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CityMakers: Black Like Me welcomes students into Ottawa’s black community with BLK FROSH

By Nickie Shobeiry on September 17, 2018

Black Like Me is an organisation dedicated to creating spaces for Black people in Ottawa to “find happiness, safety, support, and whatever else they need to live.” You can read the first installment of our interview with founders Sakinna Gairey and Selali A-W here.

Below, Nickie Shobeiry talks with them about their event, BLK Frosh, which welcomes students into Ottawa’s black community with amazing events, all for free.

What are some of your most favourite memories from past BLK Frosh?

Selali: The first SFS we did, which was part of BLK Frosh. We were in the front of the room telling them it was about to start, and the whole room was full of black people. Black women around my age, from different walks of life – one little black boy. It was a tea salon, and it’s beautiful. It’s owned by a black woman, and there’s all this Victorian art on the wall – but I know the person who did that, art and he’s a black person, and there’s black women in Victorian art which you never really see. We filled the space with black people who were hesitant to come to this place, because the idea of being in a place that’s so bougie makes them uncomfortable. I probably wouldn’t be in that space if I didn’t work with them. I looked around and all these young people were very comfortable taking up space, not afraid to laugh out loud in a place that was seemingly quiet. In Ottawa, it’s a lot. I’d just come back from Ghana, and I was like “there’s no black people, what is this, no food, how am I gonna eat, everything is unhealthy!” and then I’m sitting in this space like “wow”.

I looked around and all these young people were very comfortable taking up space, not afraid to laugh out loud in a place that was seemingly quiet.—Selali A-W

Sakinna: Also, the SFS before our one-year anniversary – one of the people who had performed at our first SFS stood up and said she had a poem. And she said, “This is the anniversary of SFS” and we were like “what?!” She dedicated it to BLM and we realised it was our anniversary. It was a beautiful poem about black women, and joy and happiness, and she was like, “I dedicate this to y’all”. It was really great! And then we had a show after that to actually commemorate it. Someone remembered our anniversary, and cared enough to bring it back.

You’ve created a large network of artists.

Sakinna: We’re both creative people in our own ways. Event planning is an art; people don’t recognize it that way. Both of us being creative people running around the city, we’ve got to know a lot of people and get organized.

What’s your mentorship program about?

Selali: BLK Frosh happens, you go back to class on Monday, and you’re the only child in your Public Affairs and Policy Management class, and now you have to deal with your professor saying “Now let’s talk about the benefits of colonialism” and you’re like “Oh my god, that’s uncomfortable – where are the people from BLK Frosh?” – and you remember the workshop about surviving school while black, and you remember the resources we told you about, but you don’t want to go find them. How will we maintain that connection, especially since BLK Frosh is inter-campus? With the way Ottawa is set up, how the black community is set up, it’s already staggered. People need this thing throughout the school year.

It’s a peer based comprehensive mentorship program because it’s supposed to help you in your academic life but also in your social and personal life.

Sometimes you want to offer peer support, but you have to be specialized or find a counselor. So many of us have formal and informal training in peer support and therapies of all different kinds. We know these things and these skills. How do we create a culture of getting people to talk to their friends and rely on one another instead of the institutions? I understand that people come to school for school, but knowing that it’s a predominately white institution, who can you go to who can help you out? Who do you go to who is your tutor, who understands that you really care to do better in Chemistry, but that you can’t because Josh keeps making jokes about you? Not because you’re not good enough to understand Chemistry, or maybe English isn’t your first language and you’re getting used to Chemistry in English. Who do you talk to about this who doesn’t make you feel like an idiot? Probably your pals. It’s a peer based comprehensive mentorship program because it’s supposed to help you in your academic life but also in your social and personal life.

Have you both acted as mentors?

Sakinna: We’re informally mentors to all the BLK Frosh babies. They’re grown people but they’re our babies. We’ve mentored a solid amount of them, but they’ve also met each other and developed a network on their own. It’s been amazing and weird. We’ve had people going from Carleton to uOttawa to meet their friends who they met through BLK Frosh. We keep in touch with them and we’re there when they need things, but we also offer services and different programs here and there.

We’re there. We are mentors.