BY: ALYSSA MAHADEO
We live in a world where creative new ideas are born every day. Over the past few years, many have taken matters into their own hands to share their stories, to find themselves and discover their place in this world.
Desree Crooks was born in England to newly immigrated Jamaican parents, as the second to last daughter in her family. After her father received a job offer, her family left England when she was eleven years old and moved to Regina, Saskatchewan where her turbulent experience as a woman of color began. Living in Saskatchewan her family were the only people of color living on her street. Grateful to have her sisters to lean on, Desree and her family faced a lot of ignorance and discrimination from the community and were bullied by the other children in school. Facing that type of adversity as a child took its toll both mentally and emotionally on Desree. It was difficult for her to understand why people thought the way they did, but it was the reality that she faced.
“There were times where I would look at myself in the mirror and feel less than,” Desree shares. “I didn’t like my hair, I thought that I was too dark; I just didn’t like what I was seeing, and I thought that if I was lighter or had longer hair my situation would improve.”
A few years later, her mother moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba with her brother, and the rest of the family followed soon after. The family lived together there for a short while, still facing a similar experience, until her parents got divorced and she traveled south with her father to New Orleans, Louisiana. Moving to New Orleans was a culture shock for Desree. For the first time in her life, she was surrounded by a community that was predominantly black. She loved it there being surrounded by people she could relate too, who shared her cultural background. She attended private school, and an all-girls high school while living there, both predominantly black, and for awhile she was happy living amongst people who understood her.
Her rocky relationship with her stepmother influenced her move back to Winnipeg to live with her mother. Arriving back in Manitoba, Desree had to readjust to being the minority again knowing what she had left behind in New Orleans. A few years later Desree left Winnipeg and moved to Montreal, where she met her husband, and gave birth to her daughter Zenobia. Living in Montreal at the time, Desree saw a lot of racism happening around her in her own experiences. Mentally she had reached a point where it began to negatively impact her thoughts, she started hating people because of it, and it did not sit well with her, she wasn’t the type of person to hate.
Desree and her family then moved to Toronto, where she faced a whole new experience influenced by the diversity of the city. Surrounded by people of all ethnic backgrounds brought her comfort, and it was here that she found her niche. Toronto was a place that she felt comfortable and confident raising her daughter in the city.
“I wanted to see a reflection of myself, and I wanted my children to be able to see that as well.” Desree explains confidently in her decision to settle in Toronto.
“My mother was a strong black woman and I’ve pulled a lot of strength from her, as she taught my siblings and me to love ourselves, that no one is better than you.” Desree shares the knowledge imparted by her mother that she has passed on to her own daughter.
When her daughter was growing up, Desree would look for books and dolls that resembled her daughter for her to read and play with, but they were rare and difficult to find. Inspired to create Desree came up with the idea for a story called Queen Zenobia, that later evolved into her first illustrated children’s book NZINGHA, The Great Warrior of Angola.
“It’s so sad that we are seeing so many young, beautiful black girls and boys not liking themselves, not liking what they are seeing, and that really bothers me which is one of the reasons why I had to create Nzuri books.”
Nzuri means ‘beautiful’ in Swahili and through her latest projects Desree has been inspired to create more tools to aid the empowerment of the next generation. “The children of today are our leaders of tomorrow.” That is her company slogan. In launching her company, Desree has discovered a treasure trove of opportunities to help her community, and her work has gained international interest.
“It feels great to be a part of the movement to always be learning new things,” Desree explains. Her journey has been an uphill battle, but she continues to fight and is thankful to the strength of the people that surround her to keep her vision moving forward.
“It’s within you, don’t sell yourself short you’re not too old, and not too young; your vision is meant for you that’s why you’re seeing it.”