Activists in the Black community talk about personal risks

By Lincoln DePradine

Jean Augustine in discussion with (l-r) Desmond Cole, Sandra Hudson, Prof. Carl James, Valerie Steele and Anthony Morgan

People who act on behalf of the Black community as social activists, have described a life of personal risks that impact on health and careers.

“Social activism is really hard and its really risky,’’ Sandra Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM) – Toronto, told participants at a two-day Black History Month symposium at York University in Toronto.

“Black Leadership, Partisan Politics & Social Activism’’ was the theme of the event organized by the university’s Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community & Diaspora in the Faculty of Education.

“Our community is diverse with people having different political approaches to issues. We need to engage everyone and accept the fact that there are different approaches to get where we need to go,’’ said Professor Carl James, who heads the Jean Augustine Chair.

The symposium, which began on Friday and continued into Saturday, brought together not just activists but also community leaders, academics, students, and university professors from Canada and the United States.

“Advocacy and activism are not for everyone. You have to have a concrete stomach to go into the cesspool of cleaning up some of the stuff that has been happening to us,’’ said Valerie Steele, who was a panelist for Saturday’s discussion on “Black Leadership & Social Activism’’.

Another panel on Saturday addressed the topic, “Black Leadership & Partisan Politics’’.

Steele, a community organizer and longtime member of the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC), said she has her “battle scars to show’’ for her social activism. “I wear them like a badge of honour,’’ said Steele, who recalled the work of the late Dudley Laws, co-founder and former leader of BADC.

As a social activist, Laws spoke “forthrightly’’, said Steele. “He spoke without ambiguity,’’ she  noted. “A lot of us speak and when we’re finished speaking, not a damn soul knows what was said.’’

Steele’s fellow panelists were BLM-Toronto’s Hudson; lawyer and activist, Anthony Morgan; and activist and journalist, Desmond Cole.

Morgan and Cole related their concern for family members as they go about their social activism work.

Cole said he also has received threats on his life, with his work not allowing him to be “sleeping as I should, not eating as I should, not resting when I should. I’m a freelancer and so it feels like every day is a work day’’.

According to Cole, there are many Toronto activists “that you just don’t see or hear from that much anymore because the personal cost of doing this work has taken such a toll, that they have to step back’’.

Hudson, who has experienced white supremacist assault and anti-Black racism, said the risks of engaging in social activism “can be very taxing on the body and the mind’’.

“You risk a lot to yourself. You risk a lot to your future. So, it’s not everyone,’’ she pointed out.

“What’s important is that we are able to have a focus of what exactly we want to do and it’s also important that we don’t allow ourselves to become exploited by people who are in power, and who want to check off a box and say they’re not anti-Black.’’

The panel agreed that the ” critiquing of one another ” is an important part of bBack leadership in the social activist movement.

“We are constantly creating something and we have to be able to critique one another,’’ Hudson said. “We have to be able to critique one another because it’s the only way we can come to the new, more expansive, more creative idea that is going to push us closer to what we are all looking for.’’

Professor James told the Caribbean Camera that the weekend symposium “met expectations” and was “an excellent start’’ to a discussion on leadership and to talking “across partisan politics, across social activism, across historical and contemporary activism’’.

“It would be good to have a full, big discussion, where we’ll talk across all these different things,’’ he said.

In delivering the closing remarks, Dr Augustine, the former Liberal Member of Parliament, said she was “very impressed’’ with the participation of the young people.

She said the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community & Diaspora still is in need of $1.2 million so that it can be fully established and” continue in perpetuity.”