‘Pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate for so­cial jus­tice’ to take helm at Atkin­son Foun­da­tion


When Olivia Nuamah thinks back to her Toronto child­hood in the 1980s, she re­mem­bers the lone­li­ness of liv­ing in two worlds.

Her par­ents had di­vorced when she was 7 and her mother, a ho­tel cleaner, didn’t like the schools in Moss Park where they lived in a sub­si­dized apart­ment. So she sent Nuamah by pub­lic tran­sit to a pre­dom­i­nantly white, mid­dle-class pub­lic school north of Bloor St.

“She wanted more for me,” Nuamah says of her mother, an im­mi­grant from Ghana.

But Nuamah couldn’t help see­ing the dis­con­nect be­tween her white school friends and the black girls in her neigh­bour­hood, many of whom were drop­ping out of school and be­com­ing teen moth­ers.

It was one of the rea­sons she left for Eng­land af­ter com­plet­ing an un­der grad­u­ate de­gree in in­ter­na­tional devel­op­ment and so­cial an­thro­pol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto.

“I didn’t see a fu­ture for my­self here. I didn’t see how I fit,” she says.

In London, she worked in the com­mu­nity and in govern­ment on for­mer Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Tony Blair’s pledge to end poverty in the U.K. by 2020.

Now, af­ter 15 years, Nuamah is back. And next month, she will con­tinue her so­cial jus­tice work as the new ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Atkin­son Char­i­ta­ble Foun­da­tion. Nuamah’s hum­ble be­gin­nings were not lost on the foun­da­tion’s board of trustees in their search for a new leader, says pres­i­dent and board chair Peter Arm­strong. “She’s a bit like Mr. Atkin­son in that she was raised in the dou­ble op­pres­sion of poverty and racism in Toronto by a sin­gle mother,” he says, re­fer­ring to Joseph E. Atkin­son, the for­mer Toronto Star pub­lisher who es­tab­lished the foun­da­tion in 1942 to pro­mote so­cial and eco­nomic jus­tice. “Through brains and heart and some good de­ci­sions, (Nuamah) has climbed out of that and is now turn­ing around and try­ing to cor­rect and amend all of the con­di­tions that con­trib­uted to her child­hood,” Arm­strong says. “It’s a bit like the man him­self.” Nuamah, whose work in London fo­cused on di­ver­sity and race equal­ity, com­mu­nity devel­op­ment, mental health and chil­dren’s ser­vices, is ex­cited about re­turn­ing to her home­town. “This is my dream job,” she says. “I am thrilled about the po­si­tion and hope I can bring some of what I have learned (in Bri­tain) to the foun­da­tion.” Nuamah started her own agency in London work­ing with racially mixed, low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties in the city’s im­pov­er­ished east end. She helped peo­ple iden­tify what they needed to im­prove their lives and then de­signed ser­vices to meet those needs. It is a model she later took into govern­ment and con­sult­ing work in Bri­tain. And she be­lieves her pas­sion for help­ing com­mu­ni­ties help them­selves will en­able the foun­da­tion to forge a new path in Toronto. “The Atkin­son Foun­da­tion has had an in­cred­i­ble tra­di­tion of that kind of en­gage­ment, so the idea that per­haps we can do it bet­ter, big­ger and with more peo­ple at a time when Toronto is go­ing through a bit of a tran­si­tion with a new mayor in the fall, is ex­cit­ing,” she says.

Nuamah’s per­sonal warmth and wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence will help the foun­da­tion shape the next chap­ter of its work, Arm­strong says.

“We be­lieve we have a lot to learn from Olivia. She has a dif­fer­ent style of col­lab­o­rat­ing than we have been used to,” he says.

“Un­like the rest of us who come from white priv­i­lege, she doesn’t have to learn di­ver­sity. She doesn’t have to learn about op­pres­sion. She doesn’t have to learn about poverty,” he says. “She’s lived it. She is it.”

Nuamah em­braces the foun­da­tion’s de­sire to im­prove its poli­cies and work around so­cial in­clu­sion.

“My whole ca­reer has been about in­clu­sion,” she says. “I hope that makes a dif­fer­ence to what (the foun­da­tion) delivers un­der my lead­er­ship.”

Nuamah, 38, has two boys, Nathan, 4, and Joshua, 7. Her hus­band, Ni­cholas Clarke, a Briton whom she met while at­tend­ing the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto, is a high school his­tory teacher.

Nuamah re­places Charles Pas­cal, the foun­da­tion’s first full-time ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor who is leav­ing af­ter 15 years.

“As I re­flect on the 15 years, the very best moment was be­ing hired,” Pas­cal says. “The sec­ond best moment is mov­ing on to other ad­ven­tures with the knowl­edge I’m leav­ing a great staff and a great group of trustees who have cho­sen (my suc­ces­sor) well — an en­er­getic and pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate for so­cial jus­tice to move things for­ward. I think Olivia is go­ing to do a great job in this re­gard.”

The Atkin­son Foun­da­tion pro­vides an­nual grants of about $2 mil­lion and to date has awarded more than $60 mil­lion in the cat­e­gories of health, so­cial wel­fare, eco­nomic jus­tice and ed­u­ca­tion.

Cur­rent pri­or­ity ar­eas are poverty re­duc­tion, early learn­ing and devel­op­ment, and the Cana­dian In­dex of Well­be­ing, which links eco­nomic, health, so­cial, cul­tural and en­vi­ron­men­tal in­di­ca­tors to Cana­di­ans’ qual­ity of life.


Olivia Nuamah takes on the role of ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Atkin­son Char­i­ta­ble Foun­da­tion next month. She has worked in Bri­tain for the past 15 years help­ing that coun­try im­ple­ment its am­bi­tious plan to erad­i­cate poverty by 2020.

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