The power of community

Every year Tricia-Kay Williams, CEO and registered clinical counsellor at Vancouver’s Metamorphose Counselling picks a word around which to centre her purpose and her goals. This year, that word is “intentional.” However, she’s been intentional for a long time. Williams was intentional about finding a community to belong to, picking what schools she attended and starting her own business. Her journey, like many Black women and girls in Vancouver has been a series of ups and downs and contrasting experiences that at the heart of it all, comes down to community.

“I see how Black women are struggling with belonging, prejudice, and isolation,” she says. “They’re asking for more community-centered care, they’re wanting to meet in groups, they’re wanting to have fairs, they’re wanting to see themselves represented and the only way they can see that is in a community space or group setting.”

Coming to Canada

When Williams was 19 her family migrated from Jamaica to Ontario where, in true Canadian fashion, she was welcomed with a snowstorm.

A major success of owning a business as a Black woman for Tricia-Kay Williams is centering it on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. | Photo courtesy of Basil Williams Photography

“It was quite the shock when we came off the plane,” she says.

As Williams and her family settled into their new lives, they easily found community. According to the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, almost 60 per cent of the African Canadian population lives in Ontario, of which 218,065 people are Jamaican. When Williams attended York University, she saw a lot of people that looked like her. Her experiences at the university helped her get the foundation she needed to continue with her current career and for that, she’s grateful.

However, there was one incident when a professor told her they wouldn’t recommend her for her master’s program because they didn’t think she would get in. So she shouldn’t even try. Feeling undervalued and invisible, it was like she was there but wasn’t there.

“I’m just going to hold my head down and get through this; I’m going to finish and show these people that I have something to say,” she says of the experience, all the while feeling like wanting to hide.

“I think a lot of people, especially women, experience that where you’re not called upon or your opinion doesn’t matter or it doesn’t hold as much weight.”

“It wasn’t the best school environment for me as a Black female student, but I enjoyed the work and study,” she says. Now more selective about applying to schools, Williams eventually found herself in B.C. where she had a positive experience at Vancouver’s Alder University, feeling heard and valued.

“They were intentional about what their purpose was,” she explains.

Moving to B.C. was also pleasantly shocking. Lush greenery, mountains and beaches welcomed her.

“The scenery felt like I was in Jamaica again – home,” Williams says.

Finding community

On the other hand, the staggering difference between Ontario and B.C. meant Williams had to look harder just to find her community. According to the 2021 census, Black-identifying people makeup only 1.2 per cent oft the B.C. population.

“I think having community and people to relate to is one of the biggest challenges that Black-identified people and Black women are having difficulty with,” she says.

Chinelo Iwegim believes the future of Thrive4Blacks is bright because of everyone working together. | Photo courtesy of Chinelo Iwegim

In her practice, Williams sees that more and more Black-identified people are reaching out for counselling, but adds that there aren’t enough Black-identified mental health practitioners to keep up with the demand.

However, it’s not just about finding community, she says. It’s also about having a safe space.

Communities could be created but if Black-identifying people and Black women still don’t feel safe in those communities, it’s a challenge, Williams explains. Her advice for other Black identifying women and girls is to “hold your head up.”

“Despite the challenges that might come, remember who you are and your values and try to find people who are going to be positive influences in your life; a positive community will always lead to success,” she says.

Empowering Black youth

Chinelo Iwegim, secretary/director of administration of Thrive-4-Blacks Community Services Society, a registered not-for-profit organization focused on advancing the education and empowerment of young Black people, echoes that sentiment.

“I believe when we work together, we are so much better for it because all of our talents and abilities are able to come in and create something beautiful,” she says.

Iwegim and her family immigrated to B.C. from Nigeria in 2017 also during winter and have since become part of a strong and growing Black community. Thrive-4-Blacks was founded by a group of friends on the heels of lived and shared experiences of Black children in the community. George Floyd’s murder by the police further propelled this group of friends to kickstart this initiative which empowers and equips the younger generation to be in a better place in society.

“Kids don’t have a community-oriented upbringing like we had so it affects their perspective; I’m hoping that when we get together that sense of community can be reawakened,” she says.

When children see that someone else has experienced the same things they have, it gives them a sense of confidence and identity knowing they’re not alone, Iwegim explains.

Geared towards the 6–18-year age group, Thrive-4-Blacks provides a variety of age-tailored programs and events for young people to learn practical skills such as public speaking, money management, business foundations with skills training, as well as education on and Black people’s cultures and history.

“Our programs provide information that kids normally wouldn’t learn within the four walls of a classroom,” says Iwegim.

Participants join in from Alberta, Ontario, Nigeria, and other African countries so Canadian children are sending messages to their peers in Africa. When Iwegim sees the children light up at new concepts, pick up interests and translate them into their daily lives, she feels that is a huge success.

“The organization is still developing”, she says, “and though there is still a lot of strategic work to be done, we remain committed to our goal of providing impactful extracurricular programs for kids of many migrant families who often cannot afford the additional costs of activities for their kids”.

Iwegim concludes that although it’s difficult to put on these events, it’s also rewarding.

“My hope for future generations,” she says “is that they take advantage of opportunities in the Canadian system to learn, improve, become involved and develop a global point of view to become the best version of themselves.”