< News | Tuesday, June 25, 2024

‘Come into the space and be uplifted’: Inside the Black/African Feminisms Conference at OISE

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Pictured left to right: Racheal Kalaba, Vongaishe Changamire, Lerona Dana Lewis, Hellen Taabu, Gloria Ann Cozier, and Devonnia Miller. (Photos by David Ayers)

Devonnia Miller has attended countless academic conferences in her two decades in higher education, often finding herself as one of the few Black faces in the crowd. At the recent Black/African Feminisms Conference, however, the scene was strikingly different. 

“Black people were there in numbers. We were showing up, and I was very happy about that,” Miller recalls. “I feel proud to have helped create that space.”

The two-day conference, which took place at OISE in April 2024, is the brainchild of Professor Njoki Wane, Chair of the Department of Social Justice Education and co-director of the Centre for Black Studies in Education. Organized by Wane and her team of OISE graduate students, the biennial event aims to create a space for dialogue that offers multiple and complex perspectives on communities of people of African ancestry, particularly women.

This year, over 200 participants from Africa, Europe, and North and South America attended panels on Black/African health, healing spaces, spirituality, empowerment, self-care, peacebuilding, reconciliation, intergenerational health and wisdom, and emotional well-being.

The feedback from participants was overwhelmingly positive. “People kept coming up to me saying, ‘Thank you. This is something that I needed,’” says Miller, conference co-convener and a master’s student in the Department of Social Justice Education.

It was “a momentous event” for Wane. “My heart was filled with gratitude and appreciation listening to the various presenters and attendees, who expressed freely their experiences of being Black/African in Canada, the Americas, and globally,” she said.

For Racheal Kalaba, an international student from Zambia and conference co-convener, the magic of the conference lay in its embodiment of Black feminist principles such as action, activism, and inclusivity. In addition to scholars, for example, the conference also welcomed activists, community members, and artists who shared their work in various formats, including spoken word and poetry. 

The organizers prioritized creating a welcoming and intimate atmosphere that encouraged conversation and exchange. “At most conferences, people just bring out their PowerPoints and discuss their research. Ours was more of a conversation. People were talking with each other instead of at each other,” says Kalaba, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education.

Each student organizer was invited by Dr. Wane to recommend a keynote speaker. Kalaba put forward Ba Mulenga Kapwepwe, a renowned Zambian author and activist, who delivered a keynote about African traditional healing practices that kicked off a series of panels on decolonial methodologies and African traditional healing and spirituality practices. 

Kalaba found it validating that the conference provided space for African Indigenous and Cultural Knowledge. “[It affirmed] that African Indigenous knowledge is not an alternative knowledge, but a crucial part of it,” she said.

Meanwhile, Kahlia Castelle selected Shereen Ashman, a multi-award winner and co-founder of the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals. “Her main focus is sisterhood, and in all the spaces I’ve existed with her, she’s always uplifted everyone,” said Castelle.

Willis Opondo chose Tanitiã Munroe, an OISE doctoral candidate and TDSB research coordinator, and Karen Murray, a TDSB principal for equity, anti-racism, and anti-oppression. “For me, Black Feminism is action-oriented. I selected their names because I’ve seen the impact of their work within the Black community and wanted them to share this work with an even bigger audience to inspire further change,” said Opondo.

For organizing committee member Harny Chan Lim, “the success of the conference stemmed from the felt sense of collaboration and friendship within the organizing team.” Co-organizer Rukiya Mohamed agrees, adding, “The collective care and dedication of the organizers, community members, and scholar-activists supported the discourses of love, the creation of affirming and healing spaces, and the nurturing of Black feminist leadership at diverse intersections.”

Keynote speaker Shereen Ashman, Professor Njoki Wane and OISE doctoral student Racheal Kalaba.

‘The space was transformative’

Miller’s vision for the conference sought to create a supportive environment tailored to Black women. “I wanted to create a space where Black women could get things off their hearts that might have been weighing heavily on them. I wanted them to come into the space and be uplifted,” she said. 

Her vision aligned with Wane’s goal of inspiring hope among participants in light of the unique challenges that Black women face. 

Doctoral student Samiera Zafar says Wane consistently encouraged the organizing committee to consider hopeful and alternative futures and to incorporate these themes into the conference. “She kept steering us to think of questions that would prompt that kind of emergence,” Zafar said.

This approach was evident in the choice of Professor Rhonda McEwen, president of U of T’s Victoria University, to deliver opening remarks. McEwen’s entrance onto the stage was deeply moving, says Kalaba. 

“Everybody just started clapping because they saw somebody who looked like them, saying: ‘It is possible.’” Atang Salepito, a doctoral student in social justice education, says that she left the conference feeling “inspired by the resilience and strength of Black/African women, who despite numerous challenges, continue to break barriers and pave the way for the future.”

Meanwhile, Miller says the gathering made her feel supported and empowered. “I sat on a panel of Black feminist academics and we had a conversation where these women made me feel I had something to say. It made me feel so welcomed—and a little special as well.”

Rhonda McEwen

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Rhonda McEwen

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