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Black History Month panel looks at barriers to inclusion (7 photos)

The 2020 theme for Black History Month is 'Canadians of African Descent: Going forward, guided by the past’

Moderator Michèle Newton challenged panellists at Open to Change, a Black History Month panel discussion, to define their identity in terms other than skin color.

They could choose age, beliefs, gender identity, religion, abilities, education, work experience, family, education, ethnicity.

The panellists had no trouble meeting the challenge.

Errol Lee, singer-songwriter, defined himself by education – he’s now at Tynedale University, taking a Bachelor of Religious Education “so I will eventually add ‘Pastoral’ to my identity;” by his religion, and by his language.

“I speak patois, sometimes,” Lee said.

Lawyer and businesswoman Keisha-Ann Shaw Hill described herself by family – married with a daughter; gender identity, and her interests. “I love shopping, and I love travelling.”

For high school student Kiara Jones, defining characteristics were education, as she contemplates going on to pursue a Nursing degree, and her religion - which she described as “Christian-ish.”

So, why do some people define identity only in terms of skin color? And what can be done to encourage inclusion and acceptance, in a diverse society?

The Open to Change panel at the Lakeshore Library in Innisfil on Wednesday night included an open discussion of what needs to change, to overcome the barriers to inclusion.

Shaw Hill remembered an incident from years ago. At home with her child, there was a knock at the door. A (white) candidate for council handed her his election materials, and said, “Make sure the right person gets that.”

It was only after she had closed the door that it dawned on her: he had assumed she was the maid.

 “I was pissed when I realized what he said,” Shaw Hill said.

Asked what could be done to change stereotyping, she said, “I believe it’s a shared responsibility. People should get to know their community, get to know their neighbours, and keep an open mind.”

Errol Lee suggested that working together was the key. Leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela “brought people together – not just people of their own ethnicity. It will take all of us, and it took all of us, to get to this place,” he said.

Lee said the he uses his music to break down barriers.

“Together we’re better. Music, the art, uses emotion to get to the brain. Music is an excellent way to get people together,” Lee noted. “I do use music to bridge the gap and to bring people together, to let them know we are one family – the human family.”

He added, “Race is just a social construct. It’s a 20th century word.” Instead, he urged the audience to consider “different nations, different cultures… What we should be doing is loving on each other’s differences. It’s a beautiful thing.”

The panellists were mixed in their reaction to that question most visible minorities get asked at some point: “Where are you from?”

“I don’t find the question offensive. I find it inquisitive,” said Lee.

“When you meet a person from Jamaica, don’t say Irie and Ya Man. We don’t like that,” said Shaw Hill. “Just talk to me like a normal person. We’re all just people.”

Newton admitted that her answer depends on how she’s feeling at the time. Sometimes she’ll go into her ethnicity, which includes an English father. At other times, she’ll just say “Canada,” and walk away.

“Not all Black people are the same. They don’t have all the same character traits,” Newton said. “Think about all the different facets that go into the people around you.”

Lee shared an analogy from a First Nations community, where he was told to think about a stew pot, when it comes to diversity. A stew contains many ingredients – potatoes, meat, carrots, beans – that add to the whole.

“It adds nourishment and flavour to the same stew,” Lee said. “We should be a stew pot, not a melting pot… We’re bringing flavour and nourishment.”

Members of the audience also asked questions and shared their views.

In Jamaica, doors are always open, noted one woman. “In Canada, everyone lives in their own world. The doors are closed.”

When she moved to Innisfil, one of the first things she did was reach out, to get to know her neighbours. “It’s you, inviting other people to be part of the conversation.”

“When we look at the changes we want, we need to understand each other,” said Ivor Jones. “I’m not sure we’re at that… How do you say, ‘This is what we experienced,’ without being told you have a chip on your shoulder?”

“Truth is ultimate reality,” responded Lee. “We need to be able to speak the truth.”

“It’s never an easy conversation,” said Newton. “It becomes a weight to carry,” having to explain to people who don’t share the root experience of being Black.

