Brooklyn Albuquerque is behind the megaphone as she leads a Black Lives Ontario rally. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Albuquerque

Fight for justice built on Catholic roots

  • July 18, 2020

For teenage anti-racism activist Brooklyn Albuquerque, the fight for social justice hits painfully close to home.

Of mixed racial heritage, the 15-year-old has seen how racism has impacted her friends and family, including her Black father who has been a victim of racial violence. Albuquerque launched an organization called Black Lives Ontario in June after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a white police officer sparked anti-Black racism protests across the globe.

The Grade 10 student at St. Roch Catholic Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., led her first protest on July 5 and says she is driven by the moral teaching of her Catholic education and a deep sense of empathy for the injustice inflicted on others. The march started and ended in Brampton’s Gage Park and gave a panel of Black youth the emotional opportunity to share the ways in which they have been impacted by anti-Black racism.

“I’ve always believed in being nice to everyone and making sure everyone is included and I feel that Catholicism helped a lot with that,” said Albuquerque, whose father is of Black Tanzanian and Indian descent and mother is white French Canadian. “They teach you morals and knowing right from wrong. I feel like that’s the real meaning of Catholic school, just that overall overwhelming sense of love for others.”

The conversation around racism within Ontario schools has been a major topic of discussion in recent weeks. This month, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the government’s plan to phase out Grade 9 academic streaming which has been subject to criticism for some time. High school students in Ontario are asked to choose between more practical, hands-on applied courses and more theoretical academic courses in core subjects like math, science and English.

Critics of streaming argue that it disproportionately impacted racialized and low-income students, resulting in lower graduation rates and test scores.

“Our Black, Indigenous and racialized students face more social and economic barriers to success than their fellow students, and that’s just not right,” said Ford.

Albuquerque says racism within the school system is a major problem that needs to be addressed. Issues such as disproportionate levels of suspension of Black students and the negatively unequal treatment by teachers and other staff within Ontario classrooms is a large part of why she is using her voice in hopes of bringing about meaningful change.

“When you’re in elementary school you think it’s all rainbows but when you get older and actually start doing the work and growing up you see more of the injustices that dark students face,” said Albuquerque. “Black students get punished for behaviour that for white students gets swept under the rug.”

With youth and young adults leading the movement for racial justice across the world, Albuquerque is part of a rising group of young Catholics who are working to move the needle forward in the fight for racial equality.

Leah Watkiss, program director of Social Justice, Peace and Creation Care, and Sabrina Cheifari, program director of the youth ministry Faith Connections — both under the Sisters of St. Joseph in Toronto — have been engaged in their own journey as allies for racial equality.

They recently launched a podcast called Creativity of Love, a term Pope Francis used in his Holy Week message to describe how we can reach out to people while navigating the challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In their first episode, they speak to an Indigenous Elder about truth and reconciliation and how it may be understood in the current racial climate.

“I think of this as a real moment of opportunity for us to stop and think and imagine a new world,” said Watkiss. “If we don’t, we will become stuck in a loop of merely reacting and responding to one crisis after another.

“Creativity of Love is trying to shift that. It’s trying to help people to think and dream about a better future, about a just future, about one that upholds the Gospel values of peace, justice and creation care.”

Like Albuquerque, they say the racial justice fight is about compassion for fellow humans through acknowledging and unpacking the social construct that we called race and seeing all people as fully human in the eyes of God. This means learning each other’s history, listening to each other’s stories and doing the work to become educated in hopes that society will eradicate racism.

“I’m never going to argue with someone over Black lives mattering or Indigenous lives mattering,” said Albuquerque. “Every person in our school deserves to have a voice, especially our Black and Indigenous community, because we can’t say all lives matter when all lives are not treated like that at all.”

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