As she graciously accepted her YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for brilliance in the arts last week, d’bi. young anitafrika did not miss the opportunity to remind others that she stands on the shoulders of giants who paved the way for her. She is a globally recognized dub artist, arts educator and theatre director whose Pan-African trans-disciplinary explorations of identity, gender sexuality, class and human experience have made an indelible mark on the local and international cultural landscape.
Established in 1981, the annual awards honour women role models and trailblazers who have made significant contributions in the city.
The Jamaican-born artist and educator was one of seven women honoured at the celebratory fundraiser.
“I do feel deeply honoured because I was raised by this city,” she said. “I was raised by Caribbean and Afro-Diasporic artists and activists who really cleared space for me. The award is very emotional because I recognize there are so many people that have gone before who made it possible for me to be an unapologetically political woman-centred, African-centred and people-centred artist. I think that’s a challenging thing. But because so much was paved by these elders, I am, was able to and will continue to thrive.
“I come out of such a rich legacy of Afro-Diasporic Caribbean reality in Toronto. I am also a product of this city’s arts community as I have been mentored by Nightwood, b current, Soulpepper, Tarragon and Battery theatres. These are the people who raised me. To come home after years of being raised in the world learning from those elders and to be celebrated in this way is really inspiring and it encourages me to make room for those who are coming after.”
anitafrika said her Jamaican upbringing hugely influenced her desire to use the arts to advance social justice.
“If children are a celebration of nurture and nature, then much of my passion comes from nurturing,” said the monodramatist and published author who was recently featured on CNN and is the recipient of the Toronto Foundation Vital People Award for her relentless commitment to using the arts as a vehicle for social justice. “I grew up in Jamaica until I was 15 watching the pioneer dub poets talk very earnestly about the nationhood of Jamaica, the inequities, the imbalances, the ‘shadeism’ and the legacies of colonialization and imperialism. I grew up with a very intersectional analysis of oppression. As a very young child, these were the conversations I was privy to that they were having in the backyard, on the verandah, in and out of school and in the tuck shop. This, mixed with dub poetry, reggae music and dancehall, was ingrained into the fibre of my everyday life. These things were just two steps away from where I grew up in a working-class neighbourhood across the street from Trenchtown.”
The 37-year-old award-winning artist is the founding director of The Watah Theatre Institute where she designs and facilitates residencies for emerging and established artists.
“It’s an artistic institution for Black and diverse artists,” she said. “I am following in the footsteps of elders like Lillian Allen and Starr Jacobs who were instrumental in the Jobs Ontario for Youth (JOY) Fresh Elements and Artworks programs (they provided youth with artistic training and encouraged them to engage in the histories of their own cultures) which people like me, Trey Anthony, Saukrates and others came out of. That program changed so many of our lives. For about five years during our teenage years, we were held and taught anti-racism and anti-oppression. This is what happens when you invest in young people. I am now using my artistic capabilities to help empower others.”
The recipient of several honours, including the KM Hunter Theatre, the Arts Council, the Canadian Poet of Honour, the Women’s Resiliency and two Dora Mavor Moore awards, anitafrika developed a personal and creative development methodology – the Sorplusi Method – that’s widely used by national and global change-makers. She recently received a Women’s College Hospital grant to conduct research using the method as a health intervention for young Black women.
Educator and social justice activist Akua Benjamin, the recipient of a YWCA Woman of Distinction Award last year, said anitafrika deserves the recognition.
“Her powerful use of the story and her ability to move it beyond a performance to an education for African women is really inspiring,” said Benjamin. “Her performances carry a message and her deportment does the same. She presents herself as a royal Black woman.”
Teriano Lesancha, who three years ago became the first person from her Kenyan village to graduate from university, was the recipient of the YWCA Young Woman of Distinction Award. She graduated from Ryerson University whose outgoing president Sheldon Levy hosted a special convocation in Lesancha’s village.
Pledged at birth to be married to the 27-year-old son of the midwife who delivered her once she became a teenager (he would have been 40 then), the international student escaped the forced unity to secure an education and become the first member of her village and ethnic group to receive a university degree.
Lesancha is a member of the impoverished Maasai tribe which inhabits southern Kenya and lives a nomadic lifestyle. The girls are circumcised between the ages of 11 and 13 and married to a man chosen by their fathers in exchange for cows.
That was the fate to which she was destined before her mother, who has the equivalent of a Grade Three education, intervened and coaxed her husband to nix the marriage and forego the dowry – five cows – he would have received in exchange for his daughter.
Lesancha attended high school and college before coming to Canada six years ago to pursue higher education.
Graduating with a social work degree in June 2012, she is using her education to empower girls and women in her village.
To make education accessible for youths in her village, Lesancha started a non-profit organization three years ago that helps subsidize their high school, college and university education. Girls who are single parents and orphaned are given high priority to apply.
With funds accrued from World Vision which sponsored her, Lesancha is establishing a dormitory for girls, many of whom have to travel long distances to attend school. The building is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Empowering the women in her village is also important for Lesancha who launched the Maasai bead work collective with 20 women almost 20 months ago. The group has now grown to about 200 women.
With bead work an integral part of their culture, the Maasai women bead necklaces and bracelets are gradually being marketed and sold in Canada and other parts of the world at fair value.
Other YWCA Women of Distinction Award winners were KPMG Toronto managing partner Beth Wilson, therapist & social activist Sabrina Desai, Women’s College Hospital president & chief executive officer Marilyn Emery, human rights lawyer, Fiona Sampson and former City of Toronto ombudsman Fiona Crean – she has applied to become the province’s ombudsman — who was nominated by Benjamin.
“Fiona has always been a champion for equity, inclusion and human rights and she has never wavered on those issues,” said Benjamin, 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.
Close to 60 women were nominated for this year’s awards.
“The thing about these women is that they are so inspiring and what they have in common is their passion to help other women and girls,” said YWCA Toronto chief executive officer Heather McGregor.
About $750,000 is raised annually from the awards ceremony which is the YWCA Toronto’s major fundraiser.