Op-ed: How businesses can support the Black community – and build a stronger Ottawa

Kevin Bourne
Supporting local initiatives, music and culture – as well as making a statement on diversity – are all ways of making Ottawa more inclusive, writes columnist Kevin Bourne. (Photo by Quest/David Leclerc Photographie)

The response to my op-ed about my experience as a Black entrepreneur in Ottawa was overwhelming. I heard from fellow entrepreneurs, executives and other members of Ottawa’s business community, with the initial response being, “I didn’t know.” That was usually followed by, “What can we do?”

Although it might seem hard to know where to begin to support the Black entrepreneurial community in Ottawa, there are a number of things any company can do to help make the city a more inclusive place. Here are a few.

Find local initiatives to support

There are a number of local community initiatives you can support, including Black Boys Code Ottawa, which has been popular with members of Ottawa’s tech community. In recent weeks, several companies and organizations have inquired about how they can get involved through hosting a session at their office, sponsorship and funding. It’s a logical fit. It pairs their core competency with helping the Black community, all while solving a long-term problem in the local tech ecosystem – the talent shortage.

But if you’re really interested in helping the Black community, I also encourage you to look for ways to help outside of your comfort zone of technology. There are organizations such as Equal Chance that promote the social, economic, cultural and political well-being of women and Black communities across Canada through the development of projects, activities and policies. Led by president Gwen Madiba, its operations are focused on tackling issues surrounding employment, human rights, justice, health, child care, financial literacy and international affairs. 

Then there’s Jamaal Jackson Rogers – former City of Ottawa poet laureate and current artist-in-residence for the Carleton University music program – who is always looking to provide arts programs for at-risk youth in partnership with local arts organizations. The only missing links are funding and partnerships.

Last November, I saw evidence of these kinds of partnerships first-hand when local tech company Lixar partnered with the Boys and Girls Club to have City Fidelia, one of Ottawa’s higher-profile hip-hop artists, visit the McArthur Road clubhouse where he once played as a child to talk to the kids and sign autographs. The event was sponsored by Lixar and was a great partnership between tech, hip-hop and community.

Support local music and culture (including Black culture)

As a member of the board of directors of the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition and the current programming committee chair, I can’t stress enough the importance of supporting local music and culture. What separates Toronto and Montreal from Ottawa is the investments their business communities make in this sector. 

Toronto’s Luminato Festival, one of the leading arts festivals in North America, was founded by Tony Gagliano, executive chairman and CEO of St. Joseph Communications (publisher of Ottawa Magazine), and the late David Pecaut, senior partner at The Boston Consulting Group. This pair of corporate executives wanted to help foster creativity and artistic expression in their city.

Another example from that city involves Toronto Fashion Week, which was in trouble a few years ago. It was a real estate developer who bought and saved it.

Once again, it’s this kind of investment in culture that separates cities like Toronto from Ottawa. What these executives know is that a vibrant cultural sector helps to attract and retain talent. 

Today, there is no art form and tool that is more powerful than hip-hop culture. My wife, who is a business student at the University of Ottawa, saw this first-hand when she decided to join a business case club at the university. The group was full of young and ambitious students who were vying for the chance to head to Toronto for the provincial business case competition with the goal of getting in front of some of Canada’s leading companies. 

On the day of the local competition, she was one of only two Black people in the room. Although a majority were white males, the music being played in the room was hip-hop. She looked around as these suit-and-tie-wearing young men recited every word of the songs coming out of the stereo. Her realization was that the next generation of Ottawa’s and Canada’s professionals, managers and executives are growing up on Black and hip-hop culture. It’s what they consume every day.

What we see with Drake in Toronto, and got a glimpse of with the recent Wu-Tang fundraiser here in Ottawa, is that there’s a cultural and economic currency in Black and urban culture that can pay dividends when it comes to industry, tourism, city branding and economic development. I’ve often said that Black culture, including hip-hop, is the solution for Ottawa’s boring and sleepy reputation.

I’ve been encouraged by recent conversations with leaders of tech firms in Kanata and other parts of the city who include supporting local music as a part of their short-term plans. As someone who is a part of both the local hip-hop and business communities, I believe the relationship between the two is an untapped resource. There are success stories in each that are not being told properly. Together they can sell Ottawa in a very compelling way.

Start by infusing culture into your business events and booking artists in genres outside of what you would normally book – a spoken-word poet, an African or Caribbean dance troupe, a steel pan player, an R&B vocalist or a hip-hop artist. Not only would it provide financial support to a local artist and add some fun to your event, but the right artist with a good social media following can expose their audience to your brand and give your company or organization that cool factor.

Make a statement on diversity

Although you may be afraid of appearing to be late to the party, making a statement on diversity still holds weight. If the NFL – which is accused of blackballing Colin Kaepernick and suppressing its players’ rights to protest against the treatment of Black people at the hands of the police for the past three years – had the bravery to admit it was wrong, it’s definitely not too late for your organization to make a statement.

When it comes to crafting a statement, honesty goes a long way. If you’ve missed the mark or you’ve waited a long time to say something because you didn’t know what to say but sincerely want to do better, that’s all you need to say.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen local organizations start showing Black people on their social media channels and marketing without having taken the time to address the fact that they have been ignoring Black people for years. This is the approach you don’t want to take. It doesn’t change anyone’s views of your organization; the years of rejection cut too deep. It’s akin to sweeping something under the rug that everyone in the room knows is there. It’s also insulting to people’s intelligence and assumes, “If we just put a Black person on our website, everything will be OK.”

In recent weeks, I’ve been in various conversations with entrepreneurs and professionals in Ottawa who are People of Colour. Needless to say, they are very aware of the organizations that have made them feel invisible in the past. As shameful as it may be, taking the time to address the elephant in the room before moving forward is healthy and important. Again, honesty is always the best policy.

Kevin Bourne is a public relations and marketing strategist at SHIFTER Agency as well as a board member of the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition.