· By Rachel Hickey

WOKE event goes virtual for a diverse night of storytelling, art and celebration

The Stories of Resilience and Challenge in WOKE WO/MEN event on Friday, February 26 was the seventh of its kind, but took on new shape for the latest event. 

The first virtual event in the series, local organizers and co-founders Selam Debs and Carla Beharry curated a night of speaking, music, DJing, dance & spoken word as a tribute to African and Caribbean culture by amplifying stories of resilience and challenge through storytelling.

Both Debs and Beharry are social justice and advocacy workers in the community and co-founded WOKE WO/MEN Speaking Events and The Antiracism Community Collective as a way to amplify BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) voices and challenge the community to take action for tangible, systemic change.

Where it all began

Debs and Beharry noticed a clear gap in our community – many BIPOC groups can’t find mentors to relate to. So, the pair worked to build these events as a platform for racialized members of the community to share stories and find mentors in a safe space.

“For the first time, I shared my life story in a real way where I felt empowered and supported by my community,” said Debs, recalling the first WOKE event back in May 2019, hosted by Beharry, at Debs yoga studio. From there, WOKE events filled spaces like the Registry Theatre, the Button Factory of Arts and more, motivated by the deep desire to change our community to better represent its diverse nature.

While KW has seen change and growth in the past few years, we still have a very long way to go. “Things that are acceptable here that would never be acceptable in a place like Toronto, where it is much easier to be immersed in culture, food, music and more,” said Beharry. “Here, it’s somehow become acceptable to push racialized groups to the edges of the community, to erase people of colour from boards where decisions are being made.”

Believing that this community deserves much better, Debs and Beharry choose to stay local, invested in giving KW what it needs – a wake up call. 

The wake up call

This year, unlike other years, we are living in a global pandemic and at the same time, we are in the midst of the largest civil rights movement that we have known in history. Conversations about the Black experience in Waterloo region growing, particularly in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the focus also shifted to cases of injustices within Waterloo region.

The Black Lives Matter march in downtown Kitchener in June 2020 was one of the largest rallies in the province as 36, 000 people gathered on the streets and thousands more joined online. The event was pulled together quickly, as Debs, Beharry and friends made connections with grassroots organizations in the community. Organizations like the ACB Network helped make the rally a safe space as thousands of people met outside 44 Gaukel in downtown for the opening of the march. Good Company Productions offered support by supplying microphones and loudspeakers so the organizer's voices were heard. 

The 7th WOKE WOM/EN event

Over half a year later, the most recent WOKE event returned to broadcast live from 44 Gaukel, this time for a hybrid event, bringing in-person hosts Debs and Beharry on-location while other speakers, dancers, musicians, and more joined the event virtually.

After so many years of education, advocating and standing up for justice, this was a night of warmth and uplifting celebration of where the community is right now and where it's going.

The event included a number of speakers including Dr. Kathy Hogarth, associate professor in the School of Social Work at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo, Dr. Christopher Stuart Taylor, a UW history professor who also serves as the school's Black equity strategist and anti-racism advisor, Nicole Brown-Faulknor, a Registered Psychotherapist, Umi Mohammed, a Community Enabler and Equity Leader, and  Dr. Funke Oba, an assistant professor of social work at Ryerson University and a member of the African Canadian Association of Waterloo Region and Area.

“We carefully curated this event to raise voices that would uplift and inspire with a cross section of voices and stories that span several generations, and experiences,” said Debs and Beharry.

But it wasn’t just the speakers: the evening included music, art and spoken word. Special thanks go out to Trisha Abe for artwork and poster design, Utamika Van Zyl for hosting and moderating the event, Jaleel Debs for sharing spoken word, DJ Jon Corbin and musician Rufus John for bringing music to the celebration, and sponsors Wilfred Laurier Women Entrepreneurship Centre (WEC), Black Lives Matter Waterloo Region, Sidewalk Beer Shop and Third Moon Brewery, all for making the event a celebratory night to remember.

Beyond Black History Month

Black History Month is a time for us to really become aware of the systemic changes we need in our communities, but also to highlight the community leaders making a difference right here in KW. “It is important to join together in community to amplify voices and support each other, to understand Black history, Black presence and Black futures, not just celebrating for one month a year, but long term for continued advocacy,” said Debs.

Action needs to be taken in our communities, our businesses, our leadership boards and more – for the right reasons. Many are motivated to diversify their organizations, but are motivated by the social pressure to do so, ignoring the important work to get training and change the culture of their organization to create a safe space for racialized employees. 

Moving forward comes down to a collective willingness to continue the learning process, and everyone has the ability to do better. To learn more about how you can get involved and help create tangible systemic change within our community, check out more of Carla Beharry and Selam Debs work with WOKE WO/MEN events, anti-racism workshops, and more.

Photo by Issac Bender.


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