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CBC readers salute inspiring black Canadians

Categories: Canada, Community

Almost a decade before Rosa Parks famously refused to give her seat to a white passenger on an Alabama bus, a Canadian woman was dragged out of the white-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre.

Viola Desmond, who was arrested after refusing to leave her seat in 1946, was fined $20 and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Her ordeal and subsequent court battle spurred the dismantling of Nova Scotia's segregation laws and inspired a book by her younger sister, who is still alive today.

While Black History Month is a great time to reflect on the accomplishments of historical figures such as Desmond and other prominent black Canadians, it also presents an opportunity to showcase the efforts of today's role models and rising stars.

Black Canadians are still breaking barriers, changing lives and contributing to Canada's culture and legacy. With this in mind, we asked CBC readers to tell us about men and women who are making a difference in their communities today.

We would like to thank everyone who took the time to recognize the work of positive role models in their community.

Please scroll down to read about those who have been highlighted by their peers.

Taki E'Bwenze: artist and teacher

 Taki E'Bwenze. (Courtesy of Robert Elliott ) In 1973, Taki E'Bwenze left his home in the Congo. He travelled to Quebec as an exchange student.

His background was in engineering, but he studied economics at the University of Sherbrooke and urban and science education at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

He received a Master's degree in planning and environmental studies from the University of Montreal.

As he taught computer graphics, Professor E'Bwenze developed a technique for teaching French to his classes, and eventually began teaching French exclusively.

His life evolved as he became a husband and father, as well as an artist and teacher.

"His classes are engaging, personal, passionate and rewarding."

-- Robert Elliot
Now, 39 years after his arrival in Canada, Professor E'Bwenze is an internationally recognized artist and a revered French teacher. 

His classes are engaging, personal, passionate and rewarding.

As a teacher, he now works almost exclusively with new immigrants who need fluency in French to succeed in the workplace.

Professor E'Bwenze teaches at the Centre for Adult Education in Outremont, Quebec, and works in his art studio in Montreal.

His art is based on his profound knowledge of expressions of traditional African art. From this base, using digital arts and painting, Professor Taki creates variations of African art for new audiences.

His commitment to everything he does, and to everyone he touches, makes him a great contributor to our country.

Peter Boulos, graphic designer and 3D Animator, created a virtual exhibition of Taki E'bwenze's artwork. Browse below.

Femi James: sports coach and youth advocate

 Femi James. (Courtesy of Ann Clarke) Femi James has been working with children and youth in a variety of capacities for just over 10 years.

She began her career in youth work as a track and field coach and has always used her personal story to empower and inspire young people on and off the track.

James, who holds an HBA in Kinesiology and Health Science with a specialization in Coaching, has worked on the frontlines in two of Toronto's 13 priority neighbourhoods.

She is currently the project coordinator for the Youth Challenge Fund legacy initiative called The S.P.O.T., based out of the Malvern Community.

James is known for her commitment to creating mentorship and non-traditional training and development opportunities for youth who face overwhelming life and systemic barriers. For the past five years, Femi has worked tirelessly in the Malvern community, giving her all to a variety of initiatives and causes all aimed at creating a better community.

As part of the Neighbourhood Action Partnership, she is a strong advocate for the youth and is involved in projects focused on youth employment and safety.

Gary Pieters: educator and 'voice for change'

 Gary Pieters. (Courtesy of UARR) "Canada is no longer the Great White North -- except at the boardroom table," wrote Gary Pieters, educator and community leader, in a 2010 article for This Magazine.

Pieters goes on to question why visible minorities, which Stats Canada projects could be 30 per cent of the population by 2031, continue to form only a small fraction of the decision makers in Canada.

"Young people become what they see, and role models of all backgrounds need to be seen and heard," he continued, adding that Canada must harness the potential of all its citizens.

Pieters, a graduate of the University of Toronto, has been described by his alma mater as a voice for change. He has worked for over 17 years in the education sector and is currently an elementary school vice-principal at the Toronto District School Board.

'Young people become what they see, and role models of all backgrounds need to be seen and heard.'

-- Gary Pieters
He is president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, and has also served on several boards and advisory committees, including Sojourn House and the Toronto Star Community Editorial Board.

Pieters, a frequent public speaker, also writes editorials for various media outlets and is a member of the Maytree Foundation's DiverseCity Voices initiative.

You can follow him on Twitter @CitizenBlogger1

Geena Lee: youth leadership advisor and outreach specialist

 Geena Lee. (Courtesy of Claudia Coore) Geena Lee's work with youth in Toronto's Rexdale community began in 2008.

