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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.

ebtinabag

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.

LeilahDhore

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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I'm just sayin'.

Black In The 519

blackinthe519-notitleI’ve lived in Small Town*, Ontario my whole life. Although certain things are happening now that make me feel hopeful, there are a few aspects of life here that get on my nerves. I’m one of the displaced: A person of colour who has struggled to make peace with life in a non-diverse part of Canada.

In the past, our town’s lack of diversity has driven me nuts.

Although certain changes are making things about living here more enjoyable, I can’t help but feel as though something’s missing.

Just the other day I was talking to someone who works here but lives out of town. They asked me what Small Town is like. “It’s quiet.” I cautioned. As I walked away, I wondered what I was thinking. Was “quiet” some sort of euphemism for “white”?

I’ll be honest. Ideally, I think a person should love where they live, but I’ve struggled. I realize that my lack of social interaction is my own fault. Yet in some ways, being here has been challenging.

ORIGINS

Once I was old enough to know where I was born, I figured it was a mistake. A horrible, horrible mistake. My parents immigrated to Canada from the Caribbean (Barbados and Trinidad) before I was born. They settled in the GTA and pursued their education. Eventually, my father got a job out of town. He was hired locally to work as an elementary school teacher.

Thus began Mom and Dad’s exodus from paradise. They settled in Small Town in the 70s. My mother and I have been here ever since. All along, it’s been hard not to notice the disconnect between us and our surroundings. Growing up, I used to wish my parents had fought harder to stay in Toronto.

SIGHTINGS

If I’ve made my town sound like a gigantic washroom with a Whites Only sign out front, I should apologize. That isn’t my intention. I remember one Black woman and her family used to live on a street near our house. They moved away several years ago.

Overall, my town’s lack of diversity is a major factor in the reason I’ve tried, repeatedly to make my escape. However my attempts have proven to be unsuccessful. The only place I can really imagine settling is Toronto, and that city is ex-PEN-sive with a capital E.

Meanwhile, since I fist graduated from university, I’ve begun to notice the occasional person of colour in town.

A few years ago I was taking music lessons. One day as I was leaving, Mrs. Music Teacher’s husband came home. When I saw him, I was stunned. Mr. Music Teacher was a Black man!

You know that moment when you’re shocked by someone but you don’t want to stare because that would be rude? Yeah. That’s what happened.

“How long have you been here?” He answered, and I’m ashamed to admit that I could barely believe him. If Mr. Music Teacher had, as he claimed, been here for years, why hadn’t I seen him before?

There’s a Latino family in my neighbourhood. A few days ago I saw a hijabi near downtown. Every time I see a person of colour in town, I feel a twinge of hope mixed with sorrow and curiosity.

Things started to really hit me though when I first saw a Black student at the grocery store about a year ago. She was with a friend. I couldn’t help but wonder what life was like for her here in town.

Was she like me—ever-conscious of the fact that she was an “only”—apart from her family, the only Black person around for miles? I couldn’t help but wonder if like me, she planned on leaving as soon as she was old enough to do so?

Well actually, that’s a lie.

I saw two other Black teenagers a few nights ago when I went to McDonalds. Once again, I wondered what their life was like. Have they been here for a while? Were they ever teased when they were younger, like I was?

THE MEETING

One reason I don’t like to venture out and about is that there’s a 50% chance that I’ll feel unwelcome. (Living here, I notice that either people don’t care less, or they seem to be genuinely bothered by diversity.)

A few years ago there was a public meeting on the county’s future. I moseyed over and sat towards the outer edge of the room. As usual, the speakers seemed concerned about preserving our county’s heritage. However that heritage has involved agriculture and manufacturing—industries that offer no options for those whose talents lie elsewhere.

At one point in the evening one speaker got up to speak about what he didn’t want to see unfolding in our town. Every now and then Toronto had been mentioned as a point of contrast. Comparisons to the city can be a sore point for a lot of people. We see its flaws spelled out in living colour on the evening news—poverty, crime, and carding. Yet something about the place keeps drawing people in. There’s a whole generation of Small Towners that don’t live here. I’d be willing to bet my life that the majority of them are in a larger city.

Why resent Toronto? What draws people to it? Diversity. Racial diversity, cultural diversity, diversity of thought, religion—you name it! In the city, opportunities to learn from a variety of human beings are endless. It’s inspiring to be in such a place.

I remember during the meeting, the townspeople were given the chance to speak. One of them was a middle-aged man. From what I can recall, he only seemed to have one intention—to complain about what he didn’t want Small Town to turn into. I cannot remember the details of what he said, however he spoke negatively of life in the city. I asked him to elaborate and specify exactly what it was about being in Toronto that was so offensive to his sensibilities. I was standing right behind him. When I asked him to clarify his points regarding the aspects of urban living that he didn’t like, his reaction didn’t go unnoticed. My request was met with silence.

I couldn’t help but wonder why. How hard would it have been to say that he didn’t like the crime or the crowds or the stench of overpriced real estate? Instead, he said nothing. That confirmed exactly what I’d feared about some of the people who live here. Whatever it was that offended this man about city living was likely something that wasn’t truly problematic, yet only got on certain folks’ nerves. Needless to say, my mind went straight to diversity. It’s the most obvious difference between life here and elsewhere.

In the week after this forum, I’ll never forget the way the press responded. A reporter from The Small Town Herald was there that night. He made it sound as though the man I’m referring to was genuinely concerned about condo developments over-saturating the town’s skyline. However, I was there. And as I said, his silence over a simple question spoke volumes.

My attendance at that meeting also made me self-conscious and want to assert myself. As one of very few people of colour, in town I almost think I should wear a t-shirt that says, ”I belong here!!”

In fact, while I was there, I wanted to stand up and launch into a soliloquy: “How long have I been here? Since there was a Calbeck’s and IGA!” These are both old grocery stores that were in town during the 70s and 80s, when I grew up. At that point, I would have gone on. “One of the ladies who retired from working at Sobeys has seen me shop with my mother since I was a child!” I might have looked strange, but it would have felt good to say something.

THE COMMERCIAL

Do you know those commercials by the Dairy Farmers of Canada featuring Canadian towns that share names with European cities? We have one. It’s been interesting watching it evolve. At first I was surprised and delighted…And even a bit confused.

It was obvious to me that it was produced by people who aren’t from the area. The first time I saw the advertisement and the announcer said, “This…Is Small Town…” I was stunned. It actually looked diverse. At one point there was a woman in it who had a gorgeous afro. Jokingly, I looked at my mom and said, ”Who in [this place] would have an afro, except for me?”

However, my surprise and delight was short-lived. The last several times I saw the commercial, I noticed something. It seemed as though all signs of diversity, aka actors of colour, have been edited out of existence. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. To me, although these changes were technically accurate, because Small Town isn’t exactly a melting pot…They were somehow wrong.

They also made me wonder about my family’s lack of a local footprint. If only a few people in town remember us, and they pass on over the next few decades, were we ever really here in the first place?

 

*The place where I live has a name. However I think my theme’s fairly universal.

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