Have your kids come home from school this past month sharing what they are learning about Black History? If they are, there is one person we must all thank: Akilah Newton. February was first declared Black History Month across Canada in 1995. That was after I graduated from high school, and I can tell you honestly, I learned next to nothing about Canadian Black History in school. Akilah didn’t hope for things to change, instead, she decided to take action.
I met Akilah years ago through my charity event. Little did I know back then, she was the driving force behind major projects. She founded Overture With The Arts in 2009, a non-profit organization committed to making performing-arts education accessible to youth from all walks of life. OWTA offers free and low-cost programs allowing young people to take performing arts classes when they wouldn’t otherwise have the finances to afford them.
Much like my history education, Akilah saw a severe lack in Canadian Black History in her schooling as well. For the last 12 years, Akilah has been educating children in elementary schools here in Canada. One of OWTA’s most popular programs is the annual Black History Month school tour. The tour visits schools across Canada and educates youth about Canadian Black history using music and spoken word.
To further solidify that education and offer solid resources to children, families and teachers, Akilah co-wrote Big Dreamers and Big Dreamers 2: The Canadian Black History Activity Book for Kids. Filled with inspirational people and geographic information about Canadian Black history, these two books are wonderful resources for families, as well as schools.
While people have been trying to get a handle on this pandemic life in all different ways, Akilah Newton took to her passion and wrote another book, Movers, Shakers, History Makers: The Canadian Black History Book of Rhymes. This fantastic addition to Canadian history for children is also a beautiful and concise book for all ages.
I spoke with Akilah recently about her books, education and what she has coming up.
Mama MOE: Akilah, even though you are not a mama, in many ways, you have been mothering children for years as their mentor in life with Overture with the Arts. As a teacher and mentor to children, what have you noticed was missing in their education when it came to Black Canadian History?
Akilah Newton: In speaking to my niece and nephew, who are in elementary school, and speaking to high school students in OWTA programs, I noticed a common theme – Black history wasn’t included in the history curriculum. The little that students were learning about Black history focused on American Black history, not Canadian Black history. Since it’s not mandated by the Quebec Ministry of Education to teach Black history, a lot of schools choose not to educate students about the contributions of Black Canadians.
MM: Looking back on our education in Montreal, you and I know there was next to nothing about Black History. Even now, I noticed the topic was glanced over, if not talked at all, even when protests were happening last year in our backyard. Do you think it would have been easy to bring up the topic in school? If not, why do you think it is so hard to break through the curriculum norm and branch out into more discussion about Black History? (i.e. time, money, knowledge)
AN: It absolutely would have been easy to discuss injustices, why representation is important and how to amplify Black voices with students. Black History Month is the perfect opportunity for educators to address these subjects. Knowledge is likely a reason why these subjects aren’t discussed in classrooms. The excuse of “lack of resources” can no longer be an excuse. I wrote 3 children’s books about Canadian Black history. I’ve contacted dozens of schools to encourage them to use my books in the classroom.
MM: As a mother of three boys, when the protests began last year, I took a long time before I addressed the subject on my blog, but I was quick to discuss it with my children. We have deeper discussions as a family about a lot of things. But for families that have not yet done so, what do you think is the best way to begin?
AN: Talk about what the BLM movement is and why millions of people around the world have taken to the streets to protest. Talk about white privilege. Although it’s not the easiest subject to discuss, it’s important for children to understand what a peaceful protesting is and why it’s necessary.
MM: Your books are beautiful resources for children and families. I know you were quick to mention you co-authored the first two, so we must give credit to Tami Gabay and Omari, your brother. This third book though, was born in months, all on your own. What made you take to writing again? How different was this experience and how did you keep your drive to complete the project?
AN: Between the pandemic and the never-ending news stories about innocent Black people losing their lives at the hands of law enforcement, I was emotionally drained. Writing was a distraction and ended up being very therapeutic. It was fun working on a solo project. If I start a project, I typically don’t quit. I like to see things through to the end.
MM: As an author of three books now, do you have any future projects in the works that you would like to/can discuss?
AN: I’m working on a new children’s book about privilege. It will hopefully be released in 2022.
MM: Aside from your integral books for families (which I believe should be resources in every grade of all Canadian elementary schools) what other books would you recommend for families to have in the library at home related to this topic?
AN: There’s a fantastic list of books provided by an organization called “Parents for Diversity” https://www.parentsfordiversity.com/racism/
MM: We briefly talked about films and tv, and how most initiatives in our schools come from US-based media and personalities. Can you suggest any films and media focused on Canadian Black History for families?
AN: Journey to Justice: https://www.nfb.ca/film/journey_to_justice/
MM: For those that do not know your other role, I know you and Omari are very busy right now during Black History Month speaking at schools across Canada. Because of the pandemic, this time it is virtual! What has changed in this experience because of the pandemic, good and bad?
AN: Offering virtual presentations has expanded our reach and has allowed us to present at more schools. Since we don’t have to factor in travel time we’re able to schedule more presentations. We have 95 confirmed presentations throughout the months of February and March and approx. 10 more pending. Next year we’re definitely offering virtual presentations as an option.
MM: Before the pandemic began, I was noticing a shift in arbitrary knowledge and factual history when it came to how children viewed the world. Explaining something they are so far removed from could sometimes seem to them like it never happened. This has a great deal to do with social media and how everyone uses their voice to discuss their views (right, wrong, or indifferent). What is one of the biggest things you noticed about children and history when you have given your talks with Omari? And has there been a change over this decade?
AN: The narrative that has been given to students leads them to believe that Canada was free of slavery and segregation, which simply isn’t true. We often have students thanking us after the presentation because they weren’t aware of the past and present injustices in Canada. Students want to have a more inclusive history curriculum.
MM: Our friendship has grown over the years and I am so very proud of your incredible accomplishments, Akilah. This can be directed to me, but also to my readers; how can a friend support you, the BLM movement and be a strong ally (an overused word right now, but still important)?
AN: First off, thank you! A general note to anyone looking to be a better ally – Listen, research and help amplify the voices of BIPOC.
MM: And finally, Akilah, what is the one wish you have for children growing up in this time? I know this can be a heavy-handed question, but truly, is there something you wish they can understand more deeply, not just about history but the people behind the history? And by the way, that is including you. You have made history, my friend.
AN: My wish is for children to embrace and celebrate each other’s differences. We’re all unique and each of us brings something different and amazing to this world.
Thank you, Akilah!
To purchase all three of Akilah’s books, visit www.bigdreamers.ca
And to follow Akilah’s projects visit:
Among her many accolades, this year, Akilah was chosen as a Black Changemaker by CBC and I am so very happy for her!