Akua Benjamin started her career at Ryerson as an instructor in Continuing Education, teaching a course called “Intercultural Communication”. In 1988 she was hired as a Community Practice Instructor in the School of Social Work after racial and ethnic minority students pushed the institution, then a Polytechnic Institute, to hire a person of colour to reflect the changing complexion of the student body. Her hiring made her the first Black faculty member in the School of Social Work where she has played a key role in shaping the School’s anti-oppressive, social justice, and social transformation orientation. In 2003 she became the first Black Director at Ryerson University.
Akua’s academic work has however always run parallel to her involvement in community activism in the Black community which began in 1970 when, as a new immigrant to Canada, she joined a group advocating to stop the deportation of Rosie Douglas, after he was found guilty of obstruction of justice for his involvement in a sit-in to protest the racist treatment of Black students at Sir George Williams University. This effort to stop the deportation of Douglas was the beginning of her swift transformation from “a very colonial subject” with no knowledge of Africa, colonialism, slavery or the history of the Caribbean, to an activist. Akua joined a Sunday afternoon study group led by Franklin Harvey and made up largely of Black students from York and the University of Toronto that introduced her to Caribbean history and politics, and to Caribbean writers like Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James and Eric Williams. This study group was a chance to socialize with other Black students, but had the effect of raising her consciousness of her history, and gave her a name for the new experiences she was having in the workplace and on the streets of Toronto –racism. It also gave her a sense of belonging to the Black community and instilled in her the commitment to challenge the injustices meted out to her community.
The sense of responsibility to and for community that took shape in Toronto, was nurtured in Morvant/Laventille, Trinidad, where Akua was born and grew up as one of six children. Though her activism begun in Toronto, she credits her Trinidadian/Caribbean background with instilling in her responsibility for community. Growing up in the Caribbean where responsibility to others moves you out of a focus on self, Akua felt a sense of belonging to a community and learned that her responsibility is to help make change so that people’s lives could be better. This philosophy has shaped her life in Canada where, for her, family transcends blood and community is not a given, but has to be constructed.
Akua has been involved in numerous community groups and initiatives advocating for change and challenging racist and discriminatory structures, policies, and practices. The groups in which she has played a leadership role include: Black Action Defence Committee, National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Congress of Black Women, and Organization of Parents of Black Children. So integral is activism to her life that she tends to see herself as “more of an activist than an academic” because there hasn’t been a time that she has not been part of an organization.
But Akua’s work in the academy is as central to her life as her involvement in community activism. In fact, it could be argued that her academic and activist work are sides of the same coin. Her PhD thesis on the Jamaicanization of crime has become a resource and reference for both the academic and Black activist community. Born out of her involvement in the Black community looking at issues of race, Akua used the response to the shooting of a young white woman by a Black Jamaican man, to explore the racialization of crime. She argued that all Black men were seen as Jamaicans and all Jamaicans were seen as criminals. Akua thesis was the first to present the concept of anti-Black racism to the academic community. This concept was used by members of Black Action Defence Committee, to capture dialectically, the experience and resistance of the Black community to racism. Recently, Akua’s thesis has come to life as an increasing number of scholars, community activist and others are now using the concept of anti-Black racism. For example, Ryerson’s School of Social Work lists the advancement of anti-Black racism as part of its vision to make society more just and equitable.
Akua has worked and continues to work to build coalitions with different groups to agitate for systemic changes. Her efforts have been recognized with multiple awards from Black community groups, the City of Toronto, Ryerson University, the YWCA, the Congress of Black Women of Canada, and the Constance E. Hamilton Award, among others. In addition, she was one of nine Canadian women nominated in a group of 1000 women across the globe for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. Among all of these awards, Akua says that awards from the Black community are the most important to her, because they are a recognition that she is part of a community. She counts her award from Black Action Defense Committee as the most meaningful because of her long and deep involvement with the group and its achievements in the struggle against racism. Akua says that the group’s adoption of Mao Zedong’s saying “Let a thousand flowers bloom” has guided her activism and personal life. This saying acknowledges that difference underpins community, and that while we may be different and may have different perspectives, we must work with and make room for our differences.
Resistance Is In Our DNA
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