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