First-ever Toronto Black Policy Conference aims to effect real change

Organizers of the first-ever Toronto Black Policy Conference hope the event will foster conversations that will lead to a greater representation of black voices in the public policy process.

The conference, which takes place Saturday at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, was founded by three alumni, Eunice Kays, Anna-Kay Russell and Sharnelle Morgan.

They were inspired to organize the event after attending the Black Policy Conference at Harvard Kennedy School, the Ivy League school's longest-running conference.

"Toronto has the largest black population in the country so we thought it was very important to have a city-wide platform to discuss issues with the black community and our allies," said Kays.

The event runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Munk School's Campbell Conference facility. Tickets are sold out. It's hosted by the City of Toronto's Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit and the Munk School's Urban Policy Lab.

Kays, the conference's youth engagement and programming director, says those who make public policy decisions in Toronto don't always reflect the diversity of the city. She says that's because they don't have the experiences of visible minorities or aren't informed by those who do.  

"We really need to ensure those decisions reflect the issues different people of the population are facing, [including] ones that are exclusive to the black community," she said.

One of the speakers at the conference will be Celina Caesar-Chavannes, the former MP for Whitby, Ont. who left the federal cabinet to sit as an independent after a falling out with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Caesar-Chevannes did not run in the last election, but recently criticized Trudeau for not naming more visible-minority MPs to his new cabinet.

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Russell, the conference's director of communications and marketing, says one of its main goals is to connect members of the community with each other, and importantly, those in leadership positions.

Speakers include black community members involved in politics, academia and business.

"We want to unite everyone; for them speak to each other and find out what each one is doing and keep that conversation going," Russell said.

Kays adds they hope decision makers at the conference will hear what black community members have to say and "insert it into recommendations and decisions being made."

Focus on innovation, youth engagement

The conference will cover numerous topics, including mental health, arts, and labour, with a focus on innovation within each realm.

"How can we, as the black community, be innovative in this city?" said Russell.

"And for instance, with the development of smart cities in Toronto, we really want to make sure black community members are involved in the process," Kays added.

Kays also hopes the conference will inspire the next generation of black youth to get involved in policy making.

"We want to show the youth that this is a viable and tangible career path and that this is an area where they can be influential and ensure those from their community are heard," she said.