EN­TI­TLED TO RIGHTS AND FREE­DOMS WITH­OUT DIS­TINC­TION OF ANY KIND, SUCH AS RACE, COLOUR, SEX, LAN­GUAGE, RE­LI­GION, PO­LIT­I­CAL OR OTHER OPIN­ION, NA­TIONAL OR SO­CIAL ORI­GIN, PROP­ERTY, BIRTH OR OTHER STA­TUS

Winnipeg Free Press - - COVER -

ALEXA Po­tash­nik is al­ways lis­ten­ing to the con­ver­sa­tions around her, but some­times the si­lence is deaf­en­ing.

That was the case in 2016, when seem­ingly ev­ery other day an un­armed black man, woman, or child was mak­ing head­lines not for how they lived, but for how they died — of­ten by bul­let, of­ten by cop.

Po­tash­nik, then a 23-year-old hu­man rights ma­jor at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg, was un­der­stand­ably dis­traught. These were not iso­lated cases, nor were they stand-alone tragedies pre­cip­i­tated by er­rors in judg­ment; they were deaths made pos­si­ble by long-stand­ing sys­tems sus­tained by racism — and no­body around her was talk­ing about it.

So Po­tash­nik logged onto Face­book, where most of her lo­cal con­nec­tions failed to share in her out­rage, and cre­ated a pri­vate group in­tended to serve as a place for other black peo­ple in her cir­cle and in the city to heal and take col­lec­tive ac­tion. In July, that group held a pub­lic rally called Not An­other Hash­tag: Black Lives Mat­ter, a state­ment say­ing that the peo­ple killed were worth more than a so­cial me­dia post. About 1,000 peo­ple showed up, in­clud­ing al­lies. When peo­ple got to­gether, they got louder. Po­tash­nik was fi­nally able to hear some­thing.

Out of that group, Po­tash­nik sowed the seeds for Black Space Win­nipeg, a grass­roots move­ment ded­i­cated to ad­vo­cat­ing for the city’s black com­mu­nity, draw­ing on the work of ac­tivists who came be­fore her to find the move­ment’s vi­sion. Soon, the group be­gan hold­ing events, like Nuit Noir, its own spin on Nuit Blanche, the an­nual art event.

A film fes­ti­val fo­cused on ad­vanc­ing the work of pi­o­neer­ing and con­tem­po­rary black film­mak­ers soon fol­lowed. Pro­ject Heal, a mental-health ini­tia­tive aimed at lim­it­ing the strain and trauma caused by racism and white supremacy, came too.

“I just re­ally want to get ev­ery­one in our com­mu­nity more ac­cess to what we’ve been lack­ing, which are re­sources and rep­re­sen­ta­tion in all sec­tors across the city,” Po­tash­nik says at an Ex­change Dis­trict cof­fee shop.

“I like to feel I’ve helped, but some­times, I feel I’m not do­ing enough.”

She started out in busi­ness school, but two years into her de­gree she real­ized she wasn’t as pas­sion­ate or as en­gaged as she ought to have been.

Po­tash­nik dis­cov­ered it was pos­si­ble to earn a de­gree in hu­man rights and seized the op­por­tu­nity. But she quickly found the cur­ricu­lum didn’t in­clude some his­to­ries and nar­ra­tives and of­fered only pass­ing men­tion of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions that were of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est to her — the Trans-At­lantic slave trade, mass in­car­cer­a­tion, the en­tire Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment — all pieces of the same puz­zle she’s now try­ing to put to­gether.

“In my de­gree, we never spoke about BLM, and I thought that was in­sane,” she says. “You can’t talk about hu­man rights with­out talk­ing about what’s go­ing on right now.”

A ma­jor goal for Po­tash­nik and Black Space is to work at an in­sti­tu­tional level to in­sert more black his­tory in lo­cal class­rooms.

“In Canada, I do feel peo­ple are more hes­i­tant to dis­cuss racism in all forms be­cause we’re un­der the veil of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism,” she says. “If and when our so­ci­ety gets to a place where we can talk about the roots of racism and the in­sti­tu­tional im­pli­ca­tions of it, then we’ll be able to take a step for­ward.”

“There is a long way to go,” she adds, be­fore dis­cussing her hero, Mal­colm X. “He was un­apolo­getic about his views, and that’s what we need. I see way too many peo­ple su­gar-coat­ing things and mak­ing their views on racism palat­able, di­gestible.

“But that’s not how change is achieved. It comes with rev­o­lu­tions.”

PHIL HOS­SACK / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

Gerry Shin­goose was forced to at­tend a res­i­den­tial school begin­ning at the age of five.

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