College Project
In order to have accountability with the report, the Task Force asserts that a follow up report be made in 1995 to assess the completion of the suggestions.
They want this report to be made accessible to all students, faculty and administration(2.)
2. At this point in my own research I am unsure if this follow up report was made
July 1993 – The Anti-Racism and Race Relations Task Force report is published. It is printed in the Ontarion and individually, and is distributed all over campus. Many former students comment that this Task Force causes an uproar in dialogue and a denial of racism on campus from the campus administration, including the university president of the time, William Winegard.
1994 – As a result of the recommendations of the taskforce, the race relations association is given a space and is transformed into the CJ Munford Center (named after Clarence J Munford). However there is no paid employee for the space and instead a collective is formed for the center.
October 18th 1995 -University of Guelph Human Rights Advisor Indira Ganese Lall and Human Rights Assistant Sharon Harris, quit after only being offered month-to month-contracts instead of permanent position. Lall, who amassed most of the personal stories of racism on campus for the Taskforce, finds the offer offensive in light of her contributions. Both staff also leave as a result of their frustration with how human rights policies are being carried out/not being carried out on campus.
1996 – The Human Rights and Equity Office opens. Although students and faculty have been pushing for an office like this, they are outraged that an individual by the name of Ralph Agard has been hired following the departure of Indira Ganase Lall and Sharon Harris. Ralph Agard is widely known in Toronto as a perpetrator of sexual assault and students feel that it is an insult to what they have worked for to have him placed as the director of the office. A huge expose is written about Agard in the Ontarion and the ribbon cutting is protested by several racialized students. A sit-in at the Human Rights and Equity Office is planned but Ralph Agard is quietly dismissed before this ever happens. Ralph Agard is replaced by the current Assistant Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Education, Patrick Case.
February 1997 – The President’s office is occupied for a week by students seeking justice for cutbacks to education. This action is part of a wave of student activism against cutbacks, and similar occupations occur at the University of Toronto and York University. At this time groups of colour get involved in the occupation and join up with other organizations that are predominantly white. Both groups address racism on campus and connect this to the cutbacks and how they affect people of colour.
Mid 2000’s to late 2000’s – Rose Mcleod is hired by counselling services to give counselling support for black students. She works out of the CJ Munford centre and provides informal counselling support. Her hiring is also a result of the Taskforce on anti-racism. One former student describes that Rose Mcleod was instrumental to the functioning of the CJ Munford Centre and its growth at that time. Not only did she provide counselling support, she helped to direct students to appropriate offices depending on what services they were seeking, set up weekly discussions at the Centre and helped to facilitate collective meetings.
Despite being the heart of the Centre, the university does not take appropriate steps to secure funding for her position and organizations like GRCGED, the CJ Munford Centre and counselling services are left to seek out grants to pay for her position. Eventually the university administration decides that her position is not justified because of the informality of her work. Students at the CJ Munford centre organize to keep her position and go through all of the official channels including setting up a meeting with student affairs and more specifically the Associate Vice President Brenda Whiteside to convince the administration to find funding for her position to continue. There is also talk about reviving the Taskforce and creating an up to date report; however this is not followed through with. Despite their countless meetings and efforts, Rose’s contract is not renewed and in 2013 she leaves the university and the CJ Munford Center is again functioning without a paid staff.
Above: Black On Campus march across campus and banner drop in the UC, 2015
Nov.18th 2015 – Along with 3 other universities, Black students at the University of Guelph hold an action in solidarity with Black students protesting at the University of Missouri and Yale University in the United States. With less than 24 hours’ notice, student organizers Galme Mumed, Savannah Clarke and George Umeh bring together over 100 students to stage a campus wide march. This is the first time in the history of the university that a march organized and attended by mainly Black students addressing anti-black racism has ever taken place. The majority of the Black students in attendance are from the CJ Munford Centre. Black students are encouraged to write out their experiences of racism on placards and share their ,m before the march. The march takes place through the entire campus and ends in the Office of Student Affairs where protestors confront Brenda Whiteside for her complacency in dealing with systemic anti-black racism at the university. Although the action is initially seen as a solidarity event, organizers realize that the demands put forth by students in Missouri are similar to what is needed at the University of Guelph.
