Introducing..., Profiles

Meet Maya Ford!

It’s Black Business Month, and I’m proud to bring you my latest discussion. This time around, I spoke with a thriving African-American entrepreneur and businesswoman.

Maya Ford is the founder of FordMomentum!, a communications firm located in Houston, Texas. The FordMomentum! team remains committed to treating communications as a science, while upholding an inclusive perspective to their work. As for Ms. Ford, I absolutely love the way she describes herself.

“I’m a pioneering marketing and communications professional with over 20 years’ experience in almost every major industry. My passion is to integrate diverse perspectives into viable solutions that businesses and communities can implement together. I’m a global cosmopolitan, creative, innovative, a master communicator, a strong listener, and driven towards measurable success.”

Maya Ford is a force—bursting with energy and ideas on how to make our world a better place for future generations. One of these ideas includes an innovation called STOLO. STOLO or the Standard of Love, is a data-driven communications methodology that businesses can use when engaging with members of the public.

FordMomentum! has already used STOLO while working on projects designed to improve people’s lives. Together with The Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the company produced the My Home is Here study, focused on Harris County, Texas—a dynamically diverse region which includes the City of Houston.

Maya and I spoke earlier this summer, and I’m eternally thankful for the opportunity to connect with her. With Juneteenth present on our minds, she was able to highlight perspectives that one ought to consider when working with diverse employees as well as customers. From the moment our virtual conversation began, Maya began sharing engaging insights. Her words inspired me to ask a spontaneous question about an important aspect of contemporary communication.

I really want to get to STOLO.

But you mentioned compassion earlier. And if we could talk about leading with compassion for a minute, I’d like that. Because one of the things that frustrates me, and one of the things that has motivated my writing is people out there who, with regard to racism, are resistant to the idea of compassion. They seem to be taught that compassion is a weakness, or it will lead to a lessening of themselves or the degradation of society. When you speak of leading with compassion, though, I would say that you and I understand that compassion does not mean something negative.

Considering that, let me ask this: What does leading with compassion mean to you?

I love this question. At its most basic form, for me, it’s not imparting or continuing suffering with others. There’s a fine line between hard work and growth. In biology, nothing grows without force. But there’s a difference between growth and the hard work that it requires—like ripping a muscle so that it can get stronger and longer—versus suffering. And suffering is an emotional weight that’s in a very interesting space, because it’s simultaneously physiological and spiritual.

And I think this is why suffering is such a hard thing to certify, because the spiritual weight of suffering can actually convert and change the physical nature of a being.

Suffering lacks compassion.

Humans are so brilliant, because we can imagine things that don’t exist. We’re highly tethered to the spiritual—to that other plane. And that’s also the thing that makes humans incredibly violent, incredibly anxious, and very deadly to the rest of the planet.

Yes.

Suffering is a space that is full of anxiety, physical or emotional pain, and trauma that has no end. And this is something that I believe is fundamentally against the nature of the Divine Creator itself. Compassion is the active practice to not cause suffering: To not impart it, to not participate in it, and to not support it.

Suffering is a terrible, non-compassionate activity. So I do everything to push good work, hard work—but no suffering.

Wow. Thank you.

We need to understand when we’re causing suffering. Sometimes I think we’re so busy being busy, working towards production or consumption, particularly in the Americas. Have we stopped to consider that we’re harming ourselves or others? We might be our own problem.

Talking about Juneteenth in your lifetime—let’s start at the beginning. What has that day meant to you? What has your relationship with the holiday been like?

I was born in Houston, to an American mother and Panamanian father. And growing up, we did not celebrate Juneteenth at all. As an adult, I moved away from Texas, and I came back. Eventually, I learned about Juneteenth. And I was baffled that I hadn’t heard about it as a younger kid, because my family is very pro Black—pro diaspora.

I think that it was a really interesting holiday—to celebrate persons who recognize that they were no longer enslaved. And I honor and offer a ton of compassion and respect for celebrating a day that’s important to you. 

And yet, Juneteenth didn’t bring the promise that we thought it would. To me, it rings hollow. Black people are still not particularly any free-er. We’re not any safer economically. And today, I feel about Juneteenth, as though my ancestors had a lot of hope.

In one way, they have realized that through me: I’m the first person in my family to be born with full rights as a US citizen.

Still, the national federal holiday of Juneteenth rings hollow because it did not come with reparations, or true benefits to African Americans in Texas to apologize for the fact that a) we heard about our freedom 901 days late, and b) that we didn’t get a single element of reparations for those Texans’ children. Around that time 30% of Texas’ population was enslaved people . So that’s a lot of people that you got an extra 901 days of labor out of.

And when we talk about the economic components of today’s Black population in America, in 2021, we only earned 9.6% of the country’s overall wages, [even though Black workers make up 12.9% of the labor force].

