Things I Want For Toronto In 2018 - Part 2

The area around Bathurst and Bloor was once home to Toronto's community of Black and Caribbean businesses, and several still remain, like Lloyd's Barber Shop and Golden Barber Shop along with somewhat newer businesses like A Different Booklist and The Dirty Bird Chicken & Waffles.

“Give ‘til it hurts.” Kirk Tulloch, co-owner, Onyx Barbers

Toronto is a wealthy city, but it seems the wealthier it gets, the more people get left behind. Just like every other social issue, the shrinking of Toronto’s middle class, outrageous real estate prices and our dependence on precarious employment have affected Black Torontonians the most, especially young people. 

As someone who’s spent nearly a decade working in the community as a volunteer, coach and social service worker, I’m just about burnt out. What we’re doing isn’t working, and I’ve come to the realization that my work and everyone else’s has only served to sustain the system we work in and uphold the status quo. This year is as good a year as any to finally start working for ourselves. Here is the second of five Things I Want For Toronto in 2018.

Black community-builders need to ditch the nonprofit sector.

It’s time to switch to a model of business ownership. Black youth are tired of programs, Black employees are tired of temporary contracts and Black organizations are tired of funding cuts. Even when we start our own organizations we’re dependent on the same governments and corporations that discriminate against us. As Black people we can’t set our own agenda if our goals have to match their goals. Black-owned businesses that exist to serve Black customers and hire Black people, even family members, can give back to their communities without being accountable to anyone but Black people.

There are, of course, barriers to Black business ownership that are unique to our community. Many other immigrant and ethnic groups faced economic discrimination in Toronto. Italians, Chinese, South Asians and others also struggled to secure leases,  business loans and mortgages, and they often had to rely on more informal, underground networks or alternative funding like interest-free Islamic banks and even organized crime. When they managed to establish thriving business communities, they hired each other and loaned each other money to start more businesses. When news broke several years ago that Caribbean-Canadian, East African and Portuguese-Canadian students had alarming high school-dropout rates in Toronto, people thought, why are Portuguese kids dropping? More research showed that many were leaving school to work in family businesses in contracting, construction and food service.

At last year's Welcome To Blackhurst exhibit celebrating the Caribbean community and businesses that once existed near the intersection of Bathurst and Bloor, I read a story about the young founders of the not-yet-successful Too Black Guys streetwear line. They were telling the established Black dentist next door about their difficulties securing a five thousand dollar business loan to fill some orders, looking for advice. The dentist had recently applied for twenty thousand and been approved for thirty, and offered to accept an extra five thousand and loan it to the young designers. They repaid the loan in less than a month. Gentrification and rising commercial and residential rents claimed Blackhurst in the 90s, but Black business owners done community-building in this city, and many are still doing it right now.

Kirk Tulloch and Lowell Stephens at Onyx Barbers send their barbers to community centres and homeless shelters to give free cuts, and besides their plans to expand Onyx to neighbourhoods outside of downtown, one of their most popular barbers, Garry “Popz” James, just opened his own shop in his Esplanade neighbourhood, building on his previous experience running barber shops in his hometown of Halifax. I call them Black business role models, and there are several in Toronto that are looking to give back, both by hiring young people and experienced workers from their communities, and by offering free space and services to the communities that support them.

While eating at one of my favourite (partially) Black-owned businesses, Dirty Bird Chicken & Waffles, I met Adrian Fenty, who told me how his family raises and donates as much as five thousand dollars to community initiatives and students every year through The Jerome Henry Foundation.

Eventually a network of Black businesses and families like Adrian's could fund important institutions like daycares, schools and banks that could serve their employees, customers, investors and other stakeholders, allowing young people and struggling members of Toronto’s Black community access to jobs, education and employment training that best serves our needs. 

Talented poet and Black Lives Matter - Toronto co-founder Yusra Khogali once told me there's no one way to achieve equity and justice for Black people. Striving for ownership and independence from the mainsteam institutions that exclude us is the way I will choose to fight for equity and justice in 2018.


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