ON CALL FOR SINGLE MOMS AND HIPHOP FEMS
As Tonika Morgan approaches my table at Tequila Bookworm, I catch her effervescent determination immediately. But Queen West is a long way from Jane and Finch, where she grew up and now works.
Morgan has packed quite an activist punch as organizer of a Jane-Finch youth council; founder of the Medina Collective, a mentoring org for young women in hiphop; participant in the city's Youth Cabinet; and manager of Women Moving Forward, a Jane-Finch project for single moms.
Last year she won the YWCA's Young Woman of Distinction Award, quite an accomplishment given the fact that two years prior she was homeless and living in the Y's women's shelter.
"My parents had me when they were teenagers, and they had a hard time coping," she tells me. "I was forever getting kicked out, and it got to the point where I kept my clothes in bags in anticipation of the next time."
Morgan ended up sleeping in parks and couch-surfing, and eventually dropped out of high school. Strapped for cash, she applied and was rejected twice for jobs at McDonald's. Good thing.
Soon she was organizing some of the first freestyling rap contests in downtown clubs, venues she was usually too young to be in herself. This was before Eminem's 8 Mile. "It shocked some of these guys that a woman was putting these shows on," she says.
Besides her day job with single moms, she is also a full-time student at Ryerson in the arts and contemporary studies program. "Everything I was doing up to this job has had an element of activism in it. I was given so much guidance, mentorship and encouragement in my life despite the desperate times that I really feel deeply about doing the same."
KEEPING REGENT'S KIDS IN CLASS
Sean Isaacs has the too-cool-for-school vibe that fingers him on the street as potential trouble instead of what he is: a U of T OISE grad in education who, instead of working on the inside as a high school teacher, is on the outside busting his ass keeping Regent Park high school kids' asses in the classroom.
Isaacs, who grew up in Metro housing, is in his fourth year as a student/parent support worker with Pathways to Education, a unique and wildly successful program of the Regent Park Community Health Centre.
With 95 per cent of the project's 750 high-school-aged kids registered in the program, which provides mentorship, advocacy and homework assistance, the dropout rate has plummeted from 56 per cent five years ago to 12 per cent today.
At schools like Central Tech, which Isaacs frequents on behalf of Regent kids, staff used to mistake him for a student himself. That may have been a drag at first, but the fact that he straddles the line between the system and the street has been a bonus in his relationship with Regent's youth.
He's even brought his after-work passion for spoken word into Pathways, running a literacy program that utilizes hiphop, spoken word and African history to help kids articulate their dreams for the future. "These kids had never been asked the question [of where they're going] before and had no way to even begin to answer it," he says.
Co-host of CKLN radio show, BYU, and an activist in Black Youth United and the Black Youth Coalition Against Violence, Isaacs is just what the black community is crying out for: a male role model who isn't just copping to the dominant white culture. "What really drives me is seeing our youth reach their potential," he says. "I know about that. I was a recluse in high school until a teacher pulled me aside and encouraged me."
TAKING POWER FROM THE BALLOT BOX
"The old-guard leadership in the black community hasn't gotten it together," says Nkem Anizor. "They aren't connected to the grassroots and haven't understood the difference between asking and demanding."
This Mississauga-dwelling, Toronto-focused founder of Black Youth Taking Action is conjuring balloting clout. Her goal is a grassroots block of 10,000 black youth voters. "You get that together and you can make demands that get action," she says.
Wearing the draped scarf of her Muslim faith - she joined the Nation of Islam when she was in high school - Anizor tells me, "Part of the duty of a Muslim is to help those in need." She calls her generation "the children of Mike Harris."
During the last federal election, (BYTA) put together arguably one of the best-attended and most politically focused all-candidates meetings in town. A few hundred black youth packed a gym in Lawrence Heights and grilled four GTA candidates for close to three hours.
Unlike many progressive groups that cannot speak out politically for fear of jeopardizing their government funding, BYTA is guarding its independence. "[Government funding] is a handcuff," Anizor says. "You can't build this kind of a movement that way." Next, the org is gearing up for a major sign-up drive for this fall's municipal election.
Despite her political dexterity, Anizor, a U of T science grad, is a relative newcomer. "There was no moment when I thought, 'I'm going to become an activist,'" she says. "But this is a crisis. There was just this need to stand up and say something."
DISMANTLING the SAFE SCHOOLS ACT, CASE BY CASE
Some people don't like Selwyn Pieters. And you know what? He doesn't care. Since opening his law office last year, he's built a practice defending, among others, black youth caught on the wrong side of the province's disastrous Safe Schools Act.
"Imagine it - these big law firms hired by the school board and the principal trying to keep kids out of school," says Pieters.
Defending teens isn't the most lucrative of practices. In fact, most of the time Pieters's fee is well below the legal aid rate. When I finally reach him by phone, he is burning the midnight oil at his downtown office.
Pieters has been a one-man wrecking crew of racial discrimination for the last decade. After his application for admission to U of T law school was turned down in 1997, he sought an injunction from the Ontario Human Rights Commission to prevent universities from using the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), claiming it discriminates against black candidates.
