The saga of the Marcus Garvey Centre Part 3

Toronto’s Black community, for all intents and purposes, has lost the Marcus Garvey Centre for Leadership and Enterprise. The property, which was provided to the Black community by the old city of North York when Mel Lastman was the mayor, had fallen on hard times and the City of Toronto, which now includes the old city of North York, has moved to reclaim it.

This is the third and final installment of a three-part article by retired educator, activists and former Caribana chair, Lennox Farrell, who was a key player in the acquisition of this property for the community.

A building represents many things to a people, a community and an individual. For example, defining the age-old sanctity of one’s dwelling implies that “a man’s home is his castle”. To a community, a communal building represents enterprise and social status. Moreover, the level of communal home ownership is the best barometer, not only of measuring the social status of a community, but also of predicting the social conditions likely to affect that community’s youth and future. Edifices, for example, the Roman Parthenon and the Pyramids of Egypt, can become iconic metaphors summarizing their people’s achievements.

What then did the Marcus Garvey Centre for Leadership and Enterprise (the “MGCLE”) represent to Toronto’s Black community? Success? Failure? Was the decision by City Hall to close it fair and wise?

First, it replaced an earlier building dedicated to similar principles, but lost in the 1970s. Also, while different Black communities already had communal properties, these belonged to particular island-groups, etc. There was, however, no space dedicated to common use by all. In short, the MGCLE met a need of our combined communities to be in control of a space in which all could teach and be taught, learn and prosper.

Anyone from any other Black community could serve on the Board of this centre, become CEO and president, and volunteer to hold events to benefit the community. What is now lost is therefore a place of needed universal usage.

The MGCLE, according to some mainstream newspapers, and quoting some city councillors, had become, despite its grand objectives, a thing of disgrace and corruption. Not only did its representatives not fulfill contractual obligations, for example, paying taxes, but the MGCLE by such failures also became a welcome target for those to whom all we do eventually end in failure, corruption and disgrace.

In fact, some decisions taken were plain unwise, like a Board motion barring Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti from entering the city-owned property located in his riding. After Mayor Mel Lastman, he was the staunchest supporter of the centre. Without his support, getting the centre and having vast repairs done would have been more difficult if not impossible.

The Board’s failure to produce annual financial statements, etc., despite repeated requests and threats, was also not helpful.

Although I left the MGCLE more than a decade ago, I can say that the stories of failure are not the full and final ones.

Examine some of the activities. Question some of the individuals who came to the centre, be they federal, provincial or municipal politicians; Pan Am Games athletes or American movie stars; invited visitors – on one fundraising occasion, numbering more than 600 – who came as guests to honour, to receive, or present awards; youth in need of counselling and tutoring; former prison inmates needing guidance towards productive lives, and those who worked through all seasons as unpaid volunteers training youth choirs which, on several occasions, officially opened Black History Month at Toronto City Hall. Are these not also legit parts of the MGCLE story?

In addition, take the months of March through July of 2008, when the group, XPRESS YOURSELF, operating out of the centre, ran workshops for repeat offenders at the York Detention Centre. Using drama and literacy activities, these MGCLE volunteers taught more than 40 Black youth the type of skills and attitudes needed to stay out of prison.

Take, too, the year 2002 when the then president, Dr. Charmaine Marine – now deceased – implemented, with full support of Board and members, winter and spring literacy classes, summer sessions in crafts, and fall session tutorials, often providing transportation for youth whose parents had none. Now, segue 2002’s activities into 2003, 2004 … and you have a dedicated continuance of year-long activities provided by volunteers.

One could go on with the stunning successes, like the centre being the only venue in Canada to host a 30-day Youth For Human Rights tour organized under the auspices of the United Nations. One can also question why so many who carry status and who came as guests to the centre could not sprinkle even a small goblet of clean support to counter the dirty tsunami of condemnations.

If this loss teaches us anything, it is that whatever we do for good, we must out-do ourselves and others since expectations had of us are that we do bad.

Shakespeare could have been describing us when he observed in Mark Anthony’s oration for the murdered Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do live after them … (while) the good is often interred with the bones.”

It is for the above reasons why I recommend that we make, with the widest representation available, the strongest case possible to either regain, under a responsible Toronto leadership, the MGCLE in its former location, or given that community needs are greater now than they were in 1996, another building with better location and, this time, with the staffing, equipment, budget and leadership, to ensure viability and accountability.

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