Article Category Archives: Essay

Finding the Courage to Give Back

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I have been a social worker for forty-two years. In this profession, we often work with clients who are living on the margins, who face adversity every day. But I believe most of us face adversities in life and we have someone, or something, that helps us overcome. In 2011, the Family Service of Support presented me with the Ambassador Award. Through the award, I was recognized as a community leader who had overcome adversity and challenges and had then given back by helping others. For this special edition of Understorey Magazine, I wanted to write a story that would inspire, one that would be helpful to someone facing adversity. I decided to share the journey of completing my doctorate degree, a journey that covered very rocky terrain indeed.

In January 1990, I became the first African Nova Scotian hired at Dalhousie University in a tenure track position. I recall someone saying to me at the time, “Wow, they must have lowered the standards to let you teach there.” Such negative comments only served to make me work harder, more diligently and more effectively. However, my contract at Dalhousie stipulated I had to complete course work towards a PhD by year six of the job. The director of my department said, “If you don’t get a PhD, you will be marginalized in the university, so it is not an option.” This meant that I had to apply to a different university to complete a PhD. I was rejected by several institutions, but opportunity knocked unexpectedly in 1993 when I was accepted into the PhD program in sociological studies at the University of Sheffield in England. My research was a participatory study of the factors that helped Black men survive in societies where they were expected to fail. My PhD years (1992-1996) became the best of times and the worst of times, all in one package.

It was the best of times because, first, I had incredible family and community support (also known as pressure to perform). I had the most amazing PhD supervisor, Dr. Lena Dominelli, an Italian-Canadian mentor who believed in me even when I did not believe in myself. Second, my PhD research made a positive impact on the lives of Black men, both in Canada and in England, and led to many policy and institutional changes in both countries. Professionally, my studies positioned me for a stellar career, which led to my promotion to full professor in 2006.

These years were also the worst of times because they were bracketed by huge losses in my life and unbelievable trauma.

While there were many positives, my PhD years were also the worst of times because they were bracketed by huge losses in my life and unbelievable trauma that remains difficult to talk about to this day. In year one of my program in England, my maternal grandmother died after a twenty-four-hour stay in hospital. This was a terrible loss; she was my second mother. In year two, my father-in-law died after two weeks in a coma, following a massive stroke. One month later, my eldest brother (who was like a father to us after Dad died) was diagnosed with cancer and nearly died after his first round of chemotherapy. The worry of this devastating family issue was almost immobilizing. It was difficult to be in England when I wanted to be back in Halifax helping my family cope.

If all of this was not enough, when my spouse, George Bernard, and I finally returned home after I had completed my doctoral program, we became victims of a fraud scheme. The fraud was a complex set of lies and impersonations that were used to commit a number of crimes, including identity theft, embezzlement, emotional abuse, threats, extortion and theft. After some extraordinary police work, including a sting operation, the police arrested the perpetrator, who confessed immediately and also requested to see me. It turned out she was a relative, a young woman whom I had mentored and who was a member of our church family. She requested to see me because I was a social worker and she thought I might drop the charges. Her mother also invited me to her house in the hopes that I might drop the charges. The story from both the perpetrator of the crime and her mother was the same: we should not let our Black youth go through the criminal justice system because the system does not, in fact, do them justice. As a social worker, I was expected to understand this and show compassion. The church family did not quite know how to deal with the situation and most people did not feel comfortable talking to me about it. As a victim of the fraud scheme who just happened to be a social worker, I was expected to understand, to forgive, to be lenient, to be more tolerant and more patient. As a leader in the Black community and an advocate for social justice, I was expected by others in the Black community to be compassionate and understanding.

As a leader in the Black community and an advocate for social justice, I was expected to be compassionate and understanding.

We did not drop the charges. Although the perpetrator had originally confessed, she retained a lawyer and entered a plea of not guilty on her first appearance. The case dragged through the criminal justice system for eighteen months, with many court appearances and delays, all meant to wear us down. Finally, we went to trial by judge only. On the first day of the trial, the perpetrator changed her plea once more, this time to guilty, and her lawyer asked for a non-custodial sentence because she expressed remorse. We spoke to the judge through our victim impact statements and told of the emotional and psychological trauma we experienced both during the crime and during the frequent trips to court. In the end, the perpetrator was given six months in the Halifax Correctional Centre. Our family was vindicated by the outcome of the criminal case. However, we were not vindicated by the community, those who thought: “She is a social worker, a Black woman, an advocate; she should not lay charges.”

