‘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.