CBC Ottawa announces its 2021 Trailblazers
Meet the people who've inspired hope during the COVID-19 pandemic
From employing Ottawans with disabilities at a new coffee shop to teaching young Black musicians how to make their voices heard, this year's group of CBC Trailblazers has one thing in common: They all want to make the nation's capital a better place.
CBC Ottawa received hundreds of nominations for the 2021 Trailblazers Awards. And while it wasn't easy, we eventually chose to honour the following 10 individuals for all their inspiring work — work that's been made even more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Growing up, Lealem Abebe didn't have anyone to mentor him on his musical journey.
That's why Abebe — a rap and hip-hop artist who performs under the moniker 4theworld — is so invested in ensuring the next generation of young Black musicians have the necessary skills to truly and freely express themselves.
Abebe is the co-founder of Produced By Youth, which offers music production workshops out of Ottawa's SAW Gallery — or at least it did until the COVID-19 pandemic forced those workshops online.
He also jointly founded Cap City Cyphers, which strives to carve out a friendly and inclusive space for hip hop in the nation's capital.
As someone who's dealt with anti-Black racism himself, Abebe said it's been "humbling" watching young Black musicians find their voice through the two initiatives.
And while he worries about the isolating effects of the pandemic — particularly when it comes to mental health — he's also enthusiastic about the ways young artists have been able to connect online.
"Music has this way of letting people discover themselves," said Abebe. "It's amazing what can happen when you demystify music production for someone, give them access to the right tools and connect them with people that look like them."
Laura Avelar's biological heart may be weak, but her spirit remains strong.
Seven years ago, Avelar, a neonatal intensive care unit nurse at The Ottawa Hospital's General campus, was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
She's pushed through her illness, caring for premature babies at the hospital while also speaking about heart health for the support group Women@Heart.
"As a health-care professional, you never imagine being on the other side of the line and being a patient yourself," she said.
With Women@Heart, Avelar serves as an advocate for fellow sufferers, offering them emotional support and practical advice for managing the disease during a 12-week program — one that's now gone online and is reaching people across the country.
Being diagnosed with heart failure at a relatively young age taught her that acting with compassion was part of her "life's journey," she said.
"I, too, live with this chronic disease," Avelar said. "[So I] have an understanding of the struggles we are faced with on a daily basis."
For Chris Binkowski, the very act of sharing his art in public makes a powerful statement.
"Every time I perform music live it is an act of advocacy for inclusion and accessibility," said Binkowski, an Ottawa-based artist who lives with a serious disability that requires him to use a wheelchair and a ventilator.
The pandemic has effectively halted both music festivals and busking — two venues that Binkowski, who performs under the name Bucko, used to make himself seen and heard.
He's now shifted his focus online, collaborating with other musicians as part of the Bucko Art Machine project and hoping to soon release his first album. He's also been publishing his works of mostly abstract art on his Instagram page.
For Binkowski — also a lead organizer of Stopgap Ottawa, which builds brightly coloured ramps designed to make businesses more accessible — the pandemic is especially difficult because he can't avoid physical contact with his many care workers.
"Like everyone," he said, "I can't wait for this to [end and] go back to an unrestricted life."
Kathryn Patricia Cobbler
After George Floyd was killed by police last spring, Kathryn Patricia Cobbler felt compelled to share a message with her young music students.
As a Black viola player and multidisciplinary artist, Cobbler wanted students from similar backgrounds to know about the contributions Black artists have made to classical music — and to be confident their own contributions would be valued.
The open letter she wrote is just one example of the type of leadership Cobbler has shown as a teacher with OrKidstra, which empowers children from marginalized communities through the universal language of music.
"Something that will always stay at the core of what I do is supporting marginalized voices and helping everyone have a seat at the table," said Cobbler, who first joined the Ottawa-based charity in 2013.
Since then, Cobbler not only teaches up-and-coming musicians, but also sits on the board of Ottawa arts organization Debaser and works as a performance instructor at Carleton University.
These days, Cobbler's classes and workshops have moved online. And while she longs for the return of live performances, she says COVID-19 can't stop music from bringing people together.
"This pandemic may have taken away our ability to meet in person, but not our ability to engage and connect with one another."
Kyrstin Dumont has spent the year of COVID-19 doing her part to help the region's Indigenous community.
The 20-year-old has been volunteering throughout the pandemic, hosting fundraisers and raffles for families with uncertain futures in front of them.
She's designed tutorials about Indigenous art forms so that youth can stay connected to their culture, as many other programs and workshops are on hold.
Then, over the holidays, Dumont co-ordinated a Christmas hamper initiative, with people she knew donating food, gift cards, toys, chocolate — essentially, whatever would make a family's holidays a little more merry.
For Dumont, who's also spoken on Parliament Hill about climate justice and has volunteered in schools and churches, the response to her activism makes her optimistic about the city's shared humanity.