Overnight this action becomes the talk of the entire university. Extreme racist backlash is received online through facebook pages like “Overheard Guelph”. The students who organized the initial action secure funds from on-campus organizations and hire an informal counsellor to help with the stress that Black students are dealing with post-action. In the midst of this, organizers also roll out their own set of demands which they present to the University president Franco Vaccarino, Brenda Whiteside and the assistant vice-president Jane Ngobia. The demands are as follows:
Discuss and change the underrepresentation of Black administrators, faculty and teaching staff with the goal of increasing the percentage of black faculty and staff members.
Address the underrepresentation of Black students in all programs.
Establish mandatory equity training for all faculties, students, governors, and all other administrative bodies. This entails mandatory anti-oppression training for all persons employed by the University, and an equity breadth requirement for all students.
Increase the number of scholarships and funding resources available to black and Indigenous students.
Establish counseling and mental health services on the U of G campus that are culturally appropriate and representative for addressing the mental, emotional, and psychological needs of black students. At the U of G, there is only one Black counselor available that understands the mental health needs of Black students.
That the administration take leadership under the CJ Munford Centre in order to properly support them in implementing the anti-racism taskforce. In addition funding a full time position under the taskforce that is created and overseen by the CJ Munford Centre students.
Develop a plan to establish, adequately fund and support a standalone Black, African & Caribbean Studies Department.
Implement free education for Black and Indigenous students.
The demands set out in 2015 are strikingly similar to those of the anti-racism taskforce which the University administration itself asked for yet did very little to implement any of the recommendations.
Instead of addressing these demands head on or revisiting the taskforce (which goes into great details as to how the administration can implement changes), the university administration decides to have their own discussions with Black students and holds 40 interviews with Black identified students. Through this, they create their own report which highlights what students organizers have already said and come up with broad strategic plans with lots of fluff to make the university more inclusive. There are very little tangible goals. Most of the demands initially set out by Black students are not acknowledged at all, including those centered on more scholarships, mandatory anti-oppression training, free education and actually paying someone to implement the anti-racism taskforce of the 1990’s. Instead, they create a full-time position in support of cultural diversity which will be held within the Office of Intercultural Affairs in Student Life. It is interesting to note that there was never funding made available for Rose Mcleod during her stay at the university but funding is immediately made available for another administrative staff outside of the CJ Munford Centre.
During this time the CJ Munford Centre change their name to the Guelph Black Students Association to be more visible on campus.
This is presently where the timeline ends. However there is so much work to be done to not only fill in the blanks on the resilience and organizing of racialized students as well as the intricacies of how the administration has managed to escape responsibilities.
Currently, the funding has run dry for this project; however the aim is for it to be an accessible multi-media digital archive that will serve as a tool and guide for future generations of racialized students looking to organize at the University of Guelph.
Mina Ramos Mina is a mixed race queer who is based out of Brampton ON. She is passionate about ideas, thoughts and issues grounded in resistance movements of all kinds and the intricate connection to spirituality but specifically organizes in the realm of migrant justice.
Titiesg Wîcinímintôwak // Bluejays Dancing Together art collective is the name we use to organize our work on projects related to two-spirit resurgence, such as the Two-Spirit
Skillshare, Two-Spirit Bi-Monthly Social and Living Legacies, as well as artistic collaborations with other communities we may be a part of. Our name comes from the L’nu word for ‘bluejay’ and Nehiyaw term for ‘dancing together’, suggesting a collective creative process rooted in legacies of Indigenous resistance. We understand that Two-Spirit is a contemporary term specifically created by and for people Indigenous to Turtle Island, and is part of a growing resurgent movement to restore queer and trans leadership in our own nations, communities, as well as chosen and biological kin.