For enslaved Black people in Texas—even the descendants of those Black persons in Texas—it’s offensive, frankly. So I’m challenging Black Americans, Black Texans, African American Texans in particular, to shut down the economy on Juneteenth. Spend nothing—don’t consume and don’t produce.

Yes…

The work isn’t done yet, though. And again, I’m not opposed to celebrating whatever we need to get there. But those celebrations need to come with meaningful edification and change that helps us to be sustainable. Period. Anything less as a standard is the same standard that gave us the news 901 days late.

I was doing some research and I noticed a lot of Juneteenth products.

So we can talk about the ice cream, and we could talk about the merchandise in general: How do you feel about who produces Juneteenth merchandise? For instance, if it comes from a big corporation versus a mom-and-pop shop that is Black owned, etc. Does a product’s source matter to you?

That’s a great question.

Talk to me.

I don’t know who ideated the Walmart product. What I know is that we do seek authenticity, and we seek a space that understands that Black America is not a monolith.

So, let’s talk about the Walmart product: they used red, gold, green, and black. And perhaps that was in an effort to honor African ancestry. But, fundamentally, the persons who were alive at the time of the first Juneteenth were born on US territory. So my question is, why make it a product that acknowledged African ancestry instead of American ancestry?

This idea of consistently othering is very concerning. And I think Walmart also utilized AAVE, or African American Vernacular English. One of their Juneteenth slogans was, “It’s the freedom for me!”—a phrase which is so much about [the stereotype of] a Black woman’s sass, and how that sells.

And when I think of phrases like “it’s the freedom for me”, it’s like, “What?!” What are you doing? For the Fourth of July, they have songs that are about the sovereignty of the United States. And some of those songs even have a feeling of somberness and deep respect. But to kind of sassify this idea, and suggest that African Americans are saying, “Oh, we’s free now. It’s the freedom for me!” Like, what is that? We don’t get to have something that honors the fact that we were brought to this land, and we brought great investment to this space?

I think that it felt somewhat insulting.

And let’s say that it was a Black creator, on behalf of Walmart that created the ice cream.

Yes?

Well, this perspective would show that Blacks across the US are not a monolith. We don’t all have one perspective. So when it comes to authenticity, I think it is very important that we announce, and we articulate, and we highlight, “Who am I talking to here?” Am I talking to Walmart that that claims to be American, but buys most of its products from China, and then resells them on the backs of slave labor? Or am I speaking to Maya Ford who is truly intentional about working in communities, and working to make sure that those neighbors are valued? Which is it?

But the hypocrisy lies in the production element.

Our health care is about getting back to work faster. In our education system, they want you to spit out information so that you can get to work faster. When we go into a recession, our financial components are all about the fact that the economy is cooling off. We have to keep things moving. There’s no space to consider other elements of the equation like joy, rest, collaboration, or nature. It’s all about production.

And then what do we do? Black people are paid 30% less than everybody else. So we do all of that work. We hustle it for pennies on the dollar, and then we turn around and buy it back.

So when you ask me about this space of production and consumption, why are we upholding this system?

I challenge us to do the opposite. Why can’t we do like Jewish communities do for Holocaust Memorial Day? Shut things down, let that be the day of storytelling. Let that be the day of local community farming and gardening. Let that be the day of sharing your story or finding your ancestry. Let that be the day of discovery and connection to the God that allowed us to continue to be, instead of the day that is about production and consumption. Could we have one day?

So, what’s missing from retailers’ approach to Juneteenth celebrations?

In the most tangible sense, I think it would be an authentic acknowledgement of the suffering behind the day, but not in a trauma porn way.

Yes.

Respect. What’s missing is respect for the suffering that people went through.

These companies don’t do that for the Holocaust.

Don’t get me started.

They don’t do kitschy shit for the Holocaust. They don’t do that shit for the Vietnam War. And while it is true, African Americans do a beautiful job of converting trauma into celebration, it is a strength. That’s a very specific asset that African Americans turn to.

We have enough trauma. So we don’t always need to be reminded of it. But I think honoring and demonstrating respect for the fact that that was, historically, a torturous period, is necessary.

Yes.

Perhaps even giving more context to the products and talking about how they help the African American plight would be an improvement.

There seems to be a disconnect in some executives’ minds between the idea of culture-specific holidays versus the actual people who celebrate them. Can you discuss the problems that can arise via misunderstanding the purpose of these occasions? Here, I was thinking about when holidays are focused on as money making opportunities, instead of centering the people who traditionally celebrate them.

I do think authenticity matters.

And what we’re learning is that the United States is a really challenging space, because we’re not homogenous. And that’s a great problem to have. Our level of diversity is so deep that very few other nations have the complexities in diversity as we do. I don’t think that this is a bad thing. I think this is a very good thing. I think that it benefits us: the more ideas we have, the more collaboration, the more diverse we are, the better.

