Black History Month: Honouring Our Stories

Written by Sunnybrook

February is Black History Month.

The theme of this year’s Black History Month at Sunnybrook is Black Resistance: Honouring Our Stories.

There is power in stories. They connect us to our past and help ground us in our experiences of joy and resilience. Stories also support us to be hopeful about our future. They give us and our ancestors a voice. Storytelling is resistance.

Below, three Sunnybrookers reflect on what Black History Month and Black Resistance means to them, and share how they honour their families and stories.

Portraits by Kevin Van Paassen.

Kamilah Clayton

Kamilah Clayton worked at Sunnybrook for 22 years and recently left to pursue a PhD in social work and focus on her private therapy practice. She continues to be connected to the organization as a member of the President’s Anti-Racism Taskforce (PART), and says she feels privileged to be able to bring a community voice to the table. 

What does Black History Month Mean to you?

Black History Month is a time to celebrate Black people and their contributions to world history, and in a world after George Floyd, it’s a great opportunity for organizations that have made public commitments to address systemic anti-Black racism to reflect on their work over the last year and recommit to doing better.

The theme for Black History Month 2023 at Sunnybrook is Black Resistance: Honouring Our Stories. How has storytelling been important to your family’s history and your own journey?

Storytelling has been such an important part of my family for as long as I can remember.  When I was a child, the adults in my family would teach lessons and share important moments in our family history through the telling of stories. As a child I didn’t always understand the message in the story, but the stories were always interesting and offered us opportunities to connect across the generations. Most of what I know about my Jamaican culture and heritage was learned through the sharing of stories, and made my experiences of traveling to Jamaica more rich by being able to connect landmarks and cultural practices to the stories my family shared. Now as a parent, I often find myself teaching my daughter important life lessons through stories, and can sometimes hear her repeating the same stories to her stuffed animals and dolls.

What is one way you live the theme of Black Resistance in your own daily life?

I live Black Resistance through my work with and on behalf of members of Black communities both locally and globally. As a Registered Social Worker in private practice, I’ve developed my own therapeutic modality which centres Black humanity and wholeness and is grounded in African-centred values of collective work and responsibility, intergenerational connection, faith, and purpose. This modality rejects the deficit narratives and negative stereotypes about Black people and supports clients to feel hopeful about the possibilities of working through the challenges they’re experiencing. I also facilitate training to institutions to help identify systemic anti-Black racism and work with them to co-create strategies for change.

Adom Bondzi-Simpson

Adom Bondzi-Simpson is a general surgery resident at the University of Toronto. He has been to Sunnybrook as a learner several times, on the acute care surgery service, HPB service and most recently as trauma senior resident. He has completed 3 years of clinical training and is currently enrolled full time as in the Masters in Clinical Epidemiology program through the Institute of Health Policy, Management, and Evaluation. He is supervised by two Sunnybrook surgeons, Dr. Julie Hallet & Natalie Coburn, and his masters work is exploring integrating the social determinants of health in quality metrics for colorectal cancer care in Ontario.

Outside of academia, Adom is passionate about equity and inclusion in surgery and is the cofounder and director of the Upsurge mentorship program aimed at stimulating interest, providing support, and guiding underrepresented students in pursuing surgical careers. He is also a mentor through Sunnybrook’s SPARK program for BIPOC learners at U of T exploring research.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

I was the first of my family to be born outside of Africa. Growing up in a South African household, Black history was woven into the fabric of our day lives. It shaped my development, identify, and as a result I grew up with a profound sense of pride and belonging where I felt intrinsically apart of an important world history.

This experience was in stark contrast to my life outside of the home when I entered school. As a young child and throughout my early educational development, Black history and particularly Black-Canadian history was sparsely discussed in classroom.

Black History Month is a reminder of the contribution of Black-Canadians and people of African descent globally. It validates our stories, centres them, puts them in the context of our society and serves as a place of belonging.

