How Michelle rose above adversity and is thriving today
This is Michelle. She grew up in Edmonton. Whenever Michelle returns to Edmonton, she sits on the curb next to Bissell Centre’s community space. “This is where she sat,” Michelle says. “And I feel like she’s still here. I tell her that I love her whenever I sit here.”
Michelle’s mom regularly visited Bissell Centre, requiring services from drop-in supports to the housing program. “My mom was a residential school survivor, she became addicted to alcohol and drugs over the years. She was the most loving, kind mom before that.”
She sits on the curb, lights the sage in a small cast iron skillet and places her headphones into her ears. She takes a long breath and starts talking to her mom. She tells her how she’s taking care of the babies, getting her degree, and working in corporate now – that she’s doing really good.
When Michelle says she’s doing really good, this carries a very heavy weight. This means she’s helping her children heal, providing for her family, and moving forward away from the cycle of poverty she knew. She’s breaking Intergenerational trauma and overcoming systemic oppression. And she’s able to give back.
Another breath and she begins singing. Not starting with a whisper, but right from the bottom of her feet, out her mouth, and reverberating across 96 Street. Wandering up and down the alleyway where her mother passed away, she releases every emotion in her being with every word she sings.
Where Michelle is today
Today, Michelle is a social worker with a background in childcare and Indigenous culture. She now lives in central Alberta. She is part of an Alberta Health Services advisory council, where she regularly attends meetings to help offer better services to all Albertans.
It was not an easy path. Growing up in poverty and with parents experiencing addiction meant she had to work four times as hard to get where she is today. Michelle was able to find a path that was healthier and more fulfilling for her and her family.
Michelle’s Journey to Bissell
As a child, Michelle (along with her mother and three siblings) left their northern Alberta community to escape toxic family dynamics and domestic violence. The family travelled to Edmonton for a better life. But both of her parents quickly experienced addictions, and it wasn’t long before Michelle’s mother found herself living in Edmonton without shelter.
After she became a parent, Michelle came to Bissell Centre for some basic needs, the child care program, and the parent program. This is where she met childcare worker Fatima and family supports worker Cheryl. Michelle felt honoured that these women heard her story and believed she could one day leave poverty behind – once and for all. It was the first time Michelle felt like her support was nonjudgmental, encouraging, and believed in her goals.
“Being an Indigenous woman, in my experience, was being told to be quiet a lot,” Michelle says. She points out how Bissell’s service delivery approach helped her heal from her trauma. “Many programs [from other service providers] would often parent or monitor my life. Bissell treated me like a person. They gave me wings to fly.”
Michelle and her siblings each had their own challenges with poverty and addiction as they grew into adults. Though Michelle overcame her challenges, much of her family succumbed to their challenges. She honours her only brother’s death in 2015, her youngest sister’s death from COVID in 2022, and her sister-in-law’s death that same year. By 2016, her mother’s life would be cut short by complications due to pneumonia.
Michelle’s Giving Back
Speaking from her experiences, Michelle thinks trauma is often not openly spoken about. She did not have access to many role models speaking eloquently about the realities of being Indigenous. She’s learning to manage her trauma through post-secondary education, her art, her work as a facilitator, and being a two-spirited leader. She is a strong Indigenous mother teaching her children about their culture, history, customs, and their connections back to the land.
After she finished her ceremony, she walked around the corner to the folks standing in line at the Community Space. Michelle spots an elderly Indigenous woman and gifts her the tobacco. She hears about how her new friend just found her new place to call home. The tobacco will hang in the new home – Michelle’s gift as an act of healing.
Michelle comes back, smiling wide as she cleans from her own healing ritual. She tells us how happy she is for her new friends. “They’re doing really good!”
Celebrating Black History Month in Edmonton is important – but it’s just as important to know why we celebrate Black History Month. In order to do this celebration of Black accomplishments justice, we need to fully understand what was the intention of this month, what was the larger social context of the times, and why this celebration needed to come into existence.
