From the archives: Akua Benjamin (Herstory 2007)

Akua Benjamin, via University of Windsor.

Akua Benjamin, via University of Windsor.

“Why don’t we have social workers at the airport? The need is so great, considering that a large majority of immigrants and refugees arrive in Toronto, yet there are no social workers attached to immigration.” – Akua Benjamin, 2005.

Akua Benjamin, born as Lorna Benjamin, spent her early years in Trinidad, volunteering with community and church organizations, helping women in prisons and children with disabilities. Dr. Benjamin is currently the director of the School of Social Work at Ryerson University and is a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize nominee for the 1000 Women of Peace Project.

Akua explains, “I look at the world through the prism of social work. That’s who I am, that’s who I’ll always be. You become a social worker because you want to reduce human suffering. It’s not for the money, it’s not for the status.”1

Akua immigrated to Canada in 1969, right “in the middle of the radical ferment in Toronto’s black community.”2 During this time of civil rights activism, when “Blacks were reclaiming their identity… she took on the Continental African name, [Akua], which means girl born on Wednesday.”3 In the early 1980s, she received her PhD in social work from the University of Toronto and began teaching at Ryerson in 1988.

Over the past 30 years, Akua has worked as a grassroots and academic leader. Early in her career, she did “outreach to women of colour in about thirteen communities.”4 She was president of the Congress of Black Women (Toronto chapter), and a founding member of the Coalition of Visible Minority Women. Her community and academic work addressed poverty, oppression and discrimination at local and national levels.

Dr. Benjamin describes her experience at the 2001 UN Conference on Racism: “I learned… that you cannot take up the issues of difference, whether it be race, gender or poverty, without a process of healing.” Applying this to her earlier years, she explains “there was shared responsibility for the tasks, but not for our healing…. we never recognized sufficiently how we ourselves need to heal from all the history of difference that has dvided us.”5

Currently, Akua is working on a five-year study examining the impact of violence and racism on the health and wellness of African-Canadians. As Ryerson’s director of social work, she pushes the field beyond traditional areas and moves it into visible facets of society.

Sources:
Thanks to Dr. Benjamin and to Brian Cameron for their generous assistance.
Ontario Association of Social Workers (OASW) website. “Profile: Akua Benjamin.” “Celebration of Social Work Week: Profiles of social work leaders.” 2005.
Rebick, Judy. Ten Thousand Roses: The making of a Feminist Revolution. Toronto: Penguin, 2005.
University of Windsor, Advancement and Women’s Studies departments. “Distinguished visitor in women’s studies – Akua Benjamin.”
1.OASW.
2. Rebick, 9.
3. University….
4. Rebick, 136.
5. Rebick, 140.

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