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Fifty years of Black activism

By Will Sloan

Akua Benjamin

Social work professor Akua Benjamin will pay tribute to activist colleagues at the Feb. 18 event.

When asked what she expects from the first annual lecture to bear her name, activist and Ryerson School of Social Work professor Akua Benjamin doesn’t hesitate: “What I want is a heightened awareness of young people in terms of getting involved in activism and resisting injustice.

“There are critical issues we need to get behind,” she continued. “One is policing: although there are changes taking place around carding and racial profiling, they’re not going far enough. We still have an overrepresentation of Black young men in jail. The other big issue is child welfare: we have too many Black children in the care of Children Aid Societies.

“We need a sustained movement of resistance against systemic and structural anti-Black racism and other forms of oppression. Changes do not occur readily until there is a large resistive movement. Nothing changes significantly in terms of public policy unless there are people involved in pushing against injustice.”

Coinciding with Black History Month, the Akua Benjamin Public Lecture will pay tribute to 50 years of activism and resistance in Toronto. The Feb. 18 event will honour the late Canadian Black leaders Marlene Green, Charles Roach, Dudley Laws, Gwen and Lenny Johnston, and Rosie Douglas.

The lecture is part of the Akua Benjamin Legacy Project, a five-year project housed in the School of Social Work made possible by a donation from former Ryerson president Sheldon Levy.  “Many people won’t know who these individuals  are, and even some people engaged in resistance work in the Black community  might not necessarily have that historical information about the contributions of these individuals,” said Idil Abdillahi, professor at the School of Social Work and an organizer of the event.

“Akua Benjamin herself is not only an academic - she’s a public intellectual, she’s an activist, she was on the ground within these activist movements. Her history includes working with many of these Black leaders. She has a particular oral history.”

The lecture will launch the Anti-Black Racism Conference (Feb. 19-20), which will engage a range of topics affecting Canada’s black community – from law and child welfare to human rights, social services, and academic disciplines like feminism and queer studies. The Anti-Black Racism Network, a collective of professors, students, activists and community members whose social justice work includes anti-black racism, will organize the conference.

The conference could hardly be more relevant. “We’re still talking about carding,” said professor Jennifer Clarke. “We’re still talking about the expulsion and suspension of Black kids from elementary school. What is that about, that we still have such concern and fear of the Black body, particularly boys? Where is that coming from, and how do we uproot that? How do we have these difficult conversations so we address the ongoing marginalization and construction of Black youth in our society? These are some of the questions we seek to explore at this conference.”

Benjamin added, "I urge people to attend the conference, get educated and also get involved in a movement for change that centres anti-Black racism: in policy, practice and within the academy and beyond.”

To register for the Akua Benjamin Public Lecture and the Anti-Black Racism Conference, go to