That being said, I would argue that we’re moving into this era that still does not have ethnic diversity in critical leadership positions.

Yet those same decision makers are making decisions for persons that they don’t know. They’re looking on loose data. They’re making assumptions about those that they serve, instead of really understanding from lived experience, or from the capacity to have critical thought and actually connecting with those people.  So it’s a really lazy way of doing business, which is how you come up with products like the Walmart ice cream.

I think that across the board, if you can remember that service to others is not about you, and dig into the work for those whom you are serving, then you get authentic, better outcomes, and better products that work. And you will have sustainable models to serve those people.

When you’re pushing your latest, greatest idea that they may or may not have ever told you that they wanted—then you know you’re doing it for yourself. And what I do know is that Black folks, considering they’re such big consumers, when they wake up, they’re not going to accept that any longer.

Let’s get into STOLO a little bit. I understand you founded this methodology, and STOLO means Standard of Love.

Could you begin by explaining a bit of what STOLO is?

Well, I never saw myself as an inventor, I always just thought, “oh, I can take this thing and make it better…” And bell hooks is one of my favorite authors. At the time, when Trayvon Martin was murdered, we were devastated. I’m a mother with three children. I have three stepchildren. I’m a grandmother.

It was unfathomable, that a young kid that looked like our own kids could be walking in our own neighborhood, and someone could attack them for no reason. it seemed like something out of the civil rights movement. It just seemed very foreign to me.

And so, I started thinking things like, “what are my own tools and resources?” What do I have?

I didn’t have money. But I have a big fat mouth that I like to use. And I have a critically-thinking brain. And I know a lot of what [the late] bell hooks spoke about.

What she talked about was that African Americans have always had the juice, but we have not activated it due to trauma. But when we move through our trauma, what is possible?

The Standard of Love asks questions. I liken it to the scientific method. The scientific method doesn’t tell you if your theory is right or wrong. It simply carries you through a process that allows you to ask more questions and to get some evidence for your theory to confirm or deny a hypothesis, and then you move to the next step. STOLO is the same thing, but for communications. It has five categories. We call them pillars: Literacy, values, self-esteem, economic power, and justice. 

The first three are the most important. You can’t solve what you can’t name. And different cultures typically have their own languages. For example, many people use onomatopoeia.

African Americans also use AAVE. But even AAVE is a derivative of Southern English. So you wouldn’t have a Northern African American naturally speaking AAVE, unless they had some ancestry or components linked to the South.

Certain Asiatic languages use tones. You can have one written character that sounds four different ways. So based on that, you know which word it is. That’s a cultural component, it would take a non-Asiatic language speaker years to understand the variations of the four tones.

Various languages use different signifiers; these are the variables of communication of language literacy. And when you go into different spaces, you have to know the correct language to be able to communicate effectively.

And then there are values: What is important to people? We talk about values the most, because it’s the secret sauce of everything, everywhere. Values are the shared space, where people are willing to announce what is important to them, and they’re willing to protect them. So if you go for values, you’re always, always going to win. Always remember this: go for values.

But the second part of values is worthiness, and how much are one’s values worth?

Really, what we estimate, is that African Americans value safety. And they think that money provides safety. And it does to a certain extent, but that’s not the full picture.

So when we’re able to identify what the other values what their values are, its creativity, its safety, its color. African Americans lead in hair design, and nail design, and fashion, all of these things that the whole rest of the world picks up. And Africans have been doing this for centuries with natural dyes and braiding, and all kinds of intricate patterns and weaving. This is an asset.

These first two elements actually show you an important part of people’s cultural currency: When you look at literacy and values, how important are they to you? And what are they worth? Those things are assets.

Right now, African Americans give away their assets. We give them away, and then somebody else takes those things, and goes and makes gazillions off of us. “It’s the freedom for me.”

The third part of STOLO is self-esteem. When you do things that make you feel better, you move out of trauma. And so many of the things that we do are done because we’re traumatized. It’s like the person who just keeps running. They just keep moving, constantly, because if they sit down, they feel like they’ll lose everything—they’ll never be able to get up. And they don’t know how to do anything other than just keep on going. Yet this is a detriment to the psyche, and to our physical being.

What STOLO helps you do is focus your energy and pursue what you value, go for your highest priorities, and stop doing other shit. If you don’t value something, why are you doing it? If you don’t like poopoo on your plate, why do you keep ordering it? Why do you keep letting folks give you poopoo on your plate?

Instead, say you want Whole Foods on your plate, and that’s what you’ll get.

Those are the first three steps. But after that, you’ve got economic power, and justice. Justice is not just about justice in the sense of closure. It is also about fairness, Completion. Balance, and reciprocity.

