Onward to a “Disability Justice Revolution”

Reviewing Sarah Jama’s timely Hart House Hancock Lecture

Onward to a “Disability Justice Revolution”

On March 14, U of T community members eagerly attended the annual Hancock Lecture at Hart House’s Great Hall to listen to Black disability activist Sarah Jama, whose talk was entitled “Moving Toward a Disability Justice Revolution.” The event was originally scheduled in February, during Black History Month, but was delayed due to severe weather conditions.

Jama is a Hamilton-based community organizer and a co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario (DJNO), an organization that seeks to “[create] a world where people with disabilities are free to be.” The DJNO does advocacy work, runs workshops and focus groups, and reports on various relevant policies and legislation. They seek nothing less than complete personal and political self-determination for people with disabilities in Ontario.

Jama was commanding and dynamic as she spoke forcefully to the room, pulling no punches and refusing to sugarcoat her language. She condemned the various superseding structures that have made life untenable for so many people with disabilities, including the role of specific anti-disability politicians, like Premier Doug Ford.

Part of what was so powerful about Jama’s speech was her ability to paint a holistic picture of the state of things that produce marginalization. “At the end of the day, all of the struggles that we care about are intertwined,” she insisted. 

Jama tied capitalism with ableism by asserting that it is the former’s unnuanced focus on productivity and individualism that devalues the lives of disabled people. She linked the legacy of colonialism with ableism by explaining how the enslavement of Africans constructed them as disabled in order to excuse their subjugation and to pathologize their desire for freedom.

But just as these legacies of domination are interconnected, so too must the work of resisting them be intertwined. Jama stressed the importance of building coalitions between seemingly disparate aims. “These conversations [are] tied back to the root cause of people not being able to create spaces or have their voices heard, and that matters to people [of all stripes],” she asserted.

All activism, whether it be for anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rights, or disability justice, is grounded in the desire of these communities to be able to exist freely and unapologetically in a society that actively works to marginalize and silence them.

Jama acknowledged that, as students, we have an unprecedented level of freedom afforded to us, and with it, the ability to make connections with others, get involved in social issues, and do activist work. She advised that on the campus level, we should start by learning about and involving ourselves with spaces that we don’t normally occupy. It is important to make ourselves uncomfortable and to ask questions.

In these ways, we can disrupt normalcy and learn to work with each other. As students, our aim is to not only learn about the world, but to engage in bettering it. This involves disrupting our perspectives and learning about disparate experiences and ways of being.

The systems that are in place have been made and maintained through human effort and are not timeless or impervious. They can therefore be dismantled through human effort.

Jama’s words are timely. We live in a time when governments worldwide are issuing austerity measures. Politics are increasingly divisive and many of us are becoming cynical and disenfranchised. In Ontario, the government’s attacks on the Ontario Student Assistance Program, public health care, Ontario Works, and the Ontario Disability Support Program, as well as the termination of the Basic Income Pilot, are all part of a larger project to undermine the lives of the province’s most marginalized people.

In this burning world, a lot of activism tends to be centred around rage and anger. This is a valid reaction, but approaching social issues from a place of cynicism only has so much potential for growth. “Figuring out how to organize from a place of love,” insisted Jama, is the crucial first step.

Indeed, we must love those around us — especially if we don’t understand their experiences. Only from this place can we move toward a revolution. As Jama noted, the institutions and structures that oppress and silence us desire us to be divided and pitted against each other, because they know that if unified, we will become a dangerous force.

The Hancock Lecture closed with moderator Loren Delaney reciting a poem with the line, “Underneath this skin, bone, and blood is you, me, us, and them, dressed as others.” To seek justice and move toward a revolution, we need to acknowledge our commonalities and learn to depend on each other, while resisting the superseding structures that seek to divide us to navigate activism and the world from a place of love.

Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College. She is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.

Chizoba Imoka discusses Black education at 2018 Hancock Lecture

OISE student stresses importance of “pluriversal” world, recognizing diverse cultures

Chizoba Imoka discusses Black education at 2018 Hancock Lecture

The 17th annual Margaret Hancock Lecture, titled “Black & Educated? Unveiling the Contradictions & Redesigning the Future,” featured Hancock Lecturer Chizoba Imoka and moderator Dr. Kofi Hope. At Hart House on January 23, Imoka spoke about key issues facing today’s Black youth, primarily focusing on the effect of colonialism on the education system.

Imoka began by recognizing the history of Black people, who made it possible for her to gain a platform. “A little over 200 years ago, people like me were slaves,” she said. “How we evolved from there to here has really been because of the vision, the courage, and the persistence of many Black people who did not give up.”

She also stressed the importance of providing space and platforms, such as the Hancock lecture, to Black people.

“For me, what it has meant to be Black and educated has meant being uprooted from my cultural heritage and being forced to take on a Eurocentric perspective,” she said. “And that has prevented me from transforming the world, transforming my continent, transforming Canada at the time and the place that I thought was necessary.”

She recalled a specific instance when her advisor told her that she was not eligible for a particular scholarship because he assumed she did not go to school in Canada, “an assumption based on [her] skin colour.”

She elaborated on how the effects of colonialism are still present in Nigeria. In 1969, the country held its first conference regarding Indigenous education, in order to design an education system better suited for postcolonial Nigeria. “After the conference, what changed? Nothing.”

“[The] language of instruction remained English, even though there are 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria, and 400-plus languages,” said Imoka.

She suggested a shift from a universal world with common understandings of religion, philosophy, and art to a world with a melting pot of ideas and cultures.

“We need to move to a pluriversal world, where all the diverse cultures and epistemologies of the world that we shut out as a result of colonialism… We need to bring them in and create a world where all the multiple knowledge systems and all the philosophies start to form the world,” she said.

Hope delivered a short speech containing examples of his own personal experiences in education to end the talk, and he reiterated many of Imoka’s points.

“When you think about people of African descent, we know certainly that educational systems can perpetuate anti-Black racism, but they can also provide social mobility, and a platform for us to overturn oppression,” he said.

The Hancock Lecture was first launched in 2001, with the goal of igniting conversation and debate among the public about issues deemed important by youth. Originally named Hart House Lecture, the event was renamed in 2007 in honour of Margaret Hancock, the first female warden of Hart House.

Editor’s Note (February 2): A previous version of this article incorrectly state that Imoka’s father was an immigrant to Canada.