"I have witnessed folks dig deep to help people they didn't know during this pandemic," Dumont said. "It shows me that there is still hope out there."
Emily Jones Joanisse
You may have grooved to Emily Jones Joanisse's sounds without knowing about her community contributions.
A well-known DJ in Ottawa's bar and restaurant scene, Jones Joanisse suddenly saw many of her colleagues in the industry lose their jobs when the pandemic hit in early 2020. That's when she put her previous expertise to work.
Two years earlier, Jones Joanisse had co-founded Connected Canadians, a non-profit that paired technologically savvy new Canadians with seniors looking to improve their digital literacy skills.
So when COVID-19 arrived and wreaked havoc on the food service industry, she designed a program to retrain now-unemployed servers, bartenders and other food and beverage workers as tech "mentors" for hundreds of older Ottawans.
The program took off almost immediately, with requests for help coming in from around the country.
Her hope is that Connected Canadians continues to grow, in order to address the "massive need" for digital literacy — especially now, with the pandemic still in full swing.
"[It's] essential for all members of our society, including seniors," said Jones Joanisse. "And we have a proven, human-focused method that works."
It took getting let go from his pro basketball team for Manock Lual to discover who he really was.
"I had a complete mid-life crisis," recalled Lual, the founder of basketball development agency Prezdential. "This was the moment where I understood that it was bigger than basketball, that there was a generation coming behind me that was hurt, scared and had no guidance."
A former refugee from South Sudan, Lual came to Ottawa as a boy and grew up in Overbrook. His basketball talent allowed him to secure a full university scholarship, and he went on to play professionally.
But when he was released by the Ottawa SkyHawks at the age of 25, Lual shifted gears, founding Prezdential with the goal of providing young people with skills both on and off the court.
The agency has helped get disadvantaged young people into post-secondary education on scholarships. It's held back-to-school drives, handing out backpacks filled with supplies to about 300 youth, and holiday gift giveaways.
They've also produced The Overbrook Show, an online program designed to teach BIPOC youth "the power of self-love and self-expression," Lual said.
"Prezdential has come to represent spreading love and positivity while walking your own path," Lual said. "Many of the youth in the community now believe that you don't have to buy into [negative] narratives to be successful."
Pearly Pouponneau felt there was no one-stop shop where parents from diverse backgrounds could find resources or businesses that understood their experiences.
That's why Pouponneau decided to launch Colours of Mama Ottawa, a "culturally sensitive community initiative" that strives to help "BIPOC families facing systemic barriers," according to its mission statement.
"I once felt there were no voices that sounded like mine, or avenues for people like me, which led me to feel isolated," said Pouponneau. "I now am connected to other folks and community leaders who share a similar vision, and we all take care of each other."
For Pouponneau, that means connecting parents with resources ranging from housing and groceries to therapy and hair care.
And as the host of locally produced podcast The Diatribe, Pouponneau also knows her voice can go a long way.
"I have connected with so many beautiful people along the way, and I continue to use my platforms … to shed light on various issues underprivileged communities are facing."
The pandemic has created many hardships. But for Will Wells, it brewed up an opportunity.
A self-described "coffee nerd" who'd roasted small batches out of his garage for his friends, Wells had long told anyone who'd listen about his dream of opening a roastery.
But not just any roastery: Wells wanted it to be inclusive, one that paid people with disabilities a living wage and treated them with respect.
So when COVID-19 shut down most of the world, Wells — a longtime volunteer and advocate in Ottawa's disabled community — took it as a sign to get moving.
"All that extra time I spent ... getting ready for work or stuck on a bus, I replaced with starting a business," he said.
Wells launched The Artery Community Roasters in Gloucester, selling ethically grown coffee sourced directly from farmers and processors. All the staff who roast and package the beans have disabilities, with wages starting at $16 an hour and gradually increasing.
He said his goal is to provide full-time employment with benefits to as many people living with disabilities as possible, while showing other businesses that hiring employees with disabilities — already underrepresented in the Canadian workforce — is the right thing to do.
"I've already received so many emails from people who believe in our mission and [are] living with a disability and want to come work for us," Wells said. "And we are doing everything we can to get busy enough so we can hire them all."
When a friend's daughter with autism was turned away from her school's glee cub, Lisa Wilson sprung into action.
The church and community choir member founded GleeCeptional in 2015. Since then, it's given children, teens and young adults with developmental disabilities the chance to show off their singing skills to a wider Ottawa audience.
But that's not all it offers: as Wilson notes, the club also gives singers the chance to get together and socialize through summer camps, movie nights and a year-end trip outside the city.
And with the pandemic in full swing, they've shifted online, with their weekly practices augmented with things like online baking workshops and ukulele classes.
Ultimately, GleeCeptional is a safe and accepting community that allows "exceptional singers to be themselves," said Wilson, while also raising awareness about the city's special needs community.
"My hope is that we will be able to meet in person again safely by the fall," Wilson said. "I know we have a lot of socializing and hugging to catch up on!"