The Black experience in Edmonton is unique especially compared to the American Black experience through slavery and into modern marginalization. Despite these differences on the surface, the underlying themes are all too familiar to far too many races, groups, identities, and nations.
Where Black History Month Began
Carter G. Woodson is often considered the man who ignited Black History Month. He was born to a literate mother and an illiterate father, so he grew up understanding how a person’s origins and story are sacred and need to be preserved and shared for future generations. Wanting to create a record of important historical Black Americans, Woodson’s main goal was for young Black people to see these themselves in these powerful figures and stories. This was during a time when Black accomplishments went relatively unnoticed outside of the communities and were largely omitted from textbooks and history lessons.
For accomplished sociologist and Bissell Centre Family Support worker Samuel Enyon, Black History Month is important because of the lack of representation of Black achievement. “For me as an African immigrant to Canada, knowing and celebrating some of the Black people that made it possible to even dream of ever coming to the Americas, live a dignified life and fight for a better life for my family is both humbling and an honour,” says Samuel.
Recognizing the Black Experience
The abuses African American face on a daily basis can not be understated. The engrained racism across the United States is so deep it’s nearly unrecognizable as deliberate disenfranchisement. While many folks are working towards restorative justice for Black communities, it feels like just as many people would rather pretend this inequality doesn’t exist.
Samuel goes on to explain that those who write history get to control the narrative and unfortunately, the history of Black people has typically been written by white scholars. “What this means is that it took the efforts of Black figures such as Carter G Woodson, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other civil rights activists to finally be mentioned in history,” says Samuel. “And why many children growing up in Africa as I did, know why Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Knuruma were fighting for our freedom in Africa.”
A Celebration of Overcoming Obstacles
Black History Month’s main message is a positive one about celebrating the achievements of men and women who faced seemingly constant barriers, yet still achieved in ways that some folks could only dream of. And this is where Black History Month touches Edmonton.
The underlying theme of overcoming obstacles is a common story in a lot of marginalized communities in Edmonton. Whether it’s Indigenous Edmontonians attempting to navigate a system that initially sought to wipe them out, new Canadians trying to build a better life only to find demeaning work and living conditions, or any Edmontonian born without the resources to meet their full potential, this is a month to give them hope.
“It’s upon us to embody the legacy of the legends that founded Black History Month and extend the same concept to all folks of the visible minority and beyond,” says Samuel.
The colour of our skin, the amount of money we have, where we slept last night, when we ate last, or whatever challenge we’re facing doesn’t define us as people. We are all capable of so much – some of us face more barriers than others. Black History Month shows what can be possible despite what’s working against us.
Black History Month can easily go forgotten in Edmonton. On the surface, the Black experience isn’t as prevalent in our culture as it in in the United States. But Edmonton is no stranger to the influence and celebrations from our Black communities. Just ask anyone who’s been to the Cariwest Festival or explored the excellent vendors at Black Owned Market (BOM) YEG.;
Though Black History Month is rooted in the American Black experience and celebrating the achievements of Black folks despite the history of slavery and continued systemic racism, there is a lot of Black experience here in Edmonton absolutely worth celebrating. And though the stories look different on the surface, the underlying themes remain very consistent.
Viewpoint from a Sociologist
Samuel Enyon is a Family Support worker with Bissell Centre, who earned his master’s degree when he was studying in Madrid. Originally from Uganda, Samuel looks at his own and his family and community members’ journeys to Canada and relates very closely to what’s being expressed with Black History Month.
He explains that a lot of the context that people from African and Caribbean countries bring when they arrive in Edmonton does tend to be white-centric. In addition, further barriers to Black success can play a devastating role for Black families looking to settle and find a better life.
Bissell Centre Helps Bridge the Gap
Oftentimes, foreign credentials aren’t recognized in Canada, making employment difficult for a lot of new Canadians. This is one of the biggest barriers faced by new Canadians. Samuel himself sees families come by the community space, fully prepared to sleep on the streets.
