Wendell Adjetey and Akwasi Owusu-Bempah connected the first time they met on the Mississauga transit six years ago.
In addition to their Ghanaian heritage, they have a passion for working with underprivileged young people and they are committed advocates for equality and social justice.
“We were on the bus when Wendell approached me and we started talking,” said Owusu-Bempah, a University of Toronto Centre of Criminology doctoral student who was born in England to a Ghanaian father and British mother. “We have many things in common.”
Adjetey, who migrated with his parents from the West African country in 1992 when he was seven years old, completed his Master’s in political science three years ago and is a case manager in the Jane-Finch area with the $5 million federally funded Prevention Intervention Toronto program, which is aimed at steering young people in the city’s designated priority neighbourhoods away from gang culture.
He was recognized for his academic accomplishments and community service last week with the Keith Forde Youth of Excellence Service Award at the Toronto Police Service’s 19th annual Black History Month celebration.
“I have witnessed for the last six years the unbelievable work that Wendell has done and is doing in our community, especially with young Black boys,” said Owusu-Bempah, who nominated him for the award. “I thought he needed to be honoured and that this award would be fitting for him.”
While studying at the University of Toronto, Adjetey met curator and historian Dr. Sheldon Taylor who agreed to talk to a group of young men who were part of an after-school mentorship program that Adjetey founded in 2006.
“Dr. Taylor welcomed my young men to the university with open arms and spoke to them about the challenges of being a minority in Canada and some of the things they need to do to surmount the barriers they may confront,” he said. “It was very enlightening for both them and myself and I consider Dr. Taylor a father figure and a mentor.”
Launched last year to honour the legacy of the service’s first Black deputy chief, Barbadian-born Keith Forde, the award is bestowed on a young person who best exemplifies leadership, community involvement and the best and brightest that society has to offer.
The emphasis this year was on youth as the TPS marked Black History Month with inspiring speeches, dance and song. The theme was “Valuing Our Youth: Securing Our Future.”
Seneca College Police Foundations student, Brian Daley, was the Master of Ceremonies while 16-year-old high school student, Redjina Jean-Paul, delivered the keynote address in French and English.
The Lycée Français de Toronto student encouraged adults to lend young people a helping hand whenever possible.
“We are put aside because of our lack of experience and we become uninterested because we are not taken seriously,” said the Grade 11 aspiring diplomat. “We are filled with ideas, energy, determination and potential, but do not know sometimes how to make that count because we are constantly being reminded that being younger means you bring less to the table. We are frustrated and somehow must find a way to become adults when we can barely find ourselves as teenagers.
“For us to succeed, we need more support from adults. Young people can be successful in changing the world in a positive way. If you, as adults, can help a young person become more creative and educated, do it. A smile or a nudge in the right direction is enough to make a difference. We have dreams and, with your help, we can achieve them.”
In 1984, Sergeant Terry James, now retired, conceived the idea for the Black History Month celebration at police headquarters. The longest-serving Black female officer joined the service 20 years after Jamaican-born Larry McLarty broke the colour barrier, becoming the service’s first Black cop in 1960.
“It took courage and it took absolute commitment to making a difference for Larry and some of the early pioneers to join the service which was not a terribly friendly organization when they first came in,” said Chief Bill Blair. “They have transformed our service.”
Blair paid tribute to Forde and Jamaican-born Peter Sloly, the deputy chief in charge of the divisional policing command; Superintendent Dave McLeod and Staff Inspector Tony Riviere, the 31 and 33 Division unit commanders; Staff Inspector Mark Saunders, the first Black to head the Homicide squad; Inspector Reuben Stroble, the Legal Services unit commander and Inspector Sonia Thomas who last year made history by becoming the service’s highest ranking Black female officer.
“They are in those positions not only as proud members of the Black community, but also as outstanding police leaders,” Blair said. “We have great leaders who are changing our organization in so many positive ways.”
Chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, Dr. Alok Mukherjee, said Black History Month provides an opportunity to reflect on the invaluable contributions made by the Black community to the city, Canada and the Toronto Police Service.
“We are here as well to look to the future,” he said. “Our board shares the belief that it’s critical that we invest in our youth, that we work with them to develop future community leaders and that we do all we can to ensure there is a future for them.”
By RON FANFAIR