Itah Sadu is flanked by Chancellor Kathleen Taylor, left, and Vice-Chancellor and President Rhonda Lenton of York University Photo credit: York University

Storyteller and Community Builder Itah Sadu celebrated at University in Toronto

Source: Angles Covered

Wednesday 18 October 2023

By Neil Armstrong

One of Canada’s most beloved storytellers, Itah Sadu, who is of Barbadian heritage, was lionized by York University in Toronto when her alma mater conferred on her an honorary Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, at its Fall Convocation.

Born in Scarborough, Ontario, and schooled in her early years in Barbados, she began writing stories because she wanted to see more of herself, and her community reflected in the books that were available to them. 

For more than two decades, Sadu and her husband, Miguel San Vicente, have owned A Different Booklist, a bookstore in Toronto that specializes in titles from African and Caribbean diasporas and the global south. 

In addition to being an international bestselling author, she is the managing director of Blackhurst Cultural Centre – The People’s Residence, a community space that celebrates the rich cultures of Black-identified Canadians. “She is also a dynamic entrepreneur, an educator and community builder, and she utilizes leadership, creativity and teamwork to empower individuals and groups to effect real change — a perfect candidate for an honorary degree from York University,” said JJ McMutry, Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at the convocation held at the Sobeys Stadium at the university on October 12.

He noted that Sadu has created vital spaces and infrastructure for community development, adding that while she reflects on the importance of Black histories, she is equally focused on the future. “Her innovative annual Walk with Excellence lets graduating students from Jane and Finch neighbourhood share their achievements in a parade that ends here at York University. She is also behind the Emancipation Day Underground Freedom Train Ride in collaboration with the TTC [Toronto Transit Commission] in a nod to the legacy of American abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman and the famed Underground Railroad.” 

Dean McMurty said in a time of great division and strife, Itah Sadu remains steadfast in her commitment to nurturing her community and by extension demonstrating what a culture of care can look like. 

He presented her to Chancellor Kathleen Taylor to be bestowed the honorary degree“for her unfaltering dedication to community, equity and education.” A Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, is presented to honour someone for excellence in areas including visionary leaders, philanthropists, public intellectuals, community builders and others. 

Itah Sadu, addresses the graduands Photo credit: York University

Singing “This Little Light of Mine” as she approached the podium, Sadu said when she called her brother, Winston, in Barbados and told him that she was receiving an honorary doctorate from York University he was ecstatic.

She said the late Jamaica-born Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in British Columbia, Rosemary Brown, who was the first African Canadian woman to become a member of a provincial legislature and the first woman to run for leadership of a federal political party once said: “We must open the doors and we must see to it they remain open, so that others can pass through.” 

The honorary degree recipient commended Chancellor Taylor, Rhonda Lenton, Vice-Chancellor and President, and deans and faculty for opening doors and keeping them open so that others could pass through. 

“Graduates, I hope you will open multiple doors in the future and be door jams and I’m even going to say door jammers so that others can pass through,” she said, reminding them that they can function in a world where different experiences, perspectives and points of view are to be valued.

The community builder told the graduands that the great Canadian educator, Enid Lee, once said “and” is the biggest word in the world as it provides people with endless possibilities. 

“Don’t let yourself be limited to the word “or” but rather expose yourself to the power of the word “and” and its endless possibilities. In fact, York’s motto says it well — ‘Tentanda via’ meaning ‘The way must be tried.’”

She advised them to equip themselves with the word “and” and to be the best door jammers they can be, “and in the words of the Barbados national anthem, continue to write your names on history’s page with expectations great, and when this happens you will in the words of the philanthropist and singer Rihanna, you will shine bright like diamonds because after all graduates this is your time to shine.”

Reflecting on how she arrived at this milestone, Sadu thanked her mother, Gloria Emmaline Walcott, 91, who was sitting in the front row to witness the celebration of her daughter. 

“My mother was among the group of twenty-five young women who were the first to arrive in Canada in 1955 through the Domestic Program as Canada opened up immigration from the Caribbean. My mother came from 96 degrees in the shade, real hot, to the dead of winter in Ottawa. These young women, like many of you seated here, were daughters, mothers, partners, teachers, nurses, secretaries. They came with skills, and they came to work in the homes of families thereby freeing Canadian women to enter the workplace.” 

She said these women built a foundation on which many stand today. “They brought with them a work ethic, expectations to help their families back home, and to build a greater society here in Canada for future generations. My mother, like so many of you seated here, came from a country far away and just like you as she stepped foot on Canadian soil, she knew that a day like today was possible.” 

Emphasizing that these women were modelling the principle of giving back, an everyday activity, she urged the graduands to demonstrate it every day. “When you see policies that are unfair, change them — that’s giving back. When you see an injustice and you speak up and out, that’s giving back. When you say a word or a simple act of kindness, that is giving back, and know that giving back is altruistic and never ever, ever, transactional.”

Sadu is the great granddaughter of Amanda Rawlinswho was born in Barbados in the 1800s and owned a bakery, and of Amanda Phillips who owned three rum shops and a car in the early 1900s. 

“Her stories taught me to be bold, daring and imaginative. And I am the granddaughter of entrepreneurs Fitz and Edna Walcott; my grandfather was a master builder in his time and my grandmother sold ice, plants, oil, and land. She was a woman who seized opportunities. Their home was a hub and a place of excitement.”

Sadu underscored thatthe work that she has done and continues to do was planted many years ago in her DNA. “I am the daughter of independence movements and civil rights movements, a daughter of jazz, of reggae, of calypso and hip hop, therefore as someone who benefited from change it left no choice but to become an agent of change.” 

Family, friends and well-wishers of Itah Sadu Photo credit: York University

Oscar Wailoo, a friend of Sadu who attended the convocation, said he was exhilarated because he has always called her the youngest of his six sisters. “I know for a fact that this bestowal of a doctorate on Itah was perfectly right because of what she has done through her work and the effect that her work has had on people in general — her writing, storytelling, the extraordinary things that she has done for this society — it was a slam dunk in my estimation that she had to have this. And it is a genuine doctorate.”

Celebrated storyteller and Order of Canada recipient, Rita Cox, said the honour was well deserved and she saw it coming a long time ago because Itah Sadu uses her creativity and imagination to make things happen.

“The thing is she gets things done so there are results every time that she ventures into an exercise. I know that she has the spirit, the understanding, the creativity and the goodwill for everybody. She is inclusive, she is wise beyond her years, and I am not surprised. I think she is heading for even higher honours.”

Gloria Walcott, mother of Itah Sadu, toasts her daughter at lunch after the Fall Convocation Photo credit: York University

In concluding her address to the over three hundred graduands, she thanked the storytelling, publishing, steelpan and Blackhurst communities, and people with whom she worked on various projects such as Pam Campbell, architect Judah Malalu, pannist Wendy Jones and educator Karen Murray for all the heavy lifting as they co-create a better world. Sadu also acknowledged the support of her husband, Miguel, daughter Sojourner Monifa, and “talented community niece,” Shannon Ashman.