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Black History Month: Q&A with Dr. Moussa Magassa, a leader in anti-racism, and equity, diversity and inclusion education

To recognize Black History Month, we’re sharing the stories of Black leaders in non-profit housing, anti-racism and equity, diversity and inclusion education, and Black individuals with lived experience of housing insecurity.

In our first instalment we hear from Dr. Moussa Magassa, a specialist in EDI strategic development, anti-racism education, human rights curriculum design, intercultural capacity development, and conflict resolution. Magassa is the Associate Vice-President, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Mount Royal University (Calgary) and the former UVic Principal Strategist, EDI, Anti-racism education and community engagement.

Throughout the month we will also hear from Jean-Claude Bakundukize, co-founder of the Swahili Vision International Association partnering with the Aboriginal Land Trust on an affordable housing development for Black and Indigenous families in New Westminster, as well as Genia Indoli, who came to Canada from the Democratic Republic of the Congo 12 years ago and experienced years of housing insecurity before accessing affordable housing through YWCA Metro Vancouver.

These three individuals will be part of a free online panel discussion, moderated by educator and cultural facilitator Warren Dean Flandez, on Monday, Feb. 27 at 10 am. Learn more here: BC’s Black Communities: The Past, Present and Future of Housing.

The following is a slightly edited version of a conversation we had with Dr. Moussa Magassa earlier this month.

Q: With the start of Black History Month celebrations this month, can you share some of the highlights that stand out for you?

A: When I think about Black History Month, the highlight for me is that we have finally paused and realized that Canada’s history can’t be complete without the story of Black people, and the story of Indigenous people. I’m happy that this is finally happening because in the past it was the opposite – it was erasing this story. Nowadays we see a lot of engagement and understanding that it’s important for all of us Canadians to understand this history.

Q: You have an extensive background in anti-racism and equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) education; what are some of the key lessons you’ve learned along the way?

A: What is happening in Black History Month is a very nice complement to my work because it is not only to recognize the place of Black people in Canada’s history, but also to acknowledge the legacies of colonization and slavery and how they continue today. My own experience is a common story of Black people throughout history – I was born in Senegal, and I have travelled, lived and worked in different places. All the years I have been going around countries and communities and places, one of the things I try to promote is if we don’t know our history we will be doomed to repeat it. If we don’t acknowledge our history, we will not tell the story we need to move forward as we should.

My work therefore has been to promote anti-racism because a society that is anti-racist is a good society that is good for all of us – whether you are white, Black, green, yellow, pink, or any of us. An anti-racist society will be “anti” to all the other discriminations – because racism is intersectional. Societies that understand that intersectionality will also address other issues like Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, ageism, sexism. My life’s work is devoted to that – to claim history in the sense that history is not only what has passed, but also what is informing the present. If we don’t acknowledge the racism of the past, we will carry it forward to the present, thinking it’s normal and the lie that has not been addressed in the past will be normalized in the present.

Q: How would you characterize the challenges faced by Black people here in B.C.?

A: Our voices have been silenced, our histories for years and centuries have been attacked and erased to make them invisible… but we are still here, we know we have made contributions in the past and continue to make in the present – that is the uniqueness of Black communities.

Black communities throughout history, for example in B.C., have tried to create and hold on to their houses, lands and properties. However, they have always been disrupted, dissolved, and moved. Having a black neighbourhood has never been accepted. The funny thing is when white people go and live together in a neighbourhood, that is normal, that’s called a community. When Black people live together in a community though, it’s called a ghetto, it is seen as a threat to white people – that’s how wronged Black people have been, and all this just because of our skin colour.

My experience in B.C. as a Black person, was not only to try to dismantle racist systems and ways of thinking… it also includes my personal experiences of overt and subtle individual and systemic racism. These occurred many times, while I was looking for a job at the beginning as a new immigrant and a Black person; and later, in the Canadian workplaces.

Housing is a real problem for Black people, it is very difficult for many of us to find adequate housing, and it’s not only because of our financial circumstances. For example, many years ago, I had a flooding in my house. I was at work that day… and a few days later, I was talking to an insurance agent. I was shocked when this person asked me how I managed to buy a house, and why I was living in a whole house by myself. He was suspicious because I was Black and a Black man!

This is how we are often perceived and judged. Not only can we not find adequate housing when we look for it, but when we finally find housing, we often realized that we were taken advantage of and robbed of our deposits by unscrupulous landlords and real estate agents. When we manage to buy a house, people think we have bought it with illegal money… it is assumed that for a Black man to afford such a house, he must be a drug dealer.