Founding members who helped shape the way we do things include Theola Ross, Krysta Williams, Pierre Beaulieu-Blais, Gesig Isaac, (name removed), Louis Esmé, Mikiki, Naty Tremblay, Joce Tremblay and Ange Loft. Most recently we’ve been grateful to keep working with some of these folks while bringing in teachings from Emma Allan, Shane H. Camastro, Kiley May, Jamie Whitecrow, Gein Wong, Erika Iserhoff, Maanii Oak, Zephyr McKenna, Willow Beyers, Melisse Watson, and Nicole Tanguay. Many community members have come to events, bringing their brilliance with them. Over the years we’ve worked with others whose legacies still shape our collective, creative process including Meg Bert, Ariel, Elwood Jimmy, Nathan Adler, Cherish
Blood, Fallon Simard, Vanessa Dion Fletcher and Gwen Benaway. Many, many people have given direction, provided groundwork, and found their own ways of supporting as mentors, aunties/uncles/auncles, grandparents and friends: Nora Melody Williams, Aiyyana Maracle, Jen Meunier, Jaret Maracle, Kahsenniyo Williams, Christa Couture, Ma-Nee Chacaby, Margaret Robinson, Seán Kinsella, Lisa Boivin, Ogimaa Mikana Project, Wanda Whitebird, Vera Wabegijig, Percy Lezard, Mashkiki:aki’ing with Sagatay, Billie Allan, Ruth Koleszar-Green, Melody McKiver, Amanda Thompson, Qwo-Li Driskill, Terri Coté, Daniel Heath Justice, Carmen Lane, and Audrey Huntley. We want to acknowledge the many settler friends who support without needing a biscuit, degree or platform in addition to the ways they’re already benefiting.
Titiesg // Bluejays come together to meet our communities’ needs such as making, viewing, and discussing Indigenous art, culture and theory. We are creative Indigenous people who are from many Nations and talk about what it means to be in a community art space without perpetuating pan-Indigenous stereotypes, while also resisting queer and trans settler nationalism. Some of us know how to describe our cultural responsibilities in our languages, or english, or both, or neither. All of this is okay because it’s okay to be in different stages of healing from colonization. Similar to how we don’t judge babies for not knowing how to start a fire, we support one another to pick up teachings at all life stages. Babies are awesome!
What’s most important is that we recognize one another as inherently worthy, powerful and loveable. Colonization has taught our people that transphobia, homophobia and misogyny are okay. This is literally harming us. We need two-spirit, trans and queer Indigenous leadership because we know how to do a lot of things including starting our own fires, collecting our own water, chopping our own wood. People who justify harms against us don’t see us as worthy of protecting/supporting, and they may even be people we love. This hurts. We are able to make art together so we already know that we can remake our bodies, lives, communities, families and Nations using our creative spirits. When we see one another as powerful, those hurtful attitudes and behaviours become intolerable and we learn to set boundaries. This heals our Nations. When we tell our stories, using our teachings to guide us, we become more powerful than those who criticize us for existing. This heals our communities and families. Two-Spirit people are here and we have always been present on Turtle Island. Together we remind ourselves about this and what it means to uphold our cultural responsibilities. This heals our selves.
Over the past year, Titiesg // Bluejays has been working on a project called Living Legacies:Two-Spirit Stories. We hosted two seasons of art workshops (funded by Community One and Toronto Arts Council) in plant knowledges, sound, performance, mask making, pottery and writing. Our stories are centred but we encourage Indigenous kin who aren’t two-spirit to join us. The work itself is as important as the places we re-inhabit, such as growing medicines along Gete-Onigaming at the Tollkeeper’s Cottage and Spadina Museum. At these colonial museums, we hosted workshops where our stories were spoken out loud and our bodies created new works. A special performance re-storied the typical “museum tour” through the actions of interplanetary Indigenous time travellers. Our songs were sung and our ceremonies shared, in this relic of genocide. We are pretty sure Spadina Museum staff and the white families who previously occupied this colonial building never intended for the Original People of this territory to return. We were mighty in our gentle, wise approach.
In October we’ll be sharing some of the results of Living Legacies with an exhibition at
Whippersnapper Gallery through their PEERS Projects initiative, further down Ishpaadina. During gallery times we’ll host small events for everyone to come by and see what we are up to. Beyond the next month, Titiesg // Bluejays will continue what we are already doing to hold creative space for our two-spirit selves that reflects who we are, where we are coming from and how we relate to the vibrant gathering place: Tkaronto, Gichi Kiiwenging, Toronto. This is what we’ve always done.