So the Standard of Love asks us, if we truly believe that the standard that this nation was built upon is accurate, then great. Let’s keep going, understanding that we’re never going to get justice. But if we ask ourselves, what are these elements that we believe should be in play, then this gives us new variables to create a future that is truly inclusive of everyone. It doesn’t exclude whites, or Asians, or men, or people who don’t identify as a gender. If anything, it is more open, more inclusive. It’s not linear. It feels very much like science fiction. But it’s so tangible.

Okay, so my next question is, why should people use STOLO when they’re developing a strategy related to an occasion like Juneteenth? And then how can STOLO’s pillars be applied to their situation?

I think the first thing to ask is “What do we value?” And if we value freedom, that’s really great. Are you free? What is freedom?

Let’s go into the language of STOLO. Just the first three pillars articulate some of that: What do you call freedom? What do you value and how does it make you feel?

Some people are deeply connected to their traditions. And that’s a very human thing. It tethers us to those who came before us, and some people see Juneteenth as a day to honor and celebrate those that came before them.

My family does that through reunions. Every culture does it differently. There’s no right or wrong way. But first articulate it. Name it, and then ask yourself, even within your traditions, what do you value? So if it’s truly freedom that you value, then, are you free? And what is that worth to you? How is that freedom expressed? Is it that you deserve a day off, or something else?

And the third part is self-esteem. If something makes us feel worse about ourselves, are other people benefiting beyond us? For something like Juneteenth, we need to really think that through and articulate what it is that we want instead.

And I would challenge organizations who are creating programming, products, or services around anyone’s cultural holiday or celebration to dig deeper into the authentic components of service to that culture. Do they really know what’s important to the people? And are they not using big data alone to gather information?

Okay. I’ve I asked you about the why, and then the how of how STOLO’s pillars can be applied to companies’ efforts. Did you want to go into that a little more?

On a corporate level, what are their goals? If your goal is to capitalize on the success or the suffering of a population, then you need to stop that. If your goal is to satisfy shareholders, then, no. That’s unacceptable.

If your goal is to create meaningful impact, then don’t wait until shit happens. Do the real work, and aim for truly rewarding solutions. For example, it took time to put Juneteenth ice cream into production. Even if they put it in one or two locations, it took them at least six to nine months to get that into production.

But what about other responses? They could have said, for Juneteenth, “we’re leaving all of our clinics open for therapy”.  They could have done so many other meaningful things. And they still could have made money. They could have said something like “Your first two therapy sessions free, we’re only hiring Black therapists, and then after that we’ll offer them at the regular rate!”

I think corporations need to dig into their own values, and hire FordMomentum! We’ll help them through.

Excellent! If leaders and organizational staff want to genuinely support Juneteenth, or other diverse celebrations, but are hesitant or unsure of how, what steps can they take in order to do so?

I love this question. I think it’s really important that we give ourselves space to make mistakes. And that’s what allyship is about. Right?

We’re human. This is new for all of us. Whether you were born in the United States, or you just got here 500 years ago, it has not been a space of equity. And you know, there’s been this idea of inclusion for all. Our nation touts that but it has not lived up to it. And so, when approaching people who celebrate traditions that are new to you, it’s okay to show up in spaces and not know everything, and be gentle.

Just be gentle. Say, “Hey”. Ask people questions. If they feel annoyed with you, then shut the fuck up. And move to the next person. You can show up at a Juneteenth event and bear witness, you can show up and not have to be the center of attention, you can show up and ask questions, or go with someone that you know.

If you don’t have friends that are not of your culture, you’re missing out, you know? One of the greatest gifts that God gave us is diversity. And it’s free!

Absolutely!

It’s free. So go with a friend. If you don’t have any friends then go to events with hopes that you can connect with one person. Or, if you can’t attend a live event, support someone else that you know and say, “Man, I’m not feeling comfortable going this year, but maybe I could go next year with you.”

I like that. To a certain extent, you’ve answered my next question. Because I know we started talking about leaders and organizational staff. I was going to ask about members of the public who are interested in celebrating with diverse communities, and they want to connect to it in an authentic way. And you’ve brought up the idea of them talking to people—reaching out and actually putting effort into communicating with Black people.

We all have to do the work, sis. I think that the brilliant thing about this time and space is that no one gets to be in the passenger seat. Everybody has to do the work. So it forces all of us to be vulnerable together.

I have one more question. What are your hopes for the future? What are you having faith for—believing? Or, what are your just thinking in general, about the future of how this holiday is regarded in America, and perhaps the world?

I think the conversation of race and ethnicity are one of the lowest frequencies that we can put out as a human species.

What do you mean by that? Elaborate.

It’s just not a high achieving conversation. It’s just so unnecessary compared to all the things that we can do. So the future that I would love to see is one that genuinely stops having this conversation. Right now it’s necessary to get to equity, right?