When I first came to Victoria and was looking for an apartment, I went to an open house showing and lined up like everyone else. But when the owner come out and saw me, he said: “I’m sorry my friend, it is already gone.” I thank him and went to sit in my car. I know that he was lying. So, I waited… and watched. He then ask the couple who was still standing there, and who come after me, to follow him in the building. Half an hour later, he came out with them. I was standing right there, and decided to confront him. “You say to me that the apartment was taken. Then here you are, showing it to these people. Don’t you see how ugly you are now?” He threatened to call the police. I gave him my business card and said: “Yes, you call the police and give them my name and I will tell them what you have done.” How many Black people would be courageous enough to do what I did? Many of my brothers and sisters will keep quiet and walk away. Me, I always know that I don’t have anything to lose by standing against racism and injustice.

One advice I want to give to all of us as human beings (Blacks, white and so on), is that we are better than the wrong things we do to each other. Yes, we are better than the racism, the sexism, the homophobia we do to each other. As humans, we should aspire to a better way to treat each other.

Q: You’ve worked extensively in anti-racism and EDI education around the world – how would you describe where the conversation is at in B.C. today?

A: I have seen glimpses of change over the last 22 years I’ve been living in B.C. First of all, I have seen the Human Rights Commission being reinstated; I have been part of many advisory committees helping with anti-racism curriculum development by various Ministries and educational institutions; I have seen legislation developed around the use and collection of race-based data. I was part of the development of many tools and resources now adopted by ResilienceBC, an anti-racism network around the province to promote anti-racism and anti-discrimination. I have seen the revision of the Police Act in B.C., and was part of many conversations asking for my transparency and public input. I have seen a lot of good things happening, in three places:

-BIPOC community members and their allies have been unburdened in asking for change and justice. That has really created momentum and it was what was needed;

-Governments at all levels have heard the outcry of the Black community and have been courageous to come to the table with legislation and processes to address racism; and,

-The continuity of this work is recognized as being important for all of us, not only as Black people but also as human beings.

Q: What do you think non-profit housing providers should know about the ways racism and colonialism show up in the housing sector?

A: What they should do first and foremost is to invite those voices. They need to go out and hear the stories of Black people who are at the receiving end of systemic racism in housing. Non-profit housing providers should collect data about demographics and how people are distributed. They should ask themselves why they don’t see a certain demographic of Black people in certain areas. Ask the hard questions about why this is happening, and go back to our communities to ask what is our experiences of accessing housing in those areas.

To create inclusion for Black people in the B.C. housing market, the non-profit housing providers need to do more than checking boxes. They should stop taking things for granted by just relying what they can read on a chart. The real experiences of Black people with racism and colonization is learned and understood by hearing their personal and group stories.

Housing providers should design a mechanism where Black people can report their experiences of racism. This data collection tool should be very open and not adversarial, otherwise Black people won’t tell you their stories. As we say in anti-racist work, people’s stories have to be trusted and respected, otherwise they are not going to tell you anything else.

Pursue anti-racism education for housing providers, for them to understand what racism is, how it shows up in housing, the tools to address it for the providers, allies, the union – anyone involved in the process of housing needs to be educated. I can hear some people crying out that they don’t have the funding to do such anti-racism education. I will say that is a pretext, this work should be your priority, especially in a multicultural society where your audience is everyone and especially those who are being excluded because of their race and other intersections.

Q: What are some tips or resources you can share that members of our sector can access to deepen their anti-racist understanding, and to bring effective EDI strategies into their organizations?

A: One organization that can help the who sector with anti-racism education is ResilienceBC – it has a lot of tools and resources provided for free to any organization. I worked extensively on this initiative and helped develop a lot of tools for them. Second, go into communities where there is people like myself who are anti-racist and EDI specialists to get help in developing EDI strategies. There will be cost though, and this is important to remunerate us for our expertise and work.

And finally, when it comes to hiring, promotion, and retention, organizations need to incorporate EDI and anti-racism into their strategic plan, and to clearly state how they’re going to ensure that Black people are represented, included and also given the same opportunity for advancement and leadership. The hard thing though, is for these organizations to stick to their promises, as commitment to anti-racism and EDI is a good business imperative.

Dr. Moussa Magassa joins our free online panel discussion, BC’s Black Communities: Past, Present and Future of Housing, on Monday, Feb. 27 at 10 am. For more information and to register, visit our event page.

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