Ken Campbell is the President of Jaku Konbit, a not-for-profit organisation focussed on on mentoring and programs for children and youth.
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 was born in Kingston, Jamaica; fourth of seven children. I have very fond memories of my childhood. I spent a great deal of time with my Dad in Jamaica, while my Mom was in Canada working. What stands out to me was living with my father, who was a great role model and an outstanding individual. It is well known that Jamaicans are very patriotic and have a strong affinity to the continent. Growing up in Jamaica and being surrounded with the teachings of Marcus Garvey, the cultural message through reggae music and the Rastafarian movement, all helped shape my personality and in a way was the impetus for me being so socially active.
When did you come to Canada, what made you decide on Canada, Ottawa?
I came to Canada at the age of 13, back in 1976 along with my six siblings. I first landed in Montreal and eventually moved to Ottawa. My mother was already here in Canada working before I arrived. She sponsored my siblings and I to join her for a better future with more opportunities.
What is your educational background?
I have a two year diploma from Algonquin College in Social Service Work and two years at Carleton University in the same field; plus, many certificates and training in various fields related to social work.
What can you tell us about your day job?
I’m a social worker with the City of Ottawa and have been in that field for the last 20 years. My work is very intense; I work primarily with individuals and families who are temporarily homeless due to a number of unfortunate circumstances. My role is to assist, help and support families who are experiencing crisis in finding affordable or accessible housing in Ottawa. My second job is as a part-time seminar instructor at Algonquin College with their Social Service Worker program.
You are well known in our community as the President of Jaku Konbit. What does Jaku Konbit mean?
Jaku Konbit is derived from two languages; Jaku is from the Ga language from West Africa and means “African;” Konbit has its origins in the Creole language of Haiti and means “working together.” Thus, the name Jaku Konbit is translated as “Africans helping Africans.” The name was chosen to create a bridge between continental Africans and people of African descent in the Diasporas; to reinforce the importance and the need to work together for mutual and collective benefits.
Can you tell us about the mandate and programs of your organization?
Jaku Konbit is a registered non-profit, educational, community-based, and family oriented organization, established in Ottawa since 2000. Drawing on the resources and the cultural heritage of the African and Caribbean community, we operate youth, community, and seniors programs. We hold major city-wide events and celebrations such as Kwanzaa and Ujamaa Market and Ujimaa Job Fair each year. We are aware of the benefits our programs bring to the community in Ottawa. Since we began our work in 2000, we have made a real difference to more than 500 families. Our mandate is to support and improve the lives of disadvantaged individuals of African Caribbean decent through partnership of all communities and programming that results in everyone’s successful economic and civic participation in Canadian society. Being a proactive African centered organization, Jaku Konbit looks to the traditional and cultural expression of African and the Caribbean for its inspiration, justification, and examples for its ideologies, programs, activities and events.
Some of our programs include: Black Star Tutoring, Greatness is Within Me Summer Camp, Green Star Community Garden, Youth Employment Network and the Peer to Peer Youth program. Some of our annual events include the celebration of Kwanzaa, the Ujamaa Market (bazaar) and the Ujima Job Fair.
Are these programs open to all children and youth or are they limited to the black population only?
Our programs and activities are geared towards families with an African or Caribbean heritage and are also open to all others in our culturally diverse city. These programs are supported by and open to all volunteers of our community who share our vision.
The focus of Jaku Konbit is children and youth. Looking at Ottawa’s black community, what do you see as our biggest challenges for our young people? Crime, unemployment, school drop outs, other? How do we overcome them?
Actually, our programs are geared to all members of our community (i.e. seniors, adults, and children) not just youth. We believe that we are more effective when we are involved and engaged with all members of our community at all levels. The issues of crime, unemployment, school drop outs, etc. are all interrelated and interconnected. Overcoming these barriers requires a fundamental change or paradigm shift in our thinking and in our approach. In my personal opinion, a lack of a thorough understanding of culture and its essential role is our biggest challenge.
I see culture as the blueprint or the cohesive force that shapes and molds behaviour, attitude and thinking for a specific or desired outcome. Culture has to do with more than just music and dance. Dr. Maulana Karenga the founder of Kwanzaa outlines seven core areas of culture as: history, spiritual ethics, social organization, political organizations, economic organization, creative production (art, music, literature, dance, etc.) and ethos. Culture tells us who we are, where we came from and where we need to go.
A lack of knowledge of culture means a lack of focus, clarity and direction and can only result in some of the issues you mentioned. When fully understood, embraced and practiced, culture becomes the operational principle which guides and moves us forward to be more productive both individually and collectively.
How do you find the time and the energy to stay engaged in your day job as well as your community engagement? How has that impacted on your personal and family life?
It is always a struggle to divide your time to community work and family responsibilities. Fortunately, my wife is a strong supporter of the work I do and is equally involved in community initiatives. My two sons also volunteer for events from time to time. My family’s involvement and support makes it much easier to continue the work of community engagement. Furthermore, I’m inspired by the people around me –everyone brings some kind of motivation in me. I see everyone from a positive aspect and try to observe good things in people without focusing on their shortcomings.
What has been your biggest achievement and what was your biggest challenge? In your work, family life, volunteer work?
My biggest achievement is my family. I have been blessed with a great wife and two healthy sons who are doing well in school. I have a good home, a rewarding career and am in good health. I am grateful for all of this and don’t take it for granted. Personally, my biggest challenge is continuing to believe in myself and my abilities to achieve my highest ideals, visions and goals. I am a work in progress. From a social perspective, the biggest challenge is to know how to skillfully work with people with different personalities and agendas.
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 to their mutual benefit? Do you agree with this perception and if so what can be done to increase collaboration among our various community groups?
Yes, I agree with this perception. I believe there is a divide between the various African and Caribbean groups in Ottawa which is counterproductive to moving forward towards true unity. In my opinion, the way to increase collaboration is for individuals to get more involved in the larger community. There is a tendency to want to stay within our own circles of friends or associations and where we are very comfortable. This attitude is not only counterproductive, but it also impedes and prevents us from working together. We must challenge ourselves and dare to explore and engage members of other African and Caribbean communities through networking, building partnerships and strategic cooperation.
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 believe this is the case in some situations. Many of us suffer from an inferiority complex and a deep yearning to look and behave like the dominant culture. The way in which people of color are often portrayed in mainstream media only reinforces this feeling and attitude. Often beauty is associated with the dominant society and so there is a lot of pressure to conform. You rarely see people of color with curly hair and full lips as models of excellence in the media. (Even the language and words that are used to describe us [and that we use too] reinforce this). This could explain the reason why some black men are seeking relationships elsewhere; a desire to feel, ‘Hey, I’ve been accepted, I fit in’. When you are grounded in your cultural, you feel comfortable in your skin; you love your heritage and you appreciate your uniqueness and beauty.
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.
Unfortunately, there has been little change in my opinion. There are more opportunities for employment and social inclusion, but we are not as assertive and engaging as we should be as a community and therefore, a lot of those opportunities have been missed. There is no doubt that there are black people in higher positions, but often they are not involved at the community level. Ottawa prides itself as a diverse city, but it’s up to us to take responsibility within ourselves and our community.
Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?
Ottawa is a great city with lots of opportunities. We can make these opportunities work for us by being more involved and engaged in the greater Ottawa community as a whole. Finally, I want to thank the Black Ottawa Scene for being a voice for the African and Caribbean community.