In conversation with Clarissa Arthur, Communications Manager

Clarissa Arthur

Could you tell me about your childhood? Where were you born? Is there anything about your childhood that stands out for you? Helped form who you are today? Your parents, friends, school? 

I grew up in a small town in Sydney, Nova Scotia on Cape Breton Island. My mother was originally from Ottawa, my dad was 1st generation Canadian born in Sydney (they met in Toronto). The neighbourhood I grew up in is called “Whitney Pier” and is well known for a high number of immigrants from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and Italy. My grandparents immigrated to Sydney from Barbados around the mid/end 1920’s with the promise of work. It is very small, but well connected in nature. Whitney Pier highlights multiculturalism and the true meaning of “community”. When I grew up, everyone had a hand in making sure the “job got done” and when you needed to be called home for dinner, anyone on any street would be able to tell you to get home! When I hear sayings like “It takes a village to raise a child”, it represents the true essence of the community I feel blessed to have grown up in. We carry a great sense of pride and I’m always happy to bring someone “home” so I can share everything about the place where I come from. We have our own Whitney Pier Historical Museum to share the history of our neighbourhood; my father is highlighted there representing part of the Black community and for owning the West Indian Cricket Club; a staple gathering place that held the slogan “Where Friends Meet”. Coming from a place like Sydney has heavily influenced my being; that sense of community has hardwired me to appreciate being a part of something greater than myself (both on the receiving and giving end of things). I moved to Ottawa (my mother’s hometown) when I was 11 and my parents divorced, but I will always call Nova Scotia “home”. I spent summers and holidays in between there and still keep in touch with the people I grew up with. My father was an entrepreneur, so his work ethic was engrained in me as well from a very young age. Everyone knew who my father was and even though he passed away 22 years ago, every year when there is a community reunion in the The Pier, they have a special night dedicated to him where they play his favourite music and we honour what he meant to everyone there.

 What is your educational background?

I graduated from Algonquin College in 2000 and 2002 with Diplomas with Honours in Child and Youth Work and Early Childhood Education. I have received a Certificate from York University in Infant Mental Health, and am 1 credit away from completing my BA in Psychology from Carleton University (to be finished this August). I have worked primarily with at risk children, youth and families in a number of capacities.

Could you describe your job as Communications and Fundraising Manager with the Youville Centre? What challenges do you face on this job and how do you address them?

In my role, I am responsible for the “face of Youville”, internally and externally. I manage our media profile as well as attend speaking events on behalf of the Centre. I develop and maintain our communications strategy as well as leverage partnerships with community and government stakeholders. I also manage our donor audience and our gracious volunteers. I would say my biggest challenge is lack of time (like so many of us)! The second challenge would definitely be not being able to secure sustainable funding; I feel like we’re constantly chasing the dollar. The young moms we serve are vulnerable and so are their children and we have a specific amount of time to create impact and the reality is, we require funding to continue to offer/grow the unique programs and services we have. Young moms will continue to be present in the community, so I suspect we’ll be around for many years to come. If anyone is ever interested in learning more about our program, please feel free to visit us, we’re happy to give tours on a regular basis.

You became a single mother while still a teenager. How did this impact your life? How did your family and friends relate to you during what must have been a difficult and stressful time for such a young person? Did you receive any support from any source (e.g. your school) to deal with this?

After my parents divorced and I left Nova Scotia, I was angry at the world. Some say they would never know it now, but I was delinquent for a number of years before finding out I was going to have a baby at 17. I told my mom I was expecting by writing a letter and putting it under her pillow; I just couldn’t bring myself to let her down (again). I had moved out of the house and stopped going to school and I knew that since I was going to have a baby, I had to get my life together. During my pregnancy, I moved back in with my mom and step dad, and I started taking classes through distance education. When my son was born, I found Youville Centre, a place where young moms could access support and childcare while they finished their high school education. I graduated with the 2nd best marks in my class; an accomplishment I never thought would be attached to my name. When I was there I found people who believed in me which led to me learning how to believe in myself. I owe many of my successes to the foundation they provided me. They gave me a chance to do better without judging me for my past. Having a baby at a young age wouldn’t be something I would recommend, but having my son saved my life. He gave me a reason to change; a reason that before him, I just didn’t have. He also gave me a reason to want to be/do better. I wanted to provide him with a good life and I worked really hard to do so. A lot of people doubted me at first, and I understand why; I was on a path to destruction but I have definitely proved them wrong! My son, Dyon will be 23 this May and my daughter, Tyannah will be 19 in July.

 Can you comment on why it is so difficult to get members of our community to give a little of their time and expertise to help those in need?

I think sometimes we get too caught up in our own lives and we don’t realize how little we actually have to do to create an impact in the life of someone else. Sometimes, it’s the smallest of gestures that are felt by many. We have to get back to the concept of “community” representing a commitment to making the world we live in a better place. Every single person has something to give – time, expertise, product, knowledge; if we all give a little, we end up with a lot!

How do you see the relationship between Black men and women in Ottawa and in Canada in general? There are some Black women who claim they are not respected by Black men, that Black men give more respect to white women than themselves? Do you support this point of view?

