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CityMakers: Black Like Me is dedicated to creating spaces for Black people in Ottawa

By Nickie Shobeiry on May 17, 2018


Nickie Shobeiry is Apt613’s correspondent at Synapcity, Ottawa non-profit for civic engagement, connecting people across diverse communities to share perspectives and create positive change.

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.” Founded in 2016 by Sakinna Gairey and Selali A-W, Black Like Me has now grown to include several programs and services, and successful events. Below, Nickie Shobeiry speaks to them about their work.

What brought you both to Ottawa?

Sakinna: I’m currently studying communications at the University of Ottawa.

Selali: I go to Carleton, but I’ve been here a bit over a decade now. I was brought here by the regular push-pull factors of white supremacy, migration needs, all that jazz. I moved here with my parents and I’m here now, living life.

What inspired you to create Black Like Me?

Sakinna: I went to Frosh and it was whack. We thought, let’s make a Frosh for black kids, essential to their culture, their identity – for folks that are “black like me.”

What are the logistics to running Black Like Me?

Selali: The biggest issue is figuring out how to work with students, for students, but also to be respectful of what they have to do – to be aware of the fact that life is going to get in the way, and finding somebody else who is also down to sometimes sacrifice. It does look like suffering sometimes.

Sakinna: But happy suffering. The most important thing for us is we’re very committed to the things that we’re doing.

What is your vision?

Selali: If we can look at Black Like Me Frosh in five years and say we’ve grown, and say I’m doing my best, and it’s something sustainable for us and the community, then that’s it. Wherever the community needs us to be in five years, that’s where we’ll be. And if it needs us to not exist at all, we take our out.

Sakinna: The ultimate vision is that black people are comfortable.

What’s unique about doing this in Ottawa, as opposed to other Canadian cities?

Sakinna: How Ottawa was built makes it very difficult to move around in. You have Centretown Ottawa, which is students, people moving in and out of the city – then you have other neighbourhoods further out, not quite attached to downtown. The people who live there won’t travel downtown, but those are also black people within Ottawa. If we’re looking at sustainability, those are who we need to reach out to, because those are the people who will be here ten years from now.

How does that connect to your aim for sustainability?

Selali: We hope it’s something that will grow beyond us, that’s why it’s “Black Like Me”. University kids won’t want to talk to me when I’m 35, and I probably won’t feel as passionate about helping them. Maybe I’ll be 35 and I want something for black people at the age of 30. Black like me! There’s no limit.

The ultimate vision is that black people are comfortable. — Sakinna Gairey, co-founder of Black Like Me

Black Like Me started in 2016. How has the community’s response to you evolved?

Sakinna: We’re reaching a point now where we’re doing a lot of different things and people from different spheres are noticing. Everybody is hopping into that space, asking what they can do.

What is your motivation?

Sakinna: Survival. What’s essential to both of our survival? What is it for others, too? What makes them feel comfortable, safe, wanted, prioritized? Why are you living in a world that doesn’t prioritize you, why don’t you have a space in this really, really trash world, generally, that doesn’t have your best interests at heart? To survive, we need to make those spaces for ourselves and others.

Selali: I don’t want to just survive, that’s nice – I’m trying to thrive. And being someone who came from Ghana and didn’t grow up here, I had to come into my blackness here, and had to deal with white supremacy in ways I didn’t when I was back home. Anti-black racism is global, but life is that much harder here for black people, really and truly.

It’s much harder for me to live here than it is for me to live in Accra, even though it’s a place where everybody hustles and bustles. I lived in Accra working 12-hour days, but I didn’t feel as tired as I do here when I work four days a week. I worked a job where I could eat whenever I wanted. I worked in a job where I didn’t have to be so serious all the time for people to understand and respect that I’m doing my job. I could joke around across the newsroom, and people would still respect my humanity and understand I’m a person who needs to work and talk at the same time, and listen to music. So how does that work?

So it’s about comfort.

Selali: It seems trivial, but all of our events have to have food. I don’t know who’s walking in who hasn’t eaten all day. It might be me! What is going towards black lives that help us survive?

Toni Morrison asked a question one time, ‘who are you when you’re not black?’, and that bothers me all the time because I don’t know, especially as someone who organizes around blackness. Who are you when you’re not telling people to stop killing you because they’ve actually stopped? What do I like to do as a black person? I like to dance and it doesn’t have to be related to black dance. Dancing in a space where there are people who like to dance, who don’t want to talk about their blackness and other experiences. Comfort.

What advice do you have to others who want to be CityMakers, too?

Selali: Don’t let other people fuck with the vision! Don’t let them. Obviously take criticism where you need to – feedback is important when you work collaboratively and serve people.

Sakinna: Love what you do, and love why you do it. I think that a lot of people either get caught up in what they’re doing, or that they have to do this thing. They’re expected to do this thing, but if what you do is not energizing you and making you love why you do it, it’s not going to be good for you, or for anybody else.

Join Black Like Me at their BLACK BRUNCH: Spring Edition on Saturday May 19, 10am-2pm at Carleton Food Collective’s G(arden)-Spot!