By MIMI LILIEFELDT
July 2023 marks the three-year anniversary of this column, Black Lives Here. As I sat down to write this, I wondered what have we accomplished? How do we measure the meaning of this work? More importantly, what impact has been made?
In order to answer these questions, I needed to speak to the Black Lives Here community and the people that support us.
For our past interviewees, the first question I asked was if they felt that people got to know them better and how they responded when they heard the more difficult parts of their story.
Barb Nahwegahbow, an Indigenous artist who shared her story with us back in May 2022 said, “It was important to share my story to the depth that I did, in the interest of helping people understand what one Indigenous person, Indigenous woman has gone through.”
“Some friends said they’d had no idea what I’d been through. I didn’t find that people went into detail about their reactions. I don’t think it’s because it didn’t affect them. I think they just didn’t know how to react,” Barb reflected.
Tex Thomas, my first ever interview and owner of the soon to be moving (to 136 River St.) Pro League Sports said, “People were shocked and surprised that things like that (racist remarks) still happen in this day and age. Some apologized that I went through that.”
Nella Cramer, nurse, and Reiki practitioner from Barbados said, “I did feel people got to know me after my column came out. I got so many acknowledgements from people saying they didn’t know certain things about me and seemed genuinely interested and curious to hear more.”
Nella also said, “In sharing our stories we bond with others who share some of the same struggles and triumphs, we form friendships this way too.”
During the course of writing this column, I have shared many of my own experiences and perspectives, and I’ve found what Nella references to be true; in bonding through shared difficulties, we do find kinship.
This has been one of the most unexpected and gratifying things to come out of this endeavor for me. I’m amused that I didn’t see it coming since the whole point of this column was to ultimately bring people closer together through sharing stories and developing connections.
Helping people feel seen and heard is rewarding, but what about the readers?
Why do they keep reading and what significance has this column had for them?
Alison Collison, therapist at Pape Therapy Centre said, “As a human, I think it is my responsibility to be informed and educated about our world, our community, and the people I share this world with. I am capable and able to do this, so it would be completely irresponsible (and arrogant) not to.”
She also shared, “This column has enlightened me. It has made issues of racism more personal, by bringing personal stories right to our doorsteps, you CAN’T ignore it.”
Chad McMullan, owner of Rock Solid Productions said, “Yes, it (the column) has enlightened me by showing me the specific personal struggles that racialized people have endured, hard examples of what they have been through. . . I did not expect to be touched so deeply by the wide-ranging experiences brought forth. I know the system is broken, and the articles continue to enlighten me as to how it is more broken than I realized.”
Doug Gore, lead partnership development at the Ontario Trillium Foundation, had this to say about why the column is important and how it has helped enlighten him. “Large scale social change, requires individual behaviour change. . . These are personal stories that ground the issues of systemic racism in the experiences of real people. It’s not abstract, this sh*t is real.”
“One of my big takeaways, maybe the most profound, was the broad spectrum of experiences and perspectives from the people in the articles,” said Doug. “As a society, I think we tend to presume that experiences of racism and the corresponding reactions of the oppressed are homogeneous. They’re not.”
Over the course of these past three years, I have interviewed 30 people, and though there have been some similar experiences, homogeneous they were definitely not. Each person came to the conversation with their own wide range of obstacles and joys.
What might be forgotten when we’re busy categorizing and labelling individuals is that though we all have moments, some darker than others, we also have joy, love, happiness, and dreams. These are the things that keep us going and motivated when the pressures and barriers of systemic racism feel like too much to bear.
The hope is that through our persistent efforts we make lasting, meaningful change. Part of making those changes is ownership of the truths we often would rather gloss over.
As an Indigenous woman, Barb responded with this to say about societal changes, “I think the tide started to turn after the discovery of the remains of the 215 children in the mass grave at a B.C. residential school. People somehow needed that physical evidence as proof that Indigenous people in this country (our homelands) have been treated as less than human. . . I think more people are willing to own up to their ignorance about Indigenous people and issues and their need to learn. First steps – learning the truth.”
For Tex, a man who’s made his career on and off the field, he highlighted the social awareness and responsibility a lot of major league sports teams and organizations have taken around issues of racism. This is significant because as much as we the people are learning to be proactive and call out racism, it’s the folks in power who have the resources and influence that need to invest in structural and systemic changes, in other words lasting changes.
For our readers they saw this column and efforts like it as a catalyst for change.
Doug said, “I’m encouraged by personal efforts to educate and make change, less so on changing attitudes of the general public. The former can be addressed immediately, the latter is long-term.”
Ruthie Edlestein, a self-employed mediator, said: “Your column has been impactful. To the people whose stories you’ve faithfully rendered and insightfully contextualized, to the readers whose world you’ve expanded. I believe work like yours will be a testament to people taking action for change.”
As much as I am encouraged by these words, I am hyper conscious of the fact that we have a long way to go and much more to do. The sad truth is, when you’re not confronted on a daily basis (directly or indirectly) by being Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Colour, it’s all too easy to just forget about it.
Racism is a drag. It drags down everyone from the people affected by it to the ones who deny it and those who wholly stand by their racist beliefs. But we don’t have to let racism hold us captive, we can call it out and stand in our truth. It is only when you can admit that something exists within you, that you can start the process of freeing yourself from it. No matter what side of racism you find yourself on, the reality is that it persists.
I have been moved and educated by the determination and authenticity that so many people have shared with me through their stories. I can only measure the impact of this work by the pride I see in the faces of those whose lives I’ve written about and the readers who have reached out to thank me when they feel they have learned something through these connections.
So, for me personally, this means I must press on. I will continue to do the work in every way I can to unwind my own biases and make this corner of the world, our beautiful Beach neighbourhood, as welcoming as possible for everyone.
Dear reader and anyone who has supported me in the last three years of writing this column, I want to say thank you. I write it because I really hope that hearing these voices, and my own, will help foster more understanding and closeness in our community.
I will be taking a small hiatus and returning with the column in October.
If you know a BIPOC member of our neighbourhood that would be willing to share their story I hope you’ll encourage them to reach out to me. The more voices we hear, the more perspectives we will have and that benefits all of us.
— Mimi Liliefeldt is a Beach resident and business owner. She can be reached at email@example.com