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The Cookout: Inviting Black leaders into politics

By Grace Kabengele, May 3 2021—

Note: I would like to recognize that the term “womxn” is used in recognition of Black leaders at the event who identify as non-gender conforming or non-binary. As noted by the Black Voters Matter executive team, they were asked to utilize the term by their guest. As such, the term will be kept for the title and throughout the article per their request.

It is rare to have seen Black people on the political stage, let alone Black womxn in leadership positions within the political sphere. However, in recent years, Black and multiracial womxn have become increasingly involved in politics. 

Political engagement and participation of Black womxn on the political stage have forged a fundamental need for representation within the Black community. Black womxn have been at the centre of American socio-political advocacy since the American Civil War and have inspired young Black females to enter into the political sector. 

But what about Black Canadian womxn? With figures like Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris gaining national attention through their roles in leadership, the excitement that Black and multiracial womxn bring to international politics is clear, particularly for racialized individuals. Personally, I have found it difficult to find the same level of engagement from Black and multiracial womxn in Canadian politics. The challenge was addressed, on Sunday, March 21, Black Voters Matter Canada (West & North) hosted an event titled, Womxn Rising: Black Leaders in Politics within their federal election series. This event sought to further the engagement, encouragement and empowerment of people with African descent (Black People) in Western and Northern Canada to be involved in politics and all levels of government.

Black Voters Matter Canada hosted this event in observance of both womxn’s History Month and the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The panelists at the Womxn Rising event were Pauline Greaves, an NDP MLA Candidate for the Surrey South riding in BC, Uzoma Asagwara, an NDP MLA for Union Station in Manitoba, Toni Boots, the mayor of Summerland, BC and Dr. Habiba Mohamud, a Liberal Party Candidate for the Edmonton Griesbach federal district in Alberta. These panelists were chosen to bring forth the perspective of the diverse individuals and communities that make up Western and Northern Canada, in hopes to empower Black leaders across such communities. 

The event detailed the experiences of Black womxn in the political and public space, particularly regarding the barriers that exist and why there is such a lack of representation for Black womxn in politics to begin with. Alongside this, speakers touched on the potential benefits of Black womxn engaging in politics, and what it would look like if Black womxn were in positions of leadership. As a Black Canadian woman engaged in politics and social justice, I find myself asking — is there hope for Black womxn in Canada who advocate in a political space? 

All of the panelists present had been involved in Canadian politics at some time in their lives, or were currently in pursuit of a seat in government and dedicated to the representation of Black people. For instance, when asked about the reason for her involvement in politics, Greaves spoke of the divisive climate within Surrey, BC.  

“Living in Surrey, basically, I have found that it was divided — North Surrey — [and] South Surrey…[have] not a lot of representation at all.” 

Greaves observed that the community was unrepresentative of people of colour (POC), primarily Black individuals living within the region. She stated that there was “not a lot of representation at all, primarily, there was no representation of Blacks.” 

To remedy this issue, Greaves decided to sit on a Diversity Committee, which she found to be “out of sync” with the needs of the Black community, seeing as there were no sitting Black committee members. The committee had only been centred on the creation of multicultural festivities —  their attempt at acceptance and inclusion of Black people and POC in the community. 

“For the city, the festival represented their contribution to including people of colour and Blacks,” Greaves notes. 

Although Greaves’ story focuses on the major issues that were present in Surrey — at both the civic and provincial level — this story is an all-too-familiar story of Black leadership. As a student-leader, I have found that Black people and people of colour were forced to create a culture of acceptance and inclusion. With both an understanding and appreciation for the need of diversity and inclusion, this role has often fallen upon our shoulders. Greaves’ story allowed me to focus on this issue and recognize that BIPOC communities should not be the only ones to address these issues, but instead they should be a part of the larger discussions on representation in government and subsequently in Canadian communities. Greaves gained momentum towards addressing issues of equality and systemic racism by observing the needs within her home community, which is similar to the accounts of the other panelists.

For instance, Boots, the mayor of Summerland, BC, had been immersed in politics in a similar fashion. Boots had not entered politics with the intention to speak about the Black experience within Okanagan Valley. She was more keen to focus on the policies and work of the present council in Summerland on agriculture, and in favour of prime-agricultural land. However, it appeared that Boots had been propelled towards advocacy and engagement with Black communities within her jurisdiction as she took notice of racialized and polarizing experiences within the community. Boots spoke of her and her children’s experiences with bullying stating that “they experienced racism because people had heard that their mom was Black.”

She was cognizant of the racism within the Summerland, BC, region and believed that it was time to speak out. Although Boots did not detail the specific incident which brought on her passion, she mentioned that there had been a “horrible incident of racism within her community” that propelled her to speak out against racial injustice. 

Similar to Greaves, Boots began to hold dialogues on racism. Although Boots had not decided to begin her journey focused on the concerns of Black individuals at the onset of her political journey, her identity as a Black, multiracial individual brought about conversations surrounding race within the course of her time in politics. This is nothing new. Similar to our American counterparts, womxn, particularly Black womxn, have been plagued with experiences of racism, misogyny and hatred on their political journey. As a result, they are often forced to hold conversations about race and forge their own presence in the political sphere.

Asagwara, NDP MLA for Union Station, Manitoba, had been brought up to feel connected to their Nigerian community and stated at the Womxn Rising event that “it became ingrained in who I was.” 

