Learning About & Celebrating Black History Month

To: People we Support, Families, Guardians, and Skills Society Employees

RE: Learning About & Celebrating Black History Month

From: Skills Society Leadership

February 18, 2022

 

A Message from Skills Society Executive Director, Ben Weinlick

 

Dear Skills Society Community,

February is Black History Month in Canada. Going forward, we want everyone in our Skills family to be aware of Black history month every year. This won’t be the last time that Skills Society will bring together some learning, stories and actions around diversity, Black culture and history for our Skills community to reflect upon. This is a long post, but really important and I hope you all take the time to read and reflect.

Even in the midst of all the challenges with the pandemic these last few years, Skills Society has been on a learning journey around reconciliation, inclusion and anti-racism work. From stewarding community led anti-racism work over the last 5 years with our Shift Lab initiative, to learning about treaty and reconciliation actions, we are committed to supporting and celebrating the rich diversity within our community of people we serve and staff. 

Black History Month and Being Good Treaty Relatives

When I thought about Black History month this year, I thought about it through the lens of our Skills Vision and through getting better at being good treaty relatives. Our Skills Society Vision is: “A community where every individual is a valued citizen deserving respect, dignity and rights”. Central to our Vision is the desire to build a community where everyone, from all walks of life, belongs.   

The shared land where we live today, Treaty 6 territory where ᐊᒥᐢᑿᒌᐚᐢᑲᐦᐃᑲᐣ Amiskwacîwâskahikan, the City of Edmonton resides, has a long history of hosting and taking care of diverse peoples. The first people that gathered here to trade, share, and be in good relationship with one another, were the Cree, Saulteaux, Blackfoot, Dene, Nakota Sioux, Métis, and Inuit. Now with settlers and new Canadians from across the world calling Edmonton home, there is a continued tradition of recognizing, celebrating, and valuing diversity while at the same time always honoring the indigenous peoples who have long been stewards of the land we share today. 

Part of what I’m trying to learn about and steward is that being a good treaty relative means being good to each other, respecting each other as we are, seeing that everyone has something valuable to share and that we should work together to steward the land and good relationships. As we reflect together on Black History month, being good treaty relatives, and our Skills Vision, I hope that we can learn together how to honor and strengthen relationships with Black community members who are a major part of Edmonton and our Skills Society family.

Learning From and Celebrating Black Leaders in our Skills Community

In the disability services sector in Edmonton, new Canadian and Black leaders from many diverse backgrounds, countries and experiences, have dedicated their lives to helping people with developmental disabilities to be safe, and live their best lives. This year, Black Leaders in our own Skills Community have come together to share stories and insights so that we can all learn and reflect on Black History month. We should recognize that the voices of Black persons are really the most important voices to center and listen to around Black history month. The stories Claire and Nancy have shared are stories of strength, and also highlight where work still needs to be done to really live our shared vision together. I hope as you read and reflect, that you are open to learning, that you are inspired, that empathy arises and that there is an acknowledgement that although proud of our collective work at Skills, there are still people in our community who are left out, dehumanized, and discriminated against. We all have some learning to do. We will make mistakes as we learn, but this is part of bettering ourselves as individuals and a collective in working towards making our Vision a reality one day.

Acknowledging Some Tough Truths

As a community I want us to not forget to celebrate the strength and beauty of diverse black people and cultures while at the same time recognizing the need to surface and acknowledge that racism is still very much happening for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in both our Skills and greater community. In co-creating this post with Black leaders from our Skills community, I was asked to be part of acknowledging some hard truths, so we can get better together as a community. I have heard tough stories of how black and racialized staff and people we serve have faced racism from co-workers, from leaders, from guardians, from community members, from roommates and more. What’s worse, is I heard how people often face this discrimination alone. I want to make it clear, no one should feel they have to tolerate racism from anyone or anywhere and we will support and protect you at Skills Society. For a long time we have had policies and procedures to protect everyone in the Skills community from harassment and discrimination. Every year, staff and people we support and guardians review a document called the Rights We Want that enshrines principles and responsibilities that highlight that no one can be discriminated against for any reason. But even with all these policies, and codes of conduct, we still need to do better and we will do better together. 

Expressing our Gratitude to Black Skills Community Members

Below you will find further resources, learning and commitments we are making at Skills Society to ensure reflection and action is on-going. We are and should all be incredibly grateful to Black community members for their dedication in our sector and I hope Black Skills Society members feel more seen, proud of who they are, and valued for their contributions to the people we serve together. You matter and make a positive difference. Thank you for all that you do for our shared communities. 

Sincerely, 

Ben Weinlick, Executive Director of Skills Society

 

Stories From Black Leaders Within Our Skills Community

Image Description: This image was created by Claire Mpinda, Manager of Community Supports at Skills Society. The lifted right arm represents a ‘strong woman’, the baby being carried represents ‘caregiving’, and the Calabash that is held in the woman’s arm represents being a ‘hard worker and provider’. For Claire, this image highlights bringing her culture and embracing Alberta, turning her back to all discrimination and welcoming Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. 

