A day after a copy of a Region of Durham Black History Month scavenger hunt was shared and widely circulated on social media, there are growing calls for accountability after officials issued an apology Thursday morning.
“It was so incredibly shameful that I was as much as in disbelief as… I had to laugh, you have to laugh because how can after so much time, so much effort trying to educate, agitate, create change could something so completely off be put forth as a Black History Month initiative? It simply doesn’t make sense,” Shailene Panylo, co-founder of the Durham Black Accountability Coalition, told Global News.
“Black History Month has long been an opportunity for non-Black folk to tokenize Black bodies within conversations and space, essentially freeing other people who are non-Black from having to interact with their own learning and unlearning in a way that’s truthfully meaningful and would dismantle systems that activities like this only continue to uphold.”
The scavenger hunt, which was devised by a Region of Durham staff diversity committee and sent out internally to employees, asked them to do things like dance to a Reggae song and “have a conversation with a Black employee.” It came to light after it was shared on Twitter by journalist, author and activist Desmond Cole.
The directive to staff opens with the question, “Can you rise to the challenge,” and participants were asked to complete it between the dates of Feb. 1 and 6.
Participants were asked to complete six tasks: Read (and name) a poem by a Black Canadian author; “spend a few minutes to learn about Africa” and answer three geographic questions; dance to a Reggae song and list the name; cook an African or Caribbean meal and describe it; have a conversation with a Black employee and name them; take a photo of an item in the home that reminds the participant of Black history and explain why with an accompanying picture; and unscramble and identify six words in the phrase EYGULLEECCAATTHOIONNERS.
Hours after Cole’s tweet, a statement was posted on the Region of Durham’s Twitter account. The tweet started with the words “We hear you” and it posted an image of a statement that said, “addressing anti-Black racism is a priority” for the municipality. It said there are activities throughout the month for staff to learn about Black history, Black culture and achievements within the Black community.
“Through engaging with the community and Regional staff we acknowledge that mistakes will be made when addressing anti-Black racism. This challenge activity is one of them,” the statement said in part.
Panylo said the suggestion that employees seek out a Black coworker to have a conversation with and then later identify who they spoke with was particularly offensive.
“It’s a very violent way of tokenizing Black people and Black bodies within workspaces and it should never have happened,” she said while also criticizing the Region for not apologizing on Wednesday.
“There was no explicit, ‘I’m sorry,’ there was no ownership of that, there was no accountability, and who approved it and who passed it.”
Panylo said it’s “absolutely disheartening and so incredibly disappointing” after hearing multiple municipal employees oversaw this activity.”
“How many folks did this go through? What are their salaries? How much are taxpayers paying for them to come out with this bingo book of superficial Black History Month engagement?” she asked.
“There are so many Black community leaders, professionals could have done more meaningful work.”
Cole’s tweet went on to be shared hundreds of times and was widely commented on. One of the many criticisms raised was a lack of accountability and responsibility for the activity being created and published in the first place. Many responded on social media to the Region of Durham as well as Regional Chair John Henry.
Panylo said while she has “great respect” for Henry and his past community work, it’s not only him that must take accountability for what happened.
“I don’t want him to take full responsibility for it, and I say that because in him doing so he becomes a figurehead and simply a symbol of the deeply entrenched issue that still continues to exist within the region,” she said.
“(It) still exists within every single one of the individuals that went into creating this activity and every single employee that perhaps started to participate and something didn’t flag in their mind that something about this was superficial, potentially violent, or was just recreating the same stereotypes.”
Panylo said everyone involved in the activity must take responsibility to follow-through to the community with clear, “concrete” actionable items tied to a timeline for implementation, adding community members are “tired” of simply hearing that people are using instances as just a learning opportunity.
She also reiterated that the activity doesn’t address major issues facing the Black community in Durham Region such as defunding and reallocating at least a portion of the Durham Regional Police budget to community resources and overhauling the services provided by Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences, citing a 2020 petition that had more than 15,000 signatures.
“There are people with real struggles and real realities that need to be addressed,” Panylo said.
Global News spoke with Chair John Henry and Regional Municipality of Durham Chief Administrative Officer Elaine Baxter-Trahair to ask about the activity and the details surrounding it.
“Once we found out about it, we were disappointed. We reacted yesterday afternoon. It wasn’t something we saw,” Henry said on Thursday.
“I’m apologetic for it and we’re sorry it has happened.”
Baxter-Trahair said the activity and Black History Month activities were overseen by a cross-department, “diverse group of individuals.” She went on to describe what happened as a “misjudgment in a couple of areas.”
“I think the staff’s objectives were really true to trying to increase knowledge of Black History Month, there was just a couple of misjudgments, so going forward I have to make sure there’s the oversight and training in place so the committee can make better decisions,” Baxter-Trahair said, noting the Region’s corporate services commissioner was tasked with reviewing further events.
“This is about the region trying to undertake activities to really educate staff more broadly on Black history and culture and unfortunately a couple of the activities included — a couple out of many activities — were problematic and that’s what we’re here to apologize for, but the finger doesn’t go to any one individual.”
Baxter-Trahair said the Region launched a mandatory training program for all staff in January. The full details of the program weren’t clear as of Thursday, but she said the first stage focused on anti-Black racism and that further training on sensitivity and unconscious bias will be held in the future.
She said a manager of diversity in the Region’s human resources department has been going through all of the municipality’s procedures and policies in an effort to remove barriers for racialized employees.
When asked what percentage of the Region’s workforce is racialized, Baxter-Trahair said there’s money in the 2021 budget to do a census of staff to get updated, baseline data, adding the current information is at least four or five years old. However, Henry noted that efforts have been ongoing to diversify the Region’s staff as employees retire.
Both Baxter-Trahair and Henry said after a community town hall in 2020, plans were created to create a dedicated division within the Region of Durham to specifically deal with racism, diversity and inclusion-related matters.
“I admit that we have challenges and I’m apologetic for what has happened here, but going forward we will commit not only the staff but the financial resources and a stand-alone department to deal with the challenges of anti-Black, systemic racism throughout the Region of Durham,” Henry said.
“We need to do better within the Region … ultimately I take responsibility for it. This is something that will be addressed through the Region and we will continue to rebuild those bridges that have been damaged during this event.”
Meanwhile, Baxter-Trahair said she will be raising the issue during a monthly town hall with employees next week. She also said she has heard mixed reactions from employees since details of the scavenger hunt were shared Wednesday afternoon.
“We have had a couple express concerns to us. I’ve also had a couple very graciously call and offer us support today as we undertake these interviews and look at what we’re going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.