17 Dec What a Year…
Insight by Lanrrick Bennett Jr., 8 80 Cities Managing Director
I’d been through a pandemic before, in Toronto, during the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Two things I remember most, my mom being a nurse at the time and SARSfest.
I still have a nurse in my life, but 2020 would be a very different pandemic.
Eight months before my first day at 880 Cities was on Thursday, February 27th, my then 8-year-old son and I rode across Danforth Av in a pop-up complete street just west of Woodbine.
The banner behind my desk read, “What if everything we did in our cities was great for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old?” Yes, yes, YES! This was a dream job.
I lasted all of two weeks before my wife Sabrina, a nurse at Princess Margret Hospital, called to let me know she wouldn’t be able to stay home with the kids over the March Break and if I would be able to ask my boss, 14 days in if I could work from home over that week. She said yes, and that was my last official day in the office.
My extended probation felt like a blur, jumping in and out of Zoom meetings with teammates, getting a feel for personalities and lovely quarks. I had lucked into a group that, although clearly stressed like everyone else in the city, “rolled with the punches” of the new normal. Separated, we’d get through this together, was the banter after many digital team meetings.
I got into a rhythm with early morning bike rides with my son, giving the kids the freedom to walk to our nearest park for picnic lunches. I was excited to start diving deep into new programs. We were going to work through this pandemic as a fluid team. I was ready.
But I wasn’t.
May 25th came hard. Reports of a bizarre encounter in New York City. In Central Park, Christian Cooper had a confrontation with a white woman who tried to call the cops on him, posing as a victim, knowing that calling the cops would put Mr. Cooper’s life in danger. That same day George Floyd was murdered after being arrested in Minneapolis. Held down by police officers, one of whom had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck.
I can’t say that this day specifically was the day another pandemic rumbled across the city. The country. The world. But working within the world of place makers and urbanists, the lexicon of #BlackLivesMatter was chiselled abruptly, purposefully into the cortex of anyone who had a pulse.
Eight days later, people and organizations were flooding social media feeds with black screens calling for the world to pay attention. As Will Smith commented years before, “Racism is NOT getting worse; it’s getting FILMED.”
I can’t tell you how small I felt in my privileged seat, in my home. Eyes turned to me for what to do next. How to put into words days, weeks, years, decades of unabashed racism. I turned off notifications, stopped answering phone calls and emails. I did the work I needed to do to keep my mind off the horrible truth outside of my door.
The following months were an internal and external rebuild for myself, my family and so many of the touchpoints in our lives. From the schools my kids attend to our neighbours across the street to my presence in my community. A pivot that included discussing anti-Black racism wasn’t being hidden anymore.
As a team, we talked about an end of the year blog post, and my hand jetted up. I started this off with just a list of the 8 80 Cities team’s accomplishments, but I just shut down every time I got to May. Deleted everything and rewrote it again and again and again. I’m part of an amazing little team with the potential to help change my city and cities across Canada and around the world. Yup, I get to boast about that. But also recognize that the buzz words of #BuildBackBetter will be very hollow if my voice, my Black voice, isn’t making noise.
Isn’t finding space for those that look like me.
Isn’t acknowledging and respecting the plight of my indigenous sisters and brothers.
Isn’t empowering the most vulnerable in our communities.
If we’re to change the course of what has clearly been a white man’s world. We can’t hold back.
I’ll leave you with this statement from my friend Dr. Notisha Massaquoi “Be outraged by the racism you see. Then use that outrage to act outrageously to change it.”
I’m outraged, and I will make change.
I truly appreciate my team giving me space to write my thoughts, my feelings here today.
* The image accompanying this blog post is from the mural #EnemyOfMyJusticeIsIgnoranceAlliendWithPower, by artist Elicser. The mural is located on Ben Kerr Lane at the East End in Toronto.