But I would love to be in a position where this is not a problem for us anymore. And instead, we’re talking about really high-level issues, like how to maximize the efficiency of tools and resources that we do have, or how to equitably protect resources that are here that we don’t fully understand.

As our conversation continued, Maya encouraged people to pursue the goal of an equitable society, while holding their heads high.

You know, [Edward R. Murrow] said difficulty is the excuse that history will never accept. And the truth is that it’s equally as hard to uphold what we don’t want, as it is to build what we do want. The work is the same. Why put effort into what you don’t want? We get to choose. So if I’m going to put effort into something…

Yes?

I’m not putting effort into lower standards. I will put the same work into new standards. This is true for all of us of every ethnicity, every economic group. Every life form right now in this universe must work towards expansion. We’re all in the same boat. No one is exempt. So you’ve got to do the work to move forward. Stop holding on to the low of the past. We have every tool, every resource—every everything—right here, right now. Allow June 19, 2022 to be the year that African Americans recognize that we can keep moving forward with higher standards. But first, we must identify what those standards are.

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Profiles

Introducing: Erin Dunham

If, like me, you live in Paris, Ontario, you probably know the Arlington Hotel. But do you know Erin Dunham?

Erin is the Co-Founder and CEO of The Other Bird Restaurant Group . The Other Bird owns our beloved Arlington, as well as five Hamilton-based restaurants: Two Black Sheep, BurroThe Mule , Black Sheep Snack Bar , and Rapscallion Rogue Eatery. Recently I touched base with this busy lady and learned a bit about what makes her tick.

Who is Erin Dunham?
Erin Dunham is a CEO, a writer, a friend, a wine connoisseur, a lover of good food and better conversation. Erin Dunham does not take herself too seriously, but takes her dogs very seriously.  

Where are you from?
Hamilton, Ontario, baby!

How did you start working in the restaurant industry?

When I was 13 I started as a dishwasher at the Philip Shaver House in Ancaster. And I’ve been in it every since.

Were you always interested in the restaurant business?

I was, but I spent my entire life trying to get out of it. Historically we’re all under-appreciated, treated like second rate people and underpaid. But it turns out, I love what this industry has become.

As a businesswoman, what drew you to Paris?
The opportunity to own the Arlington. We always wanted to do a boutique hotel, but we didn’t think it would be for another five years. The opportunity presented itself when the current owner came to us. When we saw it, we fell in love with the town and it was the easiest decision we ever made.

What’s next for the other bird?

By the end of this year, we are planning to expand to another city and we’re partnering with a local band to open a cool concept in Hamilton which I think everyone will love. That will happen in the next year.

Is there a chance Paris will get a taco restaurant?
There is never a zero chance of anything with us.

If you weren’t a restaurateur, what would you be doing?
I would be a writer and painter on the coast of France.

What do you like to do to unwind?
Mostly, because of how I was raised in the industry, I drink and hang out with my friends and talk about nonsense. When I think about having alone time or down time, what I think about doing is writing and painting and having philosophical conversations and walking my dogs on beaches. But there’s no time.

If you’d like to keep up with Erin, be sure to follow her on Twitter.  

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news, Profiles

Making HERstory: The Photographers

The brainchild of Emily Mills, How She Hustles is a women’s network that’s been thriving for nearly 7 years. Their events are a celebration of sisterhood. Bringing together women of diverse backgrounds, How She Hustles encourages women to connect, and enjoy each other’s company.

In December, Ms. Mills announced that she was working on a project called HERstory in Black. Back then I didn’t know any of the details. I only knew it involved an act of faith that hadn’t yet been actualized. Since that time, her vision has been made plain: HERstory in Black is a digital photo series celebrating 150 Canadian Black women. It is now featured on CBC Toronto’s web site. Further more, this week, the women who participated in the shoot for this historic series will also be profiled via CBC Radio, and the CBC News Network. 

HERstory in Black is meaningful to me for many reasons. The first thing that comes to mind is representation. As Bee Quammie recently pointed out,  usually Black Canadians are taught about Black American role models. Meanwhile, our community’s trailblazers have always been right here at home. They deserve to be recognized.

Furthermore, it’s incredibly empowering to see people who look like you succeeding. Watching their progress can give you faith enough to believe that all of your dreams are possible. When I see so many Canadian Black women out there, at their best in diverse industries, I am overcome with joy!

So who are some of the people who helped turn this project into a reality?

Allow me to introduce you to two gifted photographers.

Photo credit: Ebti Nabag

A graduate of Ryerson University’s graduate program in Documentary Media, Ebti Nabag is a visual artist who works with photography, video, and installation. Her work is motivated by stories from the average human. Nabag’s previous exhibits include Movement in Tradition: Tobe (2016), Vitiligo at the AGO (2015), Intersections (2014) featured at the Contact Photography Festival, and I Am Not My Hair (2012).