“We all have to chip away at that,” Newton said. “Again, I have to explain things I shouldn’t have to explain…. Just keep the faith, keep working at the little bits you can. We all have to think about the things that come out of our mouths.”

As for Black History Month, Newton said, “We are Black history, every day. We are Black culture, every day. It’s not just a month.”

More Black History and Cultural events in February:

Feb. 2. As part of the Barrie Jazz & Blues Fest, Toney “Wild T” Springer will present a tribute to Jimi Hendrix – Jimi Hendrix Unplugged, 2 p.m. in Atrium of the BWG Public Library, 425 Holland St. West in Bradford. The free concert provides an intimate look at the iconic guitar legend.  

Feb. 12. Black History Month Book Club and Movie, at the BWG Public Library, 425 Holland St. W. in Bradford. At 6:30 p.m., discuss the acclaimed book, The Hate U Give, and watch the movie adaptation. Please pre-register at the library or online.

Feb. 13. Join the Centre for Youth and Culture in a Teen Many Cultures Celebration, 4 p.m. at the Bradford library, 425 Holland St. W., featuring Youth Elevation Dance Troupe and rapper Prince Jay.

Feb. 13. Voices of Black Women in Business, a keynote and panel discussion of diversity in the workplace, at the Sandbox Centre in Barrie, Feb. 13 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Five Black women professionals will share their experience. Presented by Sandbox Centre, Henry Bernick Entrepreneurship Centre, XcelerateHER and the Barrie Chamber of Commerce. Tickets are $15, available through (Voices-from-black-women-in-business) and include lunch.

Feb. 17.  For Black History Month, the Tecumseth and West Gwillimbury Historical Society welcomes Governor General Award-winning author Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost, on Monday, Feb. 17 at the Tec-We-Gwill WI Hall in Newton Robinson, 7:30 p.m. Dr. Smardz Frost is a dynamic speaker, archaeologist and author, who will discuss her latest non-fiction book, “Steal Away Home“ – compelling stories of survivors of slavery. There will be a sale of books and book-signing, following the meeting. Free for Society members, $5 per person drop-in fee for guests. Seating is limited. Refreshments to follow. For more information call 905-936-6549.

Feb. 19. Speakers for the Dead – a film screening, Feb. 19 at the Innisfil ideaLAB's Lakeshore library, 967 Innisfil Beach Road, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Free.

Feb. 24. Community Conversations: Better Together, at the Barrie Public Library Downtown Branch, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 24. Global citizen Tiki Akinsanmi shares her perspectives, experiences and ideas, for connecting and building community. Akinsanmi and Michele Newton explore the concept of Ubuntu – ‘better together’ – as a catalyst for inclusion.

Feb. 29. Making Change – Black History Month Celebration, Feb. 29 at the Five Points Theatre in downtown Barrie, 6 to 10 p.m. Musicians, artists and poets from across Simcoe County will perform. Tickets are $20, available through the City of Barrie, with a portion of proceeds going to support the YMCA of Simcoe Muskoka Immigrant Services, Helping Newcomers Adjust to Life in Canada.

Feb. 29. Join the BWG Diversity Action Group for a Black History Celebration at the BWG Public Library, 425 Holland St. W. in Bradford, at 11 a.m. on Feb. 29 – featuring Mystic Drumz. Kids will explore percussion instruments and rhythms, and make crafts. At 1 p.m., the Centre for Youths and Culture presents an all-ages social, with performances and refreshments.

Month-long in February – Our Mosaic Lives exhibit of photographs and explorations continues at the Innisfil ideaLAB & Library Lakeshore Branch, 967 Innisfil Beach Road, and an Art Engagement Project is on display in the Rotunda at Barrie City Hall, featuring works by students at schools that include Chris Hadfield Public School in Bradford. The students Explore the contributions of Black Canadians, Reflect on how to overcome racism and discrimination, Create expressions of positive change through the arts, and Share.