Culture change at city hall is first priority in Toronto's plan to confront anti-black racism

Toronto’s ambitious plan to confront anti-black racism will kick off with a staggeringly large task: new training for the more than 34,000 people who work for the city.

City council unanimously passed the 22-point plan earlier this month

Toronto city councillors unanimously supported a plan to confront anti-black racism within the city earlier this month. (John Rieti/CBC)

Toronto's ambitious plan to confront anti-black racism will kick off with a staggeringly large task: new training for the more than 34,000 people who work for the city.

"The first priority next year around getting the plan started is around creating culture change at the city," said Denise Andrea Campbell, Toronto's director of social policy, analysis and research and the staff lead on the plan.

Campbell says everyone from custodians and front-desk clerks on up will receive training that helps them recognize unconscious bias and the ways systemic racism is baked into city services. Law enforcement will also receive new training.

Last week, city council voted unanimously to pass the 22-point Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism, which recommends changes to everything from community centre funding to health services and shelters.

The next step is to fund the $1 million plan, something that won't be confirmed until the city finalizes its budget in 2018.

In the meantime, Campbell, along with other city staff members and outside experts, have begun laying the groundwork for the gargantuan task ahead, with an expert working group meeting in September to discuss what staff-wide training could look like.

Community describes 'differential treatment'

The desire for major culture change came straight from the 41 community conversations held by the city to inform the plan, said Campbell.

"We heard lots of examples about differential treatment," she said.

Training for staff aims to impact how black Torontonians experience a wide range of services, from libraries to community centres.

Campbell pointed to a recent audit of community facilities as an example, in which the city was mulling a cut to a program that seemed uncontroversial, later realizing it would "disproportionately affect black youth.

"There's a steel pan drum that uses this little community room and that's the only place they have in this particular neighbourhood to practise steel pan," she said, adding that the hope is that more training will teach staff to better understand these kinds of culture-specific issues.

Another example frequently raised in community conversations was how black youth are treated in places like recreation centres.

"They might be loud and boisterous, as young people often are, but if someone has in their unconsciousness a belief that loudness then equals threat, those young people might be barred from a community centre," said Campbell.

City employees call out 'outright hostility' 

Surranna Sandy, CEO of Skills For Change, an organization that hosted three community conversations, said they also heard from current and former city employees of African descent.

"There is significant bias, anti-black racism, within the city when it comes to promotions, support, mentoring, engagement of black Torontonians," she said. "There was outright hostility that some people felt."

Tomee Sojourner-Campbell, a mediator and consultant, led the expert working group on city staff training this past fall.

Sandy also heard similar stories to Campbell, all contributing to a "sense that many city employees who were interacting with the black community had stereotypes or misunderstandings about the black community."

Tomee Elizabeth Sojourner-Campbell, a mediator and consultant who facilitated the working group, told CBC Toronto it's important to remember that every person who works for the city represents it.

Training will not be a one-off

"The front desk person, the custodian — the relationships you have with those individuals do shape and inform [your] stance to the city of Toronto," she said. "It's not necessarily the person that's in the office that's working at city hall."

What's needed, she said, is an ongoing, multi-faceted approach that is tailored to each position and department.

"These are not things you can learn in a 10-minute seminar," said Sojourner-Campbell. "It takes time."

For Campbell, ongoing training for every employee is part of the city's pledge to "step up" to systemic racism. 

"We feel a lot of pride about Toronto being the most diverse city in the world, and that's lovely, but we need to become the most equitable city in the world."