Black Futures Month: Five Torontonians push for progressive change

An urban agriculturist, a poet, a planner, a curator and a fashion designer explain how they're breaking down barriers to Black liberation


While surviving within economic structures rigidly defined by entrenched racial and neoliberal capitalism, it’s often difficult to speak of the word “investment” without signaling allusions to the stock market or savings accounts. The all-encompassing logics of financialization, extraction and surplus value lead us almost instinctively to images of one day storing up enough money to secure futures riddled with consumption, leisure and social status. 

And yet there is so much more to that critical word, investment. We also invest in our health (physical and mental) we invest in a sustainable environment we invest in our relationships we invest in our communities and we invest in our art. 

NOW asked five Black change-makers where we should be investing our time, ideas, love and passions in order to bring about the futures we want. NP


Isaac Crosby

“Reconnect to ancestral relationships on the land.”

Isaac Crosby isn’t afraid to tell you exactly who he is. He is an Ojibwa of Anderdon Nation. He is from Turtle Island. His parents aren’t from elsewhere, or his grandparents or great-great-great grandparents as he’s often grilled by Canadians who don’t believe a Black Indigenous person can be native to this place. His ancestors were similarly displaced. Forced off their lands by colonizers, they were pushed onto swamp fields, only to transform them into fertile farmland and make a future for themselves where it was thought impossible.

Crosby has inherited that vision. He creates pathways for BIPOC futures on the land through gardening, land restoration and land-based healing programs at Evergreen Brick Works, advocating for paid urban farm apprenticeships in a time when unpaid interning is shown to hinder inclusion efforts. For BIPOC youth to imagine a proud future on the land, they have to be shown their proud past. Crosby, who recently started appearing on CBC Radio’s Fresh Air as a gardening expert, explains how.

“Colonialism tries to tell me I have no connection to the land. Going through my genealogy, my great-great-great grandfather and his family were marked down as Indian. Go to the next census and these same people suddenly become coloured. It’s because the government wanted to break treaty. We went from a 3,000-acre reserve to 300 acres to 100 to nothing.

“But I am connected to the land. I come from two earthly, spiritual people, Black and Indigenous, who took care of this earth and loved it.

“My work silences the colonial narrative by getting the community involved with Indigenous agricultural practices. When BIPOC youth come to Brick Works, they don’t want to garden at first. I tell them to touch and smell the soil, and you see them start to open up. I say, I just want you to take off that mask, because when you reconnect with the earth, you’re going to reconnect with your ancestors and you’re going to reconnect with yourself. It’s a lot of fun to see the light come back to their eyes.

“My practice goes far away from the European style of agriculture we were forced to take on, and that we now know is destroying this land. If we’re going to have truth and reconciliation with the environment, let’s be truthful. Hey, colonizers, you came over here thinking our practices were paganistic and imposed your way of farming the land on us, forcing it to do what you needed it to do rather than working with it.

“Let us go back to the land. Let us go back to the water. Let us heal. In the blood memory of Black and Native people is the memory of our ancestors who were hurt. What they went through is in our DNA. We need to heal from that. We need to be able to go to the land and the water and do ceremony and smudge without people saying “no, you can’t do that,” when it should be a given. If you know Indigenous people will take care of the land, then just give it back. 

“There is unity among Black and Indigenous growers in Toronto, people and groups like Patrick Nadjiwon and Aurora Felix from N’Swo N’Shiimenhig Endaayaat/Three Sisters’ House, Leticia Deawuo and Joshua Recollet from Black Creek Community Farm, Chimu Titi and Joce Tremblay from Greenest City, Afri-Can FoodBasket and Sundance Harvest, but we need to go even further. When it comes to farming, gardening and taking care of the earth, we can learn from each other so a movement can happen on a bigger scale.” CC

Black Futures_Canasia Lubrin_WEB_0L2A9980-Edit.jpg

SAMUEL ENGELKING

Canisia Lubrin

“Find ways to bolster new models of mentorship and development of creative writing across different media.”

