By Neil Armstrong
|Photo credit: York University. Angela Robertson delivers a moving speech after receiving an honorary doctorate, Doctor of Laws, from York University at its Fall Convocation on October 19, 2017.|
York University has conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws degree on a well-known social justice activist, advocate for women's and low-income people's rights, and a York alumna.
Angela Robertson, executive director of Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, was celebrated for her achievements at the Fall Convocation of the university on October 19 in Toronto, Canada.
“Angela is a passionate advocate for people and communities facing marginalization, discrimination and poverty. Her advocacy which is focused on community support demonstrates the tremendous impact that a single individual can make,” said Rhonda Lenton, new president and vice-chancellor of the university, while extending her congratulations to Robertson for her commitment to equity and social justice – values she said that York holds dear.
She also received congratulations from the chancellor, Gregory Sorbara.
Robertson grew up with her great grandmother and grandmother in Industry Cove in Hanover, Jamaica and came to Canada to join her mother, a domestic worker.
“This afternoon, we honour Ms. Robertson, the type of fighter we yearn to have on our frontlines battling discrimination, poverty and marginalization. She’s a passionate feminist leader whose activism and career focus on community and social justice,” said Professor Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.
She noted that Robertson is dedicated to championing the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and the disadvantaged.
“When these places were envisioned they did not have me and those who look like me in mind, and I’m here despite that restraint. And I say thank you, first to all who have toiled, being victorious, being made sick and those who have died making bread out of stone to keep me alive paving a way to make this possible,” said Robertson who in the 1990s worked as an editor of social issues manuscripts at Women's Educational Press.
She thanked those who never made it as they entered ‘the door of no return.’
The former executive director of Sistering – A Woman’s Place said she accepted the degree for her mother, Leta Campbell; her great grandmother, Muriam Harris; her grandmother, Violet Maud Harris, better known as Aunt Kitty; and “the community of women who nurtured me as a young feminist in the Toronto Black Women’s Feminist Collective and with the many in my life who work continually to undermine patriarchy.”
“It is important for me in these kinds of gatherings to locate myself as my own history informs my analysis and the impact I want to have on the spaces I occupy and negotiate. History -- which is not unique to me -- the history of my grandmother and my mother as the work that I do and the impact I strive to have is inextricably linked to their histories and the histories of other women across this city who catch the first bus and train to low-income wages to support their families.”
She said it is her relationship to this collective history that has shaped her commitment to social justice and striving always to create new ways of being in the world.
Robertson said her great grandmother’s husband died leaving her with six children to support. Her grandmother, Aunt Kitty, the second child, went to work at 13 years old to help support the family never having the opportunity to attend school.
“She worked in cane fields, she worked cleaning houses, cooking and cleaning classrooms in schools like this. In her work life, she, literally and figuratively, fought to not have her rights trampled upon. I grew up knowing that I want to have half the fighting spirit she had and a clear sense of entitlement to fairness and justice to those around me.”
Her mother, Leta, left Jamaica when Robertson was five, joining hundreds of Caribbean women who were enrolled in what was then called the Caribbean Domestic Workers Scheme, now called the Live-in Caregiver Program, to work as domestics in Toronto and across Canada.
“When I joined my mother I heard her stories of struggle against exploitative employers who, then and today, continue to treat live-in caregivers as their personal slaves.”
Robertson said her mother had the insight to apply for landed status near the end of her contract behind her employer’s back.
She was successful but not before taken to small claims court by her employer for the price of the plane fare and medical bills that paid for her travel to Toronto, and at the same time the cost of steak – “meat, steak he claimed she ate without his authorization.”
Campbell was able to repay the money for the plane fare and the steak.
“In witnessing these struggles I made a promise to myself for the line of mothers and grandmothers that I would sign myself up wherever possible to fight and change those things that devalue black women’s lives, women’s lives, low-income people and working people’s lives that produce poverty and shame, rage and illness, hurt and silence, inequality and injustice.”
Robertson said she did not attend previous convocations for her undergraduate and graduate degrees at York because the university taught her to rebel against systems and institutions.
She said this denied her mother the opportunity to celebrate so she thanked Professor Leslie Sanders and supporters for nominating her for the honorary degree “so I could return to this place to right that wrong.”
“I regret that my grandmother, Aunt Kitty, is not here to witness this moment as I know that this honorary degree of law for her would mean that she could be fiercer, taking actions against injustice because now in her analysis she would tell the oppressors that she had a granddaughter with a law degree that could defend her. But I would have to remind her that it really isn’t that kind of degree,” she said, eliciting some laughter from the audience.
|Angela Robertson being presented to Fall Convocation as the candidate to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.|
Addressing the over five hundred graduands, Robertson said President Lenton’s remarks focused on the anchoring principles that will guide her tenure at York: excellence, access, connectedness and impact.
“What is the impact you want to have as you use these degrees that you have just gotten from this institution? You get these degrees at the time of tremendous pressure in the world which manifest itself in the rise and the unmasking of the Right, giving way to Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, the use of the threat of national security by the governments as rationalization and justification for the limitation of rights and large-scale military intervention to so-called ‘keep us and this world safe.’ And to return us to some romanticized notion of the past when we were all safer and stable. Many of us in this room have lived with instability and insecurity and that is not a romantic notion – this past for us.”
Robertson said there has also been a doubling down of patriarchy to “keep and put women in our place which is not in the public sphere of leadership and we have seen our leaders talking about grabbing us in our wherewithal and groping us all about.”
