The following story is an example of what more white people in leadership positions need to do: step aside to allow Black, Indigenous, immigrants and people of colour to come forward and take leadership roles. I recently chose to do this on the Board of Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Racism and racial exclusion is without a doubt the most serious issue in American Buddhism today. BPF is taking a leadership role to dismantle racism in the sangha and in American life. Therefore, the Board of BPF should be primarily Buddhists of Colour.
Jennifer Watts is the City Councillor for District 8 in Halifax, North Peninsula, where I live. It is the most diverse neighbourhood in the city, and probably in all of Atlantic Canada. The District includes a diverse population of Black, Mi’kmaq and First Nations, immigrant, queer, senior, low income and disabled people. Jennifer Watts is a highly skilled and experienced Councillor, but she’s also very just.
Jennifer Watts calls for more council diversity in 2016 election
Jennifer Watts thinks Halifax council needs something that has been missing for almost a generation: diversity.
Last fall, after two successful terms, the councillor announced she would not seek re-election in her north-end district. Watts reasoned the all-white, three-quarters male and “predominately older” council did not reflect the city it serves.
Halifax regional council has had but one non-white member serve within its ranks since its inception in 1996 — Graham Downey, who until 2000 represented the north end, home to one of Nova Scotia’s oldest black populations. This is in a city that, according to the 2006 census, has a visible minority population of 7.5 per cent, about half of it black.
While not endorsing any candidate, Watts has made it clear she thinks council needs to make room for new voices.
“Unless politicians stand aside to let others come forward, it is difficult for people to enter the political arena, or even think about doing it themselves,” Watts says. “They’ll have a lot to learn, but they’ll also bring the strength of their perspective.”
Watts’s decision has set up a battle for the Oct. 15 election in which two political rookies appear to be front-runners. Both candidates, one white and one black, have pushed equity issues to the fore, giving voice to millennials’ dissatisfaction with the incremental change they see as politics of the past.
A tale of two north ends
“I don’t think the city is ready to have that conversation when it comes to race, but it’s being forced,” says Lindell Smith, a 26-year-old African-Nova Scotian. “It shouldn’t be something they should be scared of.”
Smith works as a community assistant at the library around the corner from his childhood home on Gottingen Street. He co-founded a recording studio for youth in the area, and has won multiple awards for community service.
Smith will officially launch his run for city council on Thursday, but his candidacy has been generating buzz for months.
Solidarity Halifax, a local social justice organization, withdrew its white candidate for the district in recognition of “the historic significance of Lindell Smith’s candidacy.”
In the background of this conversation is the forced relocation of black residents from Africville, at the northern tip of the district Smith seeks to represent, which was ordered razed by city council in the late 1960s. Many former residents and their descendants still live in the area.
Forty years after the last home in the neighbourhood was bulldozed, the city offered a formal apology in 2010 as part of a multi-million-dollar settlement with its former residents.
“African Nova Scotian communities have a history of being destroyed, being left out in the progression,” Smith says. “What government likes to say, ‘Sorry, we make mistakes?’ And we could possibly do it again.”
Recently, the north end has faced a more gradual change: gentrification. First came the trendsetters, then the cafes, then the condo developers. It is now home to lush-bearded baristas and the sort of restaurants national magazines take notice of.
The old and the new coexist side-by-side, sometimes literally on top of each other. On Gottingen, the district’s main drag, the headquarters of a BMO-sponsored music festival shares a wall with a community health centre on one side and a condemned building on the other.
According to federal housing reports, the average price of rent has increased by 67 per cent since 1997. Smith fears the people who built the community will be priced out of homes they have lived in for years.
“No matter what, there’s going to be some sort of displacement when it comes to revitalizing the community,” Smith says. “If things continue the way they’re continuing now, we’re going to lose the heritage.”
Smith’s main opponent, Brenden Sommerhalder, works for the city’s downtown business commission as its director of marketing. He debuted his campaign in the spring with a satirical play, Flat Fee: A Tale of Two Bureaucracies, in a tribute to Charles Dickens.
A native Winnipegger, Sommerhalder moved to the north end eight years ago and says he has embraced it as his home.
Thus far, the back-and-forth between Smith and Sommerhalder has been studiously cordial. Sommerhalder tweeted that his political rival “makes some important points. We’re richer for having his perspective in the election.”
There is no doubt in his mind that under-representation of racial minorities on council is an institutional problem, and says if elected, it will be his “vigorous intent” to empower the unheard.
“It’s not a good enough solution to try to replace a single individual with another individual,” he says. “It’s clear to me by the lack of racial diversity on our council, that there is something about the way our democracy and governments work that is excluding people from the process.”
Sommerhalder says that it’s no one district’s job to tackle what he sees as a “systemically rooted” city-wide issue. He has pledged to follow Watts’s lead and step down after two terms so as not to perpetuate the status quo.
Smith is not the only African Nova Scotian running. Virginia Hinch, an officer for the city’s housing authority, is also a contender in the north-end district, making soaring rents a centrepiece of her campaign. At least two other black candidates have announced they are running elsewhere in the municipality, in Preston and north Dartmouth.
Smith isn’t making lofty campaign promises. He says he knows he can’t fix the community’s problems in a single city council motion, but says change begins with a seat at the table.
“What I would love to see is for the community to feel confident that their voices are being heard,” he says.
“Now you’re talking about city issues that you usually didn’t talk about.”