My mentoring lesson: Why every month should be Black History Month

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photo by Motif Photography

UNGANISHA. It’s a Swahili word for “connection.”  And it’s also the name of an extraordinary annual production of Woezo Africa Music and Dance Theatre Inc. in Calgary for the recently concluded Black History Month. The founding director and driving force is Wunmi Idowu, an accomplished dancer, choreographer, instructor and producer, and I’ve had the privilege to mentor her for the past two years as she seeks to build on what she has already achieved. In turn, I have learned a lot from this experience.

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Ms. Idowu moved to Alberta as a child in 1992. She has now created a unique space for artists from rich and diverse backgrounds to entertain and engage audiences through traditional and modern modes of performing arts, with a compelling educational component.

I attended last year’s UNGANISHA performance with my young grand-daughter. It was brilliant and unforgettable, stimulating numerous connections for a rapt audience. This year’s production was necessarily virtual, but the online experience was no less dynamic or poignant. And it reminded me of the connections I’ve made and insights I’ve attained in the process of mentoring Ms. Idowu as she works to ensure the sustainability of her important work in the community.

I’ve been awestruck by her commitment and energy, especially because she has been required to subsidize her passion through her volunteerism and paid work in other fields, while also raising her two daughters as a single mother. Of course, this is not unusual for many leaders of community organizations, especially in the fields of arts and culture. However, it’s many times more challenging for Ms. Idowu because she is Black and has often experienced racial discrimination. It’s commonly understood in her community that one needs to work twice as hard to gain half as much.

This hasn’t held her back. Ms. Idowu has received numerous awards and recognition for her trail-blazing efforts. And she’s constantly forging new partnerships, making connections.

Growing up in Alberta wasn’t always easy for a girl who stood out from her mostly white classmates. She was called names, harassed, and made fun of for her accent, skin colour and her hair texture. Sadly, today her pre-teen daughters are reminded by Calgarians – at school, on the street, in the grocery store – that their skin colour and appearance still marks them as different in the eyes of some.

In the face of such discrimination, members of the Black community often live and work in silence. For some, it might be a quiet pride in their accomplishments; for many though, it’s still stressful, even painful.

About a third of Calgary’s populace is comprised of visible minorities. This includes more than 50,000 Black residents, approximately five percent of the population, who come from an array of backgrounds and experiences, with a wide variety of skills and talents.

It’s been enriching for me to get to know Ms. Idowu and other members of the Black community. My experience over the years mentoring individuals, formally and informally, has often been very gratifying. It’s satisfying to see mentees succeed in their goals and enlightening to learn from different viewpoints. In fact, mentoring someone whose experiences and perspectives differ from one’s own is much more rewarding.

As a white man of comparative privilege, I’m becoming more aware of the systemic racism that too often prevents newcomers to our country from achieving their dreams. Clearly, more education is needed – and it shouldn’t be confined to only one month of the year.

David Mitchell has held executive positions across Canada in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. He resides in Calgary.

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