The two began working together when the community group Black in Saskatchewan officially formed last spring. The organization started, in part, as a response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which sparked racial justice movements around the world.
“A lot of us, especially Black youth, were having discussions about the different issues that are not new — we’ve been experiencing and seeing them for a really long time,” said Natana, 20, the group’s chief operating officer and a social-work student at the University of Regina.
“It seemed as though there was a really huge gap in understanding as to, ‘why are things the way they are?’”
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That question has remained central to the work done by the dozen core members of Black in Saskatchewan, and the hundreds more volunteers and supporters.
“We’re not spearheading anything, but (rather) joining what has been a long, ongoing movement that started way beyond Regina, Sask.,” Natana added, acknowledging the work of Black elders who forged a path for change in the province.
In the last year, Black in Saskatchewan has organized rallies, shared personal stories and helped lead important conversations on race relations at the individual and institutional levels.
“Hearing everybody’s stories, and how similar the stories were, it gave us an opportunity to see the power of your testimony,” said Mbanza, a Grade 7 teacher in Regina.
Mbanza was born during the final years of apartheid in Johannesburg, South Africa. The 28-year-old said growing up at a time when Nelson Mandela came to power as the country’s president inspired him.
“For a long time, the conversation around race was something I wasn’t really willing to have with anybody,” he said.
“But now, with everything going on in the United States, in Canada and the pro-Black movement, it’s really given me the opportunity to speak on those things and really be comfortable in who I am in my skin.”
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Black in Saskatchewan members have met with the provincial Ministry of Education and Regina Catholic School Division. There are plans for an upcoming discussion with Prairie Valley School Division, serving areas outside Regina.
“Your first kind of understanding of race relations, and what it means to be a Black person in Saskatchewan, a lot of it starts within the school setting,” Natana said.
“In us getting to hear the experiences of youth and parents who are within some of these school systems … we’re able to better understand what the gaps are. Then we’re able to bring those to the key stakeholders that are making the decisions.”
As for policing, Mbanza said it was Regina police Chief Evan Bray who reached out to Black in Saskatchewan to build a better relationship.
“That was kind of the first step, building the relationship with the Black community and the police through conversations,” Mbanza said.
“They’ve done a great job of listening and hearing our stories and what we have to say. How we can kind of bridge the gap and build that relationship, so those instances of police brutality and racial discrimination don’t happen.”
The work is far from finished. While strangers often reach out to the group on social media with questions on how to address anti-Black racism, Mbanza and Natana acknowledge they also come up against fear, misunderstanding and defensiveness.
“Sometimes you get comments about, ‘oh, this doesn’t happen here.’ And comments about groups that are doing the type of work we’re doing as kind of being ‘anti-Canadian,’” Natana said.
“For everyone, ourselves included, a huge part of this anti-racism practice is being able to recognize there’s no clear destination at which you’re able to just declare yourself rid of all racist bias and anything like that. It’s more accepting this as an ongoing commitment to a lifelong journey.”
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Black in Saskatchewan continues to host virtual public discussions during the pandemic. The organization is also looking for more volunteer members-at-large, an opportunity open to any Saskatchewan resident who wants to contribute to addressing systemic racism.
“Being able to see perspectives change, see hearts changes as well within our community, that brings a lot of optimism and continues to push us forward in our work,” Natana said.
“Anytime you do this kind of work, you have to be optimistic, you have to stay hopeful,” Mbanza said. “Because a lot of times you might not see the fruits of your labour.”
Learn more about how Natana and Mbanza are Shaping Saskatchewan in the above video.