Feb. 1 kicks off Black History Month in Canada. We sat down with Michèle Newton, one of Georgian’s Public Relations – Corporate Communications students, to chat about Our Mosaic Lives, a recent passion project of hers that celebrates the lives of black Canadian women and girls.
What is Our Mosaic Lives? It’s a personal journey that explores my relationship to black history, black women and girls from a personal growth perspective I call “Back to Black.” I interviewed black Canadian women from varied backgrounds and experiences – mainly from Simcoe County – and connected with them over coffee and emails, learning about their life experiences, perspectives and views.
I captured their photos and their essence and blogged about their various stories on a website I launched last February with each of their stories. I continued interviews through the summer and I’m going to publish another series. The City of Barrie approached me to partner on a photography exhibit of the project and it was housed in the rotunda downtown during January.
What was your impetus for doing the project? I felt like there weren’t many stories about black Canadian women around the time of Black History Month last year and I wanted to hear what other women were thinking – if they were feeling the same way as me.
What were some of the things you talked about? One thing I asked was if they were wondering where all the local Black History Month celebrations were, or if it was just me. We also talked about whether they felt it was important that communities recognize the month, especially given it has had official Canada-wide recognition for the past 11 years.
Did everyone feel the same way? We all felt it’s important to keep recognizing Black History Month. Otherwise we’d be taking a step back, and all the progress that’s been made in educating people about the origins of African Canadians and the diverse cultures here might be lost. We also realized that maintaining recognition of Black History Month is going to fall to different members of the community. On the other hand, we felt it unfortunate that we need to have Black History Month. We would like to find ways to start recognizing different people and celebrating their diversity all year round.
What did you learn from the project? One of the things I learned was that these individual black women, ranging in age from 17 to 57, had all had some similar experiences. Being different and being black in a community where a black population is very small, we did stand out and faced racism and micro-aggressions. I concluded that how much we stand out hasn’t really changed much over 30 years. We all wanted to be more included in our communities and better understood, because we are better together. That’s long been one of my personal mantras, even before this project.
Do you celebrate Black History Month as a family or is it just something that’s part of your daily routine? Being of mixed race and black, we’re kind of aware of it every day and we celebrate being ourselves. I think it’s really important to recognize that we’re making a contribution despite being a small percentage of the population and we want to continue to grow in that togetherness with our community. We make a point to notice when the month is upon us and attend any events that are going on in the community.
Hearing us talk about Black History Month is helping our daughter understand that we still need to learn about our history. Many people still don’t know much about slavery in Canada – where black slavery happened or how it came about. They don’t know that in the 60s was when the real immigration from Caribbean countries to Canada started, or how. And when you say black Canadian it means all these black Canadians of varying backgrounds, not just those of African heritage.
Who were some of your role models growing up? Growing up, I didn’t have any role models of colour. My mum was, and still is, an amazing role model to me, as a strong, passionate woman – very educated and just an all-around community-minded person. She provided a great example and I feel like I’ve followed in her footsteps.
More recently, I would consider Michelle Obama a role model – especially with her new book Becoming. I read it in two days and really connected with a number of things she said and her past experiences.
How did you find the women for the project? I crossed paths with a few of them before in various circles and they were happy to participate. Others I met through referrals from the City of Barrie’s ARTrepreneur program.
Where can folks view the Our Mosaic Lives exhibit? People can see it at the Barrie Public Library all through February. The exhibit will be divided between the downtown branch (60 Worsley St.) and the Painswick location (48 Dean Ave.). Midway through the month the pieces will switch over to the other location.
Any other upcoming events? On Monday, Feb. 25 I’ll be participating in a Community Conversation with Beth Foster at the downtown Barrie Public Library from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Everyone is welcome to attend. We’ll be chatting candidly about diversity and inclusion through the perspective of my personal “Back to Black” journey.