BY: JELANI GRANT
Raised 7th day Adventist by her mother in Kingston, Jamaica, Sacred Women International founder Aina-Nia Ayodele said she always felt strong. “People have always told me that I’m strong, I just didn’t know how to be in that, in a loving way,” she said. As a result, she consistently engrains her two kids to demonstrate a loving strength, but only after she’s completed her groundbreaking work day after day.
Ayodele founded SWI in 2007 with the mission of helping others discover their maximum potential through mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being practices. Through SWI, Ayodele started a 10-month women’s leadership program to teach women, who were already in leadership roles, to ensure they were also leading their personal lives. “My purpose is to teach, to educate others through inner truth and knowledge. That includes, for me, the strengthening of the black community,” she said. Most recently, Ayodele has worked with the City of Toronto to accomplish the task of supporting black communities.
Ayodele has also been a key consultant for the City of Toronto’s first anti-black racism initiative, which used discussion and suggestions from Toronto’s black community leaders to address systemic issues that impact black people every day. “The ancestors sent me to do that work…to teach people what it means to live and work in organizations from a place of wellness. I bring African spiritual and indigenous practices into organizations in a way that people can understand,” she said.
During the official opening of community discussions for the Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism, Mayor John Tory acknowledged Ayodele for her contributions to what is now a government-funded program. Tory recognized her as one of three people heading the program saying she, “really helped to make sure that these be and remain authentic discussions that are not taking on that feel that government discussions take on.”
The entire Toronto For All initiative addresses Islamophobia, discrimination among the homeless, and trans-identities, with the intention of challenging people’s perspectives and beliefs, encouraging them to self-identify their implicit biases and negative attitudes in order for Toronto to live up to its heavily diverse reputation. Ayodele has been recognized as a trailblazer because of her continued contributions to this movement.
100ABCWomen recently honored Ayodele in their Top 100 Black Women in Canada. Hon. Dr. Jean Augustine and co-authors Dr. Denise O’Neil Green and Dauna Jones-Simmonds created the biennial list to specifically recognize the work of black Canadian women regarding their social, educational, political, and professional accomplishments. The publication creates an opportunity for black Canadian women to be officially recognized for the great things they have achieved, something that had not previously existed. “By virtue of being a woman, I’m intuitive, I’m a giver but I’m an even better receiver. I’ve learned to say, “yes thank you” instead of “no I’m okay”,” Ayodele said. She said being able to give and receive is a demonstration of strength and she realized this once she was able to set her own boundaries. She credits this realization with being a significant cause of her growing success.
“Earlier in my life I had a misunderstanding about strength and I thought to be a strong woman meant that I had to be hard and I was a businesswoman so it meant I had to match up to the man,” she said. Ayodele said this misconception came from multiple people reacting to her strength as a negative, recalling a time her cousin told her she would never find someone because she demonstrated too much strength as a woman. “Because you’re too strong and you’re too loud, [I was] thirteen. And so, I went through life thinking strong meant bad,” she said.
She said she realized later that strength could be gentle and kind through her spiritual work and consciously explore who she was. It was through her spiritual awakening that she learned the importance of self-acceptance before reaching out to anyone else. “As a Jamaican woman in a household that was abusive by the hands of my step-father, in an environment where I felt I had to fight to survive, I grew this thick shell that I wouldn’t allow anyone through. The biggest lesson I learned through that experience is to show my heart and express my emotions,” she said.
Now, Ayodele continues to teach women to become leaders by not being stuck in a mental or emotional box and to never negotiate their own value in order to attain the things they want. “We can choose to walk this planet our way…believe that you can do it and it’s going to take some steps,” she said.