Activists rally on home ground to have their voices heard
There is a difference between a story being told about a group and a story told by that group.
Black Women United, a support group for women of colour in Edmonton, is the first of its kind in the city. Its goal is to have a serious conversation about the realities black women face every day in Edmonton, and to rally around shared hopes for the future.
They intend to start the conversation with a rally that will be held in solidarity for the March for Black Women being held in D.C. on the same day.
As one of 18 across North America, and the only solidarity event in Canada, the importance of the rally is multifaceted. It comes at a time where race relations stand at an inflection point. While this is most stark in the United States, the rally is also an opportunity to recognize the experiences of black women in Canada.
Four key speakers will join the rally to shine a light on problems that are often hidden from public attention, including incarceration rates, workplace discrimination, sexual abuse and exploitation, HIV, and domestic violence.
“Canada is not as progressive as it likes to congratulate itself for being,” Junetta Jamerson begins while sitting next to fellow organizer Yodit Tesfamicael.
Both women speak to multiple situations they themselves have experienced of covert workplace racism and discrimination, physical and verbal abuse on the street, and sexual harassment and assault. Tesfamicael shares a story of her own experience.
“A few years back I was just walking downtown, and completely out of nowhere a person took their bag, smacked me in the face, and then told me, ‘Go back to where you came from, you effin’ n-word.’ And that’s not uncommon,” she says. “It becomes very apparent to you, the value of your life and your worth. It’s really scary to not be seen as just another human being that has the same desires, wants and the same rights as everybody else.”
For Jamerson, who has seen a couple decades more of experiences, both from her own life and some of the young girls that she supports, it is even more crushing.
“There’s almost a jaded, or hardened aspect to how I feel, because it’s just always been this way,” she says. “The lower value placed on black lives, black female lives, is just endemic to North America. These societies, these settler states would not exist had not that belief been foundational to every institution they created—every policy and legislation they enacted.”
Jamerson can speak to times she has been quieted and told to accept the dismissive and derisive ways she has been treated at past jobs when trying to speak up for herself.
“It is not limited in the lower levels, this goes up to the highest halls,” she adds.
There is a resounding impact of seeing your sisters, grandmothers, role models and daughters live through these experiences.
“It is within the lived experiences that we share amongst ourselves,” Jamerson says. “It is within—I mean, I’ve lost count—at the number of black women who have endured unspeakable abuse at work, racism, the sexism and how it all comes together.”
The ignorance around these situations makes it even more difficult to rally support and enact change. The two women then reference the lack of statistics to even prove to those who may question the frequency and severity of experiences like their own.
“In the sense of the silence around it, we have a long ways to go to raise an awareness that this open season cannot continue. It cannot continue,” she says.
Jamerson breaks down the lack of previous organized groups to two factors: lack of numbers and fear.
The 2011 Census echoes this, reporting that only three percent of all Canadian females identify as black, making them a significant minority, much more so than in the U.S.
“When you are seeing ‘just keep your head down’ as the way out, you’re not gonna organize,” Jamerson says. “Ever since there have been black women in this province, there have always been individual responses, but not collective, and not unified, and not political. That’s what we’re trying to change.”
The systemic problems that exist for black Canadian women causes a cycle of poverty and violence that many indigenous women know all too well. It’s from these past tribulations that Black Women United have taken many lessons.
“You see where the years of work, and sacrifice, and organizing indigenous women have been able to push their issues to,” Jamerson says. “It has been a colossal wheel to turn. We have so many of the same issues—they’re generational—that we haven’t begun to mobilize around. Regardless of who’s sitting in Ottawa, we have a lot of catching up to do.”
Sat., Sept. 30 (4-6 pm)
March for Black Women YEG
Alberta Legislature Building