Shanique Kelly knew she’d get donations for posting daily lessons on Instagram during Black History Month, but she never expected $31,000 worth. 

“People seem to be really grateful for such a straightforward way to give back and to learn,” says Kelly, who is redistributing the funds in portions of $425 to Black Vancouverites. 

“With more conversations around unpacking and unlearning racism, there’s also more of a conversation about what redistributing wealth looks like and what reparations look like,” Kelly says.  

A recent explosion of interest in Black voices has placed a burden on people with lived experiences of systemic racism to act as unpaid educators and spokespeople. That's why Kelly wanted to create an opportunity for folks to give back to Black Canadians, who face greater income inequalities than non-racialized folks, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Shanique Kelly
Credit: Bree Avery

Shanique Kelly

Her plan was to give all the money away, but after working for hours on each daily lesson, Kelly has decided to keep some of the funds for her own health care needs. 

“What can be really hard about the nature of this work is that I want to give back to my community, but I'm also learning that I can't really do that while also being able to care for myself in the moment,” says Kelly, who just launched a Patreon for her “Black History is more than a month” teachings. 

The focus on this year’s Black History Month (BHM) was heightened by worldwide protests over police brutality last summer, galvanized by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, for which Chauvin is currently on trial. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a brighter spotlight on structural inequalities that put BIPOC folks’ health and well-being at a greater risk. 

The founder of Vancouver’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) chapter, Cicely Belle Blain, feels optimistic about the ways in which the past year’s events have reframed anti-racism conversations and activism. Frustrations rise when Blain sees BLM and BHM being equated with anti-racism training, trauma and challenges, rather than celebrations and opportunities for empowerment.

cecily belle blain

Cicely-Belle Blain

“That still centres non-black and white folks because they're the ones that benefit the most, it  helps them be better allies,”says Blain, who recently welcomed Kelly to their team at Bakau Consulting. The anti-racism consulting company received a flood of last-minute requests for workshops and training in February.

“That’s when the facade of solidarity starts to fall apart for me,” says Blain. “It shows that they don't actually value my time or me as a person, they’re more just trying to keep up with staying ahead of the trend and still treating [diversity and inclusion work] as more performative than actual change.”

Blain cautions against anti-racism work that puts urgency over quality. 

“[Social justice] is about setting boundaries, meeting people’s needs, going slow and decolonizing these corporate structures,” says Blain, adding that efforts shouldn’t just focus on grief and trauma that Black people experience. They’d like to see more opportunities for Black people to feel empowered to stand up against racism.

“I've really enjoyed, for the past couple of years, reframing the month to Black Futures Month,” says Blain. “Of course, it's important to celebrate history and how far we've come, while also investing into future generations and our people.”

The City of Vancouver marked the month with celebrations, including an interactive map called Give Them Their Flowers, which highlighted the impact of 10 Black activists and groups in B.C. Council faced backlash, however, following a unanimous vote to name a street Nora Hendrix Way, marking Vancouver’s first street named after a Black woman. 

While the grandmother of rock legend Jimi Hendrix was an important member of Vancouver’s Black community decades ago, Hogan’s Alley Society condemned the decision in a Facebook statement.

“We at Hogan’s Alley Society do not support this, as “[the City of Vancouver] did not respectfully consult with us,” wrote the group, which works to highlight the contributions of the Black community that was displaced 50 years ago by the construction of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts. 

The City’s Civic Asset Naming Committee, an independent group that put the name forward to Council, says they reached out to Hogan’s Alley in late November, via email, but didn’t receive a response. 

“City staff are now in contact with representatives of the Hogan’s Alley Society regarding this matter and are working to address the concern raised by the Society,” says spokesperson Natti Schmid.

The alleged miscommunication demonstrates the differences between corporate and community timelines, adding to Blain’s argument of taking a proactive, rather than reactive approach. 

That isn’t to say the City’s efforts have been in vain. In the summer of 2020, Mayor Kennedy released a proclamation in six different languages, declaring May 29 a “Day of Action Against Racism,” four days after Floyd’s death. 

In July, as calls grew to defund the police, Council directed staff to to review police services through its motion “Decriminalizing Poverty,” and later rejected a proposed increase to the VPD’s budget. The City hired a Senior Social Planner for “Anti-Racism and Cultural Redress” in November, and are now looking to hire a Black and African Diaspora Communities Anti-Racism and Cultural Redress Planner. Efforts to collect race-based data in Vancouver are set to begin this year, which will also be the first time Emancipation Day is officially marked across Canada. 

In late April, Bakau Consulting will release its debut e-book What We've Learned: A Year of Fighting White Supremacy in a Pandemic. As the fight continues, a concept of the Black Panther Party known as “revolutionary intercommunalism” is resonating with Blain. 

“Almost always, communities know how to look after themselves, how to keep themselves safe and what’s best for them,” says Blain. “There's this sort of white saviour mentality that can distract you from your communities values, but that’s where a lot of the joy and celebration can happen—when we can just take time to connect with people who are like us, and really remember the positive things that kind of focus on doing anti-racism work.”