She hopes her documentations serve as bridges between people.

Photo credit: Leilah Dhoré

In 2013, Leilah Dhoré made her debut in a collaborative photo exhibition called ‘Exposed: Telling Our Stories Through Our Lens’. She is also the proud recipient of Gallery 44’s David Maltby Award. Leilah is currently majoring in Photography at OCAD University, with a minor in Art and Social Change. She continues to explore how her identity — and various layers of life experience — influence her creative mindset.

These young women shot all of HERstory in Black’s gorgeous photos. Recently I asked them about their involvement in this extraordinary project.

Tell me about your journey into the world of photography. What inspired you to get started?

Ebti: I always knew I was a creative person, I just didn’t know how to express myself creatively. I could draw but I wasn’t the best at it and it didn’t come as naturally for me as it did my classmates. It wasn’t until I took a year off after my bachelor’s degree that I picked up a camera and decided to really explore the art of taking photographs. That was about 7 years ago. A few years after that I decided to get a formal education in Documentary Media, film and photography. Documentary photography has been my main interest since then.

Leilah: I grew up with an artsy mom who encouraged me to explore various art forms. My creative childhood lead to being accepted into the Visual Arts program at Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts. I had to pursue my interest in photography outside of school through youth programs, which is how I discovered analog photography. The process of learning how to take analog photos and develop them in a darkroom furthered my appreciation for the medium and that’s where I found a passion for it. From there I decided to apply to OCAD University and I am now an undergraduate, third year Photography major.

What was it like to take these photos and capture 150 women for HERstory in Black?

Ebti: Insane! Looking around the room alone was extremely overwhelming. Some women I recognized from television, theatre, poetry shows, etc. Seeing women from all walks of life and hearing their stories after I captured their group photos was empowering.

Leilah: I really just wanted everyone to feel comfortable in front of the camera and to be happy with the way I captured them. I was a bit nervous at first, but I was so overjoyed to feel everyone’s energy. We were all excited to meet each other and be there together. Being in a room full of so many brilliant, beautiful, Black women is a really intense and powerful experience in and of itself. It was a really fulfilling experience to meet and document black women on so many different career paths, especially having grown up without seeing a lot of that kind of representation.

What do you hope people will see when they look at the images from this project?

Ebti: That we, Black women, are glorious. These photos are a documentation of our existence, our stories, our greatness, and I really believe they should be archived. Often times Black women are misrepresented or not represented at all, and this project puts all those misrepresentations to rest.

Leilah: I had always struggled to navigate the intersections of my blackness and womanhood and understand what my place is in a society that doesn’t appear to value black women. From celebrities like Beyoncé to millennials taking over the internet, black women have created our own platforms to express that we are realizing our own brilliance even if the world hasn’t. I believe this project is documenting just that. Aside from highlighting the diverse amazing things black women are accomplishing in Canada, I really hope people are able to recognize the shared power that brought us together and understand why this kind of project is so important.

I’m often blown away by the way a single photograph can tell a story.  What sort of stories did this experience reveal to you?

Ebti: Two things. One: there is no limit to what women can do when they unite. Two: I couldn’t help but think of how empowering, encouraging and reassuring hearing the stories of these women would have been for me at a young age, especially as a young Black woman growing up. That room really screamed “the sky is the limit”! Young Black women need to be exposed to these positive representations of Black women.

Leilah: The individual photos have a different storytelling purpose from the group photos for this photo series. I believe they capture the diversity amongst black women and function to show us who each woman is as an individual. The group photos show us what black sisterhood and community can look like and the amount of passion, love, and energy that goes into making a project like this happen collectively.

HERstory in Black is bound to influence and inspire other women. Tell me about someone who inspires you.

Ebti: My parents. My father grew up in academia. His work ethic, drive and achievements are things I look up to. My mother on the other hand has always been a housewife. Her welcoming heart, kind soul, and love for people easily brings tears to my eyes.

Leilah: It’s difficult for me to just name one individual. I have a particular appreciation for women who defy respectability and live as their authentic selves. There are women who spent their lives giving to their communities, and the ones who are passionate about dismantling the oppressive systems that were built to hold us back. I’ve also come to appreciate the women who aren’t the productive, educated, executives that we are told we should aspire to be. The ones who still give themselves fully and love themselves anyways because they don’t allow an inherently flawed society to define their worth. I see myself in these women’s struggles and successes; they remind me of the love and passion that drives my ambitions.

Suppose you met a young woman who wanted to go into photography. What advice would you give her?

Ebti: This is definitely biased advice, but it would be to document the stories of those who are unseen in the media, whose stories will never be told. I think telling those stories are what bridges humans together, and that’s what I try to do with my photographs.

Another bit of advice would be, differentiate yourself from the rest. Photography is so broad. Once you figure out what you like to photograph, go back and see if there is any pattern in your work and let that be what makes you stand out.

