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Black LGBT youth scholarship turned down in Hamilton

Couple donating the funds plan to go ahead with scholarship anyway

The Rev John C Holland Awards take place Feb 2015 at the Michelangelo Conference Centre.  Credit: Michelangelo Conference Centre

When they got married in August, datejie green and Ruth Cameron decided to eschew traditional gifts and instead asked guests for something they hoped could make a difference in their community — money for a scholarship specifically for black LGBT youth.

The couple received $2,900 from enthusiastic friends, co-workers and family for the annual $1,500 scholarship they named after black lesbian poet Audre Lorde. They decided they wanted to offer the scholarship through the Reverend John C Holland Awards, which celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of the African-Canadian community in Hamilton, Ontario.

Cameron and green had attended the awards ceremony during Black History Month last February and thought it was a positive experience. They thought that creating an award specifically for black LGBT youth would promote inclusivity in the community.

But now Cameron and green are clashing with the committee that administers the awards over allegations that the committee wanted to expand the award to allies and delay its induction until next year for the Holland Awards’ 20th anniversary.

The idea for the scholarship was raised with Evelyn Myrie, co-chair of the Black History Month committee, earlier in the year, green says. At the time, Myrie expressed her support. Feeling that they had an organization showing interest, green and Cameron proceeded to ask for the funds and publicly talked about their plans.

For them, using infrastructure that was already in place made sense; the John C Holland Awards include a number of scholarships for youth aged 18 to 24.

“For young people who come out at such an early age as they are now, you are additionally marked and additionally at risk of falling through the cracks of the very things that you need to be very independent in life and to be safe and healthy,” green says. The hope for the scholarship was that it could address these issues.

In the fall, green and Cameron approached Myrie and the awards committee again. They say their inquiries were repeatedly met with questions about the award, including why the scholarship couldn’t be extended to LGBT allies. The same questions were echoed when green and Cameron went in person to make the case for their scholarship at an awards committee meeting on Nov 16. Green later clarified in an email to Xtra that the committee suggested making the award exclusively for allies.

That was not an acceptable change for green and Cameron. “We wanted to be very explicit that this scholarship was meant for those individuals who are vulnerable because of multiple types of oppression,” Cameron says.

On Dec 10, Myrie emailed green and Cameron to tell them that the committee had decided to forgo creating the award this year but would commit to considering it next year. In the email, provided to Xtra by both Myrie and green, Myrie writes that the “Nelson Mandela Award is open to LGBTQ youth as it recognizes youth who are involved in human rights and social justice issues.” She adds that the awards strive to include everyone.

Myrie tells Xtra that the awards committee is, in fact, very interested in creating an LGBT-focused award but that they had questions about what the scholarship itself would focus on. “We talked about inclusion and what does that look like,” Myrie says. “Does that look like someone who works in the LGBT community and someone who promotes equity and social justice to ensure that the LGBT community is respected and embraced and valued?”

Myrie says Cameron and green wanted to prescribe the terms of the award, while the committee wants to open up consultation to the LGBT community. “We’re not saying no to the award,” Myrie says. “We just want to determine the best way to establish this and to recognize the LGBT efforts, whether it’s an award to an LGBT student or it’s someone who is an ally. I don’t know, but we need to sit down and talk this through.”

Other award donors, Myrie says, typically donate the funds and have some input into the terms but not total control. There are several awards, not scholarships, handed out for specific sectors of the community, according to the organization’s website.

According to Myrie, the deadline for the awards, Dec 19, did not allow enough time to properly promote the award. Pushing it to next year would allow the committee enough time to promote it and give them a chance to tie it into the 20th-anniversary celebrations, she says. Myrie repeated this reasoning in a story in the Hamilton Spectator.

However, the nomination form on the John C Holland Awards website lists the deadline as Jan 10. The first time green was made aware that there was a time issue was when she read the Hamilton Spectator article.

The turn of events has left the couple frustrated. “They had essentially refused an opportunity to really make an inclusive, affirming, welcoming gesture to a part of the community that is rarely discussed or acknowledged,” Cameron says.

She and green will continue to promote the scholarship — one way or another, they will ensure that it is given to a deserving candidate for the 2015/2016 school year. “We know that this is a needed scholarship,” green says.

“However, we thought that a fantastic opportunity to make a very big statement that is inclusive and welcoming has been missed here,” Cameron says. “If we go through other organizations, it won’t be centred on the group we want it to be centred on — black youth. What more appropriate time than a Black History Month event to showcase some diversity within the black community?”