Asagwara’s parents have been involved in community activism, hoping to foster a sense of tradition within Nigerian and African youth which incentivized Asagwara’s involvement in politics. This incentive became ingrained into Asagwara’s work by watching the work of their parents in community organization and activism, thus, Asagwara’s parents had helped foster their connection within their community. This, accompanied by their observation of the systemic racism and discrimination within the heathcare sector helped Asagwara find a purpose. 

“It felt like I had a responsibility to push back against systemic racism, misogyny and discrimination,” they said.  

As a member of the Queer community, Asagwara had a unique experience and understanding of marginalization and discrimination, as they were challenged to tackle issues of racism and discirimnation within communities in which they had found identification, but said “there was [also] discrimination and racism within the Queer community, as well, that was not being talked about, was not being addressed, that need to be addressed.” 

Their work as a healthcare provider, in community initiatives against racial discrimination and their work against racism in LGBTQIA+ spaces inevitably translated into their involvement within politics. The political sector gave Asagwara an opportunity to work within a new capacity with the support of mentors, organizers and activists within politics. They emphasized that the intersectional identities of Queer and Black Canadians should not be minimized for the comfort of other people.

 “It is really, really important for me, as someone who walks in intersectional identities, as we do, to not minimize aspects of who I am for the comfort of other people,” they said. “It is important for me to be a politician with all of myself being big, and not making parts of myself small in order to take up space.” 

Asagwara has made history by not only becoming one of the three Black Canadians at the provincial level to be elected into the Manitoba Legislative Assembly, but also as the first Queer Black representative to win a seat. Asagwara’s accomplishments remind us that historical change is imminent. We can all engage with Asagwara’s vision — as marginalized individuals it is often important to remind ourselves that we can take up space within the political sphere.

Dr. Habiba Mohamud also chose to join politics based on the experiences she observed, and is a Liberal Party candidate for the Edmonton Griesbach district in Alberta. 

“I was well grounded into the community that I was planning on representing,” Mohamud stated. 

Her political journey began in 2019. Throughout her time politicking in the riding she noted various “issues and concerns” that solidified her desire for representation. As a researcher, Mohamud realized that the various projects centered on policy formulation, which she had taken part in, had been distanced from the government, or party platforms.

Mohamud sought to recognize concerns for underemployment, unemployment and violence against womxn among other issues to help communities within her region overcome these issues. Once again, there was a need for someone to respond to these challenges, and Mohamud decided to put her name forward. 

“It was very difficult to balance my role as a community activist and community support, with a full-time job, with being a parent,” said Mohamud.

As someone knowledgeable about the systems, programs and structures of the government, and with her knowledge and experience within the community she fit within that space. 

“The need was there,” Mohamud stated.

Similar to the political journey of the other panelists, each individual sought to rectify the concerns of their community. They set themselves within politics.

“There is no better motivation than to see the people that you are helping with your limited influence succeeding,” Mohamud said. “You want to see how you can do more.” 

Mohamud, like the other panelists, brought forward and initiated change within their home community.

These panellists make it clear that political ascendancy is difficult. The historical challenges, particularly racism, faced by Black Canadian politicians, particularly, Black and multiracial Candian politicians, are a lived reality for all the panelists. 

While certainly not easy, those challenges mean that it is important and beneficial for Black womxn and gender-diverse individuals to join politics. 

“The impact of being elected is transformative,” said Asagwara. Their journey in politics has inspired young Black children to believe that they too can enter the political realm.

“We have to keep those doors open for anybody else that wants to walk through them,” they added.

“All womxn are politicians,” said Mohamud. 

Womxn are the grassroots of social progress as their unique insight allow them to lead with passion and empathy which are necessary within politics. The perspective that womxn bring in the political and public space is paramount to improving the well-being and quality of life of individuals in general.

“We have that lived experience, we can speak knowledgeably,” said Boots. 

Whether in the Black community, communities of colour, or with gender-diverse groups, leaders that can represent with passion and commitment have a skill that is unparalleled. Boots hopes the divisions that “other” Black communities will eventually be dismantled because “not being white, is no longer not being normal.” 

Whether an individual running is a single parent, dual-parenting, or working a full-time job it is important to recognize the need for support in their electoral journey. 

“Let people help you,” Asagwara stated. 

Allowing people to help within the campaign journey was important to the success of their own political journeys. This message was notable, because, although Black and multiracial leaders often forge their path within politics, it is necessary and important that they be given the opportunity to succeed. Allies should be called to extend a hand in supporting the historical impacts that such representation will have.

The challenge of becoming part of the leadership communities within Canada was made visible throughout the panel discussion. However, the Black Voters Matter Canada federal election series lends insight and encouragement to young Black leaders hoping to become involved in politics. Engaging underrepresented groups of people, like Black individuals, is of paramount importance in order to make their perspectives visible. 

I encourage everyone to check out the Black Voters Matter Canada federal election series online.

Welcome to the Cookout! As an homage to the metaphorical gathering of and for Black people, typically for food and discussion, the Cookout column will address all things Black life. The menu for this column is meant to highlight the experiences of Black people in all sectors of life. This column will dish on hard discussions around race, racial inequality, systemic and systematic racism and we will give time to celebrate Black identity, culture and excellence. Our approach hopes to tackle issues of race, and give a personal, yet wide-reaching look at the Black culture and identity. This column is a part of our Voices section.

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