This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.
The phone call came when Halifax city councillor Lindell Smith happened to be in his office to pick up, a few months back.
A high-school student on the line was confused by the city’s public smoking rules and wanted to know where lighting up was legal. The boy had Mr. Smith’s business card from a recent classroom visit and called the councillor to get a straight answer.
Mr. Smith, 28, could barely contain his excitement over the call, though not because decoding smoking bylaws is his pleasure. Getting youth involved in local government though – helping them see it as their own – is a top priority and this call was proof of achievement.
“It’s about making municipal politics accessible to folks who usually wouldn’t get involved,” Mr. Smith said recently of his political agenda. “In the community I grew up in, you had to be a go-getter and have sharp edges. I decided to run not only to show youth in the community that you can do this, but also … I want to change the narrative.”
He began doing that simply by being elected. His 2016 victory was a historic win in the city – Mr. Smith became both the youngest and the first African-Canadian councillor to be elected in Halifax in 16 years. Just two years into his four-year term, Mr. Smith has already become a driving force in the city, pushing it to publicly reckon with its long struggle with racism. He is determined to use his council seat to create opportunities for marginalized people to have a voice in how their communities are built and run.
His first opportunity to make good on this arose right after he was elected (despite having no previous political experience and despite, he said, looking like what one voter described as a “gangster rapper”).
“I’m going to be me and if people want to call me a young Snoop Dogg, then sure,“ Mr. Smith said. “I was just a guy who cared about community issues and doing grassroots work.”
Still learning the ropes, Mr. Smith was approached by a retired city employee who asked him to get answers on a confidential report the city had quietly commissioned in 2016 to identify workplace abuse and barriers, including anti-black racism, sexism and nepotism, affecting city staff. The report was never made public; the persistence of those conditions in several municipal workplaces led many to believe nothing had come of it, despite its troubling findings.
“The overwhelming opinion of the African-Nova Scotian employees with whom we spoke is that they have experienced incidents of harassment and discrimination in the workplace,” the report reads. It documents “the glass ceiling they experience and negative attitudes … about their ambition and aptitude to advance.” It also outlines concerns that incidents of racism or harassment were routinely dismissed rather than dealt with by supervisors.
“Supervisors and managers have condoned the behaviour,” says the report, which makes 90 recommendations for change, including that the city “acknowledge and address anti-Black racism” and the work of doing so “cannot be left to chance.”
Mr. Smith grew up in Halifax’s North End, a neighbourhood known then for its large African-Nova Scotian population and public housing, and for the widespread suffering of difficulties in low-income and single-parent households. With several family members who worked for the city (Mr. Smith had worked at a city-run library himself), he had long heard anecdotal reports of racism in the workplace.
Word of the report galvanized Mr. Smith, who was determined to hold the city to account on its findings.
What unfolded was a difficult, nine-month ordeal. African-Nova Scotian city employees protested alleged workplace racism on the front steps of City Hall. At the same time, outrage mounted after a human-rights board found the city liable for racism, harassment, discrimination and abuse suffered by transit workers in the mid-2000s.
The city apologized publicly; in-camera discussions were held about how to fix the problem for good. A number of initiatives resulted, including a confidential hotline for employees to report abuses. Council ultimately voted in favour of receiving quarterly public progress reports on racism, sexism and harassment within the municipal workforce.
While not all of this was Mr. Smith’s direct doing, he is connected to much of the behind-the-scenes work to keep the cause’s momentum.
“I’ve been able to get the conversations had,” he said modestly. “Now we’re at a place where the initiatives addressing racial and systemic issues happening throughout the city are pretty amazing.”
The fact that Mr. Smith has been able to spark meaningful change so quickly in the city has resonated in his ward.
“There’s a level of inspiration that has been sparked in many of our youth,” said Rodney Small, who grew up in the same neighbourhood and now does community development work with Mr. Smith through O.N.E. North End, a community unity initiative created to help residents grapple with rapid gentrification.
“Getting Lindell into that [council] seat said a lot to our youth, who may not have believed this was something they could do,” Mr. Small said. “We will see youth put their name forward to join these conversations.”
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