Danielle Dowdy and the costs of working for the greater good
This article was originally published on April 29.
“The heaviness from this work, the stress… we all know stress can kill.”
In 2023, Danielle Dowdy is prioritizing rest.
Rest is a crucial part of advocacy work. Health complications from increased exposure to high cortisol levels, the stress hormone, can completely derail the passion and determination of someone like Dowdy.
“If we’re not taking care of ourselves, we could end up the same way and all this work we’re doing for our kids, if we’re not careful, we’re not going to be here.”
A ‘community leader’ is usually someone who puts the betterment of society at the forefront of their own life. Philosophers label this way of thinking and living as utilitarianism: the genuine concern for the wellbeing of others so everyone benefits.
This is who Danielle Dowdy is at her core.
When she was named Brampton’s 2021 Citizen of the Year, the list of requirements needed to receive the City’s highest honour seemed unattainable: she had to enrich the “social, cultural and civic” life of her city; had to consistently provide community leadership and dedicated service; and had to volunteer her time for the betterment of the vital causes she promoted.
Advocating for equity and inclusion within Peel’s largest public institutions has been her main focus.
The recognition Dowdy has received includes:
100 Accomplished Canadian Black Women Honouree
Aroni Image Community Service Award
Black History Community Award from the City of Toronto Committee on Community Race & Ethnic Relations
Brampton Board of Trade “Top 40 Under 40” award recipient
Canadian Urban Institute Urban Leadership Award (City Youth)
Certificate of Recognition from the Ontario Women in Law Enforcement
Featured on the City of Toronto and Breakfast Club Black History Month poster
Government of Ontario Black History Month Community Award
Jamaican Canadian Association Community Service Award
Jamaican Canadian Association Women’s Committee Volunteer Award
Planet Africa Volunteer of the Year Award
Teamwork Commendation from the Toronto Police Services Board
Toronto Board of Trade “Business Excellence Award” for the Youth in Policing Initiative.
She was seconded from her role with the Toronto Police Service to the Government of Ontario to serve as Senior Strategic Initiatives Lead to The Honourable Justice Michael Tulloch and the Independent Police Oversight Review (2016- 2017) and the Independent Street Checks Review (2017-2018).
The Tulloch Model, a community-centred communications and public outreach strategy for policing reviews, developed by Dowdy, works with and connects disenfranchised communities. She contributed to the final report for the Independent Police Oversight Review, a prominent role in the creation of the Community Safety and Policing Act (2019).
She has made many choices in the last two-plus decades that have been for the “greater good”. She has not had the privilege or option to look away from what is going on around her.
“I don’t have a lot of time for myself,” she told The Pointer recently. “I’m not a person for New Year’s resolutions, but I said this year is going to be the year where I prioritize self care, time out, and rest.”
“I think after Kola died, that was a big piece for us.”
On June 24, 2021, Kola Iluyomade, a local community leader who worked tirelessly to expose systemic discrimination and anti-Black racism within the Peel District School Board, suddenly passed away after suffering a brain hemorrhage. He had been working on a letter to the PDSB regarding its culture and disturbing history, which was the focus of a sweeping provincial review that led to the board’s elected trustees being stripped of their governance authority and the dismissal of the former director of education, in large part due to the work of people like Iluyomade.
Advocate and parent Kola Iluyomade passed away unexpectedly in 2021.
“Anti-Black racism is deadly,” Dowdy emphasizes. “This is not a game. All of us are way stressed out. People don't understand how hard it is to really just fight and like day in, day out, day in, day out, stay committed. It actually has an impact on our health.
“This year I'm definitely prioritizing rest…and as someone said to me yesterday, rest is resistance. You have to be able to take some time out, but I will say it is hard.”
It is impossible for anyone who is not Black to fully understand the crippling fatigue people like Dowdy endure, just to convince others that all the evidence, all the stories, all the data are real.
“It is definitely hard. Especially professionally, there's issues, there's constant issues within policing. One could be working 24-7 to [address] that. The issues that keep arising around anti-Black racism, around policing interactions going sideways, around new policies. How do you hold the police accountable? How do you improve training? How do you bring in programs that support Black employees?”
“My approach to my job is how do we centre community voices. I think the true purpose of policing is to keep the community safe. Not to police certain types of people and ignore others.”
She has a long history inside the policing system, and advocacy around fair and equitable treatment has for years been a driving motivation.
“I'm a senior advisor with the Toronto Police Services Board and I advise our board members on issues with stakeholder relations, strategic policy. How do we work with communities to actually translate that into policy? What do communities want, how do we deliver on that through policy? That is a very different approach than in the past. It's been just what the police want and everyone is gonna take it.”
The President of the Association of Black Law Enforcement (A.B.L.E.), Jaqueline Edwards, with Danielle Dowdy (right) speaking at the 2023 A.B.L.E. annual general meeting.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
“And what does that safety look like? Not everyone agrees on what safety looks like. How do you balance out the things that folks are looking for while also respecting human rights and being really realistic and honest about the system itself.”
Peel Police’s history of treatment of Black, Indigenous and other visible minority residents is not unlike other law enforcement organizations across Canada, and south of the border.
“Right now with the case of Tyre Nichols, a lot of community members are just kind of eye rolling at a lot of these statements that are coming out from police services because your local service has issues that you haven't dealt with publicly, or internally.”