That was one of the most difficult situations I have ever had to deal with in my life. At the time, I questioned my ability to continue in social work. I questioned my ability to judge character and to assess an unsafe situation. I became a social work educator because I wanted to influence how social work was practised from a critical perspective. When I became a victim of crime, and people expected me to drop the charges, I questioned my ability to teach and inspire others. In fact, I questioned my entire belief system.

However, this was also a time when my family became stronger and even more united. We depended on each other, believed in each other and supported each other. I knew if I gave in to my depression, fears and anxiety, it would be impossible to go on. I did not want to become that angry, bitter person who lived life without hope. In addition, my eldest brother who faced his own challenge with such amazing grace lost his battle and died in the midst of this journey, two months before my graduation. I needed to be a role model for my daughter who was also victimized by the fraud scheme. If I faltered, she might become re-victimized.

Most significant for me was that I found strength in my spirituality and, as I grieved the multiple losses, I found the courage to go on.

Most significant for me was that I found strength in my spirituality and, as I grieved the multiple losses, I found the courage to go on. I completed my PhD and attended graduation in England, surrounded by family and friends. I had some very supportive social work colleagues who helped me through. Today, I thank them for helping me find my passion for social work and social change. I thank them for helping me overcome this adversity with dignity, respect, integrity and tenacity. I now realize that, although I experienced trauma, I also experienced post-traumatic growth.

After over four decades as a social worker, twenty-seven years as an educator, ten years as director of the Dalhousie School of Social Work and now as a Senator, I still have a passion for social work and social change. I have had many mentors and role models who have helped me along the way. I stand on their shoulders and I am guided by a sense of “critical hope.” As a result, I continue to give back, to lift as I climb, as the writer bell hooks says. We were targets of a vicious crime, but we did not become bitter; we became stronger. And as a result, we have received so many more blessings, including the ability to pay it forward. It is my sincere critical hope that wherever I speak, someone will remember something I say and because of it their life, and the lives of those they touch, will be changed a little. My hope is that we all build more capacity to find the courage to give back, despite the adversities we face.

On the Hunt for Diverse Stories

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Since grade school, I have had a passion for books and reading. This must have been evident to my teacher during elementary school because, on the last day before summer break, she gave me a gift. It was a collection of hardcover Dr. Seuss books. It came with its own bright blue, hard plastic book rack in the shape of the hat-wearing feline. While other kids on my street ran through the fields, climbed trees and collected bugs, I spent most of that summer inside, sucking my thumb and reading the shiny new books from cover to cover, over and over again.

But as my interest in reading grew, so did my awareness of what was missing in the books I read: Me. None of the characters looked like me, acted like me or spoke to my experience. So, when a book came along that did, I clung to it. I somehow stumbled onto a book called Harriet’s Daughter by M. NourbeSe Philip, and it was probably one of the first times I’d seen Black people in books outside of the bit of history we learned in school. I immediately wanted more. As a teen, I took an interest in novels like Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Those stories reassured me that my experiences were just as valid, important and worth reading about as all the others. But the shelves in which those books lived always seemed to be the slimmest section of the entire library.

This is the cry of many educators, youth and other readers: Where are the diverse stories? My recent entry into the publishing business as an Acquisitions Editor puts me in a unique position to contribute to positive change. I enjoy sitting around the boardroom table and engaging in those deep and meaningful conversations about culture, race, identity and the ways in which we can expand how we share our perspectives with the world. It’s vital to have diverse viewpoints and experiences included in conversations about the types of stories we should be publishing.

Formac Publishing is on the hunt for new and interesting stories, no matter who the author behind them. We are looking for books that celebrate our east-coast lifestyle, tantalize our taste buds with glorious recipes and move us with characters that leap off the page. That next great story or undiscovered writer is out there—and we intend to find them. To do that, we have launched Write to Win 2018.

 

This contest is an awesome opportunity for new talent to finally put pen to paper or for established writers to dust off a great story. We will be accepting manuscripts until February 2018. The shortlisted entries will be judged by a splendid panel of judges, including Sheree Fitch, George Elliot Clark and me, Wanda Taylor. I encourage potential authors to take a shot and submit a manuscript before the deadline. Details of this exciting contest will be announced at formac.ca.

In a recent media interview about my latest book, Ride or Die (Lorimer, 2017), I was asked whether I was the first Black acquisitions editor at a Nova Scotia book publishing company. It was a good question, but one that I couldn’t answer. I did some digging afterwards but came up empty. I’m curious to know which others walked this path. First Nations people? African Nova Scotians? Muslims? And if I am the first, now is the perfect time, as diversity in the stories we read and in those who tell them is slowly and steadily becoming a permanent fixture on the literary landscape.