A Journey: From Casual to Management

By Claire Mpinda, Manager of Community Supports

 

“Those that get to do something, is based on those that we see doing it.” 

– Unknown Author  

As I celebrate Black History Month 2022, a month dedicated to the recognition of Black peoples, with an emphasis on Health and Wellness this year, I reflect on my nearly twenty years at Skills Society. My journey began as a casual staff. Since that time I have taken on several different positions from Community Support Worker I to Community Support Worker II to Team Leader responsibilities, and now, most recently, a contract position as Manager of Community Supports. 

I would love to say that it has been a seamless progression. However, in all honesty, as a Black, immigrant, francophone, woman, breaking the barriers of representation has often proven to be a formidable challenge both at work and in the larger society. The barriers are countless. I recall instances where guardians were unwilling to communicate with me because of my “accent,” instead preferring to communicate with management and or staff that sounded and looked like them. My personality is not to dwell on things that are not important, it is to help my environment know who I am and where I came from and what I was able to contribute. I was able to progress, focused on building healthy relationships, and creating a sense of belonging and inclusion. This quickly led me to recognise the importance of representation in the workplace, not only for the culture of our organization, but for the health and wellness of our employees and people we support, many who are Black, African and or Caribbean. 

This Black History Month, I am pleased to have an opportunity to openly reflect on my journey, and it is my sincere hope that with more awareness and acknowledgment, we can continue to create pathways for otherwise underrepresented groups and increase diversity at all levels of this organization. Working hard and focusing on things that matter helped me to be able to reach my goals. I did not need to change who I was to become who I am now. However, I have two people in the organization who took their time and looked beyond the accent, color and focused on my draft to help me forward my career; those are people that I call change makers. I believe we need to value equity, diversity, and inclusion if everyone is to find belonging in a large organization like ours.

This month, please join me in appreciating and recognising the work, relationships, and histories of the many Black individuals represented throughout this organization and elsewhere. Happy Black History Month! 

 

Black is Power, Black is Beauty!

By Nancy Kirugi, Manager of Community Supports

I come from a city which is as cosmopolitan as it can get. My people speak with many varying accents and tones. Yet we understand each other. We listen and decipher according to the context in which we speak. You can only imagine my shock when on my plane to Canada I asked the hostess for water and she could not understand what I was referring to and all she had on her trolley were various juices and alcoholic drinks. She, however, could understand the Asian lady. I knew there were prejudices against people who looked like me, but I never thought I wouldn’t be understood. I have been speaking and writing in English since my elementary years. 

I have met amazing friends and colleagues, individuals I have supported and families, who acknowledge my race but don’t treat me any differently. On the other hand, I’ve had a number of other experiences, both at work and otherwise, that have shown me people’s ignorance. I met a man once and he asked me: “don’t you feel lucky to live here in such comfort? Why would you ever go back home!”. I was taken aback to say the least. Did this man imagine that being here was a favor? Did he realize that Africa was the cradle of civilisation! I felt insulted and proceeded to educate him on Africa. I worked at a drive through and one of our regulars towards the end of summer came in to show off her skin tone and I am not sure what it was supposed to be, but she went on to say how she was now my color! Or there’s the time a lady walked up to me and commented on what a nice set of teeth I had! Like really how long have you been watching me to make that observation? An annoying one was when the bus driver drove past me one winter evening and stopped some way away. When I got on he then proceeded to let me know that, were it not for the white bag I was holding, he would not have seen me! I’ve experienced people getting up when I sat next to them on the bus or a police officer asking me to drive slowly past an accident scene when we were all in a line up! At work I’ve faced racial slurs and other discriminatory acts from people I’ve supported and guardians. I have had colleagues who will not eat food brought by a Black colleague but they expect you to eat theirs. I have had colleagues who implied that I could not do administrative tasks associated with my job because I couldn’t possibly understand them, and instead insisted that I do the hands-on tasks only.

I share these stories so other Black people within Skills’ community can know they are not alone if they’ve experienced something similar. I also share these stories to raise awareness, amongst those who are not Black, about the racism that continues to exist today. 

It baffles me how someone thinks that just because my skin is different they can treat me in a manner in which they would not treat a family member. I used to get upset until I decided that I would no longer give anyone that power over me. Back home, anyone who looks different is a visitor and visitors are treated with love. I am not saying we are perfect, but I think we would be better off if we all tried to practice this.  

I have heard white people speaking of reverse racism – white people claiming to experience racism from Black people. I would like to let them know that white people can never equate themselves to the oppressed. For example, when we speak our languages with each other in front of others who don’t understand our languages, it might make white people feel excluded, but it does not equate to experiencing racism. Being excluded is one piece of racism but nowhere near the entire experience. Racism runs deeper and is much more pervasive. When someone who is white incorrectly claims to experience racism it takes away from the real racism that Black people face everyday. 