Poetry often gets overlooked. In comparison to the commercial popularity of novels and short stories, the art form doesn’t always receive its proper due. For many of us, it doesn’t help that our earliest school-based introductions to poetry were somewhat uninspired or woefully bereft of subjects and voices that reflect our own experiences or cultures. Yet poetry persists, and in many respects has become evermore important, particularly when we go through the most difficult periods in our lives. In short, poetry matters – language matters.

We need only look at recent controversies concerning poetry and some of the critical questions raised. Who gets to speak in the name of others? What are the ethical responsibilities of poets? Can poetry be separated from morality? Writer, editor and poet Canisia Lubrin, whose latest work, Dyzgraphxst, to be published by McClelland & Stewart in March, says poetry’s power is in its ability to resist the ways capital reduces us, to help us better understand and give expression to what it means to live Blackness in all of its complexity.

“We’re in this strange place where autobiography is prized as the main evidence for this thing we call life. This in certain contexts can be dangerous, because life for Black people tends to get tied to mere abjection we are used to feeding the gaze of certain publics that seek to access us only as objects of pain… that sort of thing. I use poetry to excavate what it means now to be self-aware of the places and spaces of our lives that invite wonder, not surprise. The challenge for us in the current world – one that is abused by capitalism, that faces all kinds of ecological disaster – is to say no to the idea that the human is simply exceptional, that the magnanimous ‘I’ of human reality should never be challenged. We’re a small part of an ecosphere, a world that urgently needs to be understood through the prism of the transatlantic slave trade. That’s the history that has brought the current world to bear.

“Poetry works in the materials of language. Language is mutable material. And as Dionne Brand says, ‘You don’t make a living from poetry, but you make a life.’ It’s not a coincidence that in every space of our lives, whenever we encounter challenges or difficulty, whether as Black people, or any people, we go to poetry. Usually, increases of interest in poetry and creative writing coincide with challenging social periods. And this is a result of poetry’s capacity to honour our complexities in a world that is constantly seeking to reduce us to the lowest form of consumption or utility.

“There is absolutely an ethics to poetry. People in positions of authority require a certain degree of humility and maturity, and this is no less true for the poet. The poet, if the poet does her job, sits in awareness of, and in attention to, the world, so that what is observed finds a true expression in language. This is no small thing. There is something to be said for a [poet] who admits an error and acknowledges that this work demands more from them, even though this moreness isn’t always present. We exist relationally and poetry is one way to hold these nuances.

“Creative writing keeps us rooted ourselves, but also in relation to the world and beyond still. Our relationship to language is essential to the way we live, the way we survive and, hopefully, thrive. So we need to find ways to bolster new models of mentorship and development of creative writing across different media. This means investing resources in Black poets and writers who are coming up. At the root of the problem of access are the disadvantaged circumstances that further complicate the multiple barriers that Black writers encounter. A comprehensive response to the good work happening right now, where more Black writers are visibly emergent, will be good to see. In spite of our limited resources, the entire history of Black diaspora is full of innovation, creativity, change-making energy. That hasn’t changed.” NP

Black Futures Cheryll Case

Samuel Engelking

Cheryll Case

“Apply a human rights approach to city planning.”

A mere three years after earning a degree in urban planning from Ryerson University, Cheryll Case has opened conversations around city-building in Toronto. She founded her own firm, CP Planning, authored a chapter in the book House Divided and is part of the city’s external advisory committee on affordable housing. Her goal is straightforward, but no small task: create an equitable, affordable and beautiful Toronto that meets the needs of lower-income and underserved communities, not just the wealthy. 

“In Toronto, urban planning is not accessible to most residents. I often say that everyone has a relationship with land, but not everyone has a relationship with planning. It’s a very exclusive group that usually attends urban planning consultations – typically those who are more privileged. That means planning has become a process designed around them. People who owned houses were the ones who advocated for planning to be established in the first place. 

“The outcomes are most often in service of that community rather than lower-income communities. Most people don’t realize that the city is planned, that these decisions are being made at every government level. Planning is not talked about on the news they don’t talk about it in school. That knowledge is not distributed. One of the things I aim to do is make planning more accessible in ways that will incite people to participate in the conversation.