As an African Canadian female writer, I am also exceptionally positioned to create those stories with diverse characters and inclusive themes. I have several manuscripts still yet to be published that focus on everything from a Muslim teen as main character to the mobilization of a stigmatized group of friends. However, as minority authors, we often face the threat of being pigeonholed. There is a belief that we are only good at writing about diversity and minority issues, or that our characters are not mainstream folks with everyday challenges but instead must be defined by their “diverseness.” Yet our race, class, gender or ethnicity are not the only stories we can tell. As humans and as individuals, we are not one single story and minority writers continue to demonstrate that they are not only equipped to write minority stories but are just as skilled in writing mainstream ones as well. I feel that an incredible storyteller is a gift to the world. She has the ability to make us see things in ways we might never have seen, were it not for her artistic gifts leaping back from the page.

The publishing industry is slowly changing to broaden the diversity of stories told and authors published. Readers are finding increased opportunities to connect with different kinds of characters, themes and stories. Bookshelves are beginning to look more representative of the world we live in. I am excited to be a very small part of that momentum.

Grace and Roberta

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When Black Loyalists came to settle in Birchtown, Nova Scotia, in the late 1700s, most arrived as “free blacks.” They were former slaves who fought for the British in the American Revolutionary War in exchange for land and freedom. When they arrived in Birchtown, however, they found themselves still indentured to wealthy white Loyalists in order to survive the harsh conditions. For many, promises of land, food and lodgings never materialized. Birchtown residents did the best they could to take care of each other, but many starved or died from disease. This so-called paradise was a living hell, but it was better than slavery and a master’s whip.

“Grace and Roberta” tells of two such settlers and the night of the Shelburne Riots, the first recorded race riot in Canada.

**

Sisters Roberta and Grace escaped from a plantation in southeastern United States. They travelled through the underground railroad to New York and then by ship to Port Roseway in Nova Scotia. Slave hunters were on the lookout for two women, but Grace and Roberta were able to go undetected. You see, Roberta was no delicate flower. She dressed like a man. Everyone she met thought she was a man.

When Roberta and Grace arrived in Birchtown during the middle of the winter, nobody questioned this young couple who had come to settle like all the rest. Many of those already living there showed the sisters how to stay warm and how to protect themselves from the harsh, unknown elements.

Roberta was a terrific axe-woman. She helped split firewood and build shelters. She was also a hunter of wildlife, so she was able to feed herself and Grace with small game, rabbits and birds, and gave what she could to others. Most people didn’t worry about “Robert” and how famished he looked. They were just happy to have another pair of helping hands. Roberta found it easier to let people believe she was a man; easier than trying to explain the horror of her experiences as a woman and a slave. She did what she had to do and never complained. No one questioned her gender.

Grace, on the other hand, was so much more the lady of the two. Grace was a teacher and Birchtown needed teachers, not only for the children but also for adults who could not read or write. So Grace taught children during the day and adults in the evenings after they finished work in town.

Roberta and Grace went about their daily lives until one day in 1784 when they had to defend themselves from disbanded British soldiers. These soldiers came to Birchtown with a promise to kill every Black man there. They were unable to find work, couldn’t care for their families and thought the Blacks were taking the food off their table. Truth be told, the Blacks had very little too—but they were not about to lose it. So the fight began.

Roberta was in a bad spot because the community leaders demanded that every capable man carry a gun and use it against the soldiers. She followed this order out of fear of people finding out she was a woman. But what frightened her most was shooting at another person.

The fighting became fierce. Many on both sides were wounded. Later, they would call it a race riot, but on that night it was a war and people fought for their lives and their loved ones. Roberta joined a group called the Black Pioneers. She helped gather guns and she set up a post at the end of the road that led from their settlement. No one knew Roberta had picked that spot—the most dangerous spot of all because she would be the first to encounter the soldiers coming toward the settlement. She chose this place because she would be alone. She did not realize the fate of all of Birchtown would lay in her hands.

Roberta waited for the soldiers in the damp, dark woods. When she heard a shot, she knew she’d been hit in the arm. She fell to the ground and felt tremendous fear. But it was not the fighting that scared Roberta. She could not shake the thought that slavery was at her door again. Still, she kept fighting and eventually fought off the soldiers. She stopped them from entering the settlement and they turned away in defeat.