Leilah: There’s so much I could say. I think it’s important to know you don’t have to pursue a higher education to be any type of creative. Not everyone has the privilege of growing up with a family who supports their creative ambitions like I have, so I’ve always encouraged others to pursue what makes them happy. Even if you don’t think you have the means to pursue photography or that you face too many barriers, I honestly believe that if you put your intentions out there, doors will open and opportunities can come to you unexpectedly.

Many brilliant successful creatives even find ways to create opportunities for themselves. The internet is full of resources and learning materials, and Toronto has many free programs available to youth. Depending on the type of photography projects you want to produce you can access funding through grants.

Thank you again to Ebti Nabag, Leilah Dhoré, and of course, Emily Mills. Be sure to follow @howshehustles on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for more on HERstory in Black. Above all, be sure to stay tuned to the CBC this week for more programming on this incredible initiative.

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Caribbean Culture, Diversity, Film, Profiles

Coming Soon!: CaribbeanTales International Film Festival

Caribana may have finished, but in Toronto, the celebration of Caribbean culture isn’t over. The city is home to CaribbeanTales, an organization devoted to sharing stories from people of the Caribbean diaspora. The CaribbeanTales International Film Festival begins in September, and runs from the 7th to the 17th of the month.

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A few days ago I spoke with its founder, Frances-Anne Solomon. Ms. Solomon is an award-winning filmmaker of Caribbean heritage. A writer, producer and director in film, TV, Radio and New Media, her career includes a 13-year tenure in England with the BBC as a Television Drama Producer and Executive Producer. In 2000, she returned to Toronto where she continued to create her own projects, and in 2001 she successfully launch the first CaribbeanTales project.

Today, CaribbeanTales has grown into the CaribbeanTales Media Group — companies that produce, market and sell Caribbean-themed audio-visual content across the globe.

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Frances-Anne Solomon and John Reid of Flow, CaribbeanTales’ leading partner.

Frances-Anne Solomon’s passion for telling Caribbean people’s stories is palpable. Listen to her speech from the launch of this year’s Festival.

 

Ms. Solomon’s words left me feeling energized, and eager to preserve my cultural roots.

Our chat began with her revealing what sparked her interest in film, as well as the story of CaribbeanTales.

When I was growing up in Trinidad there were no stories about me anywhere. We learned about the kings and queens of England and history, and we learned about Shakespeare and Jane Eyre…I had to become an adult before I learned about slavery. It was only much later that I realized that we resisted slavery—that we had this incredible journey as Caribbean people coming from all over the world, and it really transformed my life.

I remember learning this from a therapist: If you see yourself as a victim or you don’t have a sense of the beginning of the story, then that determines the ending. Whether there’s a happy ending or a tragic ending has a lot to do with how the narrative is perceived.

I became passionately interested in storytelling and I was drawn to film. Then I worked at the BBC for many years. I got to see how the developed world could have an organization that created, produced, marketed, and sold to a rapt audience its own stories about themselves. I saw how that created national pride and individual pride—a concept of empire and power. I really felt that we in the Caribbean needed to have those sort of narratives, and mechanisms for the transmission of those narratives folded into our culture.

In 2001 after I left the BBC I started CaribbeanTales with that goal of creating an organization that would create, produce, market, and sell Caribbean stories, of Caribbean people—Caribbean narratives of all kind.

Originally we were making programs, and in 2006 we started the festival because programs we were making were not getting seen.

In 2010 we started CaribbeanTales Worldwide Distribution. I realized it wasn’t enough to make films and show films, it was also necessary to be able to sell them, so that we as filmmakers and storytellers could have sustainable careers.

Then in 2013, we started our online platform: CaribbeanTales TV. We also have an incubator program which is a hub of development and production.

Now the whole project has is beginning to take off, and that’s very exciting.

 

Twenty-sixteen marks the festival’s 11th year. How has your vision for CaribbeanTales evolved?

My journey has been very much one of an individual—from being a story-teller, and a filmmaker to being someone who is interested in creating and changing the world—to provide a kind of essential service for people in our region, so that our stories would have a way to be made, distributed, seen, exchanged, and monetized, in a sustainable way. That has been an evolution for me from being an artist—somebody who has a passion to tell and see stories that touch me.

I think being part of a global movement, our stories matter. And that is not just personal—it’s political, it’s economic, it’s logistic. And it’s ultimately transformational.

 

What’s on its horizon for Caribbean tales?

More.

I think the global climate has changed, with the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s very inspiring to see young people taking up the torch that our ancestors in the Black Power movement from the 60s and 70s and the Civil Rights movement have carried—picking that up and kind of saying “Enough now, we need equal rights. This is a human rights issue…”

That has changed the narrative.

