Nearly two decades ago, activist and educator Akwatu Khenti made a presentation to a Grade 11 class at Georges Vanier Secondary School. Among the students was Devon Jones who was floundering in the classroom.
“I had an issue with the curriculum and I was struggling with the issue of identity and who I am as a Black man,” he recounted. “Then this guy shows up one day and just reminded us who we are as Black people and some of the significant contributions that people of African descent have made to humanity and society. That was a defining moment in my life and I don’t think he understands how he impacted my life.”
The transformational experience led Jones to choose teaching as a profession.
“Becoming a lawyer was also an option, but I felt I could make much more of an impact in the classroom where my experiences were crappy,” he said.
Armed with an undergraduate degree from York University, Jones tutored the senior and junior boys’ basketball teams at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in 1997. After completing his Bachelor in Education degree, he joined the staff of Brookview Middle School two years later.
Aware that a high percentage of students at his and other schools in the Jane & Finch community were underachieving in class and many of those not making the grade were Black boys from single-parent homes, Jones combined with Devon Thompson to start the Youth Association for Academics, Athletics & Character Education (YAAACE) program aimed at empowering youths with tools and skills to become productive members of society.
Jones, who migrated from Jamaica at age 14, is also engaged in a transitional school program that helps teenagers adjust to life before re-entering the classroom.
“A kid cannot come out of jail and go straight to the classroom,” said Jones who taught murdered youths Jordan Manners and St. Aubyn Rodney in after-school programs. “It doesn’t work that way. They have to be part of programs that address the mental health aspect and helps them construct a social trajectory.”
Jones was the recipient of this year’s J.S. Woodsworth Award that honours individuals and organizations striving to eliminate discrimination.
The Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) administers the awards which commemorate the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, celebrated on March 21. On that day in 1960, a large crowd of Black South Africans assembled in front of the Sharpeville police station to protest the pass laws imposed by the apartheid government.
The pass laws were statutes requiring Blacks to carry a reference (pass) book with them when they travelled outside of their homes. The protest escalated into violence, resulting in the police killing 69 protestors – many of whom were shot in the back – and wounding 180 in what has come to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre.
“I don’t normally accept awards, but I made an exception here because the NDP has a long tradition of social change and justice,” he said. “Their core values as a party resonate with me.”
Tamil Youth Organization Canada chair Vijay Thani was the recipient of the youth award.
The awards ceremony, in its 17th year, honours the memory of J.S. Woodsworth who was a powerful advocate for Ontario’s working class in the early 1900s. In 1932, he created the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a political movement that was the forerunner of the NDP.
“In the spirit consistent with the awards, this year’s recipients are those who have led the fight to eliminate racism, challenge and overcome systemic discrimination and organize communities toward creating a more just world,” said provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath.