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Empowering the Next Generation of Black Leaders

February 28, 2024 by Christine Aguilar

Four panellists and a moderator from the Black Leadership and Recognition Breakfast Event on a stage talking in business casual.

L-R panel: Paul Bailey, Executive Director, Black Health Alliance; Faith Edem, Policy Advisor, Environment and Climate Change Canada; Denise A. Campbell, Executive Director, Social Development, Finance and Administration (SDFA), City of Toronto; Mo’ Ekujumi, Founder, SkillHat; and moderator Len Carby, Wealth Consultant, IG Wealth Management and Board Member, United Way Greater Toronto and Peel Regional Police.

Four highlights from the 2024 Black Leadership and Recognition Breakfast Event

In early February, more than 250 people from community agencies, institutional and corporate partners, government officials and others came together to celebrate Black History Month and the International Decade of People of African Descent at the Black Leadership and Recognition Breakfast, co-hosted by United Way Greater Toronto and the Federation of Black Canadians. The event was as much a time for celebration as it was for reflection, inspiration and looking ahead to next steps.  

At the centre of this event was a dynamic panel discussion between four local leaders with experience in public and community service, environmental policy and technology. Together, they talked about the challenges facing the next generation of Black leaders, how they can work together more meaningfully and how we can all support them to build on the work of the last decade to create more equitable communities.

Here are four highlights from that important conversation.

Representation in leadership

The panel discussion was wide ranging, but one issue that came up again and again was the lack of Black representation in leadership roles across sectors.  

“I’ve worked in different areas of institutions, governments. I’m usually the only Black person in the room,” says Faith Edem, a Policy Advisor at Environment and Climate Change Canada. “This brings about issues of diversity of thought—what is going into the public policies and programs that are being developed?” 

Denise A. Campbell, who is the Executive Director of Social Development, Finance and Administration (SDFA) at the City of Toronto, shared how this lack of inclusion can lead to roadblocks when it comes to addressing issues facing Black communities.  

“I remember sitting with some incredible, small groups of community developers and working with our allies at the time trying to figure out how we can get the City of Toronto to acknowledge the incredible disparities in Black communities. The system was not ready to have a conversation and to do intentional work.” 

Denise has seen progress at the City since then, citing the creation of the Toronto Community Crisis Service as one example. But creating these types of programs and services takes time and the buy-in of people at every level.  

Having Black leaders at the table means that the needs of the community are centred, difficult conversations happen and community is engaged in solutions. But structural and historical inequalities create barriers for Black people looking to take up these roles. The panellists agreed that progress has been made, but there is more to be done across the social services sector, government and other institutions to create long-term, systemic change.  

Black leadership builds bridges  

While the panel spoke honestly about the challenges facing the next generation of Black leaders, they also discussed how to help them succeed. Paul Bailey, Executive Director of Black Health Alliance, focused on how mentorship can help young leaders build on past progress. 

“There’s a lot of mistakes that young people in that mid-career [period] can learn from,” says Paul. “To make sure that we’re building on that success, we need that eldership and mentorship.” 

He also pointed out that alongside mentorship and respecting the work that has come before, it was important that previous generations “let go”, so the next generation of young leaders have the space to make their mark and create their own opportunities. 

Creating space for Black youth, so that they can make their own opportunities and equip themselves with the tools, confidence and networks to advance equity in technology was something that Mo’ Ekujumi, the founder of SkillHat, emphasized as essential so more young Black people have what they need for the future.  
He also pointed out the importance of being vulnerable with one another: sharing the wins, the failures and the lessons, so that people can learn and apply these experiences to their own work. His expertise lies in technology and entrepreneurship, and he emphasized the importance of the next generation being equipped with the tech skills and confidence to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving world.  

Denise also weighed in, adding that there is immense value in sharing, whether it be connections, lessons or knowledge, to build personal capacity—and ensure more young people find a seat at the table.  

“I think about the opportunities, mentorship and the support that I got as a young woman,” she says. “To be able to provide that kind of support [to young people today] and to look for strategic opportunities in places like my division in the broader City to ensure that we’re making some key hirings that then continue generation over generation.” 

This ripple effect leads to more Black leaders in key roles, deeper networks of support and solutions created by people who know their communities best.  

Building capacity through collaboration  

As they were encouraging people to mentor young leaders early in their careers, the panellists were also making a case for cross-organizational collaboration and capacity building.  

“I want to also acknowledge that we’ve seen many organizations starting to help build capacity within our Black community, [and] the Federation of Black Canadians is one of them,” says Paul. “And there are many others out there that are helping to build capacity… clearly a move in the right direction.” 

He pointed to the provincial pledge of $25 million in funding to create a new hub for Black communities in Peel to access health and social services. This is a win for the community, but also an opportunity for Black leaders to work with each other to find ways to create more of these moments. 

“We need more of that [funding],” says Paul. “Part of my call to action is there’s a lot more to do. We need that eldership and mentorship. I must be able to call Denise and say, ‘What is your advice,’ knowing that she’s already gone through that lesson before.’’  

Paul suggested concrete steps, like executive directors from different community organizations meeting regularly to discuss their agendas and collaborating to collectively push for change. He pointed out the immense value of being in the room with people who share your vision, utilizing one another’s expertise and building strategic alliances for the good of the community.  

Faith echoed the importance of building coalitions to effect change, adding that it’s vital for young Black leaders to connect with one another and work collectively to achieve their goals. 

“Youth can build their networks outside of their local community, [and we have to] consider it at a larger scale, whether it’s federal, local, provincial and municipal,” she says. “So that they can get to know each other within the space, and hopefully, we can contribute to these opportunities and continue to build forward.” 

Facing challenges while celebrating success  

The panel agreed that more needs to happen to ensure equality across all communities. But, they also expressed a shared optimism that the work being done today was meaningful, progress had been made and the future was bright. 

“We need to hold each other up and celebrate our successes, so that we’ve got the energy to keep going,” says Denise. It was clear that sharing their experiences with the room, seizing the opportunity to collaborate between sectors and finding ways to share these lessons with the next generation of leaders would be key to continued progress. 

Bee Quammie, who did the keynote for the event, says it best: “Know that your stories are the connective tissue that keeps us rooted to the past, steadfast in the present and looking to the future with hope and bravery.” 

*Quotes may have been edited for clarity 

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