“I remember a story about a building that was proposed in Weston. There were not any affordable housing units in the proposal, but almost everyone at the consultation complained about the idea of affordable housing. One woman wanted to discuss affordable housing – requesting that it be included – but everyone had already said that they didn’t want it. She left. Consultations often reinforce the idea that people are not welcome in their own neighbourhoods. 

“Gentrification is [also] tied to planning because planning doesn’t prioritize affordability it often prioritizes beautification. It describes neighbourhoods as ‘needing to be revitalized’ when they are already full of life. Weston is a vibrant community that provides supportive programming, official and unofficial.  

“I’m working on a project called Black Futures on Eglinton, funded by the federal ministry of heritage. We’re looking at the systemic discrimination and barriers Black people face, but also asking what are the values Black people contribute to the city?

“A lot of the time, Black residents are not connected to the core critical conversations. So when I ask community members what’s happening in the neighbourhood in terms of redevelopment, they say they have no idea. The city conducted a study [on the redevelopment of Eglinton West] that did a great job of looking into greening and travel, but it didn’t go into building of affordable housing. When I’m having consultations with the community, I keep things open. I say we’re going to talk about a wide variety of topics and what I’ve heard back from them is, ‘Cheryl, you’re not doing enough on affordable housing.’ Part of my approach as a planner is to be a good listener.

“I organized a series of housing-focused workshops with 140 participants from low-income communities across Toronto. Many women had unexpected recommendations, including that even garages should be permitted to be turned into housing. When we talk about being creative in housing you get creative solutions when you talk to the people who have need for housing.

“We need to apply a human rights approach to planning. Essentially, that means considering the people who are not being served by the current system. If planning designs itself to intentionally engage people who need to have the conversations then we can address the core issues we see today.” CVG

Ashley McKenzie-Barnes

Samuel Engelking

Ashley McKenzie-Barnes

“Curate and commission art that reflects Black people – and they will come.”

After spending 15 years working with independent, institutional and corporate entities like TEDxToronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario and Artscape, curator, artist and educator Ashley McKenzie-Barnes is working toward making institutional arts spaces inviting to racialized people in Toronto.

In 2019, the Scarborough native curated the Kings And Queens Of Scarborough section of Nuit Blanche. She brought in art by Kent Monkman, Ebony G. Patterson, Hatecopy and more, work she felt reflected the people who call Scarborough home while bringing contemporary art into communal spaces like the mall, the civic centre and the movie theatre. 

This February, she’s curating the 25th Jubilee anniversary of Harbourfront Centre’s Kuumba, the city’s longest-running Black History Month festival. Eighty per cent of the programming – spanning visual arts, music, film, dance and theatre – is Canadian, something McKenzie-Barnes takes pride in.

“Not always, but we [curators and art institutions] often seek out work from beyond our borders because those artists already have the visibility, the investment opportunities and the art collectors. For example, Rashid Johnson and Omar Ba at the Power Plant or Mickalene Thomas at the AGO. We have so many artists here like Esmaa Mohamoud, Yung Yemi and Ekow Nimako, who are making great work, but we’re not necessarily taking the time to do the research. I don’t want to downplay the work that is being done by curators and programmers, but I do think that we can provide more of a platform, especially to emerging or mid-career artists. I always reference BAND Gallery [Black Artists’ Network in Dialogue], a gallery and organization dedicated to supporting, documenting and showcasing the artistic and cultural contributions of Black artists in Canada and internationally, because they do a wonderful job of looking at emerging Black artists. 

“We also have Wedge Curatorial Projects, and great curators like Julie Crooks at the AGO. What we need is more people with the mentality of BAND in positions of power within institutions. The institutions are starting to support and strengthen the art scene in different ways, with free admission, later opening hours and youth programming. The AGO partnering with underground art collective Blank Canvas is a step in the right direction. We need to continue that momentum.

“Investing in the talent that’s here will bring out the community. Sometimes the programming, as beautiful as it is, is not accessible, whereas if you are programming on a more communal level, word gets out.

“That’s what happened with Nuit Blanche in Scarborough: we invited audiences in. We balanced relevant and current contemporary art with an understanding of the culture of the first- and- second-generation immigrants that live there. 

“Durothethird’s Scarborough Royalty installation subversively named streets that regularly come up in the news with negative connotations – streets that people might associate with violence. It was placed in front of a government building purposely, for people to celebrate and feel proud of their communities. People loved it so much that it’s being remounted for a year at Scarborough Town Centre. There are people taking photos in front of it every day and you can’t achieve that without understanding how work can reflect the people.

“We are on a pathway – the Raptors won, our music scene is exploding – there are definitely a lot of eyes on Toronto right now. Outside of athletics and music, we have the next generation of artists, designers, architects and creatives coming out with innovative and important work. I’d love to see us build that cultural currency to compel all of North America to draw their gaze toward Canadian contemporary art.”  KA

Kuumba 25 runs February 1-29 at Harbourfront Centre. See listing.


Spencer Badu

Samuel Engelking

Spencer Badu

“Challenge fashion industry gender norms.”

Spencer Badu started his eponymous label in 2015 while at design school in Calgary, after years spent sewing and screen-printing clothes in his bedroom. His slick, black garments are utilitarian uniforms for the anti-conformist – unrestricted by strict gender paradigms. Known for cuts and silhouettes that blur the lines between traditional men’s and women’s wear, Badu’s designs have been worn by A$AP Rocky, Young Thug and tastemakers in Toronto.

It’s been a tumultuous few years for local fashion. In 2016, Toronto Fashion Week was cancelled, then resurrected in 2017, only to be cancelled again this month. To succeed in a notoriously tough industry, Badu is drawing on community at home while growing connections abroad. His decision to make genderless designs was not necessarily political, but more about inclusion. His clothing can be worn by anyone who wants to defy the status quo. And it seems that vision is resonating widely – his line is stocked in online stores and retailers across the world. With a predominantly Black team and Black models in his editorials and runway shows, he’s drawing fresh, international eyes to Toronto’s fashion scene.

“One of the main themes within my collections is this idea of wanting to continually challenge, and that rebellious spirit is personal. I don’t see clothes as specifically for men or women. I have friends who wear what they want no matter who it’s ‘made for.’ Ultimately, wardrobe comes down to what people love and want to wear, irrespective of who society says garments are made for. It’s not a loud, political message but the subtle foundation of the brand. [The designs] are about finding the fluidity between feminine and masculine. It comes down to clothes that challenge gender, boundaries and garment construction. I’ve never really been good at doing ‘sexy’ and I think a lot of other genderless brands play to that. I’m more interested in confidence and vulnerability.

“I want to challenge the industry, like how Virgil [Abloh, founder of Off-White and current menswear artistic director of Louis Vuitton] has done so much for the industry, especially as a Black man. When you think about what the fashion industry was like 10 years ago, his presence has helped make it more relatable to young Black designers and consumers. I think I can continue to push things in that direction. 

“We’re going through a phase where a lot of Black faces are getting a lot of coverage, editorials and campaigns, which is good. But we’re in an age where people don’t need to necessarily rely on traditional ways to succeed. It’s really about not just being validated by traditional means, where the industry says you’ve made it because you’re in Vogue. On the other hand, appropriation still happens. A lot of these brands, like Commes des Garçons, always do stuff like that, so at this point I’m not surprised I’m not surprised that it keeps being tolerated. I try to use my platform to create the changes I want as opposed to complaining. 

“The [Canadian] industry is in a weird place, but I don’t really look at that as a negative. It should motivate our talent to remodel the industry. Canada isn’t known for fashion. I wouldn’t say the world looks to us for inspiration, trends or new ideas. Since there’s no pressure, we can hone our craft here and take our talents worldwide.

“I work with all my friends my stylist is a good friend of mine, I’ve worked with him for ages. [The models are often Black] because we shoot people I know – I never really use models from agencies. It’s people I think are cool, doing things that inspire me. The things I make resonate with people who come from the same cultural background as me. That’s not done on purpose – it’s something that is natural.” KA

Read our previous Black Futures Month features here and here.

@nowtoronto

Leave your opinion for the editor...We read everything!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *