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YWCA Unveils Women Who Are Transforming Lives

YWCA Unveils Women Who Are Transforming Lives

Photo above: d’bi.young anitafrika, left, and Teriano Lesancha, right, are recipients of the Arts and Young Woman of Distinction categories respectively of the 2015 YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction Awards. The announcement was made on March 5 at an alumnae reception held on the 54th floor of the TD Tower, TD Bank Group in downtown Toronto. Photo by Neil Armstrong.

By Neil Armstrong
Pride Contributing Writer

TORONTO, Ontario – The YWCA Toronto has announced the names of seven women who are transforming lives and among them are two dynamic black women — d’bi.young anitafrika, independent artist/educator for the Arts, and Teriano Lesancha, who is changing the lives of girls in her Maasai village in Kenya, as Young Woman of Distinction.

The others are: Fiona Crean, Toronto’s first ombudsman (public service); Sabra Desai, human rights, social justice and feminist educator (education); Marilyn Emery, president and CEO of Women’s College Hospital (health); Beth Wilson, a passionate supporter of advancing women in the workplace (corporate leadership); and Fiona Sampson, founder of The Equality Effect, a network of lawyers and activists who demand legal reform when the rights of women and girls are not being enforced (law and justice).

The citation read at the 2015 YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction alumnae reception held on the 54th floor of the TD Tower, TD Bank Group on March 5 described d’bi.young as a passionate leader in the development of arts education and a visionary storyteller.

It said her “electrifying dub poetry and published works tell us stories about the experiences of women; sexual violence, misogyny, and social inequity.”

“Committed to providing a space for Toronto’s youth and artists to share and hone their talents, d’bi founded the Watah Theatre Institute, where she mentors artists to tell their stories and express their politics,” the citation read.

This recognition by the YWCA Toronto is the latest honour bestowed on d’bi.young since the start of the year.

Recently she was named among eighteen inaugural Fellows selected by the Toronto Arts Council to participate in the 2015 TAC Cultural Leaders Lab, an intensive one-week retreat at The Banff Centre in April, followed by bi-monthly events in Toronto in collaboration with local partners over a one-year period.

She has also received a Vital People Award from the Toronto Foundation and was named by CNN as one of its Top Ten Poets. The Vital People grants support leaders who are making outstanding contributions working at not-for-profit organizations.

“Women make the world go round. I love women; I honour women. Women take care of families, take care of themselves, take care of communities,” said the artist whose work is also about accountability and integrity.

Kelly Thornton, artistic director of Nightwood Theatre and a 2008 YWCA Woman of Distinction, nominated her for the award.

“I think the arts are transformative. The bottomline is the Arts are there to transform lives but, truly, I have never seen anyone electrify an audience the way d’bi does when she speaks. She literally, before my very eyes, I watch people go through a massive transformation just listening to her words and the kind of collective catharsis the audience goes through, it’s like they’re transported into a new place, a new understanding of the world around them,” said Thornton.

She said the artist speaks the truth that is very base; there is no pretense but a depth and an honesty that awaken people when she talks.

d’bi.young is the artistic director and founder of The Watah School, a not-for-profit, holistic artist development institute with a mission to nurture the artist as “healer, mentor and keeper of the sacred.”

The institute provides a wide array of mentorship and training opportunities that incorporate her own Africentric artistic method “Sorplusi.” From its inception to present, Watah has facilitated the growth and development of over 300 artists locally, nationally, and globally through residencies, workshops, conferences, and one-on-one mentorship.

d’bi.young is an internationally celebrated African-Jamaican-Canadian dub-artist, arts-educator and emerging theatre director.

Her cross-disciplinary explorations of identity, gender, sexuality and the human experience, through her developing pan-Africanist Caribbean-Canadian theatrical lens, have made a mark on the Canadian and global cultural landscape.

She is now working on her new play, She Mami Wata, which will premiere at the Audre Lorde Work-In-Progress Theatre Festival, March 24 to 29, at the Watah School in the Distillery District later this month.

Lesancha, who graduated from Ryerson University a few years ago, was born within the traditional culture of her Maasai village, Loodariak, in which she was to be married at the age of 12.

Her mother convinced her father to allow her to obtain an education instead.

“Teriano is not only the first woman, but the first person ever from her Maasai village, to graduate from university. Her foundation, SupaMaasai Girls for Education, is providing girls from her village with new opportunities,” read the citation.

The charitable foundation empowers girls and women through education and entrepreneurship.

“Supa” means “hello” in Maa, the Maasai language, and the foundation has sent 50 teens to school and is building a women’s health centre, Internet café and beekeeping operation in Loodariak.

“We cannot continue putting women down and expect our country to move forward,” said Lesancha in a Ryerson publication.

SupaMaasai is helping female artisans sell fair-trade, Maasai-inflected beaded clothing and accessories to western consumers, with all proceeds flowing into a local women’s community fund.

Her graduation from university has changed the perception of what women can do in village in Kenya. Lesancha said she met fathers hopeful for their daughters who said, “If she can be like you, I’ll take her to school.”

Heather McGregor, CEO of YWCA Toronto, said the awards last year raised $750,000 to help the organization improve the lives of girls and women.

Two major areas of focus of the YWCA are the precarious employment of women and childcare. Currently, there are 16,000 children on the waiting list, McGregor said.

The 35th YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction Awards will be held on May 21 at The Carlu.

This event is the single largest fundraiser for YWCA Toronto and, over the last 34 years, has raised millions of dollars to improve the lives of the most marginalized and disadvantaged women and girls in the community.

The organization helps women and girls flee violence, secure housing, find jobs, establish their voices, enhance skills and develop confidence.

It offers a range of housing options, employment and training programs, community support programs, girls’ programs and family programs; and engages in systemic advocacy.

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