Black Excellence: Alex Stewart and Jasmyn St. Hilaire – Episode 4

Black excellence means to me that you are doing better within yourself, you are doing better for your community

In this episode I sat down with Alex Stewart the Student Association’s director of equity and Casa Loma campus director Jasmyn St. Hilaire who are members of the Black Student Success Network also known as the BSSN. We talked about what does black excellence means to them and why is black history month important.

Hosted and produced by Manseeb Khan

Theme Music: Barbarian by: Pierlo

In this episode we sit down with Alex Stewart, the Student Association (SA)’s director of equity, and Jasmyn St. Hilaire the Casa Loma campus director. We talked about what does Black excellence mean to them and why Black History Month is important.

Hosted and produced by Manseeb Khan

Manseeb Khan: Hey what’s going on everyone, Manseeb Khan here and you’re tuning into The Dialog Podcast. To kick off Black History Month, I sat down with Alex Stewart, the Student Association’s (SA) director of equity, and Casa Loma campus director, Jasmyn St. Hilaire, who are members of the Black Student Success Network also known as the BSSN.

We have probably one of my favourite people in whole world. Alex Stewart, the director of equity at the SA. Alex how you doing my man? 

Alex Stewart:  I’m pretty good boss, thanks for having me. It’s a good time chopping it up with you, you know.

MK: We’re here with the Casa Loma campus director Jasmyn, and she is also a part of the BSSN. Jasmyn how are you doing today? 

Jasmyn St. Hillarie: I’m good. Thanks for having me.

MK: What does Black History Month mean to you? And why is it important? 

AS: Necessarily, I don’t want to say that I celebrate Black History Month. I feel like every day to me is Black History Month, because Black history is essentially what I’m grabbing from the concept, because it is still relatively new to me. Because of me being Jamaican, I’m from Jamaica I came here 2010, in Jamaica we don’t really celebrate Black History Month, we kind of celebrate our culture throughout the year.

Me kind of coming here, and not being forced into, but incorporated in this Black History Month. What I’m getting from what Black History Month is basically celebrating milestones that Black people made in history. I guess people making moves for progression in the Black community and stuff like that. So that’s what I grab from Black history.

JH: Black history, what it means to me, well, let me tell a story. So when I was in high school, I never got to celebrate Black History Month. It would be one of things that when February would come around and I, like, you could count maybe on your hands and toes exactly how many Black folks went to this school. So they didn’t feel like that there was a need to actually celebrate Black History Month. So it would go throughout the whole month of February and go unacknowledged. We’d have Valentine’s Day, and that would get more publicity than the fact that it was Black History Month. So for me, I feel like it’s a time to celebrate our ancestors, those who came before us and our people.

MK: Right, we talked about this before but, like, Black History Month is not only to celebrate how amazing Black people are and the amazing feats that they have done. In spite of everything, in a sense, what Black History Month is, it’s the Black community shedding light on the amazing things or the amazing feats and are continuing to do like the Black Panther movie. That would be a huge one right? 

Hopefully it’s just a way to help communities understand like hey, these are the amazing things that happen in our Black community, and hopefully you shed the same light on your community to show that we are all amazing and we are all equal, we are all on the same playing field and we are capable of doing amazing things. This one month is just to show it. 

Last time I checked it’s only celebrated in Canada, US and the UK and a couple other countries. 

AS: Yeah I don’t think in Africa they celebrate it, I mean in the Caribbean we don’t. I mean it’s still good you’re celebrating the milestones that we did as Black people in the world but I feel like it is necessary though. It being necessary I don’t think we should just limit to just one month. I think we should embrace Black History Month but kind of transcend it throughout the year, just transcend it throughout your whole life.

MK: I mean the BSSN is the Black Student Success Network and you are part of it right? Why are programs like the BSSN important for the college and how have they helped you out?   

AS: You kind of want Black students to feel like they have a place to belong and I feel like before the BSSN was organized or created, Black students kind of felt like they didn’t belong. Not because George Brown is the type of school telling Black kids that they don’t belong, but it’s just, I guess, in staffing there wasn’t really any representation. It’s kind of hard for a Black student to kind of come into this environment and say, you know, “I’m going make it” but look around and there’s no profs that look like them.

MK: Yeah it’s very discouraging, that’s for sure.

AS: And the staff that look like them will be either a custodian or whatever—not saying that a custodian isn’t a decent job but I’m just saying.

MK: Yeah, it’s the classic of they look like you then. 

AS: Yeah, it motivates me, saying “yeah I can do this.” So with the presence of the BSSN, there is reassurance, that little oomph, to push Black students saying you know we got you because they are built on four foundations. So, social encounters, that’s our BSSN events that we usually do, information sharing so sharing information on bursaries and we help them with bursaries and mentoring and tutoring. I feel like tutoring has this bad stigma, most people don’t want to look like “oh I need a tutor”, and that’s the negative stigma that it has.

Black students are more likely to go to a tutor that looks like them and share a similar walk of life with them. So that’s where we have the mentoring and tutoring come in. So I feel like that BSSN is essential to post-secondary life at George Brown because it’s just a way for our Black students to be successful. We want to see our Black students actually graduate and be well prepared when they go into the working world.

JH: For me personally, I didn’t hear about BSSN until I was in my second year and I’m a Casa Loma student. With me being in my second year, I was just starting to venture out. I was working with event squad, with the SA and doing stuff with that. So I got a little bit of glimpses of the BSSN here and there and I thought that it was really cool, and that was something missing at Casa Loma and missing from basically, my community. So I decided that I needed to figure out how I can work with them and how I can help, basically.

So when I was elected, I had the opportunity to work with them and to see what we could do to move some of these initiatives over at the Casa Loma campus. I and a few others could definitely tell that we were missing BSSN , because BSSN at St. James is a community and it brings in a lot of people, a lot of folks that felt alone, that they were marginalized and put them all together in a space where they felt comfortable and I think that we were missing that in Casa Loma.

So we try very hard to bring the initiatives here. We can’t do all of them just because we don’t have the same amount of space here as we do at St. James but we do try, definitely. I think that having these types of groups are important for our students because when you have a community you tend to do better.

When you feel like you have people backing you up you do better. You are going learn quickly that there are so many people in your corner to help, that if you have a problem, say for instance, you’re not getting your math work and you know you are going fail if you don’t get it together. You come down to BSSN, you talk to any one of our team member on one of our leads.

Just like that, they will let you know when our math tutoring session is. If they don’t know or if we don’t have a math tutoring happening, they’ll make sure to send you in the direction of somebody that does know. So just like that, you are not going fail math, and you are going pass that course.

MK: Yeah, and you graduate, and that’s the amazing part. This month’s theme for Black History Month is Black excellence. So could you talk about what does Black excellence mean to you and who comes to mind when you think of Black excellence? 

JH: This is cheesy because my mom, definitely, comes to my mind. I grew up being raised by a single mother, along with my grandmother and my aunts. We lived together for a long time. I have a learning disability, so I watched my mom single-handedly walk me through school.

When I couldn’t be my voice, she was my voice. There was a lot of times where she had to go to the school for me and fight for what I needed and that wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t around and who knows where I would have been if she wasn’t there to do that.

And then Black excellence, what does that mean to me? Black excellence means to me that you are doing better within yourself, you are doing better for your community and you are trying to reach your goals, you are trying to, basically, be better. To do something positive within yourself and to do something positive within your community.

AS: When I think of Black excellence I feel like Black excellence is so subjective, to an individual person. So for me my Black excellence, I can say my mom, easy, because we came from Jamaica.

When I was living in Jamaica, I wasn’t suffering from poverty or anything, I was pretty well off. My mom had a job with a bus company and we were pretty well off and then did the change to migrating here and none of her credentials matter here. So we basically had to do a 360 and start over. She did all the sacrifice so I can have more opportunities and better opportunities. I can say my mom, one, as Black excellence.

Two, another person that comes to my mind is Colin Kaepernick. The reason why I say Colin Kaepernick, it’s because of his bravery. Right now, I feel like in this generation it’s so easy to be a follower and go with everything. Kind of just go with the flow. He saw the issue and he was passionate about that issue and he stood up for it.

MK: And he stayed standing, which is very important because a lot of people will try to pull a Colin Kaepernick but they will fade back into the background. He stood there, got fired from the NFL, don’t matter. Now he’s doing this whole 10 for 10 thing. (Note: Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem at NFL games to protest police brutality).

AS: I think they passed their goal. And a really good thing is that why I think he is Black excellence is because he is doing this on and off the camera.

We had Charlemagne here yesterday. Shout out to you Charlemagne. You real as hell. I had a brief conversation with him and I was essentially saying that I know that Charlemagne does work with Colin Kaepernick. So is he actually the way he is or is it just a facade? And he was like “brother I’m going to tell you that the same way he is passionate on camera, he is passionate off camera”.

If you notice, he really isn’t in social media, unless he is doing it for the community. He is really not in the lights, or whatever, and you know why he is not in the lights? And I was thinking about it, and I was like why? He is doing actions because he is working. So he doesn’t have time to be in the lime light. He doesn’t have time to be in the club. He doesn’t have time to do all that.

