Social work is Dr. Akua Benjamin’s calling and passion.
Growing up in Trinidad & Tobago, she volunteered with church and community organizations by visiting prisons and crèches over the Christmas holidays to cheer up inmates and children, respectively.
Migrating to Canada in 1969 at the height of the civil rights movement in North America provided the impetus for Dr. Benjamin to pursue a professional and academic discipline where she could be at the forefront of improving the quality of life and subjective well-being of others.
“I came here like most immigrants wanting to better myself only to find out that improving yourself meant bettering a community,” said Benjamin who was presented last week with the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for Social Justice. “This award is them.”
Benjamin dedicated the honour to late community activists Dudley Laws, Charles Roach, Sherona Hall and other community leaders and groups she has worked with in the last four decades.
“Social justice is not about an individual,” she said. “One person can’t effect change without the support of a mass of people. My social justice work really began in the Black community in this city which is why I made it a point of inviting to this event people from the Congress of Black Women, the Black Action Defence Committee and other coalitions that I have worked with in the Black community that have stood shoulder to shoulder with me on issues of policing, immigration and housing.”
As a movement working for social and economic change across the globe, Benjamin is proud of the YWCA recognition.
“When you get recognized by the YWCA, that has a ripple effect across the world,” she said. “To be honoured for the work I do in social justice means a lot. Social justice is about changing structures in society. It’s about equality, human rights, dignity and the right to choose and life. Women have fought for these for years and they continue to fight for them. An award like this pays tribute to past and present and sends a powerful signal to women and to everyone in society that we really need to step up the work of social justice if we are talking about change.”
Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic executive director Amanda Dale nominated Benjamin for the prestigious honour.
“Akua is an anti-racism and women rights stalwart in this city,” said Dale, who was the recipient of the YWCA Award for social justice last year. “She is active in so many women organizations and has been instrumental in transforming the female movement. She’s also super smart, a ground-breaker, a mentor, friend and someone who I consult when I have difficulty thinking things through. This award is long overdue.”
YWCA Canada chief executive officer Paulette Senior said Benjamin has had a profound impact on the Black community.
“Akua has done incredible work around issues of racial justice and policing to ensure that the community matters, counts and has a voice,” said Senior.
Dr. Carole Chauncey and Benjamin joined the Ryerson staff 26 years ago.
“She’s a close friend and colleague who fully deserves this honour for her significant body of work,” said Dr. Chauncey.
The first Black director of Ryerson University’s School of Social Work where she was instrumental in creating a justice-oriented framework for social work education, Benjamin has transformed the way frontline services are delivered to women and other marginalized groups by positioning feminism and anti-racism as a priority.
Over the years, the social work professor has provided myriad organizations with anti-oppression training and her advocacy has drawn attention to the systemic racism in local and national organizations that serve marginalized women. A champion of immigrant women’s success, she was also a key voice in the fight for legislation to allow domestic workers, the majority of them women of colour, the right to bring family members to Canada.
Benjamin, a founding member of the Coalition of Visible Minority Women and the Black Action Defence Committee, pursued sociology studies at York University and received her Master’s and PhD in social work from the University of Toronto.
Following employment in the fields of psychiatric social work and addictions, Benjamin joined the Ryerson staff in 1988.
Nine years ago, she was a Distinguished Visitor in Women’s Studies at the University of Windsor and a nominee to share the Nobel Peace Prize.
Established in 1981, the YWCA awards honour women who are working assiduously to improve the lives of women and girls in Toronto.
Previous winners include former provincial cabinet minister, Mary Anne Chambers; Canada’s first female hockey superstar, Angela James; educator, Dr. Avis Glaze; Ontario’s Fairness Commissioner, Jean Augustine; filmmaker, Claire Prieto; poet/playwright, M. Nourbese Philip; community workers and women advocates, Debbie Douglas, Rev. Paulette Brown, Kay Blair, Tonika Morgan, Angela Robertson, Kamala-Jean Gopie, Ebonnie Rowe, Beth Jordan and the late Dr. Joan Lesmond; entrepreneur, Bev Mascoll and City of Toronto employee and union activist, Muriel Collins, who died last November at age 81.