She started out as an after-school programmer at Smithfield Middle School, through the City of Toronto Parks & Recreation.

She also served as a summer youth camp facilitator for Braeburn Neighbourhood Place in the Tandridge neighbourhood.

In 2009 she became co-founder and facilitator of the D.I.V.A. (Diversity in Video, Audio & Arts) program, a free media literacy and arts program for girls and young women of colour.

Notable projects that arose from this program was Don't Grade My Shade, a public service announcement about shadeism (light skin versus dark skin prejudices), which was premiered at the Canadian Black Film Festival. Another inspirational music video, 'Believe In Yourself', screened at the Jane Finch Youth Film Festival.

In 2011, Geena became the Youth Leadership Advisor for YMCA Rexdale, supporting their Youth Leadership Corps in identifying and executing community service initiatives such as food drives for needy families and fundraisers for the YMCA's Strong Kids Campaign.

They also created Let's Talk About Rex, an interactive play which highlights issues experienced by Rexdale youth, ranging from police profiling to homophobia, thus providing a forum for community residents to engage and consider ways of creating empowerment.

As a member of the Neighbourhood Action Partnership's Youth Engagement Committee, Geena helped organize the landmark Rexdale/Jamestown Youth Solution Summit in June


Yo Highness - Believe In Yourself (a D.I.V.A. Program Production) from DIVA Program on Vimeo.

Tracy Cato: volunteer and facilitator

 Tracy Cato. (Courtesy of Claudia Coore) For several years, Tracy Cato has been active in supporting families and children as a volunteer, and has been instrumental in building stronger community programs.

Cato has worked with and facilitated partnerships between several institutions and community organizations, including the Broadreach Foundation for Youth Leaders, Humber College, and the North York Harvest Food Bank -- to name only a few.

Such partnerships have enabled Cato to bring free swimming, sailing, African dance and drumming, arts and crafts, and flight simulation classes to students who may not otherwise have access to such opportunities. She has also helped provide breakfast, lunch, and take-home food to students.

Thanks to her efforts, other people -- including residents of Toronto's much-maligned Jamestown neighbourhood -- have been trained in a tailored Humber College program aimed at developing their capacity to run organizations.

Cato's own passion for community work continues as she advocates for local residents and creates more synergy between services.

All the while, the single mother has been raising her own three kids: Tika, 27, Jonah, 19 and Dane, 17. She has lived in the North Etobicoke region of Toronto for 18 years.

Alicia Cinnamon: singer and songwriter

 Alicia Cinnamon is Stephanie Webbe's stage name (Courtesy of Stephanie Webbe) Alicia Cinnamon was among those who attended the funeral of Tyson Bailey, a 15-year old boy shot and killed in a Regent Park apartment stairwell in January.

After leaving the service, the singer-songwriter went straight to the recording studio to express everything she felt as a mother and member of the community.

"€œIs this what our ancestors died for? So that we can become the oppressors of ourselves? All this hatred among us has got to end. Remember you come from kings and queens, show your wealth," she said in the spoken part of her tribute song, I Can't Breathe.

"€œYoung ladies respect your bodies as well as your mind. Young men it's not a weakness to be kind."

Cinnamon hopes to help preserve Bailey'€™s memory through music and help prevent his case from being "swept under the rug."

'Remember you come from kings and queens, show your wealth.'

-- Alicia Cinnamon
She also hopes that lyrics like these can help other people in her community.

"€œAll my life, all I've ever wanted is to see my people uplifted and stable," she told CBC News.

"I feel if our youth knew we were more than just slaves that maybe they would have a better outlook on what their future should be like. When you feel like you come from nothing it is so hard to try to become something!"€

Follow Alicia Cinnamon on Twitter @cinnamon_delite

Faye Stoddar: anti-violence campaigner and 'Jamestown angel'

 Faye Stoddar (Courtesy of Claudia Coore)Faye Stoddar migrated from Jamaica to Canada in 1997. She has resided in Toronto's North Etobicoke neighbourhood for 15 years.

From the moment she arrived in this country she has been involved with volunteer work. For over 15 years Faye has worked and volunteered in the high-risk community known as Jamestown in Rexdale.

Through her work Faye has organized anti-gang violence campaigns in her community as well as activities that encourage community togetherness.

On example of her projects is the Jamestown Angels. Faye recruited members of the community that support community members and families after violent occurrences take place in the neighborhood.