Black history for me is a time of reflection, learning and celebration. It’s a time to re-discover and be inspired by our shared rich history and is critically important to the conversation of inclusion. It’s my favourite time of the year.

The theme for Black History Month 2023 at Sunnybrook is Black Resistance: Honouring Our Stories. How has storytelling been important to your family’s history and legacy and/or your own journey?

My own family has a history of resistance especially in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. My grandmothers maternal uncle Henry Selby Msimang was a founding member of the African National Congress in 1912. A party that, led by Nelson Mandela in the 90s, would dismantle apartheid in South Africa and bring about the framework of “Truth and Reconciliation”. Henry Msimang was also the president of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union in 1920s and 30s, and highly involved in political activism throughout the early to mid-20th century.

Closer to home, my grandmother Caroline Goodie Mogadime (nee: Tshabalala) who was a teacher in GTA, throughout her career in the late 70s, 80s, and 90s brought awareness of apartheid to Canada through her involvement in the church and Toronto Rotary Club. My mother Dolana Mogadime has been an example of resistance through her work as a professor in education at Brock University in the sociology and the intersection of anti-racist feminist pedagogy and family record keeper.

I am who I am today because of the rich environment of resistance, history, and education that was provided by my family, my elders, and my ancestors. One of my favourite philosophers Cornel West says, “I am who I am because somebody loved me.”

What is one way you live the theme of Black Resistance in your own daily life? Please tell us a little bit about that.

I live the theme of Black Resistance is my day-to-day work functioning as a physician and senior resident in general surgery. When you put together the factors of medicine, surgeon, and Canada, unfortunately there isn’t a large Black presence. Perhaps the result of unconscious (or perhaps conscious) bias, the look of confusion in a room when I introduce myself as the senior resident or doctor is real. I often can see people brains re-wiring in front of me as they have to learn or unlearn any preconceived notions. I contrast this to the look of pride and joy I see from many racialized patients, allied health teammates, and staff who see me in the hospital in my role as a surgeon (in-training) and offer a hug, word of praise, head nod or dap. It speaks to our collective resistance and argues that we do belong in these spaces.

Amanda Fletcher

Amanda Fletcher is administrative assistant to the Department of Equity and Social Accountability, Chair of the Black History Month Committee and member of the President’s Anti-Racism Taskforce. She has been at Sunnybrook since 2014 in various roles. She is a mom to three.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History Month means community. It means celebration. And as Chair of the Black History Month Committee at Sunnybrook, for me it also means centering Black people and bringing events and activities to the hospital that don’t regularly take place — an African Drumming Circle, a Black-led Wellness Session, an important conversation about Black Resistance and more.

But for me also, Black History is 24/7, 365. I spend every day making sure my children are aware of who they are and where they come from. I want them to know they are special and important. And I want them to find a community and friends who see them, know them and love them for who they are.

The theme for Black History Month 2023 at Sunnybrook is Black Resistance: Honouring Our Stories. How has your journey or your family’s history and legacy been impacted by storytelling?

We remember our ancestors and family members who came before us. Many members of my Mom’s family immigrated to Canada from Grenada. Growing up, we would hear stories. We would hear “You remind me of Aunty!” with a story of a shared trait or mannerism — a connection to those ancestors I had not even met.

I share these stories with my children, too. We talk about Grenada and the family home and the beaches. We have a big trip planned to go visit. I can’t wait to show them and tell them “You always have a home here.” 

What is one way you live the theme of Black Resistance in your own daily life?

I live Black Resistance by persevering in my career. I had my first child young and people said I wouldn’t finish college. But I did. I don’t see a lot of Black faces or Black women in positions of power. But I keep going. I have career goals, and I will continue on my path and persevere, even when I experience setbacks or when other peoples’ biases affect my opportunities because they make assumptions about me from the colour of my skin.

It’s important to me that I continue to show up as my full self at work. By doing that, I model that for my kids that they can be themselves and still succeed. That is our Black Resistance.

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