BY EMILY SINGH
The month of February is a time to reflect back on the accomplishments, triumphs and successes of African Americans as we celebrate black history month. One individual who has left a permanent mark in political history is the late Lincoln MacCauley Alexander. Born in 1922, Alexander went on to become a Second World War Veteran with the Canadian Air Force, member of the Order of Ontario, member of the Queen’s privy Council, the Federal Minister of Labor and the Chancellor of the University of Guelph. However, Alexander made history when he became the first black Member of Parliament and the first visible minority appointed as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. Although Alexander passed away in 2012 at the age of ninety, his legacy still lives on through the Lincoln M. Alexander award. This prestigious award honours young people between the ages of 16-25 that have demonstrated their work towards ending racial discrimination while promoting positive social change within their community.
This year, three exceptional young leaders have received this tremendous honour for their outstanding dedication and commitment. The recipients are Darian Baskatawang, Najma Malaq and Shailene Panylo. Baskatawang of Whitesand First Nation received the honour for work towards improving the quality of life for the Aboriginal Youth in Ontario. Malaq of Mississauga also received the award for promoting the beautiful culture of Africa in her community while also creating a more inclusive school environment. Last but certainly not least, Shailene Panylo of Oshawa was awarded for her efforts in encouraging, embracing and promotion acceptance of diverse cultures.
I had the opportunity to speak to each of these amazing trailblazers about their journeys thus far. This is what they had to say:
Q: How did the work that you do contribute to you winning the Lincoln M. Alexander Award?
Darian Baskatawang: Many things helped contribute to my receiving the Lincoln M. Alexander Award. Since being appointed to the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities, I’ve taken the lead on many projects and portfolios for the Council, reaching out and working with the Feathers of Hope Report and working group, the Aboriginal Children and Youth Strategy and the list goes on. I also volunteer regularly at the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre at Queen’s University, where I co-founded the Aboriginal Youth Leadership Program two years ago while in grade twelve. The work never stops to help people at-risk of not achieving their full potential.
Najma Malaq: What made me win was constantly advocating for the black community in both my former high school, Lincoln M Alexander Secondary School and the local feeder schools through activities and presentations. The main honorable work that I have done was my educational performance of Nelson Mandela and also my PowerPoint presentations on famous African Canadian.
Shailene Panylo: My work with my local community was the main reason I was honoured with the award. I grew up a member of the Caribbean Cultural Centre, and currently mentor younger members and volunteer at the events. I was a dancer and steel panist for years. I was a STAR (Students Together Against Racism) counselor and a SAFE (Student Ally for Equity) member throughout my high school career. I started a tutoring and mentoring program at my school to benefit younger students and a Black History Month poster project called ROOTS (Rising Over Our Texture Stereotypes) to emphasize the diversity of hair textures within Maxwell Heights Secondary School (my old high school). I worked as an ambassador for the Durham Black Educator’s Network and organized two full day conferences; one for high school students and one for grade school students. I’ve accumulated over 500 hours of community service in a variety of causes and wrote spoken word poems that challenged the education system. One actually progressed as far as the Ministry of Education. I was crowned Miss Fiesta 2014 for my efforts at encouraging and advocating for the celebration of multiculturalism in Oshawa, and represented the Folk Arts Council at a variety of events. The majority of my work focuses on encouraging and embracing diversity within the Durham Region, and enriching the lives of Black youth.
Q: What does it mean to you to receive this prestigious award?
Darian Baskatawang: Receiving the award gives me a platform to which I can raise my voice and ensure my voice is heard when critiquing issues.
Najma Malaq: To me, winning means that the work and effort that you have put into a task paid off and was notable to those around you. To win is to go above and beyond the expectations and catch the eyes of those you thought weren’t looking.
Shailene Panylo: Winning the award means so much to me. He was an incredible role model, and the work he did and all he accomplished acts as encouragement to do more. The greatest people in our history are often the ones whose actions and words alone can empower generations later; for me, that was Mr. Alexander. I learned about him growing up and aspired to do things that would help people in their everyday lives just as he did.
Q: What motivated you to make a change?
Darian Baskatawang: Long ago, when I was a child growing up on the reserve being raised by my Ojibway Great-Grandmother, she made me promise many things. That I will graduate high school; take care of my sisters and do not smoke or become an alcoholic like the generations before me. These promises shaped who I am, and my love for her helped me identify that these problems do not only address me – they’re not unique, but rather a part of a bigger issue that plagues entire Aboriginal populations. Upon this realization I decided that taking care of my sisters involves significant “upstream” policy work, so too they can achieve their full potential.
Najma Malaq: What motivated me to make a change was where I come from, the community of Malton, where often a negative light is shone upon and the people who are not from the community have misconceptions about. I was tired of people either not knowing where Malton is or making a face when I tell them I’m from Malton. I try to change Malton’s perspective of its self as more than just a “black and dangerous area”, so that the public can change their perspectives also.
Shailene Panylo: My motivation was definitely fuelled by my personal experiences. I grew up in Oshawa in not-so-diverse or accepting schools and was bullied for a long time by students and a few teachers. Fortunately I come from a large family and could advocate and stand up for myself, but regardless, no child should have to endure such harassment. When you are a victim you see only one side and it wasn’t until I became a STAR counselor and a SAFE member that I started questioning and seeing the internalized issues and societal influences behind every word and action we as people present. If you want real change you cannot only confront the words and actions but must address the root causes. I learned so much about feminism and the need for equality between the sexes, internalized racism, misogyny and cultural differences that contribute to why people are the way they are. Through it all, the motivation remained the same; how can I make the community better so that no other little girl or boy has to grow up enduring what I did, or worse? Our community has the potential to be so powerful and dynamic because of its multiculturalism; let’s ensure it is channeled correctly to bring out the best it has to offer!
The Toronto Caribbean Newspaper would like to congratulate all three of these outstanding leaders for the continued work that they do to fight racial discrimination and promote acceptance and cultural diversity.