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Why We Need the Black Experience Project

10/22/2015 05:29 EDT | Updated 10/22/2016 05:12 EDT
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The Black Experience Project (BEP) is a unique endeavor currently being carried out by community researchers emerging from various professional fields. While there have been studies in the past, (namely the Stephen Lewis report) that has aimed to document the social and political experiences of the African Canadian community, the BEP brings a unique perspective to the study as it records the multiple narratives that exist within the African Canadian community and the project spans across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). It directly captures individual and diverse lives of African Canadian people.

Although the black community have flourished in large numbers and has made a considerable mark on the GTA's cultural landscape and have contributed largely to the city's development, they continue to struggle with many social problems such as high unemployment rates, alarming high school dropout rates, racial profiling and a disturbing trend of youth incarceration.

It is the hope of the researchers to use these findings to provide diverse insights into the lives of the black community so as to better facilitate the needs of the various groups. For instance, researchers have been making a concerted effort to be more inclusive of stigmatized and too often forgotten members within the community such as LGBTQ, seniors, and the disabled, so as to equally address the structural violence and marginalization they also face in society.

In this way, the project has helped to debunk the monolithic ways in which the black community is often perceived in our social consciousness. The demographics of the project is comprised of people who identify as being black and are from regions Africa, the Caribbean, Canada (Canadian-born), Europe and Central and South America.

Significantly, the project humanizes the community as the researchers give each participant a voice to articulate his or her successes, aspirations and disappointments. This approach is no doubt contrary to criminalized male black bodies often paraded across the media outlets as representative of the African Canadian experience.

Project members have also made it clear that this project is not the "end all, be all" in understanding the complexity and breadth of the lived experiences of self-identified black individuals living in the GTA. Suelyn Knight, Project Coordinator maintains that the project "is a ground-breaking beginning towards creating an asset-based understanding of this population in a quantifiable manner that also highlights the contributions and strengths of the community in addition to the challenges. Using this foundation, community leaders and activists can then identify the gaps of the knowledge of this project and delve further."

To stay true to the research focus, the BEP researchers have not limited the project to traditional quantitative research methodology. The project uniquely combines non-traditional data collection that includes visits to local barber shops and hairdressing salons, which are effective spaces to conduct such interviews. Barber shops and hair salons have virtually found home in every community you find African Canadians. These institutions act as a safe space for many African Canadian men and women to meet and share events, debate controversial/taboo issues and to exchange stories and speak of day-to-day experiences of racism.

The interviewers have been mindful that these various outlet offers members of the community the opportunity to share their stories as well as affording interviewers the chance to apply cultural sensitivity. As Arnold Minors, one of the interviewer, poignantly states, "Interviewing black sisters and brothers requires a level of engagement that is different from the Western European notion of so-called objectivity and emotional distance".

Furthermore, there is a reflective blog page that shares different stories and perspectives on being black in Canada. Community interviewer Minifre Harak in her latest blog recounts her experience on what it means to be black in Canada. Interestingly, for Harak her awareness of being black became a reality when she migrated to Canada. Blackness for Harak was not defined on racial term as she recalls "her earliest memory of contentious difference was not racial but ethno-religiously based." However, Harak is careful not to dismiss the challenges of shadism and body politics that existed in her East African country, Kenya.

Indeed, the researchers and interviewers themselves must be acknowledged for taking the time from their regular work schedule to participate in this groundbreaking project. Each researcher brings valuable resources and expertise from all levels of society such as education, social work, the arts, and the legal system.

As Canadians proudly recognize and celebrate Canada's multiculturalism, tangible ventures such as the Black Experience Project will help to bridge gaps that exist within the community itself as well as to provide useful ways to maintain community engagement and to gain a broader understanding of African Canadians.

For more information to take part in this groundbreaking project please visit the website or send an e-mail to bep-coordinator@environics.ca.

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