I support the view of respect, period. There are issues with men not respecting women, not just black women, all women. I think the focus needs to be on finding a way to bring back the value of women and our place in society and the world. Maybe for some, that’s been lost somewhere along the way. As women, we also have a responsibility to have that respect start within ourselves; learning to love ourselves authentically, to stand up for what we believe in, and to set boundaries in relationships. As with anything else, change takes time, but it starts with a champion, and as long as we continue to have women who represent the type of women we all want to be, I think we’re moving in the right direction. I’m also a product of a bi-racial relationship, so speaking specifically on the black man/white woman issue, I feel would be disrespectful to my parents and what they created. Love who you love, and hold them high, regardless of color.   

There appears to be a divide on one level between Black francophone and Anglophone communities, and on another level between people from continental Africa and those from the Caribbean. These discrete groups often operate separately and rarely hold events together or collaborate in joint projects for their mutual benefit? Do you agree with this perception and if so what can be done to increase collaboration among our various community groups?

I wonder sometimes if the discrimination and separatist ideologies that has been placed upon us have somehow trickled into our own perception of who we are as Black people. Why must there be a divide? We can still have pride, represent our community, our country of origin, our roots, but it’s also important to remember that we are all one and there is strength in numbers. We have been considered the “other” for long enough, there’s no need to have that view within our own people. It’s when we come together, that we are able to do the best work. Increasing the number of events that encourage our ability to “rep where you’re from” in a collaborative sense, would definitely increase our ability to be represented on a collective front. Also, encouraging people to take the leap and attend events that may be outside what their familiar/comfortable with would give us a chance to learn something new; they say that “when you know better, you do better” and sometimes it’s as simple as taking time to learn about someone who is “different” from you.

 Looking at Ottawa’s Black community, what do you see as our biggest challenges? Crime, unemployment, school drop outs, other? How do we overcome them?

I think we are continually learning about available programs and opportunities in our community. I think one of our biggest challenges is that we have a lack of mentors in the Black community. Youth need to see that they are represented somewhere; they need to know that people want to give them a chance to use the skills they have and to develop new ones. Connecting with a mentor means that they will learn to see that they can strive toward their dreams and that there are people right here in Ottawa who can help them along the way.

Canada recently celebrated its 150th anniversary as a nation. In the years since you’ve been in Ottawa, have you seen the situation of Blacks as changed for the better: more access to jobs, social inclusion etc. Do we have reason to celebrate alongside other Canadians?

Recently, the government of Ontario has dedicated funds to support Black youth through the Black Youth Action Plan. This is an exciting time where leaders from our community will be given the chance to work alongside the youth to attempt to break down systemic barriers, build skills, and access Mentors to help them reach their goals. This initiative is part of Ontario’s 3-year Anti Racism Strategy and I look forward to seeing how this will grow in our city. Ottawa, along with Toronto, Hamilton, and Windsor have been communities provided with designated investments. “When fully implemented, the four-year, $47 million plan will support 10,800 Black children, youth and their families annually, in schooling, postsecondary education and employment, as well as those in conflict with the law.”

 Do you have any hobbies or pastimes?

My hobbies and past times mostly include spending time with my family and friends. Raising my children as a young single mother meant that I relied on the help of many. Most of my girlfriends have similar stories, so we count on each other as extensions of our family; it’s like a sisterhood of sorts. Making the effort to focus on ensuring I have down time is very important to me. I’ve been busy with being in school for the past 4 years while working full time, so after this summer when I’ve completed my degree, I suspect that I’ll have a lot more free time, so maybe it’s best you ask me then!

What has been your biggest achievement and what was your biggest challenge? In your work, family life, social life, other?

That’s a big question! My biggest achievement would probably be walking through my biggest challenge – being a young mom at the age of 17. It defines who I am and how I found my way to where I am today. Working at Youville Centre (the very organization that served me as a young mom) has been a blessing. I have been able to speak publicly about my story and the stories of many to help change the perception of what a young mother really is. In my work I get to walk alongside other young women who are on their journey, and I am able to help highlight stories of resilience, and challenge people’s beliefs. In February, I received a Community Builder Award from Global Community Alliance in recognition of Black History Month. To be recognized by the community for my work has meant the world and I thank them immensely for organizing such an amazing event that brought so many of our community members and youth together! On a personal level, I’ve done a lot of growth in the past few years. I took on a project called “100 Happy Days” where I challenged myself to name something that I was grateful for, for 100 days in a row. I loved it so much that I adopted it for 365 days, twice! Each day, I posted a picture or statement on Facebook to share with others that exemplified gratitude; it could have been anything from a beautiful sunrise to a gesture that someone did for me. I can honestly say it changed my life. I now am more mindful of my surroundings and am able to recognize that there is beauty in all things, even the most difficult or darkest of times.

If you had to live your life all over again, is there anything you would do differently?

Absolutely, not. I always say that “today wouldn’t be today, if yesterday didn’t go exactly the way it did”. I believe there is a reason for everything that comes at you, and that there’s an opportunity to learn in every single thing we do. I have a tattoo on my right foot to signify always moving in the “right” direction; it reads: “it never rains forever”. Regardless of how tough times are, there’s really no sense in regret unless you turn it into a learning opportunity. Ask yourself, “what could I do differently next time, and what am I meant to learn from this?” As difficult as it may be at the time, adversity makes us stronger and I know that the tough times I’ve faced have made me who I am today.

Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?

Get engaged in the community. Find the time, find the space, and use your voice to the best of your ability. Tell stories; they matter. Set the standard, and raise the bar. Meet people outside of your circle. Challenge yourself. And last but not least, try something new.


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