At different stages of her life, Josephine Grey didn’t always feel welcomed in a Black audience because of her ambiguous mixed race heritage.
That was not the case last week, as the anti-poverty and human rights activist felt more than comfortable at the Black Business & Professional Association’s “Women of Honour” awards.
“I have to confess I didn’t always feel this way,” said Grey, who is the daughter of a White mother raised in Uganda and a Jamaican father she never met. “I am really honoured to be recognized in this way and just to feel at home.”
Arriving in Canada 12 months after her birth in England, Grey – an only child – was exposed to the civil rights movement in the 1960s in the United States, where she spent four years before returning to Toronto.
“We had a small television and I watched a lot of what was happening with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X,” she said. “We lived in Connecticut while my stepfather was attending Yale University. It was a very racist community and ironically although I don’t appear to be Black to a lot of people, I was subjected to racist insults in school. When I heard we were going back to Toronto in 1968, I was ecstatic because I thought I would no longer have to deal with racism.”
She was wrong.
Racism existed here even though it might have been subtle.
Figuring that meaningful change could only be effected from a position of authority, Grey successfully sought the student council presidency at SEED Alternative School.
“I was very frustrated because everyone was denying there was racism in the school system,” she said. “It was however evident to me that it was alive and well even though it may have been a little more subtle than what I experienced in the United States.”
Grey was one of the early advocates for educational and cultural programming related to the Black experience.
“What we were taught was inaccurate and part of the story and it undermined the sense of Black identity,” she said. “I knew that. My mother’s first language was Swahili and she taught me not to allow racism to undermine me. I am proud of my heritage and I clearly understand then and now that racism is usually the product of ignorance and mis-education.”
The survivor of domestic abuse and a single parent, Grey kicked the activism pedal into top gear in 1986 by co-founding Low Income Families Together (LIFT) to make recommendations to the Thomson Social Assistance Review Committee on a portable children’s benefit, consumer participation in policy development and evaluation and supports for employment while on assistance.
Homeless for nine months in 1989 and residing in a shelter with her three children after being forced out of the matrimonial home by her abusive partner, whose name was on the lease, Grey sought legal aid to have him removed from the home so she and her kids could return. However, her request violated social housing policy at the time and she didn’t have the financial resources to hire a lawyer.
Faced with staying in an abusive home or living in shelters with her children, Grey – who was eligible for legal representation through the legal aid certificate program – was matched with lawyer Patrick Casey who helped take her case to the Superior Court, which ruled that victims of domestic violence abuse could retain their homes and have their abuser removed regardless of who originally signed the lease.
LIFT has expanded its scope over the years to become a voice and active group for low-income families in the province.
“I felt very strongly that if we didn’t tackle inequity, we would never be able to take on racism,” said Grey, who was the driving force behind the establishment of Project Esperance, a housing unit with 111 spaces for survivors of domestic violence. “Inequality is very convenient and an apparently very colour blind method of keeping everybody down, but particularly people of colour while pretending it has got nothing to do with racism, but with poverty which is our own fault.”
A widowed mother of five children and grandchildren, Grey was the first international member of the United States National Welfare Rights Union, the domestic observer for the 1995 World Summit in Social Development for Canada, the international secretary for Canada Without Poverty (formerly the National Anti-Poverty Organization) and the co-ordinator, author and presenter of the Ontario People’s Report to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights in 1998.