A Legacy of Self Advocacy:
How Black People Continue to Show up for Themselves

In Justice by Tani Odukale

For many centuries, Black people have shouldered the responsibility of self-advocacy to get the justice and equality we deserve. From individual efforts to community-based programs, advocacy has taken many forms—and with technological advancements, we continue to see advocacy evolve to this day.

Black advocacy in the past

Black self-advocacy can be seen as far back as the Black Panther Party establishing multiple “survival” programs designed to assist Black people in ways the government did not. The most significant was the Free Breakfast for Children program. Though the program was intended to address food injustice, members of the Black Panther Party also used the opportunity to educate the youth about the issues present in the Black community, strengthen their ties to the communities, and spread their ideologies amongst the youth. The Party claimed to have fed twenty thousand children during the 1968–69 school year.

The Party also established free community health clinics to test and educate the Black community about prominent diseases in our communities, such as sickle cell anemia and HIV/AIDS. Other free programs they offered include clothing distribution, an emergency-response ambulance program, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

The Black Panther Party advocated for themselves and the community by providing services they believed would help them prosper through their survival programs. The Party could serve the Black community by providing them with resources and services the government withheld. The leaders of the Party believed they were providing a model for all oppressed groups in America to use when they decided to take matters into their own hands to end their oppression. Ideally, these programs would meet the needs of the Black community until they could mobilize and change the circumstances that made it difficult for them to afford their needs in the first place.

Social movements

Today, we experience social and political movements designed to provide a platform for Black people to advocate for themselves on a global scale. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement exemplifies self-advocacy as they demand justice, equality, and reform from the government. BLM was created to protest against racially motivated violence against Black people—particularly police brutality. It has since been used to highlight instances of systemic anti-Black racism and demand policy reform. Although the movement originated in the United States, it has now become global, as BLM protesters have mobilized in several countries including the United Kingdom, Denmark, Australia, and here in Canada.

The 2020 BLM protests were an important moment for the movement as an estimated 15 million to 26 million people took to the streets to protest the unjust murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police. Protests took place in all fifty states in the US, as well as in Canada, Germany, Denmark, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. It has been reported that there were over 10,600 BLM protests held in the US from May 22, 2020 to August 22, 2020 and it has been named one of the largest movements in the history of the United States.

Through BLM, thousands of people have advocated for the Black community by protesting the lack of justice when a Black person is unjustly killed by those who are supposed to protect us – the police. BLM has enabled different groups to raise money for the families of those we have lost to police brutality, advocate for prisoners, raise awareness on issues the Black community faces, and provide resources for those who need them.

Career paths

         For some Black people, advocacy occurs through their careers. Christien Levien is a criminal defence lawyer who was motivated to pursue a legal career after he was racially profiled by two police officers in Brampton, Ontario in 2006. He made a formal complaint, leading to a hearing before the Office of Independent Police Review Director. During this hearing, Levien had the opportunity to cross-examine the two officers. One of the officers was reprimanded for the incident, driving Levien to study law at the University of Ottawa.

         Now, Levien works as a sole practitioner at Levien Law. He says his position as a lawyer is a privilege to use to help those around him. He primarily serves clients from racialized communities. He wants to leave his clients in a better position than he met them in, so he goes above and beyond for them and their families. Levien says he believes marginalized people are the most disenfranchised because of their lack of access to important legal information, which led to him developing an app called Legalswipe. With Legalswipe, people have quick access to their legal rights within their mobile phones, should they encounter the police. The app provides situation-based advice and offers the exact words to use during interactions with the police. A personalized message of updates about the user’s location is also sent to emergency contacts.

         Several Black people choose to enter the legal field because they want to help fight for other Black people who do not have the means to fight for themselves. For lawyers like Levien, their profession is a holistic approach to advocating for the disenfranchised. They treat their clients with dignity and respect, and even continue to offer guidance when the case is concluded.

Non-government organizations

         The Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC) is a non-profit legal aid clinic offering low- or no-income Black Ontarians free legal services. It was created to combat systemic anti-Black racism by providing free legal advice, representation, and information sessions to the public. The legal team at BLAC offers services in education, employment, housing law, and advice for human rights issues. Although they do not offer services in criminal, family and immigration, or refugee law, they can refer people to other services that can.

BLAC is currently running a province-wide research and advocacy initiative to gain a better understanding of the school-to-prison pipeline and the experiences of racism and oppression Black students face within the Ontario educational and justice systems. The purpose of this initiative is to understand the experiences of Black students in Ontario and advocate for meaningful change and policy reform within the justice and educational systems.

Through organizations such as BLAC, Black people can combat systematic racism and oppression by providing services to those who otherwise would be unable to afford them. They also demand significant policy advances by listening to the voices of the disenfranchised to see what changes need to be made to improve their lives.

Quiet resistance

Unfortunately, advocating for ourselves does not always yield the results we desire, as we can see through the case of Jamal Francique. On January 7, 2020, 28-year-old Jamal Francique was fatally shot by a Peel Regional Police Officer a few meters away from his Mississauga home. Over the summer, Francique’s family, friends, and community organized vigils and a rally with the family of D’Andre Campbell, another Black man who was shot and killed by a Peel Regional Police Officer in a separate incident in Brampton. Francique’s family continued to demand justice for him and other Black people unjustly killed by the police. They were front and centre during George Floyd’s protests that took place this summer in Toronto.

After a year of investigations, the director of Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) announced on January 20, 2021 that no reasonable grounds were found to criminally charge the officer who fatally shot Francique—who he claimed “engaged in the lawful execution of his duties”. Despite this, Francique’s family and their legal counsel continue to engage in what may seem like a quiet resistance, as they focus their efforts on the administration. Though it may not be televised or turned into a hashtag, Francique’s family is calling out inconsistencies in the SIU’s report, pointing out the SIU continuously covering up incidences of police brutality, and demanding they address all unanswered questions they have.

Knia Singh, the family’s lawyer, demands that the investigation in the fatal shooting must continue despite the findings of the SIU. The family is launching an independent investigation that will examine Francique’s past police records and rely on analysis from lawyers and other professions to look into the incident.

Although Francique’s family is still in the process of healing from this traumatic loss, they remain motivated to receive justice for the death of their son and brother.

The future

For generations, we have remained resilient in the face of  anti-Black racism and injustice. We have fought for our voices to be heard. Despite the fact that advocacy does not always end in justice, it is important that we continue to demand justice for ourselves to contribute to the improvements we want to see within our society. 

It is important to note that advocacy does not necessarily mean you need to become a lawyer or participate in protests. Simple acts of discussing anti-Black racism with both black and non-Black friends, or sharing an infographic on social media are just as important for advocacy. They start a conversation and help educate people who might not be aware of what is going on in the Black community. These seemingly small acts of advocacy may not be the televised revolution we imagine, but they are just as important for the advancement of the Black community—one post, one conversation, one day at a time.