Also, #OscarsSoWhite has really thrown a light on the lack of representation of women and people of colour in the global landscape. That has a resonance in terms of us telling stories in the third world so that the narrative is different. There are opportunities now that I feel are ripe for the picking; we’re very excited for the future.

 

I understand that this year’s theme is Caribbean Love. Could you please share some of your thoughts on the subject and the ways it’s explored throughout the CaribbeanTales Festival?

This year, we felt that a lot of our history as Caribbean people and people of colour internationally, has been one of brutality, violence, and exploitation. It’s really important for us to acknowledge that at the end of the day it is love that has allowed us to survive and continue to connect with each other. Love, in a way, is the answer. We need to remind each other constantly that through love it is possible to heal, grow, and build.

Under the CaribbeanLove banner, our opening night gala, Diary of a Badman, focuses on women of colour creators.

We always do a focus on Trinidad and Tobago; I come from Trinidad and there’s a lot of amazing work coming out of there now. This year’s evening is called Trinibego to the Bone, about Carnival and different cultural events.

In Migrant Tales, we look at diasporic stories of Caribbean people—those of us who come from the Caribbean and live abroad permanently. A lot of people people call it “immigration” and “migration”, but I like to use the word, “expat”. We do come from somewhere, and that identity is important.

Then we have Love Thy Neighbour, which is a night when we look at a lot of dark history: we look at drug trafficking, abusive behaviour, different mental disorders, even possession—a lot of darker themes. The overall theme of this night is, “How do we look past this? What is the way to show sympathy to the darker elements of society?”

Then we have LGBT Love. It’s been our commitment every year for the past 5 years to throw a light on voices from the LGBT community across the Caribbean. For us, queer rights are human rights.

And then, Revolutionary Love showcases five short films about Black Canadian activists.

We have a strand called #BlackLoveMatters, which is a twist on #BlackLivesMatter, focusing on the power of love to heal Black people. Its focus is on Black love within families, specifically fathers and sons, mothers and children—those love relationships and what they mean to our community.

Animated Love is our animation night. We have a whole feature which is about struggles for emancipation.

Our closing night is Walk Good, which is focusing on a number of Jamaican films and celebrating Jamaican culture—both music and religion.

 

CineFAM, a word from Haitian creole meaning “films by women”, is an initiative designed to support women of colour creators.

In addition to the material from your opening night, you’ve also launched CineFAM. Could you share some of your thoughts on the importance of women as creators within the Black community?

As a woman of colour creator myself, that’s the area that has been the most difficult to get support and build a career because women’s work is invisible, and women, due to sexism are excluded from being creative leaders. We’re not allowed to do that. We can be supportive. We can be the power behind the man, but we cannot stand up and say “I am a woman creator.”

I think fundamentally it has to do with sexism. We don’t get support as creators—women of colour. And it’s that point, where racism and sexism meet, that has totally destroyed our ability to be seen as the incredible creators that we are. Meanwhile, quite often if you look at the work that women are doing in terms of creating community and creating business and creating the world, it’s unbelievable. Women are powerful.

We have some great examples in our community of women who are able to break through, like Ava DuVernay and Amma Asante. There are also women in other areas as well. Incredible role models for us.

I wanted to, first, create awareness of the power of women creators—the extraordinary talent of women of colour creators, and also create a network for women of colour creators. I feel this area is the one place where we don’t get support.

 

If someone could only see one film at the CaribbeanTales festival, what would it be, and why?

I think I’d say 50 years of Black Activism, because it features 5 incredible stories of people in the Canadian landscape who have really made a difference. They’re completely unknown to the wider community, but they’re amazing people. Each one of these films is written and directed by a Black woman, and the executive producer is a Black woman, and the originator of the project—Akua Benjamin, who is an incredible leader—is also a Black woman.

Just on its own, that project stands as a testimony to the power of women as creators, leaders—powerhouses in documenting, in acknowledging, in creating, in producing, in breaking ground, and changing the narrative.

 

How would you like your audience to feel after their experience at the festival?

Inspired, powerful, and connected: Our life, our love, our festival.

 

For further information on the CaribbeanTales International Film Festival, including its scheduled screenings, be sure to visit their web site

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PodPost, Profiles

Episode 9.0 – Cassie McDaniel & Mark Staplehurst

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/273507809″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]In this episode of Clalre.She.Goes, I spoke with Cassie McDaniel and Mark Staplehurst of Jane & Jury. We had an engaging discussion about the contemporary workplace, and small-town living.

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PodPost, Profiles

Episode 7.0 – Ways We Work

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/266826068″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

Tomorrow I’m off to record my next podcast episode. Meanwhile, I realized that I forgot to post something–my last show! I shared it on Twitter, but forgot to post it on my blog. Last month I had a lovely chat with Amandah Wood and Matt Quinn of Ways We Work. I apologize for not sharing this with you sooner!

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