Louis Esme is a Mi’kmaq, Acadian and Irish ceramist, writer, illustrator, beader and community art facilitator. Their images have been on the covers of mâmawi-âcimowak, Transgender Studies Quarterly, and within the pages of kimiwan zine, Sovereign Erotics and most recently in Indigenous Feminist Cats. Order one at redearthstudios.ca
Shane Camastro is an anishinaabe 2spirit educator and mixed media artist from tkaronto, Dish with One Spoon territory. Shane is responsible for many communities and can be found caring for children, co-ordinating projects, and facilitating community workshops. They work at the intersections of art making, community building and education. Shane teaches and facilitates dialogues around space building, ‘anti-oppression’, and decolonization for over 10 years.
An interview with Iahnijah and Queentite of Prosthetics for Foreign Donation Inc. (PFFD Inc.)
Interview by Savannah Clarke
Above image: PFFD inc. logo
I caught up with the mother and child duo, QueenTite and Iahnijah, to hear more about the work that they’re doing to advocate and support children living with various disabilities, as well as to hear more about what parents and community members can do to support children with disabilities in their lives.
PFFD stands for Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency, a deficiency experienced at birth affecting the hip bone and proximal femur. Iahnijah was born with PFFD and receives prosthetic legs.
Through Iahnijah and QueenTite’s experiences, they were inspired to use the same acronym to start Prosthetics For Foreign Donations Inc., an organization that donates gently used prosthetics and other mobility aids to children in re-developing countries. PFFD Inc. aims to provide equal access to opportunities that contribute to the better well being and the betterment of the community
Savannah: Can you two introduce yourself?
Iahnijah: I am Iahnijah the co- Founder of PFFD – otherwise known as Prosthetics For Foreign Donation Inc. I am an 8 year-old below-knee amputee and in 3rd grade French immersion. I am a Freedom Fighter with Black Lives Matter Toronto, and an avid gamer. I just started my own YouTube page ‘XxATLASBOYxX’, follow me.
Queen: I am QueenTite Opaleke the proud mother of Iahnijah and a Winnipeg-born, west coast grown, Toronto-based multidisciplinary queer artist. I am a Nigerian/Jamaican Hybrid of the African Diaspora with roots laid in activism, the arts, academics, entrepreneurship, advocacy, love and in constant pursuit of more love.
I am a licensed hair artist and owner of NATTY- hair•art•roots, graduate of the Disability Studies Program, ASL 103 certified, and passionately the co-Founding Director of PFFD – Prosthetics For Foreign Donation Inc. When not busy changing the world, you can find me painting, writing, speaking and performing spoken word at various black collectives around the country. As a member of Black Lives Matter Toronto I continue to use my voice to advocate for black love, black liberation, people living with various disabilities, human rights, and promote love. Always love.
Savannah: Tell us more about PFFD inc. and how it got started?
Queen: Prosthetics For Foreign Donation Inc. facilitates mobility by creating access to recycled/repurposed prosthetics and mobility aides and donating them to redeveloping countries in critical need.
On October 2nd, 2008, Iahnijah Opaleke was born with a rare deficiency called PFFD- Proximal femoral focal deficiency (Now renamed CFD – congenital femoral deficiency). This deficiency causes Iahnijah to wear a step-in prosthesis on his right leg. I desired to recycle/donate his very gently used limbs (as he gets a new leg every six to nine months), but could not find a Canadian resource to do so. So Iahnijah and I created the resource to fill that void. Iahnijah is the seed of inspiration planted, which has created roots. These roots are the foundation of PFFD Inc.. Through Iahnijah’s birth and the birth of this charity, we hope to raise amputee awareness about prosthetics, mobility, limb loss, recycling, and major global change.
Upon a destined flight to New York, I met a director of a clinic that revolutionized prosthetics in India. When Iahnijah took his ‘leg’ (limb) off, a man leaned toward me and whispered, “this is destiny my dear”. Over the next three hour flight, he poured knowledge into me about his country’s most marginalized. We, in that moment decided to change the way North America saw mobility. It all started with Iah being comfortable being himself.
Later that fall, we travelled to Jamaica for vacation. This relaxation trip came right before Iahnijah’s sixth surgery (reconstructive hip surgery). We decided to just live, laugh, and enjoy life, as we forgot about the present struggle we were about to face. Iahnijah & I went to a local market in Browns Town. Here we met a man, a double leg amputee gladly using a skateboard for mobility. My son was deeply bothered by this. He offered the man his old prosthetics on the spot. In that moment, PFFD Inc. was born. Iah showed me how to repurpose prosthetics, so every Amputee could be recycling their old limbs. This was the definitive moment in time that shifted our entire lives, in the direction of our destiny.