Samuel once worked with an immigrant family that came from an African country, and all they could speak was Portuguese. The father managed to string a few English words together, just enough to have them referred to Bissell Centre Family support. When they arrived, the father broke down in tears. The family had spent three years getting to Edmonton. They passed through Central America, slept in wetlands, and one of the children nearly drowned.
“Who knows if the family understands the amount of trauma they went through?” Samuel recounts. “I was so fortunate that my team was able to put some things aside to further help this family with whatever resources they could find.”
With no options available within the formal system to keep this family from sleeping on the streets, the lead looked to Samuel for ideas. He suggested calling their country association in Edmonton. It wasn’t long before the family found sponsors to host them, and they quickly moved into their own permanent housing.
In his own words, Samuel says, “it was the first time I had seen an organization put so much into helping a Black family.”
Blended stories and shared fates for Edmontonians
As Samuel recounts the story of the family, he points to the similarities, systemic barriers, and opportunities that all new Canadians may encounter.
“To me, Black History Month is a celebration of a lot of different cultures who’ve struggled and overcome,” says Samuel. “The stories are different. But the similarities are very close, and this is a coming together to empower the most vulnerable in our societies.”
Considering himself lucky and well-positioned as a family support worker at Bissell Centre, Samuel meets families from all races, cultural backgrounds, and nations. To him, expressing the need for us as humanity to reach across the table and seize every opportunity to treat each other as humanely as possible drives his work at Bissell Centre.
Samuel stresses that Black history month needs to be celebrated every day of our lives. “Each and every one of us should find it in our hearts to practice kindness, empathy, and love,” says Samuel. “We can come together to ask the inconvenient questions and seek a better understanding of each other and not be so quick to classify each other.”
Coldest Night of the Year is coming up quick – and no doubt this year has a lot of fundraising events in store. So whether you’re joining our February 25 Walk for Bissell or if you’ll be raising funds through an event of your own, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when you’re looking to raise money to make a difference in your community.
Check out these top seven fundraising tips and be sure to share your own tips on social media.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
Many hands make light work. Recruit as many people onto your team as you can. More people can help you reach your team’s fundraising goal faster!
You won’t get a donation if you don’t ask for it. Sometimes the biggest donations come from the most unexpected places. Go beyond friends and family to ask co-workers, teachers, favourite businesses, your dentist, your lawyer, your boss or even your vet. Don’t be scared! Send them an email with your link and you’ll be surprised how many will happily contribute to your campaign.
Write a short message and personalize it before sending it directly to each person via email, text, or direct message. People are much more likely to respond to something addressed to them. But this is only one touchpoint that can help you convince your friends, family, coworkers, and larger network to contribute to your cause.
Post On Social Media
Post on all your platforms often to reach as many people as possible. Don’t forget to include a link directly to your fundraising page. Use photos from previous events or even a photo of you participating in a campaign. Ask others to share with their followers to increase your reach further. And make sure to tag everyone relevant in the post and include any special hashtags for the event – in this case it’s #WalkforBissell.
Share Your Why
People are more likely to show their support when they understand why this cause is important to you. Tell the story of how you got involved with your cause and why you care about it so much. It helps people understand why they should care too.
Did they say they would donate, but the event is only a few days away and you haven’t seen a donation in their name? Politely ask them again. They won’t be annoyed – they likely just forgot.
Say Thank You
Thank every person individually who donates to you – and as soon as possible. After the event, share details of how much you raised and post photos of you participating. Write a message you can send to all your donors to update them on how the event went, how much money was raised, and most of all, why their contribution was so important.
Have any other fundraising tips to recommend? Any huge fundraising victories you want to share? Let’s keep the conversation on social media. Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Instagram and Twitter, and we hope to see you when we walk through downtown Edmonton on February 25!