Had it not been for the intervention and encouragement of a handful of Black professors, who knows what career path Dr. Nicole Neverson would have taken?
“They were on my side and they actually told me about grad school which I didn’t know anything about at that stage in my life,” she recalled. “As a student, there were a lot of things in the education system I didn’t quite understand and a lot of experiences that I had that were not very positive.”
At last week’s sixth annual Viola Desmond Day celebration, Neverson was among four Ryerson University members honoured with awards named after Black women who have made significant contributions in Canada.
Neverson started teaching at Ryerson a few months before the celebration was launched in 2009.
“When I arrived here, there were not many Black female professors or Black professors of any gender and even now there are not many of us,” she said. “Often I think as racialized scholars, the work we do is often not appreciated in the grand scheme of the university affairs. Events like this, I think, do a really amazing service in letting people in the wider community know that there are Black professors, particularly female, whose work is worthy and valuable and makes a meaningful contribution to the university as a whole.”
The daughter of Vincentian-born parents, Neverson graduated from York Memorial Collegiate Institute and Carleton University with an undergraduate degree in Mass Communications & English. After a year-off, she attended McMaster University where she secured her Master’s and Ph.D. in sociology.
Neverson was turned on to teaching while enrolled in graduate school.
“I had some really good professors and the style with which they approached learning and knowledge in the classroom was something that was very interesting and engaging,” Neverson said. “I am a shy person, but the classroom allows me to be kind of a different individual. So I think one of the things that draw me to the classroom is obviously meeting a diverse array of people and also sharing who I am with them. Ryerson is a very special space in terms of the wide array of backgrounds that our students represent.”
With an academic training that’s firmly rooted in socio-cultural aspects of mass media and representation, Neverson is engaged in a collaborative study examining Taser use in Canada and an examination of alternative media perspectives of the Canadian Caribbean diaspora in relation to the Africentric Alternative School.
Neverson, who instructed at McMaster, Trent University and the University of Waterloo prior to joining Ryerson, supported the establishment of the school that opened in September 2009.
“Marginality is a very interesting thing,” she said. “Historically, a lot of people might think such a school is something that works against the multicultural milieu that’s Canada. I and a lot of other scholars think that the Africentric School is another part of what a multicultural Canada can be. So if it’s going to help some students who perhaps were a little disenfranchised from the regular system, that’s a good thing. In a sense, I think the school is kind of what this night is about and that’s giving visibility to a particular culture and people. It’s about sort of trying to bring the marginalized back into the centre and letting them know they are valuable, meaningful and important to a community.”
Neverson was presented with the award named to honour Anne Greenup, a Black American who relocated to Saint-Henri in Montreal and, in 1902, founded the Coloured Women’s Club of Montreal which is the oldest Black women’s organization in Canada.
Keitha Prospere, who came to Canada from St. Lucia as an international student 13 years ago, was recognized with the Andrea Lawrence Award. The information technology management and MBA graduate is Ryerson’s International Student Services and University Health Insurance Plan administrator.
“Coming to a new environment in 2001 was challenging, but I received support from my supervisor Diana Ng and others who encouraged a family setting,” said Prospere who spent nearly eight years with the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto supervising visits between families and their children in foster care. “Now, I am trying to create a family of international students that will get the same kind of experience I went through when I arrived on campus.”
In 1987, Lawrence made history by becoming the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) first Black female recruit. Attached to the Burnaby detachment in British Columbia, she transferred to traffic enforcement four years later and then applied to join the Musical Ride which is a formal event showcasing members’ equestrian skills.
While training on a rainy day, Lawrence fell from her mount and suffered a serious spinal injury. She returned to Burnaby to perform desk duties, but the injury made it impossible for her to do regular duties.
Lawrence, whose father was a Jamaican cop and her mother a nursing supervisor and accomplished singer, settled for a medical discharge. She died at her Toronto home in June 2003 at age 39.
Fourth-year criminology student Anisa Hassan was presented with the Zanana Akande Award.
A graduate of Downsview Secondary School and the Creative Institute for Toronto Young (CITY) Leaders, Hassan co-founded the Feed Somalia campaign and is a member of the Policing Literacy Initiative that’s modelled after the Yale Law School Innovations in Policing Clinic.
The daughter of St. Lucian and Barbadian parents who were educators, Akande served as a high school principal and was the first Black woman elected to the province’s legislative assembly and the first Black woman to serve as a cabinet minister in Canada.
Bursaries donated by Ryerson professor Dr. Carole Chauncey and the Urban Financial Coalition Services were presented to Oakwood Collegiate Institute Grade 12 student Hoda Abdel-Gabar who aspires to study business in university and then enter law school, and Ryerson third-year social work student Omnia Abdorbo who is a peer academic adviser and mentor with the Spanning the Gaps program.
Ryerson’s Black History Awareness Committee collaborated with the Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) unit to host the awards ceremony.
“There is no university that I think celebrates its diversity and inclusion as well as we do and it’s one of the things that make me so proud of our university,” said outgoing president Dr. Sheldon Levy. “In just a few years, this event has grown into a Ryerson tradition…The women that are celebrated today make our country a far better place not only for Black Canadians, but people around the world.”
Julia Hangisberg, vice-president of administration and finance, shared the sentiment.
“I am honoured by the fact that we are celebrating these women and honoured that they spent time in our midst and that we benefit from who they were or are and all they did or continue to do,” she said. “The named women of the awards and the honourees are people who forged their own path despite the lack of role models and people who pursued their beliefs and their depth of understanding of why it’s important to have an equitable society.
“They are people who work tirelessly in their communities to help the poor and the needy and to alleviate poverty and need…They are an inspiration to all of us, especially to young Black women today, our students, faculty and staff.”
In 1946, Desmond – a Halifax beauty shop owner – refused to sit in a New Glasgow theatre balcony section designated for Blacks. Instead, she sat on the ground floor reserved for White patrons. She had gone to the Roseland theatre to pass time while her car was being repaired.
After being forcibly removed from the theatre and arrested, Desmond was found guilty of not paying the one cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket from the main floor theatre ticket and fined $20 and $6 in theatre court costs.
When efforts to overturn the conviction at higher levels of court failed, Desmond closed the business, moved to Montreal and enrolled in a business college. She eventually settled in New York where she died in 1965 at age 51.
Four years ago, The Nova Scotia government officially apologized and pardoned Desmond.
“Black history is important because it tells us about Canadian history and the contributions of Black Canadians in shaping the country,” said Dr. Denise O’Neil Green, Ryerson’s assistant vice-president/vice provost equity, diversity & inclusion. “Growing up in the United States, I always enjoyed Black History Month because it reminded me that all people, including Blacks, have contributed to making democracy a reality for all.