He lost that battle, but in the end won the war - U of T finally admitted him. A couple of years later, a racial profiling complaint he made was the first one against Canada Customs to ever reach the stage of a hearing before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. (Canada Customs avoided the hearing by settling with Pieters.)
"If I'm making the status quo feel uncomfortable, then I'm doing my job," he says.
It isn't always the status quo that Pieters, a big burly guy with a scruffy beard and thick, black-framed glasses, makes uncomfortable. At a Coalition of African Canadian Organizations press conference in the wake of Jane Creba's death, Pieters rocked the Coalition's pro-David Miller boat when he complained the mayor had no grasp of what was going on.
"He should know as a lawyer himself that mandatory minimum gun sentences and reverse onus aren't going to work," he tells me.
Pieters, who lives in St. Jamestown, was raised by his grandmother in Guyana and arrived here with his twin brother as a 19-year-old to live with his mother. "We grew up in a community where we were fatherless and motherless. We would have been looked upon as unlikely to succeed," he tells me. "But other people stepped in. We had very strong role models."
STAGING A THEATRE OF HOPE
Twelve-year-old Jamal Brown looks shyly across the room of the Flemingdon Resource Centre toward Rahel Appiagyei with a mix of awe and that thing kids have that blends a small measure of fear with respect. He offers quietly, "Yeah, she's pretty good."
Kids here are working on a play about how to create healthy relationships while growing up amidst violence. Rahel Appiagyei is the theatre project's exuberant coordinator, who has spent the last five months coaxing, cajoling and teasing this story out of the life experiences of about a dozen young black kids like Brown from Flemingdon Park.
"This is their story," she tells me. "My job has been to help give them a sense of ownership of it."
It's exhausting to contemplate how much Appiagyei can pack into a 24-hour day. She's in her third year of a degree in international studies and French at York's Glendon College and a volunteer in numerous youth organizations as well as a liaison between Corrections Canada and the community. The oldest of six siblings, she lives with them plus Mom and Dad in Jane and Finch's Driftwood neighbourhood.
Oh yeah, did I say she's also mom to her one-year-old son, Trè?
Ghana-born Appiagyei says she wants to dispel the notion that her neighbourhood is a violent wasteland. "This is an amazing place," she tells me. "I've lived here all of my life and never felt endangered."
There was one significant exception, and it wasn't due to gun-toting thugs. "I was in grade eight and we were coming home from playing basketball. I saw about 20 cops jump on two black kids riding their bikes. One cop had a boot right on one of the kids' faces," she says. "I really understood all the mistrust people here have of the cops."
A recent recipient of the Pinball Clemons Community Leadership Award, Appiagyei says, "I've always tried to live the Ghandian motto: 'Be the change you want to see.' That's what drives me. I'm not into sitting around complaining."
But she does share the worries of many of her parent-neighbours. "People see my son right now and say, 'He's so cute,'" she says. "But I know that unless things turn around, by the time he's 15 or 16 he won't be considered cute. He'll be a black youth and he will be targeted."
NAVIGATING THE SYSTEM FOR HIS NEIGHBOURS
Ali Farah knows the alienation, confusion and frustration of landing in the middle of a foreign land with few resources and no support. Fifteen years ago he and his family arrived in Rexdale as part of the first wave of Somalis to come to Canada, fleeing their civil-war-ravaged homeland.
The experience of dislocation and financial hardship never left him, which is why he returned to Rexdale after finishing an honours degree in sociology at the U of Windsor. "I guess I could have lived anywhere, but this is where I grew up," he says. "I felt I could have the biggest impact here."
Since his return in 2002, Farah has slowly and steadily built a reputation as a committed activist in a community that contains well over 50 nationalities. He recently coordinated the third annual Somali Youth Recognition Awards and was on the planning committee of the Rexdale Community Council.
He's led a very successful youth-run community kitchen, does student advocacy at Kipling Collegiate, runs after-school basketball programs and homework clubs and does conflict mediation within families experiencing culture clashes between foreign-born parents and their Canadian-born kids. Most of the work he does is through the Somali Youth Association of Toronto (SOYAT), a non-profit org run by youth.
"We went through a lot fleeing Somalia," he tells me one afternoon at a community hall in the neighbourhood. "And when we got here, neither of my parents could get work in the professions they were trained for. They still can't."
Tall, dressed conservatively in a white shirt and slacks, Farah has an easygoing, gentle manner that shifts when the topic moves into why he's chosen the work he has.
"When we first arrived, we had no advocates. I'm amazed at what my parents' generation was able to achieve in spite of that," he says. "I can navigate the system, so I want to help advocate for people here who can't, not just in the Somali community but anyone who is struggling, poor and black. I owe it to our elders." From Rexdale to Flemington Park, an explosion of creative energy is sweeping through the city's black neighbourhoods. Here are six among the new generation of inspirers and hellraisers who aim to put race in its place.