Book Review of Freedom Farmers by Monica M White

Book cover reads "Freedom farmers: Agricultural resistance and the Black Freedom Movement by Monica M White" the image is of different aged black farmers harvesting

Book review by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

In her book, Monica M . White tells us a story of how Black folks in the  US have always used agriculture as a tool,  not just for survival, but also for liberation. She has done an impeccable job of meticulously searching through archives and interviewing community members to tell us about the legacies of people like Fanny Lou Hamer and George Washington Carver. Her book draws on the work of organizations like the Freedom Farm Cooperative and The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which have been instrumental in the fight for emancipation, and connects their work to current initiatives like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

This book left me feeling not only inspired, but in awe. Food justice is a tool of liberation. This book shows us how Black people have used agriculture to build housing, worker’s cooperatives, and schools to create a road map to freedom.

Cultivating Food Justice

cheyenne standing in a greenhouse between raised beds with her hands up

An Interview with Cheyenne Sundance of Sundance Harvest

Interview by Shabina 

Over the last decade, I have worked to build my food growing skills. Being able to provide fresh food to my loved ones has always been important to me for several reasons: growing food is financially accessible, environmentally friendly and connects me to my ancestral knowledge. While I am so grateful for what I have learned, one thing always stuck with me; the question of why so many of the well paid “leaders” of the food movement were always white and from wealthy families. Every organization had mandates around anti-racism and being “community-led”, however, they were unwilling to do the work of transferring power to where it belonged.

This frustration led me to search for people working near Toronto to feed their communities and what I found was both inspiring and beautiful. Black-run farms, Indigenous seed savers, community gardens run by immigrants, all run on almost no funding – only a deep love for each other and the earth. This is how I came across Cheyenne Sundance; a 22-year-old, mixed-race, Black farmer, living in Toronto.

Cheyenne is the founder of Sundance Harvest; a youth-run urban farm rooted in food justice and eradication of systemic racism in the food system. She runs all sorts of workshops and programs in her greenhouse, including a Farm School in 2020 which I decided to sign up for. So, when I was offered the opportunity to interview her, I was more than game. 

So, what got you into farming?
Food is essential to any type of justice work, because food is essential to life. It is often the first thing to go when poor or working-class people are struggling to survive. When they have to pay static bills that they can’t budge on, they have to decide if they can afford salad this week. Food is something that is pushed aside because it’s often the only expense that people can see living without. Paying people minimum wage, which is not a reflection of  the true cost of living, often translates into food insecurity.

Food is attached to almost any oppression. Globalization and colonization continue to disrupt traditional farming practices and healthy foods and replace them with conventional foods like grains and chocolate products that are farmed by underpaid and slave laboured children and women. Here on Turtle Island, and beyond, food is the glue that holds together a community and allows people to be independent. Food systems that have been violently fractured due to things like slavery, environmental racism and colonization cause the most marginalized to become the most dispossessed from land and food. The conventional food system is an extension of these histories and ongoing acts of violence. The system is working exactly how it was planned; with the goal of continuing to suppress us. 

I never wanted to farm but the government and people with privilege in the food system aren’t doing anything to help make our communities for food secure, and so I decided I needed to do it myself.

What made you decide to start your own farm?

I noticed how glaringly white urban agriculture and farming is, yet the people who are most affected by food insecurity in Canada are Black and Indigenous people.  I was frustrated at how often urban farming in Toronto is led by people who have race and wealth privilege, who use their privilege to lease public crown land or to lead a non-profit in predominantly Black neighbourhoods, yet had no connection to the communities they claimed to represent. 

The food justice framework has been laid out to help Black and Indigenous peoples, or even other marginalized people- yet we are only given community gardens instead of true leadership to create change. Non-profits are often complacent in white supremacy because they only hire BIPOC people (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour), mainly women/femme folk, in entry level positions but the director is always a white person. 

I couldn’t see any examples work to promote food security led by those most affected. So, I had to create the Sundance Harvest blueprint from my heart. I hope that in a few years I can foster more urban farms that are rooted in justice and that they can be carried on in leadership by people like me. I shouldn’t have to be fighting access to healthy food, I shouldn’t have to be the one who is filling the void that white supremacy and colonialism caused. Those in power should.

What are the struggles you have faced in starting this project?

I have had  no support. Sundance Harvest has not been supported, despite our calls for assistance and partnership, by any other non-profit or organization with the exception of Foodshare. I truly think it’s because 99% of non-profits and urban farms in Toronto are complacent within this system of white supremacy in the food system. They constantly try to solve food insecurity by doling out community gardens or donating to food banks. They never contribute to sustainable change that removes them from the equation. We are consistently made to rely on them.  We need urban farms run by people who look like me and who are actually facing the issues we are trying to solve. 

These organizations are not radical and I learned early on that I cannot expect them to be. I’m happy that Foodshare recognizes racism and colonialism in the food system and strives to do something about it. 

How has the rest of the community reacted to the farm?

I’ve received a lot of support from them! From those who understand that food justice is a real thing of course. From those who have been profiting off their privilege, backlash. 

What motivates you to continue this work?

That I need to teach the next generation to become farmers. The next generation being my community who will be hit the hardest the climate crisis as the cost of food soars. I know there’s a demand, I’ve noticed that when people see me farming, calling out profiteers of colonialism, and building on this simple idea of liberation; they can see themselves. I don’t expect everyone to become a full-time farmer. I do think that more and more people are starting to understand that they have power within the food system. They understand that something is wrong with our current system.

How can people get involved with Sundance Harvest?

My farm school is starting next March 2020. It will be an anti-oppressive farm school. I won’t be teaching you how to build urban farms or agricultural systems that utilize exploitation of the poor and BIPOC people Instead I’ll show you exactly how I created Sundance Harvest. It will cover practical skills and theory and will take place both in my greenhouse and outdoors. There will be field trips and explorations of yourself and your place in the food system. 

#BlackLivesMatter’s Toronto Freedom School

Cartoon image of Marie Joseph Angelique in white dress with buildings behind her. Text reads "Because no teacher ever taught you about Marie Joseph Angelique. Donate to #blacklivesmatter freedom school to create humanizing, self-affirming, historically accurate educational opportunities for black children in the GTA."

Leroi Newbold interviewed by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

Shabina: What is the Black Lives Matter Toronto Freedom School?  

Leroi: #BlackLivesMatter Freedom School is a 3 week long summer program for children aged 4 to 10 years.  The program is designed to support children and families living and growing in a reality of witnessing police violence in our communities. The program is designed for children who have witnessed their siblings being carded in their neighbourhoods, were watching the news when two Scarborough children were held at gunpoint by seven police officers because they were “mistaken for someone else”. Our youth and our children hear conversations about when Aiyana Jones was killed inside of her home; when Tamir Rice was killed in a playground near his home; when a teenage girl was assaulted by a police officer at her desk at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina; when a 13 year old Toronto girl was prevented from entering her classroom because her hair was styled in an afro. But children don’t get the opportunity to deconstruct these realities in their classrooms, because the realities that Black children are forced to endure are often deemed “not age appropriate” for the larger population, or public school teachers are not sure how to engage with these realities in age appropriate and empowering ways.

Freedom school is a project of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto, but it is also part of a larger movement for community self-determination. We have the right and also a need to control the political education of our children. We have a need to teach our children that our communities are valuable, and they are sacred. We are grounded in the belief that Black children are capable of complex political thought and political analysis, and that they are a valuable part of our Black liberation movements. In our communities, people of all ages are affected by police violence and mass incarceration, and children are profoundly affected. We want them by our sides as we confront these realities, as we fight back, and we want to hear their voices as we imagine news was to shape our society.

S: Why is this kind of education and experience necessary for Black youth?

L: #BlackLivesMatter Freedom School is meant to be an intervention into the messaging that Black children receive daily about the disposability of their lives. Our children need a way to understand and respond to the political realities being faced by their families and communities. When we don’t understand something, we internalize it…and Black children are asking themselves: “Why was I kicked out of class?”, “Why was I suspended for a minor infraction like swearing, when non-Black kids do much worse and are not suspended?”, “Why do police treat us this way, and when the police take a Black child’s life, why is that not illegal?” We cannot shelter our children from these realities; all we can do is let them know that they are not alone in combating them. It is necessary to teach our children the value of their lives, and that we will fight for them with everything with have in us.

Beyond our public school system’s failure to academically prepare our children, our public schools are not invested in humanizing, self-affirming, queer positive educational opportunities for Black children in the GTA. Black parents do not feel that our children are being taught self-love, and a passion for justice and liberation through their formal education. Our public schools are not measuring up to our children’s transformative potential.

S: What kind of programming can people expect?

L: We will be teaching children that: your Black life matters, and you must demonstrate to your peers that their Black lives matter by protecting their dignity. The things you didn’t learn in school: The BlackLivesMatter Movement, Marie Joseph Angelique, Marsha P. Johnson and the Stonewall Riots, the Memphis garbage strikes, Nanny Maroon and the Maroons, The Bussa Revolution in Barbados, The Haitian Revolution, Soweto Uprisings….global perspectives on Black Liberation. But they will learn about it all using engaging child friendly resources like claymation, video animation, augmented realities etc.

The children will also learn about Black pride. We are having Najla Nubyanluv come in to share her new children’s book, I Love Being Black. We are having people come in to teach the connections between capoeira and Black liberation, dancehall and Black liberation, drumming and Black liberation. We are having community artists come in to teach the kids about the Black arts movement and do printmaking with the children. We will be taking the children to 6 Nations and to the Black Farmer’s Network so that they can better understand the land we live on, develop a commitment to decolonization, and learn about our history as plant based healers. We are cooking for the children everyday…we are cooking with the children too. We are cooking Joumou soup that Haitians cook to celebrate their Independence from the French. We are also teaching the children how to plan and execute an action against state violence. In fact freedom school will culminate in this.

S: How does the Freedom School fit within a transformative justice framework?

L: One of the things we know is that our school system focuses obsessively on productivity. It teaches our children to be workers…especially our Black students. If our Black children’s personhood, or the things they are going through in their everyday lives interferes with that productivity or the productivity of others: they are suspended, they are expelled, or they are put in behavioral programs to “correct their behaviour” so that they can become productive as per the priorities of a Capitalist state. Our children are not encouraged to spend time checking in with themselves about their feelings and their needs. They do not have the space to be vulnerable or even emotional. They are not encouraged to demand that the conditions of their education transform to meet their needs.

Transformative Justice is the belief that we need to adjust systemic power to create space for transformative practices. Instead of dealing with student conduct using escalating punishments, we will be transforming the conditions that affect student conduct…for example engagement, appropriate cultural framework, and representation. The content of Freedom School programming came from parent and youth visioning, not from a top down process. Also, when we address conduct issues in Freedom School we will be asking questions like: “Why do you think you acted this way?”, “How do you feel you are treated by the person you harmed?”, “Do you feel you have everything you need to be successful here?”, “How can we support you to acquire the resources you need to be successful here?”, “In what ways do you feel powerful?”, “What can we do to add to that power?”

Black and White headshot of Leroi

Leroi Newbold is an artist, community organizer and an educator at Canada’s first public Africentric school

Black and white picture of shabina hand picking dandelions

Shabina is a community herbalist and organizer working towards the liberation of all people.

Book Review: Science of the Sacred

Picture of Nicole Redvers "Science of the Sacred" book cover. in smaller font it reads "bridging global indigenous medicine systems and modern scientific principles". There is an image of a stethoscope and eagle feather.

Book by Nicole Redvers, ND

Review by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

I have been following Dr. Nicole Redvers’ work since she was awarded the Arctic Inspiration Prize for her work with the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, an organization dedicated to revitalizing Indigenous traditional healing services in the North. As an herbalist and a woman of colour, working to support the resurgence of traditional knowledge in my community, I found her work to get traditional foods into hospitals super inspiring. When it was announced that she was publishing a book, I knew I had to read it.

The Science of the Sacred: Bridging Global Indigenous Medicine Systems and Modern Scientific Principles explores the relationship between medical research and Indigenous healing practices from across the globe. Redvers draws on her knowledge from her education and experience as a Naturopathic Doctor and more personally, as a Dene woman. While reading her book, I found myself pausing again and again, taking in the strength of traditional knowledge and the depth of understanding that our ancestors carried.

In a time where so many people are so sick, it can be so very to place Western Medicine on either side of a dangerous binary of good or bad as Traditional Chinese Medicine tells us, there is no Yin without Yang. Meaning binaries are but an illusion in the everchanging cycles of life. This book allows the reader to see how Western Medical science is also part of this cycle. A system that was once so deviated from natural ways of knowing has slowly started to come full circle and back to our roots. Redvers conducts a very thorough examination of current medical research that affirms the knowledge of our grandmothers, showing us that the future of Western science is one that can work in harmony with our various traditional systems of knowledge.

What struck me the most about the book was how much overlap there is between our various cultures and healing practices and it became clear that our various ways of seeing the world are not simply different worldviews, but in fact, are different interpretations of a common truth. We are all connected by the ways we have observed the natural world.

Overall, I definitely recommend this incredible and well research piece and look forward to seeing more of Dr. Redvers work.

Shabina is a community herbalist and organizer working towards the liberation of all people.

Finding Common Ground and Fighting Nazis:

a blue image of nazi symbol being shattered by a nail

An Interview with Loretta Ross

By Julianah Oguntala & Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

With the rise of hate crimes and the lack of preventative strategies government are adopting to prevent the radicalization of white supremacists, it can be to easy to feel helpless. In times like these, it can be so important to turn to our elders to help in our fight justice

Recently, I was given the opportunity to interview one of my heros, internationally-acclaimed author, activist and feminist, Loretta Ross, about her work dismantling hate groups. Loretta was the Founder and former Executive Director of the National Center for Human Rights Education (NCHRE) in Atlanta, Georgia, former Program Research Director at the Center for Democratic Renewal/National Anti-Klan Network, the third Executive Director of the first rape crisis centre in the United States and organizer of the largest protest in U.S. history. She holds an immense wealth of knowledge and decades of experience I think many of us could learn from.

Shabina: I’d like to thank you for taking you time to speak with me today. I first wanted to ask you about some of the struggles and challenges you faced when you led your organizing efforts.

Loretta Ross: Well, the biggest struggle, of course, is that when you are doing anti-fascist work, you have to get fascist, which is not always pleasant work and you are not necessarily hanging out with the right people. I was the only woman who ran a research department studying hate groups at the time and I was the only Black person to do it. And so, there was a lot of embedded misogyny and surprisingly, racism amongst the anti-racist movement .

S: Do you feel that has changed over time?

LR: Well, there is certainly more diversity in the people doing the work. Whether or not there is still misogyny or racism in the movement, since I don’t do the work anymore, I can’t say that the organizations are less racist or misogynist. But there are certainly more women writing about fascism. I organized a retreat last year on women and fascism and was able to bring together almost 15-20 people who do that research now and they were all women.

S:Can you talk a bit about the difference in terms of the approach in women-centered anti-fascist organizing vs. the former circles you were running with?

LR: Well, one of the things that men consistently doing the work fail to do is integrate an analysis of gender and so they weren’t intersectional. They usually only talked about racism and sometimes anti-semitism. They rarely talked about homophobia, and never, none of us talked about transphobia, to be honest. I means we weren’t that far ahead of the curve.

But they didn’t integrate gender to my satisfaction. For example, I thought that the violence against abortion providers by the violent vigilante subculture was connected to racist violence and to homophobic and anti-immigrant violence. I thought the walls between what looked like separate movements were in fact right polarists, and people were crossing over. If we are able to be intersectional in their hatred and that was very hard to persuade my male colleagues to give as much attention to misogynist violence as they gave to racist, anti-semitic and occasionally anti-Indian and anti-Immigrant violence.

S: Thanks. Did you want to chat a bit about what you did or what your role was, what were some of the goals of your organization at that time?

LR: Well, the Center for Democratic Renewal National Anti-klan network was the first group to monitor hate groups like that. We started in 1979, two years before the Southern Poverty Law Center. It was started by veterans of the Civil Rights movement, Black and White veterans of the movement. And so, our first goal was to identify people and organizations in the hate movement and our second goal was to publish reports about them to warn people of their potential for violence and therefore potential for affecting the discourse on civil rights, hate, and anti-semitism in the United States. And our third goal was to organize effective responses to them and that meant working with the affected communities. Let’s say when the Klan decided to have a march, to help people come up with effective non-violent responses − because the tendency was for people to want to bury their heads in the sands, hoping that they would go away. Or you had the other extreme response which was the response of violence with violence and we didn’t want either of those responses because they were less than helpful. I started as their program director and my job, at the beginning, was on the community responses. When our research director Leonard Zeskind retired after he got the MacArthur Genius Award, I became the research and program director. And so then my job was monitoring the preparation of reports and dealing with the media.

S: What was your experience working with ex-Klan Members like?  I have read that you have done some rehabilitation with people who had left the Klan. Did you find their ideologies changed when they were working with you?

LR: I don’t think I was responsible at all for their change in ideology because usually they had left the organizations before they contacted the centre and there were a variety of reasons for why they left. Probably the largest single impulse to leave was to avoid being liable, or at least being held responsible, for the criminal activities of the groups of which they were associated. One particular person, Floyd Cochrane, said he left because his second son had been born with a cleft palate and his Nazi buddies said the Aryan Nations told him that his son was a genetic defect who needed to be eliminated; so he had quite a personal reason for re-evaluating the company that he kept. One family, Kian and Carol Peterson, left the KKK because of criminal activities that they didn’t want to held accountable for. So, there were a variety of reasons. The impact that we would have, first of all, was to help them get out of danger. Quite often, they would leave these organizations secretly, sometimes not even being able to carry clothes with them or their household furnishings or anything. They snuck away because they were afraid of retribution from their former colleagues. So it was an informal underground to get them relocated to another city. Similar to a community-based witness protection program. We weren’t the state, we weren’t law enforcement, so we had limited resources. And quite often we would use churches and things as ways to provide them support while they were reorganizing their lives. We did introduce them to different concepts and very rarely was anybody in the hate groups prepared to have conversation on homophobia, for example. And one of the significant moments that I experienced was when Floyd Cochrane had to testify. – chose to testify – I should say, in support of LGBT rights at a state legislature that was trying to pass a hate crime speil.  And that was probably his first time ever really speaking up in support of gay rights. He was trying to make amends for all the wrongs that he had done so he was willing to have his mind expanded.

S: You have been involved with a wide range of social justice fights and activisms. From the founding of the National Center for Human Rights and Education to being their program and research director at the Center for Democratic Renewal/ the national Anti-Klan Network. What motivates you to keep going and to keep the fight going?

LR: Well, I think my biggest motivation is my passion for human rights, which of course evolved over the decade. This wasn’t what I immediately started with. I was a rape and incest survivor and that led me to the anti-violence movement. It was there that I learned to teach Black feminist theory to Black men who were incarcerated, who were rapists themselves. What I learned about myself was that I could have very insightful, passionate conversations with people I wouldn’t necessarily bring home for coffee. And so when you are a survivor, you do the things that help you survive and eventually I developed a passion for social justice and dealt with the assassination of a political colleague in 1980 which frightened a lot of people because we were doing only legal activities so we never thought that the state would move so aggressively against us. Somewhat naively, we didn’t believe that. After Yolanda Ward was assassinated, I had to make a decision. I either had to recommit myself to being in the struggle or do like the majority of my colleagues did and go back into their regular lives. And so that was the point, 1980 was the year I decided that I was going to be a social justice activist for the rest of my life, however long that life was.

S: In terms of the current movement to end race-based violence, what kind of advice do you have for activists and organizers?

LR: Well, I can only pass on the same advice that was offered to me. As I said, my mentor was Leonard Zeskind, and he once told me to lighten up because I was taking the work entirely too seriously. And he said fighting Nazis should be fun, it’s being a Nazi that sucks. And I have always taken that to heart that we can do this work for human rights without sacrificing our joie de vivre and we really can see the world as a wonderful place full of promise and opportunities even as we deal with this netherworld of cynicism and hate. And to not descend into being cynical or hateful ourselves.

S: Right now, you are working on a book, Calling In the Calling Out Culture. Did you want to give a brief description of what the book will be about?

LR: Yes, It’s called Calling In the Calling out Culture and it actually was inspired by a fellow Canadian, Asam Ahmad. He and I spoke on a program together at the University of Massachusetts and I actually was perturbed in the early 2000’s by the vitriol of the internet culture. I was actually surprised by it because I’m fairly elderly, so I wasn’t aware of how much shade was being thrown, how much calling out was being done over the internet. And so when I observed this phenomenon and spoke about it, this young woman told me that this was part of the call out culture and of course young people had named it. And so this caused me to do an internet search and that was when I encountered Asam’s writing on the topic. And so, I began to read a lot on it. And then I figured I had something minor to contribute to trying to change this call out culture, since I had done this anti-rape work working with men who had murdered women and raped them and since I had done this anti-rape work working with men who had murdered women and raped them and since I had done that reprogramming of people in hate groups and things like that. That’s just decades working with problematic allies, in the predominantly white women’s movement. I thought I had learned some lessons that I would like to share about working with people without indulging in the call out culture. And so that’s what I tried to package up in my book. One of my life lessons about dealing with people you don’t agree with is also that you don’t use tactical calling them out as a way of building movements.

S: What are you hoping that the book can incite in terms of impacting call out culture?

LR: Well, the book is primarily on skills building as a pathway for building a more unified human rights movement and so, it’s about self-forgiveness, so that you can then forgive others for the mistakes that they make. It’s about how you can actually go through steps of listening to diverse points of views that you don’t necessarily agree with but still keep the conversation ball rolling. It’s about showing people that it’s possible to do activism in a lot of different ways without doing it in a way that violates people’s human rights.

S: Over your work doing rehabilitative work and working with people who have done some pretty awful things, how do you feel about people’s ability to transform? Do you have hope that we can get through this?

LR: I think the majority of people are just good people who do bad things. And I think that the majority of humanity, if we are honest with ourselves, we are all victimized violators capable of having our human rights violated, and at the same time capable of violating someone else’s human rights. And so that’s kind of how I see the world. I tend to really focus on forgiving others and start from forgiving myself. And trying to find that common ground where we can have discourse, where we can have conversation not with the goal of persuading people to agree with me or believe me. But with the goal of persuading them to work with me so we that can build a human rights movement.

S: Thanks so much, Loretta.

Loretta Ross is the Founder and former Executive Director of the National Center for Human Rights Education (NCHRE) in Atlanta, Georgia, former Program Research Director at the Center for Democratic Renewal/National Anti-Klan Network, the third Executive Director of the first rape crisis centre in the United States and co-organizer of the largest protest in U.S. history.

Black and white picture of shabina hand picking dandelions

Shabina is a community herbalist and organizer working towards the liberation of all people.

Julianah Oguntala is a second year Biomedical Sciences student at the University of Guelph. She hopes to pursue a long career as a physician, providing compassionate care to those who need it the most. She loves to read and spend time with her family.

Bringing Back the Flower Dance: An interview with Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy

by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, a Hupa, Yurok and Karuk woman currently working as an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. I got the chance to ask her some questions about her upcoming book We Are Dancing For You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-age Ceremonies (which is set to be released this spring), and learn more about her work supporting the revitalization of Native American arts and culture.

Illustration above: Teach her by Mia Ohki 

S: First off I wanted to thank you for taking your time to do this interview. I recently came across an advertisement for the book and have been exploring your writing ever since. Do you want to tell our readers a little bit about your work both through academia and in your community?

B: My work focuses on Native people and communities to help tell the stories of our strength and resilience. I try not to separate the work I do in academia from the work I do in the community, although it is sometimes hard because of the way that academia expects certain kinds of discourse. I’m always thinking about how my work can show the important ways that Native people have always been foregrounding land and environmental based knowledge and how they have built a very long tradition of education and intellectualism that most people do not learn about in schools. My academic work is focused on elevating Indigenous voices and the work being done by Indigenous peoples on the ground. Some of the most important things that we can learn about how to build a future that is liberated from patriarchy, heteronormativity, and white supremacy should come from Indigenous teachings. Since the beginning of time we have been theorizing our worlds – so I know we have a lot to offer when it comes to addressing major issues that are part of this contemporary culture.

The work I do on the blog is trying to use humor to break down people’s ideas about Native peoples and issues. A little while ago a friend asked me what I thought were my most powerful tools that I have to continue the work we do to liberate and elevate our communities and I said “humor.” I’m always telling students that Native people are probably the funniest people I know, usually inappropriately funny, but people don’t learn that about us, or even see that in movies or on television. We laugh all the time. My grandma was always saying to me “everything is a funny story…later” and “if you can laugh at something it doesn’t have power over you anymore.” That’s how I feel about colonialism. Colonialism is counter-intuitive, doesn’t make a lot of sense and it is just dying to be the punchline in a joke. I’d like to think at some point I’ll find a way to bring a lot of humor into my academic work, but I haven’t done it nearly enough yet.

S: So, your book We are dancing for you, is about to be released this Spring. Can you talk to us a little about the book, about what inspired you to put these experiences into words?

B: The book came out of my personal experience with the revitalization movements for our women’s coming-of-age ceremonies in the Northern California region. When I was 12 years old I started menstruating and my mother offered to do a dance for me, but I refused. A lot of it was internalized ideas about menstruation being dirty or shameful, but it was also internalized ideas about “primitive Indians” and how they celebrate women. After I turned it down my mother continued to do work with the women in our community to bring this dance back. It was important to them to center young women so that we could teach our young women self-determination and self-worth. Part of the idea was combating our recent history of colonization that had targeted our women’s ceremonies for eradication, and part of it was also to empower the entire community by showing how we value gender equality and that young woman are an important part of our cultures and futures.

The more work I have done with Native communities and peoples the more I see how our Native feminisms were silenced by colonialism and that we are working now, not just to decolonize, but to decolonize in a way that dismantles patriarchy. When I started going to these ceremonies, and singing over these girls I wouldn’t have used these words to describe what we were doing, but the more I listened and learned and the more research I did in Native feminisms, the more I realized that our ceremonies were and continue to be an important praxis of decolonization. My original thought was “how can the women who did this work on the ground tell this story?” For too long, the story of Native people and Native cultures has been told by mostly white, male anthropologists and ethnographers. So I wanted to make sure that this story, one that is about our survivance and our resilience, was told through the voices and memories of our people. And this also becomes the theorizing and demonstration of what Native feminisms actually look like. Our cultures are about balance and equality and that’s feminism.

S: So often the ceremonies and histories of Indigenous people around the world are written about through a colonial and anthropological perspective. More often that not, these writings are deeply influenced by racist assumptions. Can you talk about the power of writing about stories from your own community?

B: You know, I grew up knowing who the anthropologists were that studied our communities. I could name some of them, including Alfred Kroeber (one of the most famous). And I knew what he said about our people – but almost in a joking way. We joked a lot about how wrong assumptions were about us. Many people think about our cultures and peoples as in the past, almost as if we stopped existing because we were not the “pure” Indians that were being described by anthropologists in their books. So I do think it’s important that now we are finding ways to tell our own stories and interpretations, using the knowledge we have to decide what the narrative of our cultures and histories are going to be.

What is interesting about revitalization movements like these, is that in our community the women actually used the anthropological research to help understand the ceremony. So while Kroeber was writing these things down because he believed that the people were dying, or that the ceremony was going “extinct,” instead, they became part of the record that would be used to revive the dance. That’s a powerful moment. We are not dying, vanishing Indians, we are revitalizing, living peoples. And these books don’t hold our dying, in the past cultures, they are part of our living cultures. I like to think (and I theorize in the book) that many of the Native people working with the anthropologists at the time envisioned that moment from the very beginning. So they didn’t buy in to the “you’re dying and should tell us stories so we can document them before you disappear,” instead they were thinking “one day our people will find these stories and these descriptions and I want them to be here for them when they do.” There are transcripts that I’ve read which are Native people saying just that, like in one case a woman offered a song and she opens it with something like “this is a Flower Dance song, it hasn’t been sung in a long time. I hope one day someone will sing it at a Flower Dance again.” And then we did. That’s not the story that Kroeber or other anthropologists were telling when they wrote and published their books, but that has always been the real story. That’s the story that we are going to tell.

S: How has the reclamation of this ceremony impacted the young people in your community?

It’s hard to summarize, because there are so many ways that the ceremony has affected young people. Some of the   young women I interviewed talked about how it showed them the amount of support they have in the community, so they felt like they could do anything and would always have people to help them. Others talk about how it gave them the confidence to do things that they might not otherwise do. People talk about how it demonstrated for them that women can be central to ceremony and that seeing women singing together showed them how much support we can give each other. At first when we did the dance many young women didn’t want to do it because it is usually done after a girl starts menstruating. They were worried about people knowing because of our western menstrual taboo. But now young women are planning for their dances their whole lives. They talk about them. They are excited for them. It has made people in the community excited for young women as they grow up. So instead of young women feeling ashamed about puberty etc. they are excited and happy. Most of the young woman I’ve seen who have gone through this ceremony are now doing amazing things, reaching for their goals in life, and making sure to pass along their own lessons to younger generations. I love that young people see women singing, because for a long time you didn’t really see women singing in our ceremonies. Now, you have young people requesting women to sing for them, or you have them complimenting women singers. These types of things change very quickly, I have found. For instance, when I was 12 and my mother offered to do this dance for me I said no because I was scared and didn’t want people to know about my period. After we did the first revitalized dance, young girls were still hesitant. Now we’ve been doing the dance for over 15 years, and guess what, this is just what we do. My daughter is 10, she’s never known a time when we didn’t dance for young women who had their first menstruation. She hasn’t known a time when we didn’t come together as a community to show young women how much support they have. She hasn’t known a time were we didn’t reach out and provide support for young woman as they move from being a child into being an adult. So in her mind, this is just who we are as Hupa people. That only took 10 years.

S: What kind of advice do you have for people wanting to revive ceremonies in their own communities?

B: I would say, start by listening. Go to as many elders and people as you can and just listen to their stories, their memories, their questions, their visions of what this could look like. Collect all the stories and memories and ideas that you can. Listen to them and then listen to the people who left their stories in the archives. It takes a lot of listening because you are helping to wake these stories up. All of the women I interviewed they kept saying all it took was to “scratch the surface.” They said “we just had to start going to people and hearing their stories and then another person came and another. We found one story in the archive and then another and another.”

The best advice for the archive is to read the books but also read the notes. Anthropologists and ethnographers usually kept detailed notes of their interviews. This is where you are going to really be able to listen to the words of those who worked to leave an archive behind. The notes are very often different (more detailed, more focused) than what is in the book. In some cases they can completely contradict what is in the book. So read the notes, read the transcripts. Listen to those stories.

And after you’ve started “scratching the surface” be open to what else comes your way. At first there were not very many songs that people had to sing, but that’s okay. We came and sang the three or four songs people knew. But then after that other people started remembering songs. Or other people started to get songs. I got a song once while I was making mashed potatoes. It just came to me. I started singing it and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Now I sing it all the time. So the women like to tell me,   you start this journey, and everything comes together, because these ceremonies have been waiting for us to search for them again. They’ve been waiting for us.

Anthropologists like to say they went “extinct” or “disappeared” but I like to think about what my mentor Ines Hernandez-Avila taught me. They never went extinct, they were just waiting for us. So we scratch the surface, and we listen for them, and they will come back to us.

The last thing the women told me was “just do it.” They said, start the listening, do the research, put some notes together and then just do it. Don’t wait for it to be the perfect time, just do it. After the first one there will be a second one and then a third one. You just have to do the first one. So, just do it.

S: How can people get a hold of your book?

B: You can pre-order it now on the University of Washington Press website or on Amazon. It will be released in May-June 2018. I know for sure it should be at the Native American Indigenous Studies Association Conference this year in Los Angeles, CA. I’ll also have a link to it on my website.

Mia Ohki
Mia Ohki is a Metis Japanese-Canadian artist, born in Connecticut, USA, and raised in Alberta, Canada. She presently lives and works between Edmonton and Calgary, AB. Mia primarily illustrates with black pen on white paper to convey ideas surrounding the social, feminine and cultural influences in her life, however her art is mostly influenced by her background, with Japanese and Metis culture frequently appearing in the subject matter.

Dr Cutcha Risling Baldy
Dr Cutcha Risling Baldy is currently an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. Her research is focused on Indigenous feminisms, California Indians and decolonization. She received her Ph.D in Native American Studies with a designated Emphasis in Feminist Theory and Research from the University of California, Davis and her M.F.A in Creative Writing & Literary Research from San Diego State University. She also has her B.A. in Psychology from Stanford University. 

Mending Wounds

An Interview with Suzie Miller of the Pen Pal Project

by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

In 2006, a group of clan mothers in Six Nations decided to halt the construction of a subdivision on the Douglas Creek Estate in Caledonia. This chunk of land, along with the rest of Caledonia fall under Six Nations Territory that was promised to the Haudenosaunee people in the Haldimand Treaty of 1784. The government has refused to halt construction of the contested territory and this reclamation was a direct response to the continuous land theft.

The reclamation of the estate, also known as Kanonhstaton, sparked a lot of discussion around indigenous land rights and drew out hundred of supporters. Unfortunately, it also magnified the racism present and furthered the division between the people of Caledonia and Six Nations. This culminated in a multitude of instances of physical violence.

Suzie Miller, a school teacher in Six Nations witnessed this division and violence. As a mixed race woman, who had family on the reserve as well as in Caledonia, she felt she had a responsibility to mend relations between the two communities. She decided to start up The Pen Pal Project; an initiative aiming at connecting youth from both communities so that they could learn about each others histories and cultures in order to foster respect, care and understanding.

Recently I had the opportunity to learn more about the project and how it transformed the communities around her.

Shabina: So tell me how the pen Pal Project started?

My two communities were at war it seemed, it was…chaos.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the original videos but it was awful. So my concern was for the children and how they would perceive each other and in neighbouring communities across the river. You know people penpal across continents but you don’t think about penpalling across the river. The thing was people didn’t realize that Six Nations was even there. Some people didn’t even know they were next to the largest reserve in Canada and they didn’t know the history that we have in our treaties so how do we educate our people? I was like let’s get the children writing across the river; so Six Nations to Caledonia.

S: So how many youth are involved in the Pen Pal Project?

It started with two classes and it just grew. 2016 was ten years since the project started and we had 100 schools, so 2,500 kids involved. Every year we met and celebrated and that was really neat because the kids got to meet with their pen pal at the end of the year. It was a massive initiative, we had a wonderful bunch of people that contributed to this amazing project but it was like after ten years I thought,   “I don’t need to do this anymore, people can do this on their own. I don’t need to get them together”. It was a lot of work. People all around wanted to then start to understand First Nations people. I felt like I was always begging teachers from Six Nations and New Credit asking if they could pen pal and I didn’t think I had to keep doing that. I wanted it to go out with a bang rather then simmer and die out. It was an amazing thing – ten years – and then I figured I’d pass it off and see where people take it.

There are still lot’s of connections happening. A lot of people are still pen palling but I’m not coordinating it. I still do a bit but we’re doing different things. We’re connecting schools like we have some sister schools working together in Brantford and Six Nations and so it’s kind of morphed and evolved to connecting in different ways.

S: How were you hoping the Pen Pal Project would impact the youth involved?

The whole thing is really just linking classrooms you know, between Six Nations and our neighbours and that was the thing. The initial project was about your neighbours, it was about the people next to us. Something I’d really like to do is see Northern communities connecting with their closest neighbours where the kids would be going off to school when they reach Secondary school and they would have a relationship built from childhood. Because at the highschool level, Six Nations kids and New Credit kids they have to leave their community to go to highschool. I remember one of my students from grade 8, he got to grade 9 and he had met five of his pen pals. There was a familiarity when he went to highschool and had to leave his community. Even though it’s close here to leave, in the North, some kids have to move away to go to highschool. So if they could build a relationship and a sense of comfort with their neighbouring community that would help. So it would be nice to get into that. Let’s say Thunder Bay, they need a lot of help I think in understanding each other. Something like this could happen across Canada.

In Alberta we had a small community that was writing. There were four small reserves around this place called Grand Cash, Alberta and somebody from here went out there to work and so she started the project out there. They didn’t even know that there were reserves and they didn’t know that there were schools on the reserve and so they connected. Again it’s about your neighbours, knowing who your neighbours are and sharing your culture with your surrounding community. It was a simple project and simplest idea that grew into something beautiful.

S: Are you still involved with the project even though you are no longer coordinating it?

People still contact me for connections and things but I am just not formally coordinating and nobody took it over. It’s a lot of work, it came from my heart and I don’t think that anybody really could have taken it over to keep it going the way it was. We’re not formally connecting, it was ten years and in that time we did our logo, we did an overhead picture, there’s videos, we have our website, so we have communities still connecting in different ways and we are still documenting things on the website but I am not formally doing the connections anymore. Teachers are doing their own thing so I really don’t know. The concept of pen pals, people have taken it upon themselves so if they want to do it they will do it   instead of feeling pressured. Again, It’s a lot of work and already being a teacher is a lot of work so I want to let people who are committed to taking it over and doing it for themselves. I don’t need to do this anymore.

S: What are you up to these days?

I am working with Grand Erie District School Board so I am still doing a lot of linking of Indigenous culture. I am an Indigenous instructional coach so I am going into classrooms, I am teaching about our history, I am building community in classrooms and I am kind of bringing indigenous approaches into the classrooms to bring students voices forward in a healthy way. I am helping to build safe places plus I am sharing our ways of understanding the world which is all about equality, the circle, respect and giving thanks to Mother Earth. You know those basic concepts. I am doing this work in classrooms from kindergarten to grade 8.

A lot of this is happening in Brantford where we have a high Native population in the classrooms. So the kids see themselves represented and they can understand their history because a lot of kids don’t understand and a lot of their parents don’t know. A lot of cultural knowledge has been lost so I am really thankful that I can bring this into the schools. Because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission it has to be taught in schools, people want to teach it but they are afraid because they don’t want to get it wrong. They want to honour the history as best as they can but they don’t know it. So I am one person who can help build that knowledge in the classrooms with the teachers and the students.

S: That is so important. I work with mostly settler youth and I talk to some about what they are learning in their schools and it seems so removed in a lot of ways. They get taught about things but on a really surface level and not on a nation specific level. It’s like they’re learning that residential schools happened and it was bad but they won’t talk about where they happened and what communities that are close by were affected.

And so we are lucky because we are doing that work in Grand Eerie and we should be being next to the largest reserve in Canada. I mean Six Nations students become Grand Eerie students in Secondary so it’s important. It’s also important to make sure that people understand that Haudenosaunee, we have our own history based on space and place. Just understanding that everyone has different teachings based on where you come from. You know the Inuit and their way of life and their beliefs will be different from ours. I will actually be talking about some of that next week because one of the teachers are showing a song by the Jerrycans; a music group from Iqaluit. It’s a song about the Northern lights and it is a beautiful song but yeah I am going to talk to them about the seal hunt. I have some seal jewelry so I am going to wear it and talk to them about that campaign to stop the seal hunt and how the seal hunt is a way of life for Inuit people. I want to allow people to imagine how long they have been surviving on the land and in their space and here we are interfering and judging. So understanding to not interfere in indigenous ways and understanding the indigenous ways based on where you come from and the specific land you are on.

I am trying to build that awareness not just on who we are as Haudenosaunee, but who are the Anishinabe and who are the Inuit and who are the Metis and what is this history that people just don’t know about. The truth of the history of Canada. But I always share it with a caring and kind heart. Always with the idea of let’s learn from the past and let’s not judge each other. I teach about the Two Row Wampum and how we are all represented on that. Even today that is still our treaty together. Children like to hear that. They think “I am represented on that, on that Wampum belt”

S: It allows them to play an active role in it. They should be playing an active role in it, settlers and indigenous youth. If you can see yourself in it, you see how to move forward.

Yeah you can see that we can do this. This is our treaty and it came before Canada and the United States were countries. So I teach that and I teach using the Two Row as two perspectives. This is how I teach about respect, as in I understand the world my way and you understand the world your way because that agreement came together with two worldviews that were probably not even understood at the time. So today it’s like, how do we have a healthy relationship with these two perspectives and honouring that the two perspectives are different but not having to interfere or change that. As in the way I understand things might be different and thinking how beautiful is that instead of thinking that someone else has to believe my way. It’s such a beautiful way to teach individual respect.

I am very lucky that I get to do what I do. I basically got to create my own job. It is a new position and hopefully it’ll get to keep going. But I mean, I think it’s pretty self-explanatory why these types of things are important. It’s so that people understand each other, the truth, the history and how we move forward. Because I think maybe the young people could come up with more solutions after they know because so far they have been denied and just not acknowledged. Somehow we have to move forward in a healthy way and acknowledge our past and our history so that we can move forward.

We talk about equity for all people. As indigenous people we are one group but how do we provide equity for all? In the school system how do we provide the healthiest education for all? I guess the awareness is starting, I mean of certain issues. Right now a lot of people know that first Nation children and schools have less funding for education and that we don’t even have healthy water.

So yeah, the increase of awareness of Mother Earth and where food comes from and being thankful. You know, all of the things that young people are really disconnected from. This work connects us back to the idea of giving thanks and being stewards of the Earth. I mean personally I didn’t know anything about my culture growing up, my mother didn’t know, my grandmother didn’t know. I’ve learnt just a little bit and I am trying to share that as much as I can because so much of it we just didn’t know. I mean it was against the law to practice our ceremonies. So teaching from the past. I remember somebody said well you know this happened in many different places in history and it’s like yeah that’s true but here we actually made treaties. We actually had an agreement. So that’s pretty interesting. It’s something that we can connect back to. We made this treaty together. That’s pretty neat. I think.

In terms of this work I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we didn’t do it. We’ve come so far. Caledonia’s high school has the highest Native population now. In 2006 kids didn’t want to go there, it was pretty scary. There was a lot of judgement and bad feelings. I think the project really helped the communities. The children taught the adults. Through the project they brought awareness of acceptance, non-judgement and historical truth. Moving forward you hear people say know better do better. So it’s like yeah now that we know better we do better.

Yeah, fingers crossed! I saw a little bit of the ugliness during the reclamation of Kanonstaton and it was terrifying. What you were doing and what you are still doing is so important.

Yeah at the time, since I am from both communities, it was really difficult to watch and hear both sides. From Caledonia you’d hear anti-Six Nations comments and in Six Nations you’d hear anti-Caledonia comments. They are both my communities that I am completely embedded in so it was awful. Sometimes you forget how bad it was. And if you were there you know and can only imagine what it was like for the people who live here and the people who were/are connected to both communities. I think it’s had an impact. We’re doing some research to get some stories from former pen pals and maybe doing some documented interviews to see how it’s had an impact on their relationships in their lives.