Savannah: The work you two are doing with PFFD inc. is very essential. How does your work you center justice?
Iahnijah: We bring justice to people without prosthetics, mobility, or help. When we help them, they get justice.
Queen: There is an injustice in living without the privilege of mobility. It’s a blessing most of us take for granted. The gift of mobility comes wrapped with independence, and a renewed sense of dignity. This is the gift that we give.
There is a soulful justice that we are able to renew. Our aim to make a major impact upon the face of Mobility in order to see all individuals treated equally. Those born with missing limbs, or those who lose limbs still have every right to achieve their dreams, or even the ability to dream. This is how we center ourselves in justice for people living with physical disabilities
Savannah: What can other organizations and community members do to center justice in their work?
Iahnijah: People forget to think about others. We need to think about what we can reuse, give away, share, instead of just ourselves.
Queen: It is important to listen to the community. At PFFD we listen to the stories of people struggling in redeveloping countries. Fellow community members need to remember that we are blessed, privileged, and better off than most.
Think about what we can give. And when you have no more to give, give even more.
Savannah: From your experience working within disability justice why do you think services such as these are overlooked?
Queen: There is so much red tape and paperwork involved in sharing used medical/mobility equipment.
We feel this service to the community, and the environment is overlooked because it doesn’t affect them. We have equal access to any services we need – we forget our garbage is another man’s treasure.
The medical field is busy taking the best care of everyone as they can. I feel services like repurposing prosthetics/mobility aides gets overlooked because parents and amputees have never had the option.
It is a possibility that most people don’t know this exists. That is why PFFD Inc. stays advocating and educating the community about this imperative need.
Savannah: What advice do you have for parents of children who have disabilities in supporting and empowering their children to be leaders? What does that look like day-to-day?
Iahnijah: Always be different.
Queen: See your children as whole. Never ever try to make them fit in, or succumb to mediocrity. They are born different. They are born with such a magnificence. It is important to encourage their unique presence and celebrate it. They were chosen, to experience life through another view. This in itself is special, amazing, and miraculous. Life is hard, in general. This struggle builds strength, character and experience. It cannot be avoided. Do not shelter them, as they are born warriors. Stronger than most of us. Sweeter than most deserve. They are gifts. Divine gifts. Appreciate that!
Savannah: Iahnijah, as the co-founder of PFFD inc. where do you see the future of the project?
Iahnijah: I see us taking prosthetics from Winnipeg to all around the world to Africa, giving wheelchairs to kids with no legs, and giving prosthetics to kids with no arms. I see helping people who have no help, all the time
Savannah: Where can our readers go to support PFFD inc?
Queen: You can support PFFD Inc. by:
Donating monetarily at any Assiniboine Credit Union
Donating to our Gofundme at www.gofundme.com/MobilityMovement
Contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Recycling your used prosthetics/mobility aids (crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, etc.)
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QueenTite I’m a winnipeg born, west coast grown, toronto based multidisciplinary artist. I AM; a black, proud, queer, Hybrid. My roots are laid in art, activism, education, black liberation, poetry, love, and in constant pursuit of more love. When I’m not busy changing the world, you can find me devoted to my personal projects which include; Co – Founding Prosthetics For Foreign Donation & owning Black Heir.
Iahnijah I am the co-Founder of PFFD, otherwise known as Prosthetics For Foreign Donation Inc. I’m an 8 year-old below knee amputee and in 3rd grade French immersion. I am a Freedom Fighter with Black Lives Matter Toronto, and an avid gamer. I just started my own YouTube page ‘XxATLASBOYxX’, follow me
If you frequent queer spaces in certain cities, you may have noticed social media posts and flyers advertising American Sign Language (ASL) classes targeted towards queer and trans people. The casual observer may write these classes off as a curious but incidental pairing of two communities. Yet, these classes are independently popping up all over North America, from Vancouver to Chicago to Toronto to Washington, D.C. It is apparent that queer ASL classes are not an isolated trend. But what draws Deaf and queer communities together so consistently? There are a surprising number of parallels in the narratives of being Deaf and being queer. Just like how queer people are for the most part raised by straight-identifying parents, most deaf children are born to hearing parents. These parents are frequently unable to provide a framework for understanding the experiences of oppression that their children will have. Consequently, many of these children will grow up to seek shared experience later in life, forming rich communities that become sources of culture, connection, identity, and pride. However, as both Deaf and queer communities stand outside able-bodied and straight standards of acceptability, both communities have to fight against politics that push them towards invisibility and conformance as opposed to visible identity.