“We leave armed, you leave armed with your degree at a time when your actions and/or your inactions will have an impact because there is no neutrality in not interrupting injustice and inequality. You get these degrees when everything around you would suggest that your work and you work for your individual needs to get your piece of the proverbial pie, and/or to get rich or die trying. I compel you to use your knowledge to push against that sentiment as the stakes are too high for all of us if we fail.
“In the words of poet Audre Lorde, ‘If we fail, women’s blood will congeal on a dead planet.’ Hence with your knowledge and the privilege of this degree and these degrees we must band together to take action – big and small – that will have an impact of creating more equity and justice. It is in your interest to fight for a higher minimum wage, it is in your interest to fight for the organization of work that reduces precarious working conditions. It is in your interest to fight for a social assistance system that enables people to move out of poverty. It is in your interest to support unions and unionization because we know there is a unionization advantage for racialized and women workers. It is in your interest to push and demand for investment in publicly funded educational system -- this is what it can produce. It is in our collective interest to fight against cutting or limiting investment in social programs as a way to reduce taxes on the middle class. It is in our collective interest to have equitable immigration and economic trading policies because the lower prices of the clothes we wear are directly linked to the poor working conditions and low pay received by workers in the global south.
“Violence against women and girls is our interest because it says something terrible about the valuing of Indigenous women’s lives when we have here in this country over 800 recorded murdered and missing Indigenous women. This is the population of a small town in Ontario. This warrants more than government’s apology; it requires our collective indignation and action. The issue of male violence against women and girls is men’s concern because it diminishes your humanity.”
Robertson thanked the educators present who “inspired us, who gave me access to the tools and language to make a case against inequality and for just social change.
“And you have now given me the privilege of this honorary degree to add to my tool kit for just social change.”
Speaking of the impact of educators, Robertson named a few such as Professor Leslie Sanders “who in that summer’s black writers course gave us that very long reading list. But among that list was the book, The Black Poets. Leslie, you inspired me to see the value of poetry’s ability to speak succinctly and from the soul about my reality, and how poets can paint with words the just world we fight for but cannot see,” she said, choking up resulting in a spontaneous applause of support.
She named other professors who introduced her to topics and ideas such as: bell hooks, women and work, the dangers of Caribbean nationalism, liberation theology, race and migration, the role of Caribbean literature in nation building, racism in the police services, an interrogation of Frantz Fanon, Marx and critique of liberal democracy, and Foucault.
She also thanked administration staff – one in particular who helped her and other students “to navigate the morass of administration form filling.”
“Thanks for feeding activism and creating space for critical engagement and strident disagreements. You too will have your own names and I encourage you to affirm those who have had an impact in giving you tools to shape the world you want to live in and leave behind.
“The women and men who live with indignities of poverty and homelessness with whom I’ve worked and my activism in the black women’s and LGBTQ communities have taught me that movements, work and organization with a social purpose and actions of resistance for equity require only the commitment of a few who can risk saying no. And the faith to discard notions of all requirements about being practical as practicality can limit actions for just change. In justice-seeking work practicality often means compromising and muting our public dissent and disagreements with the status quo for fear of what might lose.
“My recommendation is that every day we strive and we need to strive to live our values with purpose and urgency no matter how impractical. Every day we need to try and make visible our acts of resistance against oppression and build alliances with communities facing because our privilege come at their expense. We need to be mindful not to separate service provision work from social justice change work as doing so means committing ourselves to the institutions of programs for poverty, homelessness and violence and not changing the social conditions which create and give rise to those issues.
“I believe that no act of interrupting oppression is ever wasted. They serve as inspiration to others. They affirm the struggle of others, near and far, and they affirm the moral imperative that it is our individual and collective responsibility to work for what is just and right.
“Thank you to the communities of women, men and trans folks to whom I am committed and who have worked with me as an ally and to whom I am in alliance. They have survived abuse, they have lived with immeasurable loss, have suffered the indignities of poverty, the stigma of mental illness and substance use, the brutality of racism and homelessness and the immense loneliness they all bring. They have taught me that some of what we all need the most – compassion, dignity and recognition of each other’s humanity – have been hardest to find.
“Thank you to the colleagues and allies I work with as it is the strength of our collective efforts that will make and sustain just change.
“So, I accept this award with a plea that you see the impact of inequality, that this impact looks like poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, colonization, to name a few. And, that you claim your ability to have meaningful impact by taking individual and collective actions to interrupt inequality.
“Finally, I believe that to deliver on this we must rely on ourselves and on each other to be allies in our struggles. Your struggle for justice must be my struggle for justice because there is no justice in achieving access and equity for some while leaving inequality in the path of others. We may be tired. The leaders we have at the moment in the world make the task daunting but we must be relentless and constantly vigilant.”
She concluded her Convocation address with an excerpt of “Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater,” a poem by Dionne Brand in which the poet looks at the photograph of Mammy Prater, an ex-slave who was 115 years old when her photograph was taken.
She dedicated it to “all those who have gone before us who have been waiting to see us arrive safely” and received a thunderous applause at the end of her speech.
Robertson served as an advisor to the Minister Responsible for Women's Issues, was a manager at Homes First Society and the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, and was a director at Women's College Hospital.
She been recognized with a number of awards including: the Urban Alliance on Race Relations Award, the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for Social Change, the Rubena Willis Women of Distinction Award for work on violence against women, the Women's Post Top 20 Women of 2010 Award, and the Fred Victor Centre Mary Sheffield Award for work addressing poverty and homelessness in the City of Toronto.
The new honorary Doctor of Laws recipient has also been recognized by Toronto's NOW Magazine as one of the top 10 community activists on social justice issues and one of six Toronto LGBTQ heroes worth celebrating.