S: Well thank you so much for your time and sharing this with us.\


Suzie Miller
Suzie Miller Is an Indigenous Instructional Coach Grand Erie District School Board (Former Student Work Study Teacher-Indigenous Focused).I am a Caledonia resident, worked at Six Nations for 27 years, 12 years as Addictions Counsellor and 15 years as a classroom teacher.My mother was from Six Nations, Mohawk Wolf clan – my father was a businessman in Caledonia.I am the mother of two sons and have been married for 31 years.

Re-envisioning Our Communities

blue, black and white illustration of 3 brown kids happily eating cupcakes

Facilitated by: Shabina Lafleur-Gangji 

Why are so many of our QTBIPOC (queer and trans black, indigenous and people of colour) spaces so often inaccessible to parents and kids? What do we need to do to change that dynamic? How do we build community and movements of inter-generational voices that don’t just simply leave people behind when they have kids? These were the questions I was asking myself and so I decided to explore these questions in a roundtable discussion with a few racialized queer/trans parents.

Shabina: Can you introduced yourselves?

LeRoi: I’m LeRoi and I’m an educator at Africentric Alternative School and an organizer for BlackLivesMatter Toronto. I have a two and a half year old whom I’ve single-parented since he was born…although I recently decided to start co-parenting with someone who has always been FAM to us.

QueenTite: I am QueenTite, owner of Natty (natural mobile salon), Co- founding director of PFFD inc, and creator of QTPOC – Toronto. I am single mother to 18 year old Ayomide and 7 year old Iahnijah of Nigerian/Jamaican Roots.

Akio – I am human rights activist and  a Mother of 8 year old multiracial child of Black and Métis heritage with one on the way

Amandeep: My name is Amandeep Kaur and I have two kids aged 2 and 4 years.

Shabina: How do you find navigating queer/trans spaces as a parent? Do you find most spaces are accessible to you?

QueenTite: I find navigating queer spaces as a parent kind of challenging. I am still new to the city, so I haven’t had much opportunity to explore…but I don’t find [queer spaces] really available. Finding events that are family-friendly have been challenging.

Akio: Navigating queer spaces as a parent is hard, as it often feels like I have to create the spaces for myself or fight to have the space accessible to me and my spawn. Which I often don’t have time or energy for.

LeRoi: I find navigating queer/trans spaces as a parent to be challenging sometimes. There are some queer Black events and spaces that I’ve gone to that have been really dope for bringing kids, but I feel like there’s a lot of emphasis on creating queer/trans spaces for youth and not much for older people…I think lots of times people don’t think of making events accessible to parents if they haven’t grown up with lots of kids in their life. Also in terms of community organizing spaces sometimes there is just no effort to accommodate parents. I’ve brought my kid to meetings before when he was really little and spent the whole time chasing him around the hallways of Flemington Park Community Centre while everyone just continued their conversation.

S: What have you found really helpful in making community spaces accessible to you?

QueenTite: I have found having ECE (Early Childhood Education) educators present to engage the youths is helpful and a room equipped with fun stuff.

Akio: Most spaces aren’t accessible to me nor any of my intersectionalities.

POC spaces aren’t sex worker positive, queer spaces too white and all of them are very clique-y and no one considers that parents have value and therefore they should have accessibilities for us. So Basically I have to A) create my own, or B) work with/fight with the organizers to create space that’s safe and accessible (found this easier in queer white spaces than queer POC spaces)

LeRoi: What helps to make spaces accessible to me is parties in the daytime. They have this dope party for BIPOC queers in Oakland where people turn up from like 2 to 8pm. I really wish we had that here. Cuz even if I get childcare to go out at night, nobody’s tryin’ to wake up at 7am with my son.

LeRoi: Yea, childcare being offered is helpful to me, but I also like when people just find ways to make spaces engaging for kids, like the other day I went to the book launch for “I Love Being Black”. They had a bunch of play-dough set up in one corner of the rooms for kids to sit and play. There was food like samosas and cupcakes…and there was a big chalkboard for kids to write about what they love about being Black. So in that way it was like kids were invited to be part of the event and to contribute. That was dope.

QueenTite: I’d like a community of willing affordable sitters also.

LeRoi: Yes to affordable baby sitters…cuz sometimes you can’t bring your kid to childcare at an event. If they have to nap or something and they wont sleep in a room full of people. Also I like when I bring my kid somewhere and people explicitly tell me not worry about him making noise or crying…then I feel like I can relax a bit more

QueenTite: Sometimes I don’t want to beg my child – I want me time to network and such. But affordable sitters are not accessible to me. Charging nearly fifiteen dollars per hour with no masters in parenting.

Amandeep: That event sounds amazing! and I wanted to agree with the point about more affordable sitters..

LeRoi: I feel like what actually ends up making events more accessible to me when there’s no childcare offered is friends taking turns kicking it with my kid..taking him outside to go crawl all on stuff or into the hallway to be loud…Other parents I know end up being the ones to do that lots of the time.

Akio: yeah, always.

LeRoi: Also people in my life who spend time with my son ‘cuz they want to build a relationship with him and ‘cuz they have privilege and time…

QueenTite: I know nobody so I don’t have that option… I haven’t entered any cliques, it’s just me. But yes what a blessing – and a necessity.

Akio: Yep, the folks that usually want to help with my child are usually white people.

LeRoi: Yeah, I’ve had that experience too…

Amandeep: Having more folks want to make the trip to where I live cuz they want to spend time with my kids doesn’t happen often enough. I am fortunate to have my mom and my sister on occasion but feel I don’t have any other friends to rely on now.. the dayjam idea sounds too good though..its being intergenerational, being able to connect in different parts of the city with other queers of colour and parents and knowing who is close by through friends of friends would be great to try and build this in more local and accessible ways.

Akio: I like to keep my circle small and tight cause I’ve seen how folks treat their own and I’m not trying to have my private business out there for the local queer 6 o’clock news. So often I go it alone and for the most part I’m okay with that. Hired help when it can be afforded works for me.

LeRoi: Yeah, I love that. There’s a queer Black BBQ during Pride that is pretty dope like that…there’s also Queer Black FAM JAM that has lots of kids roll up usually.

S: What do you find are common problems with things like child care at events?

QueenTite: Problems with child care – not enough variety in the space for the age ranges – emphasis on the very young – older kids get slightly less attention. No, disability based thought put into spaces to accommodate a variety of abilities/disabilities.

Akio: They are subpar, not age appropriate and often boring.

LeRoi: Sometimes I have found that there aren’t enough people working in the childcare room and the childcare room is kind of just like mayhem. People need to realize that for babies/young toddlers the ratio should be 1 adult to two babies. The other thing is I feel like there isn’t respect for childcare being a position that requires a lot of skill and experience. Sometimes the people doing childcare aren’t trained properly and they’re just like “winging it”. Like my ex put her son in childcare at this event once and the person doing childcare let him tape his mouth shut with duct tape

Akio: Duct tape!!!

LeRoi: hahahahaha

Akio: See I’d need bail money. But I digress…

Amandeep: omg yes LeRroi.. haha..

LeRoi: I think this points towards….for those of us who are Black …sometimes when childcare is offered by white people there is a bit of a cultural disjunct. Like, I don’t want my child running up and down, doing any and everything.

S: What do you think people need to address in order make community space accessible to parents and children? How do we build intergenerational spaces?

QueenTite: More family based activities – co planning with the expectations of including youths. Create the activities we aim to see. Ensure that we see family based activities for all. This convo and thinking proactively is apart of it. Create solutions to the problems. Remove obstacles. Break the cliques apart…collaborate and connect – get kids together at BBQ family based days etc..

Akio: Advance planning, Invest in resources (money, activities etc), engage parents, age-appropriate child care.

LeRoi: What we need more of I think is an effort to make events accessible…we need people (not just parents) to clap back when you see events posted that don’t offer any childcare. We need people to value us…so for example if you are doing community organizing and you are used to calling your meetings with no notice, during the evening you are not gonna get parents out…especially single parents. Daytime parties. People who are not parents being like…okay let’s tag-team. I’ll go to that event for the first two hours and then I’ll watch your kid so you can go.

Akio: We can’t even…Folks barely recognize intergenerational folks much less. The thought or actions to make spaces. We gotta break it all down and build up from scratch with accountability and transparency.

LeRoi: That can be true so much of the time. I have seen some really dope things in practice though. Like I saw this daycare one time that was housed in an an elderly care facility which was really, really cool. And the kids got to interact with elders all the time at “school”. I would be really interest in working on a project like that/creating a space like that.