He’s working and that’s so real. You know, the usual Huey p Newton, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, those are some of the few people that come to my mind when I think of Black excellence.

MK: For sure, your mom is a good choice. Shout out to your mom. 

AS: Shout out to moms. My mom’s my hero.

MK: What advice would you give to students? Not even Black students, just students in general? 

AS: In terms of college life or in life?

MK: In life. Both, I mean, it could be something that you’re mom said that stuck with you, something that Charlemagne said that stuck with you.

AS: You know what’s crazy? Charlemagne did say something last night that stuck with me and he said, you know I’m a go-getter, I always work. I grind, I grind and the reason why I grind is because my dad told me something that will always stick with me. He said you are never as good as they tell you are and you are never as bad as you think you are. So there is always room for improvement.

And I was like, yo dog, that’s deep. I was like, crazy, I never really took that in. I do a lot of hosting and stuff like that and after the hosting, people come to me and say, ‘Alex you’re so good’ and whatever. And me, I think that I could have did that better. I feel like I could have pronounced that person’s name better. So when I do a presentation in class sometimes and I finish the presentation, and I’m just like, “damn I did not kill that presentation and I’ll get back my mark” and I’m just like, “how did I even get this mark?”

So for me, as long as you just remain hungry and never become complacent. Once you get comfortable, that’s when you start slacking and someone else that’s really hungry and want’s it more than you, they will come and take that from you.

JH: So my golden nugget would be, find your community whether within the SA, we have so many different programs. Whether it be the BSSN , whether it be the international centre, whether it be a club, find your community because that is what is going to get you through these hard semesters.

For example, for the strike, BSSN did exactly what they could. We had counsellors in. We were talking to administration trying to make sure we kept our unit going and they knew we were trying, and that we hear they’re concerned.

The SA was talking to Anne Sado too, and everybody there, to try and make the process easier on students. We know that they were stressed and everybody was trying to do their part. So, I feel if you are part of a community, if you make yourself part of a community, that you won’t go wrong.

MK: Exactly, because it takes a village, right? 

JH: Yeah it does, even in college.

AS: Other advice that I would give students, as well, is never feel like you are better than anybody because I remember when I got my director position, my family back in Jamaica was like, “Alex I’m so proud of you”.

I remember they have seen my interview on Facebook that I did with The Dialog and some of them were just like, “oh my god Alex. You are doing it big”. I was just like, I don’t feel like I am doing anything big. My friends we’re like, “big man, you have your own office”. I was just, naw bro, I’m the same.

You will see me still in the Kings Lounge chilling, chatting with the same people in there. I remember when I was in the hospitality building and I think I was there with Mercedes and Riddhi. I am friends with a couple of the custodians over there so when I was doing culinary, it was a little secret. They would give me some free stuff like expensive wine and stuff and after that we just had like a relationship. They were just like family.

I was, ‘hey how are you doing?’ They asked about my mom and I asked about their mom and their family and stuff like that. I remember one of the ladies was leaving because she wanted to further her education and stuff like that and that’s amazing to do that.

So I guess Mercedes saw the embrace they had for me, and she was like, “Alex, why do they love you so much?”

I just see them as people. I don’t see them as, “okay you are a custodian so you are beneath me”. I don’t see them as those people. I don’t care what your position is, you’re just a person. So I talk to you just like a person, no matter your colour, your age, you are a person. I give you that mutual respect and I just expect to get that respect back in return.

MK: Yeah, you want to. There is this weird Logic quote he talks about in one of his interviews that I give the same respect to a janitor that I give the President of the United States. 

AS: Yeah, and Obama is famous for that. Obama is another person that I think is Black excellence as well, had to throw that in there.

MK: Jasmyn, thank you so much for being such an amazing guest. This was a pleasure to have you. 

JH: Thank you for having me.

MK: Alex, man, thank you so much for dropping by. This was an amazing podcast.

AS: Thanks for having me. This was an honour, to be on your podcast. I was trying to wonder when I was going to be on your podcast. This is an honour for me.

MK: Well, if it helps, you are one of the first ones for Black History Month.  

And that’s the end of the podcast. If you have a questions, comments or feedback in general, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at dialogpodcast@sagbc.ca. You can find us at dialognews.ca, on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you liked this episode or any of the past episodes, it would mean the world to me if you could give us a five-star rating. And I’ll catch you on the next one. 

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Black Excellence: Alex Stewart and Jasmyn St. Hilaire – Episode 4