Black Lives Here: Nicole Johnson on the importance of mentors and building self-esteem

Educator, entrepreneur and single mother Nicole Johnson has a multitude of talents and experiences. Photo by Mimi Liliefeldt.

By MIMI LILIEFELDT

“I am enough” is a statement, tagline, warrior cry that can be seen and heard all over social media. It is often used as a counteractive against the sentiment that has been impressed upon and proliferated by society since the beginning of time that we as women are not in fact “enough”.

For a Black woman this message is amplified even more so.

This month I met with the bright, beautiful, and brilliant Nicole Johnson. Nicole is an educator, entrepreneur, and single mother who despite her multitude of talents and experiences has known the feeling of not being enough.

The daughter of a Black man with Indigenous ancestry from Nova Scotia and a white woman from Toronto, Nicole was born and raised in the Upper Beach. She attended the local elementary and high schools, watched her brothers play hockey at Ted Reeve Arena, and had many friends in the neighborhood.

When Nicole and I met, I was struck by how friendly and confident she was but as we talked about life and growing up in a very white community I could hear and relate to what it was like for her as a young biracial person.

“I didn’t really know where I fit in. With some friends I never felt cool enough, skinny enough, or that my hair was straight enough. Boys thought I was intimidating, they were always after all of my friends who were mostly shorter, thinner, or whiter. I had to go to Scarborough to find other Black teenagers. It definitely played with my self worth but thank God my parents were always so loving and supportive. They made me feel smart and beautiful and cared for,” she said.

What and who we see most in our environments impacts what we believe about the world and ourselves.

Nicole shared, “I only had two Black teachers growing up in the Beaches. They inspired me and saw me for who I was, it was absolutely incredible. They encouraged me and truly believed in me. They are the reason I became an educator and wanted to make the same difference in Black students’ lives.”

“When I look back (at her first Black teacher) almost 30 years ago, she made me feel safe that I could express myself. If I was upset about something I could confide in her, it wasn’t about the academics all the time, it was about building that relationship with her students.”

As a young person it is so important to be able to see yourself in your mentors, this is why representation is so crucial for self esteem and development.

Nicole also said, “Out of all the teachers I had in all my schooling, the ones I connected with the most were Black. That’s not by coincidence. . . Knowing that it’s possible, literally lived experience. It’s not just saying, ‘You can be anything’, you’re actually seeing it face to face and experiencing it. And now it’s, ‘Oh I can go to university’. . . And seeing a Black person in a leadership role.”

After university Nicole went to Australia to do her Master’s in Education where she lived on two Indigenous reserves as part of her learning experience. When she returned, she couldn’t get a teaching job in Toronto and subsequently applied in British Columbia.

“I taught in Bella Bella (on the east coast of Campbell Island, B.C.) for four years and that’s where I met my ex-husband. I was adopted into two different Indigenous families. They have traditional (custom) adoptions at Potlatches, which is a celebration similar to a Pow Wow. The only reason I came back was because I missed my family and my friends here, but it was amazing, and I just immersed myself in the culture.”

Though Nicole’s family lost ties with their Indigenous heritage, it was important to her to find a way to reconnect and especially after she had her daughter, who’s father is Heiltsuk (First Nations).

The domino effect of Nicole having had two Black teachers as a young child went on to increase her chances as a Black person to attend post secondary education. Beyond her undergrad degree she went on to do a master’s and ultimately found a way to connect with her Indigenous heritage. That kind of encouraging representation cannot be under valued.

According to a study done by Cassandra Hart, an associate professor of education policy at the University of California, “Black students who were exposed to Black teachers by third grade were 13 per cent more likely to enroll in college. If kids had two Black teachers by third grade, Hart said, the likelihood of college enrollment jumped to 32 per cent. Hart and her colleagues call this the role-model effect.”

There are some who oppose the mechanisms that are employed to increase representation such as affirmative action, but what they fail or refuse to recognize is that many racialized groups have been systematically repressed from being in many positions of power or leadership. It requires intentionality and action to right that imbalance.

This idea of hierarchy brings about another much-lauded term, ‘Black excellence’. The term emerged out of the civil rights movement and has gained popularity over the last few years.
Before our conversation, I wasn’t sure how the phrase sat with me, but Nicole was able to give her perspective. “I struggle with the whole idea of Black excellence. There’s too much pressure put on us, especially as Black women to overachieve.”

The idea of ‘excellence’ is not sustainable. We might all have moments of excellence but it’s not realistic or fair to expect a whole race of people to maintain a certain level of being at all times. This pressure to show people we are worthy of fair treatment by going above and beyond what the average white person has to do to be respected is a gross injustice.

Which lead me to consider, ‘What is my interpretation of Black people claiming their excellence?’

I believe we are saying, “Just by existing, we are excellent enough. Our beauty and self worth are every bit as valid as anyone else’s. When you allow us to live and thrive, we will delight, inspire, and change the world in ways you can’t even imagine. Because we have something that you (white folks) do not. We have the grit, education, and determination that was thrust upon us from generations of systematic oppression. We have and will continue to overcome. This is our excellence.”

When I think of this meaning it fills me with hope.

Nicole is an exceptional full-time special education teacher at an all-special education school.

“I started a new program called Experiential Learning, it’s life skills. I started a student run store where the kids work at the store, and we have a consignment section, and we also sell snacks and things like a tuck shop,” she said.

“I take the kids to the market, and we get vegetables, and they learn how to clean them and peel them, and we package them up for healthy snack packs. They learn how to run the cash register, it’s really fun to run.”

Running a business isn’t new to Nicole. In 2021 she launched her own small company making skin care products. She had been creating all natural balms for her daughter’s diaper rash since 2016 and spent four years gifting them to her friends and family.

The products (body butters, lip balms, soaps etc.) are all carefully made and packaged by Nicole. She named the company Sweet P, after her daughter Patience whom she makes part of the business. The result being her daughter will grow up watching her mother be an educator, entrepreneur, and an incredible role model.

Role models and representation are such basic ideas but ones that have too often in our history not been widely accessible to young Black and Indigenous people.

When I think of my younger self not feeling white enough or Black enough or even Asian enough to fit in, never seeing teachers or people in positions of authority who looked like me, I am comforted by the idea that Nicole and people like her are raising their children with awareness and intentionality.

Nicole shared with me a book (Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada by Lawrence Hill) that she felt really helped change how she felt about herself. After reading it she finally understood, “I never really knew where I fit in, and then I realized, I don’t need to fit in. I can just be me.”

She now knows, she is enough.

Nicole and her business can be found on Instagram @sweetp.ca

— Mimi Liliefeldt is a Beach resident and business owner. She can be reached at mimi@missfit.ca


Was this article informative? Become a Beach Metro Community News Supporter today! For 50 years, we have worked hard to be the eyes and ears in your community, inform you of upcoming events, and let you know what and who is making a difference. We cover the big stories as well as the little things that often matter the most. CLICK HERE to support your Beach Metro Community News!

Click here for our commenting guidelines.

Leave a Reply

*