Racism is a mindset that one thinks they are better than you. I have taken it upon myself to make sure that I excel at what I do and try to always be the bigger person despite facing racism in my daily life. I want to show my fellow Black people that we are overcomers! We can do anything we put our minds to. Black is Power and Black is Beauty! 

“Back home, anyone who looks different is a visitor and visitors are treated with love. I am not saying we are perfect, but I think we would be better off if we all tried to practice this.” Nancy Kirugi 

 

If you experience racism or discrimination within our Skills Society community

  • You’re not alone and you will always have support.
  • Skills Society takes these matters very seriously. 
  • Based on our policies around harassment, you can tell a supervisor. You can also always get support from Human Resources. 
  • Employees should always feel safe bringing their experiences forward to Karen Huta, Senior Manager of Human Resources. 
  • Skills Society will investigate all cases fairly, respectfully and in a timely manner, and employees will be supported by Human Resources throughout the process. 

About Black History Month

Every February, people across Canada participate in Black History Month events and festivities that honour the legacy of Black Canadians and their communities. The 2022 theme for Black History Month is: “February and Forever: Celebrating Black History today and every day,” which focuses on recognizing the daily contributions that Black Canadians make to Canada.

– canada.ca

Ways to Celebrate Black History Month 

Events in Edmonton & Area

  • February 22 – Intersectionality and the Health of Black Canadians (virtual presentation) – more info here
  • February 22 – Continuing the Dream of Real Equity by Donna Coombs-Montrose (virtual presentation) – more info here
  • February 23 – Celebrating the Black Community in Alberta for Black History Month (virtual roundtable discussion) – more info here
  • February 26 – By Black for Black Business Summit (lunch and learn session) – more info here
  • February 26 – Taste of Africa: Celebrating Black History Month (variety show of singing, dancing drumming, arm chair travel, poetry, fashion parade, and food tasting) – more info here

Actions Our Community Can Take

Reads & Watch

General Anti-racism Resources & Tools (Some developed by one of our Skills Society initiatives)

What’s On The Horizon for Skills Society Around Equity, Diversity and Inclusion 

Celebrating diversity and remembering reconciliation and being good treaty relatives shouldn’t just be something that happens a couple times a year. We will continue to learn together and work on these pieces in an ongoing way. 

Some of these actions include:

  • Guided by Naheyawin, installing a treaty medallion, ceremony and messages in the Action Lab to remind what it means to be good treaty relatives
  • By year end, creating and launching a Skills Society BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Leadership bursary
  • Yearly learning event around Truth and Reconciliation
  • Developing a committee to steward cultural and diversity awareness learning and events that connect our community with learning
  • Developing and integrating guided cultural awareness reflections in team meetings and Skills Illustrated introductory Skills values course
  • Developing learning resources and workshop for guardians and people we support around diversity, and cultural awareness 

Dispelling some myths and things I wish I knew that would have made me a better ally sooner

From co-stewarding an anti-racism initiative called Shift Lab over the last 5 years, there were a few things I wish I knew before I started that work, and I want to share as some food for thought to especially more privileged Skills community members who may hold ideas like I had some years ago. These are important myths to dispel and will make us all better learners, better colleagues and allies together. 

  1. Saying “I don’t see color”, or “I just treat everyone the same”, can feel patronizing to racialized persons and can signal we haven’t done some deeper listening and reflection
  2. If you come from a more privileged background, it can be helpful to learn about what privilege might mean and how it may bias you towards certain perspectives, values, and behaviours. Recognizing those privileges doesn’t make a person bad, nor should it diminish that privileged people for sure can have experienced traumas and tough experiences, but recognizing privileges can signal being open to seeing, and learning from other perspectives that are often not heard and marginalized. Keep in mind that Edmonton generally leans towards privileging western worldviews and perspectives. Be aware that western worldviews are not the only or “right” perspectives in all our communities. Many diverse Edmontonians are navigating being valued for their own identities, cultures, view points, and traditions while also making sense of overt and unspoken biases to western world views and practices. 
  3. Bringing up “Reverse Racism” as a thing, isn’t helpful and can really diminish the experiences of racialized persons who face racism regularly. In general, white people in Canada do not suffer the repercussions of decades of policies, actions, attitudes, systems and media portrayals that disrespect their humanity. 
  4. Shaming, and dehumanizing anyone doesn’t particularly bring about healthy learning that has long-term positive impact. This doesn’t mean learning has to always be comfortable, but treating fellow human beings with respect and dignity is important as we learn and get better at anti-racism 
  5. Opposing racism is not easy or comfortable — nor is it meant to be! Undoing the legacy of racism embedded in systems is a process that sometimes involves overcoming paradoxes and recognizing tensions. It leaves us vulnerable and open to criticism. And that’s okay.

Thank you all for being open and learning together. Big thank you to leaders Nancy and Claire for sharing their stories and please continue to learn and join me and our community in celebrating Black History month. 

Ben Weinlick, Executive Director of Skills Society