Akio: If I had a dollar for eeverytime I took my time and energy to help start something only to have the jancrow them fly over and either shit on it or take it as their own but LeRoi that would be amazing. Depending on the space. Old people can be unapologetically racist. Speaking as a nurse.

LeRoi: I would be envisioning something specifically for Black community. I feel like BIPOC in Canada have a lot issues finding appropriate care for our elders and appropriate education for our youths. Both need dignity and programming that is Black centered. Also we need more things like the Radical Monarchs, BlackLivesMatter Freedom School…programs for kids to be engage in what we are building in our communities

Akio: Toronto Child Care collective here in Toronto But it didn’t have the right clique to gain momentum But the more we create spaces for us by us the better we will be.

LeRoi: Childcare collectives are really dope though. I remember there was one in Montréal that offered free childcare for families without status and for events and ting. Also, they would do a March Break camp that was really cool where kids would learn to DJ and stuff.

LeRoi Newbold
Leroi Newbold is an artist, community organizer and an educator at Canada’s first public Africentric school.

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.

Instagram and Snapchat: @missqueentite

Akio is a Single mom, Human Rights activist, Educator and Community Organizer.

Justice in our Schools

Building Safety for Black Youth Living with ADD and ADHD

by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

 I recently caught up with Leroi Newbold, a bad ass teacher working in the Toronto District School Board doing amazing work with youth. This interview I did with him focuses on how Black youth living with ADD and ADHA are being impacted by ableism is schools and transformative solutions.

Shabina: Can you introduce yourself and the work you do? 

I’m LeRoi Newbold. I’m a community organizer with Black Lives Matter – Toronto, a parent, and an educator at the Africentric Alternative School at Keele and Sheppard in Toronto. On a daily, I teach Grade 1. I’ve taught Special Education and have taught in a “behavioral” classroom in the system. I work with Black kids who are struggling with being educated in a system that is oppressive, and I try to share some tools with them about how to resist in that system, or how to be successful through understanding how that system operates.

I am the co-founder of St. Emilie Skillshare in Montreal, which began as a skill-sharing organization to provide free studio time and photography/silkscreen lessons to people living in of South-West Montreal, and queer/trans *BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour). I am the founder and director of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto Freedom School, which is an arts based program to teach Black Liberation, political history and political resistance to young Black children (4-10 years-old). We especially focus on Black Liberation work done by and to support Black *cis women, queer, and transgender people, poor Black people, Black people in prison, and Black people living at the margins of our communities. We teach kids how to organize, how to use arts to communicate, and how to fight back against police violence and oppression.

I am on the steering committee of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto. So….we support people who want to speak out about police murders of their family members, and police violence. We also try to create space for Black artists making work in Toronto, hold systems accountable for state violence, encourage people to rely on each other for safety instead of police, and support alternatives to traditional schooling for Black kids etc.

 Shabina: What is an IEP and how are Black youth impacted by them?

An IEP is an Individual Education Plan. On paper an IEP is a seven page document that is written to outline how a child is going to get support over the course of a year in the Special Education system here in Ontario. The IEP outlines accommodation, which are things that a child might need to be successful in school like extra time on exams, different exam formats, condensed work etc. In some cases it outlines modifications, which is when a child’s whole curriculum is altered so for example, a child might be enrolled in Grade 4, but according to their IEP, they are working on elements of a Grade 2 curriculum as a point of departure.

On paper an IEP is a collaborative (so written together) by parents, classroom teachers, Special Education teachers, and principles. IEPs are in theory positive because they are personalized and student based. They outline a student’s strengths and needs, and the idea is to use a student’s strengths to address their needs. So for example, an IEP might stipulate that a child is very strong in music and that those strengths should be used to address their need to develop stronger reading skills or skills in mathematics. IEPs are also technically documents that hold teachers accountable to a plan for how to address a student’s needs, who may need support academically or even socially/emotionally.

The problem with IEPs is sometimes they are in fact not collaborative documents. Sometimes they are documents that teachers write and ask parents to sign without even properly explaining what they are. Sometimes they are documents that confuse parents because a child’s report card is reporting on their progress on their IEP instead of progress in the classroom. For example, a parent is seeing A’s on a child’s report card, but not understanding that their child is working below their Grade level. Sometimes IEP’s, are documents that criminalize kids and put families in danger because the IEP states that 911 should be called when a child does a certain behaviour, even though the child is 5 or 6 years- old. Sometimes IEPs are a problem because they lead to an actual lack of accountability. For example, a child may never fail a grade in school, but might remain on an IEP that says they are working at a Kindergraten level while they are enrolled in Grade 2, and then again while they are enrolled in Grade 3, and then again while they are enrolled in Grade 4. There is a lack of processes of accountability for teachers to ensure that the plan written in the IEP is met and that the child learns the things the IEP says they’re going to learn.

Shabina: Can you talk about some of the barriers set up for Black youth living with ADD, ADHA and other ‘behavioural disorders’ in the public school system?

One barrier is that ADD and ADHA are often treated as behavioural disorders. ADD/ADHA are not behavioural disorders. ADD and ADHD affect the executive functions of the brain. So in an educational setting, a child might need support directing their attention to a particular task or instruction. What a child does not need is escalating punitive measures related to the struggle they have with focus or attention, and therefore their tendency to get up and wander around or “distract” other kids. Punishing a child for the executive functions of their brain is very violent and very ableist.

This can be exacerbated by the fact that Black children are often read as defiant in a way that is not appropriate. In “Educating Other People’s Children” Lisa Delpit writes about the way white teachers tend to give verbal directives. She writes about how white teachers tend to give verbal directives in a way that is very passive aggressive (Ex: would you like to read a book? Ex: Is that where we put the scissors?). For Black children whose parents speak to them in very direct ways in their up-bringing, passive aggressive ways of speaking and interacting can be very confusing. Black children will often take what is being said at face value, and respond by saying, “No, I don’t want to read a book.” And then the child will be read and labeled as defiant even though they are just being honest. Passive aggressive verbal directives can be an even bigger problem for children who have communication based learning disabilities or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) because passive aggressive communication can be hard or impossible to understand.

Another issue for many Black communities and families is that education has been used as an instrument of colonization. So because of this, parents and families don’t trust the education system here even though education is a priority for Black families. There is also a breadth of research to suggest that Black communities have diminished trust in the health care system because of racism, mistreatment by physicians and having received substandard health care. Because of this, diagnoses for Black children with disabilities like ASD or ADHD might happen later in life or not at all. It is very hard for parents to effectively collaborate with teachers around things like IEPs when there is little or no trust there.

Shabina: How do you see the school-to-prison pipeline affecting Black youth with disabilities?

There has been a shift for people from talking about the school-to-prison pipeline to actually talking about schools as carceral (jail like) spaces. The case of a 6 year-old Black girl who was recently handcuffed at school by police in Mississauga clearly demonstrates how schools can act as carceral spaces for Black kids (especially Black kids with disabilities). A 6 year-old was handcuffed by police at her school because she was having an outburst, and potentially punched her principal. The child was 6 years-old, so weighed less than 50 pounds. For an adult principal (who is an authority figure within a school), being punched by someone who weighs less than 50 pounds and is 6 years-old might be surprising, but it does not present a threat to safety. When police arrived on scene the child was banging her head against her desk, which suggested that she was in emotional distress. It is likely that the child needed support processing her emotions, and that maybe she needed attention (maybe a hug) from an someone who cared about her and whom she trusted. The fact that the child had apparently had many incidents such as this, suggested that she may have needed ongoing social/emotional support. Instead, the police were called. Instead of de-escalating the situation, the police then handcuffed the child by her wrists, as well as by her ankles. This was an act of excessive and humiliating violence, and one that will be potentially traumatic for a very young child. What leads an adult principal (trained to support children) to seek the assistance of a police officer (whose job is address crime) in calming down a 6 year-old child is anti-Black racism.

In 2008, Toronto Police Services implemented something called the SRO (School Resource Officer) program. The SRO Program is part of TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy). TAVIS is a program that was implemented to curb gun violence by increasing police presence in specifically designated areas of Toronto, which included many Black neighbourhoods. The SRO program specifically placed police officers in a number of schools across Toronto with the goal of improving relationships between youth and police. By 2011, about fifty schools had School Resource officers, including a large number of schools in majority Black neighbourhoods, and including not only high schools but elementary schools (serving children from 3 and a half to 12 years-old). This means that Black children increasingly have police present in their schools, and police brought in to assist with conduct issues and conflicts between students and between students and teachers. This affects Black children in many ways.