Zoée Montpetit, founder of Queer ASL in Vancouver and the president of the British Columbia Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf, thinks that these parallels may be why queer people are drawn to her classes. “Before I got involved in the hearing queer community,” says Montpetit, “I struggled to expand my signing community. But queer people understand how it is to be marginalized. Once they start to learn about ASL and Deaf culture, I think they start to recognize aspects that they relate to.” Montpetit says that her queer and trans students are motivated by a sense of solidarity with Deaf communities. “There is a real sense of kinship, a desire to increase access, and an ability to understand how hearing people can oppress Deaf people, just like how straight people can oppress queer people.”
Michelle Bourgeois, founder of Hands on ASL! and ASL literacy teacher in the Toronto elementary school system, echoes Montpetit’s statements. “Queer communities in Toronto are more connected,” she says. “I’ve taught classes for both queer communities and the general community. After students graduate from general community classes, I rarely ever see them again. Whereas with graduates from my queer ASL classes, I will bump into them time after time at queer community events.” Bourgeois notes that Deaf-queer people are more inclined to be involved in hearing queer communities, given the wealth of queer-specific resources these communities provide. As a result, she says that queer people are often inclined to learn ASL for concrete, communal reasons. “Queer people will often be motivated because they see a community member or have a friend who they want to communicate with better. With the general population, it may be more of an abstract, individual interest.”
This outpouring of solidarity and interest from queer communities has led Montpetit and Bourgeois to respond by adapting the curriculum and learning environments to better serve marginalized groups. For instance, both Montpetit and Bourgeois use the standardized curriculum taught in post-secondary institutions, the “Vista Signing Naturally ASL Curriculum”. However, Signing Naturally has a number of aspects that are unsuited for queer learners. For instance, some activities involve the instructor splitting the class into groups of male and female students, which Montpetit describes as particularly unsafe for trans people. The material itself can be hetero- and cis-normative: to teach vocabulary about family, most instructors use an archetypal heterosexual family as an example, complete with gender roles (the mother works in the kitchen; the father goes to work.) Montpetit and Bourgeois have worked to modify these aspects so that they better reflect queer and trans identities. “When teaching in the general community, I was limited in what I could teach as I had to follow a set outline by the college,” says Bourgeois. “With queer ASL classes, I incorporate social justice concepts and discussion of identity and oppression.”
Furthermore, understanding that queer identities are often intersectional, both teaching organizations operate to be as inclusive as possible. Classes are financially accessible, offering affordable fees with a sliding scale option; a course at Queer ASL has a suggested donation of $60 to $90, whereas introductory community college classes can cost upwards of $500. The spaces are physically accessible and scent-reduced, and Hands on ASL! also offers classes for free to hard-of-hearing and deaf people. “It is not fair that hard-of-hearing and deaf people who didn’t have the opportunity to pick up ASL as children have to pay later in life to acquire these skills,” explains Bourgeois. In addition, both classes work to ensure that PoC (People of Colour) identities are represented in the curriculum.
Montpetit estimates that Queer ASL has taught over 250 different students in the past seven years. While the majority of her students may only learn ASL at a basic conversational level, the collective exposure of so many queer people to ASL and Deaf culture has led to a tremendous increase in accessibility within queer spaces. “I started teaching ASL because I felt isolated and wanted more people to sign with. Over time, I started to see the community become more understanding of the need for interpreters and communication access,” says Montpetit. “I see folks with various levels of sign language skills at almost every event I go to now.”
