By RON FANFAIR
Grandmothers often take the lead and have been sources of vitality in their communities.
Angela Robertson can attest to that because it was her grandmother and, to a lesser extent, great-grandmother who raised, nurtured and shaped her life as an activist in Hanover, Jamaica after her mother migrated to Canada.
Robertson paid sterling tribute to the two most significant women in her life last Wednesday when she was presented with the prestigious YWCA’s Woman of Distinction award for Social Change.
“I saw my grandmother work hard and she was a bit of a community organizer,” recalled Robertson who came to Canada nearly three decades ago. “She was the community nurse, social worker, adviser and funeral director. I saw her in all of those roles and she was very clear in the advice she gave to young women about not taking less than, not putting up with less than and not settling for less than. She also made it clear that they should work for their independence.
“She and my great-grandmother instilled in me the principle that it’s not just sufficient that you make it, but that you also make it possible for other people to make it as well. So my success is not just an individual victory but also a success for the community. That was my introduction to activism.”
When Robertson was informed a few months ago that she would be a recipient of this award, she knew exactly who she was going to dedicate it to. Great grandmother, Muriel Harris, has passed on but her daughter, Violet Harris, is still alive and going strong at age 80.
“I just visited my grandmother in Jamaica and she’s so proud that I am getting this award,” she said. “I am happy to be able to call her name on a stage that recognizes and acknowledges the work of women at a time when she’s alive to hear that.”
Robertson is widely respected and recognized for implementing life-transforming programs for women in Toronto since she migrated here in the early 1980s.
She’s currently the executive director of Sistering – A Woman’s Place which is an organization that offers practical and emotional support to homeless, under-housed and low-income women in the city. Nearly 2,000 of Toronto’s most marginalized women utilize their service each year by dropping in for a hot meal, employment support, counselling or just to have a shower or secure a mailing address.
With Robertson at the helm, the agency’s budget has doubled and funding and community partnerships for two buildings designated as permanent and secure housing for women have been secured. She has also facilitated the expansion of the agency’s headquarters on College St. and spearheaded a new development on Bloor St. West.
“I am doing work right now with women who are poor, homeless and need support to meet their basic needs,” Robertson said. “That’s why I see my work at Sistering as a continuation of the activism I became involved in when I first came to Canada and started out with The Black Women’s Collective.
“At that time, I was part of a group that was engaged in activism around racism and police violence. Later, doing work at the Women’s Educational Press made me aware at the time that there was a lack of representation of women of colour in the Canadian literary landscape. We were not been published, so our stories were not resonating and as young people in the school system, we were not seeing each other in the literature we were being offered. I felt I was obligated to ensure that racialized women’s voices were recorded.”
Robertson was an editorial member of Our Lives, Canada’s first Back Women’s newspaper produced by The Black Women’s Collective and she also served as managing editor at Women’s Educational Press for five years up until 1992. In that role, she gave racialized and queer-identified women representation in the arts and politics by publishing Canada’s first oral history of African and Chinese Canadian Women. She later co-edited Scratching the Surface: Canadian Anti-Racist Feminist Thought.
“This award is an opportunity for me to speak to the issues that affect women who are often invisible,” said Robertson, chair the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention. “These are women who live in poverty, women who struggle with homelessness and women from the Black community who have worked really hard and not received the recognition they deserve. This is a chance for me to bring their history and their experience to a wider community and to let the value of their work be known.”
A York University honours graduate and former chair of Nightwood Theatre, Robertson has also made an important contribution to the Black Queer community by co-founding Blockorama, a celebration of Black PRIDE which is now in its 11th year.
Other YWCA Women of Distinction winners were Peggy Nash (Labour), Amy Go (Access & Opportunity), Beverley Wybrow (Community Leadership), Ilana Landsberg-Lewis (International Development), Hilary Weston (President’s award) and Jessica Yee (Young Woman of Distinction).
The awards, established 29 years ago, honour women who have worked assiduously to improve the lives of women and girls in Toronto.
Previous recipients from the Black community include Jean Augustine, Claire Prieto, Rev. Paulette Brown, Joan Grant-Cummings, Eslin Payne, NourbeSe Philip, Dr. Avis Glaze, Kamala-Jean Gopie, Hesper Philip-Chamberlain, June Veecock, Debbie Douglas, Beth Jordan, Ebonnie Rowe, Tonika Morgan, Kay Blair, Saron Ghebressellassie and the late Bev Mascoll.