This affects Black children and youth psychologically. They may wonder why it is a necessary to have a police officer present in their place of learning to survey them constantly. It affects Black children in terms of increased violent incidents with police. We remember the case of Spring Valley High School where a police dragged a teenage Black girl out of her desk and threw her against a wall. It affects Black children with disabilities because Black students with behavioural “exceptionalities”/disabilities are often the ones being suspended and going through other punitive processes at school. It affects Black children with disabilities because they are then at an increased risk being referred to Ontario Youth Corrections due to their behaviour at school. It affect Black children because youth are one of the fastest growing prison population in Ontario, and so are Black women.

 Shabina: Can you talk about some transformative models used to implement disability justice within a classroom to keep Black youth in particular safe, nurtured and humanized?

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense created a school called the Oakland Community School, and the school did not use punitive measures such as detention, suspensions, expulsions, or even timeouts. Instead they had something called the Youth Justice League. Through the Youth Justice league, youth (in the presence of an adult) would be responsible for addressing conduct issues that occurred in the classroom. For example, a young child who did not do their homework would go to the Youth Justice League for what they called “course correction”. The youth would ask the children why for example, they didn’t do their homework. The child would then outline the reason why they didn’t do their homework. The youth justice league would suggest ways for the child to correct the issue. They would ask the child what support they needed in making the correction. This is an example a transformative justice model because the Oakland Community School transformed the circumstances in which education took place. It transformed dynamics of power so that Black and Latinx communities decided what kind of education was appropriate for their children. It transformed dynamics of power in that it gave opportunities to youth to experience the same power as teachers (decide on course content, co-teach lessons etc). In an event that a conduct issue arose it gave power to children in terms of being accountable to each other rather than an authority figure. They were given a chance to talk about their level of engagement in what they were learning, and being given support to address their own behaviour. This is crucial for children with disabilities because punishment is not appropriate when your what is seen as inappropriate behaviour might happen because of a cognitive disorder or something else beyond your control. Disabilities justice means that transforming the spaces that we are part of to be accessible and sustainable and to prioritize people with disabilities. People with disabilities cannot be honoured within an educational institution that corrects atypical behaviour through punishment, isolation, violence, or humiliation.

Shabina: How can teachers stand in solidarity with Black youth living with ADD and ADHD?

1.Teachers working within the system should recognize ourselves as an arm of the state, and therefore an arm of state violence. We must, wherever possible, intervene in the routine intervention into and harassment of the Black family by police and Childrens Aid Society.

2.Nerotypical people and neurotypical adults must take leadership from people with disabilities in how to transform our classrooms and educational spaces into spaces that are accessible.

3.Educators must respect, love, and share power with Black families, students, and communities

Leroi Newbold
Leroi Newbold is a parent, community organizer, and educator and curriculum designer.  Leroi is inaugural staff and Grade 1 teacher at Canada’s first public Africentric School.  He organizes on the steering committee of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto and is the director of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto Freedom School.

Shabina Lafleur-Gangji
Shabina is a queer mixed race weird witchy lady from Guelph who is into community organizing and revolution.

Redefining Brown Bodies Through Art

an illustration of a magical girl wearing a nose to ear chain and a awoken third eye

An Interview with Chitra Ganesh

By: Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

As a South Asian woman I feel the complexities around how colonialism have shaped our minds and imaginations are rarely explored. So often brown bodies are depicted as non-sexual and dirty. This is why Chitra Ganesh, a Brooklyn based artist, has always inspired me.

Ganesh explores topics like shadeism, sexuality, diasporic experience and colonialism in a way that allows the viewer the witness the current state and reimagine the possibilities. the current state and reimagine the possibilities. For this issue of the Peak I was lucky enough to be able to get in touch with her to ask her about her work.

Shabina Lafleur-Gangji: As an artist, what inspires you to explore sexuality and depictions of darker skinned brown women in your work? What is the role that art can play in helping us reclaim our histories and our imaginations?

Chitra Ganesh: I am interested in expanding the bounds of what kinds of female bodies are visible, legible and represented in both art historical and mass mediated contexts, such as fashion, entertainment, and popular cultures. More often than not, we come into contact with an extremely limited pictorial range of female bodies –whether this is in mainstream culture or within the realm of the art historical canon. Art historically speaking, within the traditions of Western Classical and European art, brown and black women are frequently adornments to their (white) protagonists and counterparts- anonymous maid servants, wet nurses, handmaidens, slave labor, and so forth. They are literally relegated to the pictorial margins, or blend into the backdrop. The ambiguously gendered subordinate black figure in Manet’s “Olympia” is a key example of this, where brown and blacks women’s anonymity props up white female sexuality. In mainstream representations across the globe, dominant images of women veer towards extraordinarily thin, young, hairless, light skinned, and more. My own frustration and boredom around this reductive visual monotony in part inspires me, and so I make the kinds of images I would like to see in the world. Art gives me, us, the capacity to imagine something beyond the existing norms- space where non normative bodies, attitudes, and affective or psychic states can inhabit, thrive, and desire in a potent imaginary field. Among many other things, art and a gender based critique of power are exceptional liberatory tools to harness as we move forward.

Shabina: How do you feel that the experience of class/ of shadeism differs from South Asia to countries like United States and Canada?

Chitra: As I see it, each particular place has its own geopolitical context, a history of hundreds (or hundreds of thousands) of years that inform attitudes towards skin color. In both Eastern and Western hemispheres, skin color has long been a signifier of class– a differentiating marker between manual laborers, say, and a ruling class who have the privilege of being at home while others toil under the sun.

On the South Asian subcontinent, these distinctions certainly converge with caste oppression, which mandates the harshest and most brutal forms of labor to be performed by Dalit populations. The US certainly has a very unique construction and framework of race.  One thing that this election has taught me is how much of our national history and current politics are built on the back of anti-black racism and the legacy of slavery. On the one hand, anti-black racism and the caste system both produce social and economic oppression that are alive and well today, and in many way, form the backbone of their respective nations. On the other hand these two histories are irreducibly singular, though they can be strategically considered in the same frame to render legible how these oppressions continue to operate in everyday life on the 21st century– for example, to raise visibility around issues of caste oppression in an American context.

Shabina: How do you feel the colonial legacy impacts the way South Asians are seen and the way we related to our own bodies?

Chitra: I think attributing the preponderance of South Asian subject formation to British Colonialism doesn’t do justice to engaging the incredibly complex politics and history have operated in South Asia long before and after British occupation. I think the British colonial legacy in one piece in a much larger puzzle of histories and attitudes that inform how we may see ourselves and one another. The legacies of American imperialism and xenophobia also perpetuate these continued poles of orientalism and illegibility that South Asian women, for example, have to face on a daily bases. Our identification(s) in the US may be as is as much a product of how misogyny, islamophobia, and xenophobia continue to operate here. Incidences of anti-muslim hate based attacks have risen 67% in the US in the past year – and this is the tip of the iceberg, only that which has been reported. And how frequently do we see these issues, or Standing Rock, for example, mentioned in mainstream American politics?

Shabina: One of your more recent exhibits Protest Fantasies focuses of global resistance to violence on bodies and land. Can you talk what the inspiration was behind it?

Chitra: The particular theme of Protest Fantasies came about by just being really struck and amazed by the power of protest in this moment. It’s been an ongoing part of my life, whether in 2003/4 to protest the Iraq War or any number of things, but then really looking at a lot of the images of die-ins and talking to another artist friend of mine, they look almost like history paintings. The gestures are just extremely performative. There are so many versions of how people are thinking about protests now.

One piece Rana Plaza depicts images of the women who survived the Bangladesh sweatshop collapse, and this is their one-year anniversary performance, getting ready to march and sing. It’s indistinguishable from performance art. Similar to monks who set themselves on fire as a form of protest against China’s oppression of Tibet.

The piece Femme Power captures the rich emotional texture of wanting to resist — tears of rage that ferment into something. It brings out the part of an otherwise peace-loving person that can’t deal anymore.

I feel that exposing that pain with a sense of agency is really powerful. It’s not a kind of victimization. I think empathy is as important as fantasy. And art enables empathy. And if you remove some of reality from the story, people feel more comfortable empathizing with a different character. I think that’s how science fiction works, for example.

We’re artists, and our role is also that of translator — to translate things from one mode of expression to another within our own practice. To get from journal to memoir to essay to a poem, and use that translation to invite the audience to step in. I feel like myth does that too.

Chitra Ganesh
Chitra Ganesh is a Brooklyn based artist widely recognized for her experimental use of comic and large-scale narrative forms that bring to light representations of femininity, sexuality, and power typically absent from canons of literature and art.

Shabina Lafleur-Gangji
Shabina is a queer mixed race weird witchy lady from Guelph who is into community organizing and revolution.