The efforts of Deaf-queer people to make sign languages classes queer-friendly is also slowly making waves in the Deaf community at large. Exposure to ASL and Deaf culture is encouraging a growing number of queer and trans people to apply to ASL-English interpretation programs. Sara Gold, a white queer interpreter with over 20 years of experience working in Toronto, notes that this trend challenges traditional conceptions of ASL-English interpretation. “Interpreters are generally thought of as neutral facilitators of communication,” says Gold. Because society codes white, straight, cisgender, non-disabled people as more “neutral” or “default,” she says, this has led to a disproportionate number of interpreters who come from privileged demographics. “However, current interpreting theory confirms what we know intuitively: the identity, life experiences, and values of the interpreter will unavoidably influence the way they perceive and relay other’s communication. No communication can be neutral.” The influx of queer interpreters means that queer Deaf people have interpreters who reflect their own experience.
Gold notes that the conception of interpreters as neutral has reinforced institutionalized privilege and respectability politics in many ASL-English interpretation programs. “Because interpreter identities are currently so homogenous, it can be hard for our trainers, leaders, and colleagues to even recognize that we have a problem,” she says. “I am hopeful that our field will be changed by the innovative practices happening at the grassroots.” In the meantime, Gold believes that queer ASL classes provide interpreters from marginalized backgrounds with a sense of community as they go on to work through these programs.
While the movement towards increased interpreter diversity is challenging, it is extraordinarily important for Deaf people who stand at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. As a Deaf-queer PoC myself, I once attended a Black Lives Matter panel. It was incredibly uncomfortable to watch the experiences, language, and righteous anger of the Black women panelists being articulated through white interpreters. In a similar vein, I once wanted to participate in a discussion group that was restricted to Black and Indigenous people of color. However, as the interpreters for the event were white, they were initially asked to stand outside of the room. I sat in nervous silence with two other Deaf people, a Black trans man and an Aboriginal elder, entirely oblivious to what was being said about us as the rest of the room voted on whether they would admit the white interpreters in the space. Yet, neither situation was easily avoidable — even in a city as large and diverse as Toronto, there are only a handful of PoC interpreters, and not all are available or specialized to interpret events such as these.
Queer ASL classes can therefore be regarded as a form of resistance, reclaiming spaces by building interdependent connections between communities. The labor that Deaf-queer people put into sharing their language and culture with hearing queer communities carves out spaces for marginalized people to learn ASL. The graduates of these courses use their newfound cultural awareness and communication skills to transform the accessibility of queer spaces, such that they are more accessible to Deaf people. Some will go on to further pursue their passion for ASL and Deaf culture, supported by Deaf-queer communities as they work through interpreting programs that may be hostile to their identities. When they graduate, their status as interpreters who have experienced marginalization will position them to support marginalized Deaf people.
While queer and trans ASL teaching organizations are still small and independently-organized, it is impressive how these initiatives ripple out to enact social change. By bridging together two communities, these classes empower both communities to mutually work to uplift and support each other.
Alex Lu Computer science graduate student and OPIRG-Toronto director. I organize around disability justice, queer issues, and intersectionality when I’m not being a tedious academic.
‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ ~ Audre Lorde
Conversations surrounding disability justice are very important because it puts people with disabilities at the center of the discussion and looks at inclusivity and support systems for disabled people. The disability justice movement targets the rights of disabled people through empowerment and liberation. This movement challenges abled bodied activists and society to create a more inclusive and social justice-based movement that addresses how issues such as race, class, gender and sexuality impact the experience of being disabled. As a Black feminist artist and social justice activist with a disability, I write this article to focus on the importance of self-care practices when doing this work.
As disabled activists, social justice organizers and community members, life can be exhausting sometimes. Activists can sometimes take on too much and burn out entirely and that’s why self care is an important part of activism, especially for people with disabilities. Self care means taking the time to nurture and support yourself. The impact of my own disability has affected my life in various ways, such as debilitating chronic pain, chronic fatigue and anxiety which can sometimes become isolating. My attempts to appear normal and disguise my pain with humor and my anxieties with unlimited energy represents a problem all activists experience. As I reflect on 2016, I am guilty of ignoring my mental and physical self.
In March, I took part in the fifteen day Black Lives Matter (BLM) Toronto occupation of the Toronto police headquarters at 40 College Street. This was in response to a lack of criminal charges against the police officer who shot and killed Andrew Loku in 2015, a Black man living with mental illness and in response to the refusal of Ontario Special Investigations Unit to release the name of that officer. On the final day, the crowd was preparing to march to Queen’s Park to meet with Premier Wynne to discuss systematic racism within the police department. As chronic pain and anxiety begin to affect my ability to walk, I was given the choice to ride in the back of the truck where I assumed the responsibility of dropping red roses along the route from police headquarters to Queens Park.
