Strategists Reflect on Black History Month 2021

March 4, 2021

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Urban Strategies’ staff-led Equity and Inclusion Committee was formed in 2018. Over the past year, staff and management have been engaging in structured and informal conversations together, about anti-Black racism, equity, and inclusion within the planning and city-building sectors. Collectively, we have engaged with Jay Pitter’s 8-week Call to Courage, last year’s Toronto Foundation Fallout Report, and several interdisciplinary collaborative sessions within the Hamilton community, visualizing a “just recovery” post-pandemic. We continue to hold numerous meaningful equity and inclusion conversations together.

Listening and learning are just the beginning steps toward advancing equity and inclusion. We are working together to implement an anti-racist approach in three broad areas: our practice, our process and our people. We are completing an equity-based audit of our hiring, retention and promotion practices; refreshing our procurement and teaming strategies to ensure inclusiveness; and integrating anti-racist training and education opportunities at all staff levels. Members of our staff are chairing and participating in several equity and inclusion-related committees within key organizations including ULI Toronto, OPPI and the City of Toronto. We are also continuing to support pathways for BIPOC to enter the fields of planning and design, via groups such as 1UP Toronto and ULI’s Urban Plan, that work to engage high school students in equity-seeking communities. We are systematically reviewing our project and engagement methodologies to ensure that our professional practice advances these objectives and that we seek opportunities to spotlight and support the work of equity-seeking groups in spaces where we do not need to be at the forefront. We have work to do.

Thanks to the leadership of our Equity and Inclusion Committee, this year is the first time we have celebrated Black History Month together. Staff contributed content to our social media Black History Month content based on personal reflections. Our Book Club is reading “The Skin We’re In” by Desmond Cole. We are watching “I Am Not Your Negro” by James Baldwin. Urban Strategies, as sponsors of the Ontario Heritage Trust, were invited to a lecture with award-winning author Esi Edugyan and private virtual tour of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site.

We are sharing and discussing resources firm-wide, on Slack, email and over virtual get-togethers. Strategists will continue to participate in these critical conversations to apply direct action to more equitable planning outcomes and opportunities within our firm and the industry, and to continue to celebrate the historic and contemporary achievements of Black innovators, thought leaders, and city-builders.

We asked Strategists to share contributions that further our conversations about urbanism and city-building as it relates to Black experience/history.

On Dr. Willow Lung-Amam’s statement:

Yasmin Afshar’s response: “People make places. Therefore, we’re in the business of making spaces FOR people. That’s it. That’s the tweet.”

On the “Black Out History” campaign by Ontario Black History Society:

Mary Castel responds: “White Canadians tend to pat ourselves on the back, thinking of Canada as a “beacon” for African-Americans fleeing enslavement. There’s a much more complex and problematic story that we need to face, so that we can work to right these wrongs in our society.”

On the July 2020 OPPI article Anti-Black Racism in the Liveable City and Canada, which states: “Since the 1980s, Toronto’s municipal planning regimes have adopted a highly institutionalized conception of the liveable city in the form of generalized policies related to global livability metrics (McArthur and Robin, 2019). These indices score cities on rigid frameworks on what it means to be a liveable city and ascribe to an “objective” and “race-neutral” framework that conceals the deep material inequities within cities.”

Cyndi Rottenberg-Walker responds: “I read this article in the first week of 2021 as part of the ULI Toronto 5-Day Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Challenge Challenge, and was dumbstruck by the realization that my home city of Toronto, whose official motto is “Diversity Our Strength” and prides itself on its liveability, is still so colour blind.  We need much bigger aspirations and much better metrics, developed through honest and inclusive conversations, of what liveability means for all of us.”

Michelle Rowland (@michellerow twitter) reacts to this TikTok video which states “Non-white people of Houston don’t have grocery stores, but they do have landfills”.  “This TikTok video by Kel.Drigo is a quick introduction to how anti-Black racism feeds into environmental policies and has negative impacts on public health. This happens in Canada too, the Black community of Africville has been near a landfill since the early 1940s and has attributed high rates of cancer in their community to the landfill.”

Emily Reisman responds to this Toronto Star article about the lack of knowledge about the history of slavery in Canada. “Black Canadians long have and continue to contribute to the building of this country. Their history is our history – is part of the Canadian story, and should be richly told and deeply considered. School is were we learn the basics and any omission or oversight is not only a disservice to the past but a mark on the future. My own education in this area is flawed but my child’s should not be.”

Leigh McGrath reflects on this CBC article about a plaque honouring Leslieville’s early Black community. “This time of year I am reminded of some of the commemorations we have of Black history in my corner of Toronto. I also wonder how can we better capture and celebrate the contributions of the Black community in our public spaces?“

Tim Smith shares his thoughts on the compelling cultural legacy of Salome Bey. “When Salome Bey, “Canada’s first lady of the blues”, passed away last August, I remembered her deep, soulful voice but did not appreciate the broader impact she had on Canadian Black culture. As an actor, playwright and director, she created theatre opportunities for countless Black people, with the 1978 musical revue “Indigo”, which played for a year, being a watershed moment. Toronto’s culture of Black music and theatre grows ever richer, thanks in part to Ms. Bey, but what can we do to open more doors for all Black artists?”