The Jamestown Angels is composed of female residents of the neighbourhood. They received extensive training to be able to coach community members in times of tragedy.

Faye has given selfless support to the Jamestown community. Her work has helped to change many lives. She has helped others become inspired and willing to help.

She has touched the lives of many Jamestown residents, especially youth, and encouraged them to reach a violence-free future.

Her work and contributions have truly made her a Jamestown angel.

Alisia Bonnick: young author and book publisher

 Alisia Bonnick, also known as A.A. Smith. (Courtesy of Lisa Smith) Alisia Bonnick of Stouffville, Ont. is a second-year student at the University of Toronto, a dedicated volunteer, and a cheerful supervisor at a local Tim Hortons.

But the busy young woman has another identity, too. She moonlights as an author and writes mystery novels under the pen name A.A. Smith.

Bonnick, who started writing in the summer after 6th grade, recently published her first novel, The Perfect Crime. At the age of 19, she co-founded A.A. Smith Publishing House, which aims to give unknown authors an opportunity to have their material reviewed, edited and possibly published.

Lisa Smith, the house's 44-year-old co-founder and the person who nominated Bonnick, says the young woman is an inspiration. Smith notes that Bonnick graduated from French high school Etienne-Brule as a merit scholar and was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship.

Bonnick is fluent in French and Spanish and volunteers at a French immersion primary school in Stouffville.

In Toronto, she's studying Psychology with a minor in English as well as a French citation. She plans to continue balancing her ambitions: growing her career as an author while also practicing clinical psychology.

Bonnick has also kept in touch with younger students in her hometown, talking to them about the joys and challenges of starting a business at a young age and the importance of following your dreams.

You can follow A.A. Publishing on Twitter @AASPublishing

Sterling Scott: comedian

 Sterling Scott. (Courtesy of Shayla Leslie) Sterling Scott, a professional comic who lives and works in Edmonton, thinks his city deserves more respect for its comedy - and E-town couldn't have asked for a more dedicated ambassador.

A rising star in the comedy world, Scott has performed at the world famous Apollo theatre, inside Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and for troops in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

He was a finalist in a 2011 cross-country search to find Canada's next top comic, and in 2012 he was selected to represent Alberta at the Just for Laughs homegrown comedy competition in Montreal.

On a more local level, Shayla Leslie - who nominated Scott - said she considers him a hero in the Edmonton black community.

Leslie notes that for the last few years Scott has hosted the opening ceremonies for the city's Black History Month, its Caribbean arts festival Cariwest and its Hip Hop for Hunger food drive.

Scott is one of the first black correspondents to contribute to CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes. He has written for the show and had a role as feature correspondent.

Follow Scott Sterling on Twitter @sterlingsjokes

NOTE: After Sterling Scott found out that he had been nominated as a role model, he couldn't help but tell us about his own comedic hero:

 Kenny Robinson (Courtesy of Sterling Scott). "Kenny Robinson is a stand up comedian in Toronto and has been on the scene for over 20 years.

He is an inspiration to many young black comics, such as myself, because he started the first ever black comedy night in Canada 15 years ago as a way to give young black comics a place to perform. Comedians like Russell Peters even grew up on that exact stage.

Today Nubian Night at Yuk Yuks is the biggest show in Toronto and has given a boost to many young black comedians. Kenny Robinson is the Godfather of black comedians in Canada without a doubt."

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Claudia Coore: community developer

 Claudia Coore (Courtesy of Kwame Brown). Claudia Coore, Community Development Officer with the City of Toronto, was nominated by Kwame Brown of the YMCA of Greater Toronto.

His reasons for choosing Coore are best expressed in his own words:

"I am proud to be a black male that looks up to a black female who exerts so much passion, tact, determination and respect for all, regardless of age, gender, class, religion, etc.

"I am nominating Claudia for the simple fact that she is a true community builder and leader, who looks at the weaknesses and strengths of individuals and organizations and affords them the opportunity to become better and to connect with each other to help assist with building their capacities.

"During her tireless efforts in North Etobicoke - in Jamestown and Silverstone-Mount Olive - she has connected community organizations together for the common good of the residents and the overall public perception of the community.

'"I am proud to be a black male that looks up to a black female.'

-- Kwame Brown
"She works tirelessly and seems to have the ability to navigate any given situation.

"If I am in need of something personally or professionally, Claudia is always there to assist me with the help I need.

In addition, I believe that no job can compensate Claudia for the work she performs, as she is available off-the-clock and voluntarily supports endeavors beyond the confines of her position."


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