With very little time to rest, three weeks later, I was standing in solidarity with Occupy INAC (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) at the Toronto office of Indigenous and Northern Affairs office. This occupation, in response to the inaction of INAC in response to the Attawapiskat youth suicides, lasted for nine days and again I ignored my chronic pain. As an elder, I was well taken care of with hot beverages and adequate warm blankets during the chilled night. During the Pride parade, in July, riding aboard Black Lives Matter – Toronto float, enabled me to take part in the historical halting of the Pride Parade where a list of demands from BLM was presented and agreed to by the Pride organizers.
July continued to be a busy time for me where I was moderator at York University for the Black Futures Now Toronto Conference, a gathering of Black women, femmes & gender nonconforming people who came together for a discussion about the identities we hold close to us as disabled/chronically ill/mad/spoonie Black folks. I ended the month talking as a speaker for the Girl Crush conference where I shared my experience of emotional labour and discussed the intersections of race, gender, disability and art.
The month of September saw me creating and curating a Black Lives Matter photo exhibit in the Crossroads Gallery at York University documenting my time at tent city. I also took part in a performance at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), curated by artist and activist Anique Jordan titled “Mas’ at 94 Chestnut Street”, an envision of what Black history would have looked like in Toronto if it had been documented from the early 1990s. With the year ending, in November, I facilitated a series of workshops, Own Your Sexy, at the Theatre Centre where participants created works that represented the best of their sensual side. My artwork and photographs were part of Ryerson University Social Justice Week where I was also spoke about art and disability activism.
My solo art exhibit, Mad Room, at Tangled Art & Disability, was met with critical acclaim and closed the first week in December after a three-month run. The exhibition on Black women’s mental health had successfully raised awareness, opened conversation, and promoted effective self-care through art. With over fifty art pieces, installations and a filmed artist statement, the exhibit symbolized institutionalization, forced medication, domestic abuse and the stigmas that come with Black depression and disability.
I finally realized that the year’s activities had consumed me physically and mentally and in the end, I found myself alone and completely exhausted. As a disabled activist and sufferer of depression, my activism had taken a toll on my mental health. I now realize how easy it had been for me to forget to take care of myself and I was suffered through the pain.
By mid December, during the Christmas holidays, anxiety and chronic pain had completely exhausted me. I was in dire need of self-care and disappeared inside my tiny one-bedroom apartment for the remainder of the year to rest and regroup mentally.
In the new year, after three weeks of self-care, I was back in full force and successfully launched an online #BellLetsActuallyTalk campaign which successfully became one of the most shared posts on social media. The faces of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign are wealthy white people who are not able to speak for people of colour or people who live in poverty and experience mental health issues. Every year, the Bell Let’s Talk campaign puts up billboards encouraging people to talk about mental health but these billboards are far from inclusive. It’s difficult to talk about mental health when you don’t see yourself represented in these conversations. I am hopeful that Bell will respond by including people of colour in their future mental health campaigns. Back in full protest mode, I took part in the Toronto Water is Life protest at Trump Tower in solidarity with Standing Rock and in February, I marched in the #NoBanOnStolenLand protest that occurred in response to the American travel ban, that saw thousands of people take to the streets, chanting in support of refugees and migrants, and against Islamophobia.
During this hectic and emotional time at the hands of a greedy, racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic Trump government that has clearly made a negative impact in Canada, it is easy to get caught up in moments where you neglect your own needs. As an activist with an unseen disability, I had to learn to take time to rest which helped me to be a better activist and a healthier person. I am fortunate to work with organizers, protesters and allies who are sensitive and accommodating. My advice to other disabled activists and artists is to take care of yourselves and find people/movements that do not discriminate against people with disabilities and who are willing to assist and find ways to include disabled activists in movements.
Gloria Swain Gloria Swain is a visual storyteller and multidisciplinary artist whose work stimulates an understanding of mental illness. She was 2016 Artist in Residence at Tangled Art & Disability and has shown throughout Toronto and is currently completing her Masters at York University. Her practice also includes work as a community arts facilitator and coordinator of art making spaces. She uses art to explore inter-generational trauma and healing.