While Roberta fought, Grace wandered around Birchtown looking for her sister. She knew Roberta would never give herself away; that she would fight like a man (or a woman). Grace began to cry and told everyone she met about her sister, Roberta. One of the men heard Grace’s story and said this man, or woman, as Grace explained, acted in great bravery. She came forward before anyone else to defend the most dangerous position. The man explained that she was wounded, but that she was now by the fire being treated by some of the women.

Grace made her way to the huge fire that burned at the edge of the brook. There were many men wounded and in pain. Grace looked up along the brook and found Roberta sitting with her hair down, talking to some of the women who were caring for her.

“Here I am, Grace!” Roberta called. “We don’t have to worry. We don’t have to hide. We are truly free.” Grace put her arms around her sister and cried.

Roberta and Grace stayed in Birchtown even after many had left. Grace taught in the one-room school and Roberta helped however she could. They married brothers and had many children whose descendants still live in Birchtown today.

A Story Under a Story

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"Don't Be Lonely" by Sarah Reesor

Don’t Be Lonely by Sarah Reesor

A story. A story under a story. And a story under that, and behind that one, and—wait!—there is another, larger one.

When my first child was born, the doctor threatened forceps, and so I pushed. But once out of my body, my son seemed never to want to be close again; for a decade as a young man he may as well have been orbiting a space station. My second child, born eight years later, was lifted from the gash in my belly in a dark room while I waited for a nurse, the doctor—anyone—to explain the abrupt silence. All I heard was the clink of instruments, low whispers. The doctor who should have known better moved to Ontario shortly afterward.

You see what I mean. Stories peek out from under stories, bubbling with energy and steeped in significance. Being a mother—whether we birth a child, adopt one, take in our cousin’s orphaned daughter, or simply open the door to the stray in the neighbourhood who prefers our house because he feels safer—makes each of us a constellation of stories. Stories leak out of our pores; they hovered like mist around the body of our own mother. We create them with family, we inherit them, we draw on them for inspiration, and we shrink from them when they haunt or frighten us. That scar on our face is a story untold. A photograph, a ring, or the child-sized jean jacket we won’t throw away? A story. Every woman I know mothers a person or a creature or a cause or a place. And everyone I know is a universe of untold stories.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, says the writer Joan Didion. The truth about stories is that’s all we are, says Thomas King. And he adds: Don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.

And that, for me, is the power stories hold. They inspire change. Once I have heard the details of the rape of a friend’s daughter (as statistics show, every 17 minutes across Canada a woman is raped), I cannot un-know that story. After December 1989, when 14 young women were murdered in Montreal at École Polytechnique, violence against women became a public story none of us can now refuse to know. These stories invite me to focus my lens on the epidemic of gendered violence in the world. Each woman’s story is singular, but it’s universal, too. I am taken to Saskatoon or to Highway 16 (The Highway of Tears) between Prince George and Prince Rupert. As a women with aboriginal roots, I am galvanized by the profound losses in these communities: I am implicated. As a woman, as a mother, I am connected. But the connections reach beyond Canada: I look across the globe, to India, to the Sudan.

Sometimes it all seems overwhelming. What can any of us do in the face of such enormous pain and horror in the world?

What’s important to me is to remember the sanctity of each woman’s life, and the need for each of us to claim our own story and to write it or tell it, if we can. Writing and speaking what we know force us to pay attention, to honour experience. When I’m walking on the beach I look at the stunning detail the tide scrapes in the sand; I watch the movement of clouds, or the occasional ship on the horizon. When I listen to a young woman’s story, I try to hear beyond her words. I cultivate awareness, and when I work with women as they write their lives, I try to help them become aware of their singular vision and their strength. Each individual carries a world.

It’s also important to me to create a space to talk with young people, especially young men, about their beliefs about girls and sex; I can call them on their jokes, push them on their offhand remarks (especially those two sons, whom I mentioned earlier, and who are now good men). I can bring to my classroom glossy ads I find in the local newspaper, ads such as the one showing a girl wearing little else but hockey gear, bearing the caption, “pull the goalie and score!” My students (male and female) will discuss this ad, search for more ads in print and electronic media that consider women as available sex objects. (I can—and I did—phone the company that distributed the ad and sent a note to Advertising Standards Canada). Equally important, though, I can continue to create a safe environment for awkward and sometimes tough conversations, for young men and women to make connections among, between, under and beyond the stories around them.

A story under a story can move each of us. Mother Teresa said it best: I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.