Showcasing Black Brilliance
in the WRDSB
In April 2022, Black students, staff and community members from across the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) came together to highlight student voice and Black Brilliance at the Black Artist-in-Residence Showcase at Eastwood Collegiate Institute (ECI). This event was just one part of the innovative Black Artist-in-Residence program in the WRDSB, led by Antonio Michael Downing, the first WRDSB Artist-in-Residence.
“I’m looking forward to some music, some poetry and some Black joy,” said Teneile Warren, Equity and Inclusion officer, as they kicked off the event, to cheers from the crowd.
The audience was wowed by performances from students Charis and Zoe, staff members Rufus John and Teneile Warren and of course, Antonio Michael Downing.
Rufus John, a Child and Youth Worker in the WRDSB, started off the event by sharing his personal experience as a new member of the Kitchener community, and feeling like an outsider. He spoke about how music became a way of exploring his emotions, and of focusing his efforts on making a positive impact. He encouraged all of the students in the audience to think about the influence they have, and how they can use their voices to make positive changes locally, and globally. John explained it all starts by getting up and sharing your voice.
“I’m mindful of the power that we, as artists, have when we’re on this stage,” said John. “If you’re going to stand up here and talk, you’d better have something to say.”
Downing was next to take the stage, and shared with the audience how it felt to be back, as a WRDSB grad himself.
“I’m honoured to be the first Black Artist-in-Residence,” he said. “To be real, it felt like I was walking in my own footsteps.”
Downing talked about what it was like to provide Black students with a mentor who looked like them, and who shared many of their lived experiences.
“For some of the folks in the [Black Artist-in-Residence] program, I was going to be the only sort of Black leader, teacher-type figure that they have in their entire school career,” said Downing. “Not all schools in the region are like that, but mine certainly was when I was coming up.”
As he read from his book, Saga Boy, specifically a chapter that focused on his time at Glenview Park Secondary School in Cambridge, he found himself encountering waves of feelings.
“What I wasn’t ready for was how emotional I got,” said Downing. “I’m getting real emotional.”
As he finished performing his hit song Parachute, and a rendition of Billie Holiday’s Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair, he paused. He wanted to recognize the students in the Black Artist-in-Residence program, and called for a round of applause to thank them for what they all brought to the experience.
“I think I learned just as much from the folks in the program, as I taught them, to be real with you,” said Downing. “A big thank you for what you gave to me.”
Director of Education jeewan chanicka was in the crowd and took a moment to share his thanks with Downing.
“Thank you for coming home,” said chanicka.
Zoe from Glenview Park Secondary School and Charis from Bluevale Collegiate Institute were both part of the Black Artist-in-Residence program, and were next to take the stage. Zoe performed a spoken word piece and Charis sang a rendition of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, both garnering joyous cheers from the crowd.
Warren added to the crowd’s elation with a poem about their identity, and their roots in Jamaica entitled The Black That I Am.
As the afternoon came to a close, the audience and performers came together to enjoy food from local Black businesses: Big Jerk Smokehouse and CE Food Experience & the Bakery. Warren and Downing came together with Angel Hammoud, a consultant in the WRDSB’s Equity & Inclusion Branch and organizer of the event to reflect on how things went. Warren shared how tangible the joy and excitement felt in the auditorium.
“You see it, you can feel it. There was an energy in the space. At one point, when Antonio was reading from Saga Boy, I saw a bunch of students start to lean forward, and lean into his words. That’s what you want.”
The Black Artist-in-Residence program focuses on supporting Black-identifying students from across the WRDSB, but it goes further than that. Enriching the experiences of students from marginalized communities helps to support our commitment to excellence for all the students we serve.
Hammoud shared that although this event was the culmination of the Black Artist-in-Residence program, it only marks the beginning of the ongoing Black Brilliance work in the WRDSB.
“There was a lot of palpable, Black joy today. That was just beautiful to see,” said Hammoud. “It certainly feels like the start of something.”
Downing, too, shared the power of the experience.
“You could feel the joy, you could feel the shared experience when Rufus was talking and singing, you could feel the joy, but also the shared struggle that everyone was sharing in the room and that is very moving,” said Downing.
As they looked towards the future, and what the success of the Black Artist-in-Residence program meant, Downing talked about what it was like to be a Black mentor for Black students – something he never had at school.
“I think that, in and of itself, represents a change and a shift in the right direction. My mentor saved me, but I never had any that looked like me, or who could relate to that experience.”
Downing’s experience demonstrates something that educators in the WRDSB have long known: a student’s academic success is tied directly to their well-being. By providing mental health and well-being supports, like a caring mentor or coach, all students are that much closer to being able to reach their fullest potential.
For Warren, it was the ideal way to get back to experiencing art and music.
“It was perfect. It was a perfect return to in-person, and we just look forward to more, big in-person events that celebrate the students and give them space to just be joyous,” they said. “It was just, kinetic.”