Niambi Leigh on the Future of Peterborough

LEAD Niambi Leigh
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We are fast approaching the Peterborough municipal election, which occurs on October 22. An election is not just a changing of the guard in leadership, but is also an ideal time to start a conversation about the kind of city, and the kind of future, we want to build. There are many challenges facing this city right now, many ideas about directions the city could go, and many opportunities to build towards those futures.

Recently, we have been speaking to local community organizers, thought-leaders, advocates, activists, and citizens about their visions for the Future of Peterborough. We will be publishing these interviews over the next weeks and months, and encouraging you, our readers and the citizens of Peterborough, to have your say.

Niambi Leigh is the organizer of Black Lives Matter Nogojiwanong, a movement of dedicated community members resisting anti-black racism, state-sanctioned and institutional violence, and fighting for the rights of black, Indigenous, and people of colour. Niambi is also a poet. She hails from Jamaica, and has made Peterborough her home.

 

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What do you believe are the most important issues facing Peterborough right now?

I would say that there is a big race issue facing Peterborough. There always has been, especially with the fact that we have the university and college, which leads to a lot of diverse students coming in. It brings a lot of instances where people from here, who are mainly white and don’t necessarily have experience with international folks or diverse students, have a hard time having them assimilate or trying to blend in.

I’ve heard of instances of students or immigrant friends or people who just come here for work being treated in certain ways racially. It’s a big deal. We always stand out, we’re always made to be a spectacle, or we’re always exotified because it’s not “normal” for the people in Peterborough to be around racialized folks.

In recent years there have been a lot more diverse people coming here, not just for school and for work, but to stay here permanently. (For example, there are the) Syrian refugees that came in a couple of years ago.

I feel that regardless of whether the white community of Peterborough feels like they can or can’t assimilate or get used to the amount of racialized folks that are coming here and trying to make this space a home, they’re going to have to buck up, because at this point they don’t really have a choice. It’s also not even their land to say, “We don’t want these people to come in here.” We’re all living and existing and working on stolen Indigenous lands, and these lands specifically belong to the Anishinaabe folk. So if anybody was to say, “Oh, we don’t want racialized folk to come in here,” it would be up to the Indigenous community that is native to here to do that. But they never would, because they also are POCs (people of colour) and racialized folks who understand what it’s like to have your home or your community or culture be uprooted and be forced to go somewhere else and try to rebuild and start over. So I think that that is an issue facing Peterborough right now.

I also think there are a lot of things happening in the Peterborough queer community, and especially in the Peterborough queer trans community. There are a lot of people in that community trying to gain visibility and trying to gain recognition that are out here doing work, not just for themselves and the queer community, but are also trying to work with racialized communities as well. Because racialized communities also have queer or trans folk, and they’re really trying to build a space where we can all support and rally and work for each other and get the same amount of treatment that white folks get—to be on the level of being treated the same, being seen as equal, getting the same access and services and privilege that they have. That is an issue that I feel like the queer community in Peterborough and especially the trans community (is facing). How trans people in this city are treated is ridiculous, and a lot of work needs to be done. But I also know a lot of people are out here putting in the work, like I am doing with Black Lives Matter and a lot of other people are doing. And we’re trying to not just do activism on our own, but to focus on the intersectionality between (our causes). Because you can’t fight for one thing, and ignore the other side.

 

What are you seeing in the community you’d like to see more of?

What I would like to see more of in the community is more of an embodiment of the word community itself. Right now we’re in a place where people may be a little bit more focused on themselves or their own agenda. Even in movements like feminism or (other types of) activism, people are out here, and they’re fighting for something and they’re fighting for change. But they’re only fighting for the things and the change that are affecting them directly. They’re not considering how (a particular) issue is also affecting people outside of their immediate communities. What I’ve been seeing, and the community that I’ve been trying to build and work with, are the ones that are focused on the intersectionality between things and how being trans in Peterborough sucks, but also how being a trans person of colour sucks. We’re focused on the levels and the sub-tiers and how it’s going to affect each of us individually, even though we’re all trying to fight for the same thing.

The other thing I am seeing that I really love is that there are three people of colour running for city council right now. I think that is amazing. I never thought I would live to see such a thing in Peterborough. And I really hope that the city is in a place to accept and work with a big change in something like that. I really support Kemi (Akapo) and Stephen (Wright) and Charmaine (Magumbe) in going for what they believe and trying to make change in the community themselves by trying to gain a bigger platform to do so. I’ve worked with each of these people individually enough to know that even if they don’t have the same ideas that I have, if I went to them and said this is something that is important to me, we would at least be able to sit down and have a conversation about how to make that situation best for everyone involved. And those are the kind of people that I want running the community that I care so much about.



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What is your ideal vision for the future of Peterborough?

Right now my main vision for Peterborough is for us to have a Black Lives Matter chapter that is as visible, as active and as productive as the Toronto Black Lives Matter chapter. I want us to be able to have the same weight and the same say and be able to do the same kind of actions in the same way they do. I want people of colour—black, Indigenous, POCs—who either live here or are just moving here or if you’re only here for one night, to know that there is a Black Lives Matter here. We’re willing to work for you and give you any kind of support or community or resource you need. I want it to be a space that everybody knows exists and that any black Indigenous person of colour knows that they can have a space and they can have a community and a city that they might have not thought they would. Because on the surface it seems so white. But there are people here, and we are gathering, so I want to make that space more visible and more accessible. There are so many people of colour in Peterborough who need access to resources and community and don’t have it, just because they don’t know that there are other people here who can help them.

It is already happening, but I would also love to see a more diverse Peterborough, not just in the people that I see every day, but in the food that I can get in the grocery store, in the stores that are around. I love that there is a new Jamaican restaurant in town now. There is also an African market that sells food and clothes and hair. This is amazing because now I don’t have to go all the way to Ajax or Toronto to buy hair. I need my city to be able to give me the community and culture that I would find in a more diverse, bigger space. And it is slowly, slowly happening. Ideally, I want Peterborough to still keep the beauty and the suburban and the nature, but be more diverse as a whole.

 

What do you believe we need to do to get there?

If I can be blunt, I feel like a lot of people, especially the ones that are quick to call themselves allies, need to first and foremost sit down and shut up and listen. People of colour and Indigenous folks have been out here for days, hours, years trying to tell everybody what we need to feel heard, to feel respected and valued as a part of a community, to feel equal. Nobody has been listening to us. That’s why we’ve gotten so loud. That’s why we’re at the point where we’re yelling and angry. We’ve been trying to tell everybody for so long, and nobody is listening to us. Anybody who is out here trying to help, sit down and listen. That’s the first step.

And do your best to set your ego aside, because it is not about you. It’s never going to be about you. Just because we’re out here saying blacks lives matter doesn’t mean that we’re not acknowledging that your life is also important. But that’s not the point that we’re trying to make right now. Your life has always been important. You’ve never ever been told that your life wasn’t important. But we’ve always been told, and that’s why we need to reclaim it by saying that our lives matter. We are reclaiming it for us. I feel like people who call themselves allies or want to help, want to be absolved of everything they’ve ever done racially wrong to any person of colour. But it’s really not about that, honestly. If you really want to help us, find out what we need and then use your privilege to get us that. Even as an immigrant person of colour living in this city, I feel way more privileged than a lot of people who hold the same space that I do. But I use the resources that I have, and I share and I give those resources to people. My friends and my white friends that I call allies are people that hold me in ways that I don’t even have to ask them to sometimes. I have friends that I’ll call and say, “This is happening…”, and even before I finish the sentence, they’ll be fixing it or they’ll give money or (give support in other ways) because they have those resources. So if you really want to help, figure out what you have to offer and give it.

And don’t stand in front of anybody. Don’t speak for us. Don’t take up our space. Just sit down and listen. If we really need you anywhere near us, it’s behind us when we’re standing at the forefront.

 

How could the people of Peterborough help to accomplish this?

LEAD Niambi Leigh cropSome of the things that I’ve really appreciated are that I’ve had allies donate money in different ways to either organizations or to Black Lives Matter itself. I once had someone order a number of Black Lives Matter T-shirts in a bunch of sizes and then just drop them off to us, and told us we could do whatever we wanted with them. I thought that that was an amazing and very helpful thing to do. We’re grassroots; at this point I’m the only person organizing and I can’t afford to do such a thing. So that was something I really appreciated.

Also, as an immigrant, I’m learning a lot about black Canadian culture. I’m Jamaican, so I know a lot about black Jamaican culture. But I’m still learning about how a lot of black Canadians have been oppressed and how, through the years, they’ve been trying to resist. So I’ve had white allies who’ve had experience, they’ve read the books and gone to school and been taught all that information, sit down with me and give me the information that I need to know how to resist in a way that my community has actively been doing for years.

I’ve had people show up with candles. People buy us patches and buttons. I’m not very technologically savvy. Someone made us a Facebook page and Instagram (account), and they have helped me run it. It’s the little things that are slowly helping me build the platform. Because I want to be able to have other people help organize. I can’t be Black Lives Matter by myself.

That’s not me, and that’s not what it’s about. It’s about a community of people running it and creating space and trying to make a better community for themselves. We’re always looking for other organizers and having someone help me advertise and vocalize. . . has been really amazingly helpful.

To learn more and connect with Black Lives Matter, visit:

Instagram: blmnogoptbo

Facebook: Facebook.com/blmnogoptbo

Photo by Natelie Herault

 

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