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Black History Month an inspiration throughout the year, say co-op leaders

Published February 22, 2018

The co-op housing movement benefits from the leadership of many capable and dedicated Black women. Having overcome obstacles to being seen as leaders, these women are changing the face of co-op housing and providing examples for a new generation of co-operators. February is Black History Month in Canada, and this year’s theme is Black Canadian Women: Stories of Strength, Courage, and Diversity.

Black History Month was introduced in Canada in 1995 following a motion by Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament. Both Karyn Moore, President of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto (CHFT) and Domanique Grant, a vice-president, see it as an important reminder for all Canadians that Black people, including Black women, have made significant contributions in our society.

The CHFT Board currently is comprised entirely of women – more than half of them women of colour – and includes two diversity scholarship recipients.
“I live my Black history every day,” said Moore (pictured back row, right). She is glad the government has dedicated a month to educating non-Black Canadians on the contributions Black people have made, but doesn’t see it as something we should do only one month out of the year. “When I hear about the accomplishments of Black women, it makes me feel like I can accomplish things, too. When we stand up as a Board, and other women of colour see us standing there, it will encourage them to consider taking positions of leadership. I hope that trend continues.”

Grant (pictured front row, right) agrees. “Black History Month was created not for it to be the only month when we recognize Black Canadians, but to include perspectives that often have been excluded,” she said. “There was a point when accomplishments of women of colour were not acknowledged, and we need to use Black History Month as a reminder to evaluate how we’re doing outreach and how we’re engaging diverse groups. We need to look for opportunities throughout the year to take inspiration from Black History Month.”

Grant believes that any organization is strengthened in its ability to achieve its goals if it can draw on the perspectives and knowledge of people from many cultures and backgrounds. Grant perceives that a board with a diverse group of people on it is a stronger one.

“We need to continue to challenge diversity,” she explained. “If you perceive ‘diversity’ as having one person of colour, that’s not enough. We need a spectrum of people who are doing meaningful work. A lot of limitations facing organizations come from not having diversity – diverse ages, bodies of knowledge, cultural contexts – we only see a portion of the picture and we are not able to evaluate it fully. People who come from different backgrounds bring solutions that help us to deal with global problems, and right now, one of them is housing.”

Moore is proud to sit on a board with other women and to have so many other women of colour sitting with her.

“I truly enjoy serving on this board,” she said. “Sometimes, when you’re in a setting that is not as diverse, you feel that you have to be careful of what you say. Women of colour are not always seen, their voices are not always heard, and it feels intimidating. We represent voices that might not otherwise be heard, and we bring our own lived experiences to the table. It is a very respectful atmosphere, even when we do not agree.”

Moore feels that the positive atmosphere of respect and compromise makes the CHFT board a more effective one, and helps it relate more readily to the experiences of a wide variety of co-op members.

For Nicole Waldron, the first woman of colour to be elected President of CHF Canada, this year’s theme hits close to home. “Housing co-ops can foster diverse and inclusive communities,” said Waldron. “But this doesn’t happen by accident, it takes ongoing commitment and deliberate action to empower others. There are many role models in our sector, and I hope that women from racialized communities are inspired to become leaders in their co-ops and in our movement.”

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