Tyre Nichols, a Black man in Tennessee who had been pulled over for alleged reckless driving, was beaten by five Memphis police officers during the initial stop and died three days later in hospital. Each officer involved, all Black men, has been charged with and indicted by the Grand Jury of Tennessee for various crimes ranging from second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression. All five officers plead not guilty to their charges and the next court hearing is scheduled for May 1.
Dowdy has had to push back against a narrative being used by those who refuse to accept police culture in many parts of Canada and the U.S. has a history of deeply rooted racism. Many of them claim that because the Memphis officers are Black, it somehow removes racially motivated behaviour from the equation.
“It's difficult to hear commentary on another police service,” she says. “It's like criticizing your neighbour when your house is on fire. People say, ‘Oh, but the five officers are Black’. Yes, but they're in a system as anti-Black. The system doesn't require white people, specifically, to be anti-Black, anyone could be anti-Black including these five officers.”
She knows her role and knowledge place her at the centre of many difficult ongoing conversations.
“A lot of the work that I do is around trying to dismantle barriers to access for Black people,” she says. These obstacles are often intentional within Ontario’s slowly evolving policing system.
“There are so many barriers.”
As a mother of school-age children, she has been a Parent Representative on PDSB’s We Rise Together Community Advisory Council to aid in the fight to dismantle anti-Black racism in education starting at the root: the board of trustees.
She gave a speech at the event on January 31, a celebration of the blood, sweat, and tears put in by countless Black parents and education workers to ensure their children are offered an equitable education experience as any other child in Peel’s public school board where 85 percent of students are non-white, but educators, particularly principals, are overwhelmingly white.
Danielle Dowdy’s We Rise Together speech brought tears to many audience members as many parents of racialized children had their own alarming experiences within Peel schools. She fondly remembered fellow advocate and friend, Kola Iluyomade, and congratulated everyone else involved in the effort to ‘level the learning field to where it should have been to begin with’.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The Province’s damning review found systemic discrimination practiced openly by the board for decades (Black students were suspended arbitrarily for things like wearing hoop earrings and hoodies, while white students were not; and Black youth were routinely discouraged from taking courses that opened the door to post-secondary education). The school board apologized for the behaviour of trustees responsible for the racist culture.
After sustained advocacy by determined Black parents and other community members, and the evidence reported in the Province’s review, the school board issued a statement on the “hurt and harm” to Black students caused by PDSB.
It said: “In our Board, systemic racism exists. We must do all we can to eliminate the marginalization experienced by Black students and staff in Peel schools. As Trustees, we are required to listen to the concerns and needs of our communities and bring those to the attention of the board.”
Dowdy knows none of the forced recognition and mandated culture change would have happened if not for people like her friend, and she is now concerned about the price that is too often paid.
“[Kola] had health issues. I tell everyone insomnia is my thing. After my speech, people were texting me like, ‘thank you for naming it because this is my chronic illness issue too. This is my chronic pain that I deal with because I'm fighting the system. This is the stress that I carry’. It's really nice that when you open up about things like this it shows you that you're not alone the way that the messages come flooding.”
The actions taken by these parent advocates led to the first ever takeover of a school board by the provincial government specifically to intervene and address anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination perpetuated by its trustees and senior staff, and in turn, some teachers and other educators.
Dowdy fears the effort required is taking a harsh toll on many Black advocates who are simply trying to stop the legacy of harm for everyone’s benefit, not just the community she most closely identifies with.
“We’re doing this for them, and we’re not going to be here.”
She has previously told The Pointer that Black advocacy around civil rights, equity and inclusion has a centuries-old history, and all other marginalized groups have benefited because of it.
Idris Orughu is a fellow parent, activist and advocate, who the PDSB formally apologized to after issuing a trespass notice previously banning him from the board's properties after an alleged incident that was grossly misrepresented by the board under the leadership of its former director who was fired when the Province took over.
Idris Orughu spoke at the We Rise Together January 31 event noting the extremely difficult journey to protect historically marginalized students.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
“Locally, Danielle is most known for her advocacy for students who identify as African, Black, and Afro-Caribbean,” Orughu wrote in his recommendation letter for Brampton’s 2021 Citizen of the Year Award.
“As a mother and auntie of two children, nieces and nephews within the Peel District School Board (PDSB), Danielle has been an important voice in addressing anti-Black racism within the school board. As a Parent Rep on the We Rise Together Community Advisory Council, Danielle has organized many highly-attended parent engagement events that focus on strengthening parent and student understanding of the school system, providing tools for navigation, and ways to access supports for student success. She is a member of the School Council at her children’s school, and also at the high school where her nephew attends, and also lends her expertise to many committees within the Board,” Orughu added.
“Professionally, Danielle has been involved in work that has meant widespread systemic change, including for Brampton residents. Notably, for nearly 10 years, she architected and managed a joint $10M+ investment by the former Ministry of Children and Youth Services, Toronto Police Service, and the Toronto Police Services Board – the Youth in Policing Initiative. She built a youth employment model that was so sound, it has been replicated across the province in over 22 police services in Ontario, including within the Peel Regional Police Service,” he wrote.
“We've done a lot of lobbying and advocacy [together] and so he nominated me,” Dowdy says. “All of these systems are interconnected.
“You end up in one space and then you realize it’s also a mess over here and then you’re trying to help or lend your expertise in one area and they end up in another area, and you end up working across the community.”
She started with We Rise Together when her daughter began Kindergarten and another family member started high school the same year.
“Everything you have ever read about Black students in school has happened to [them]. Streamed, not supported, racist teachers, disengaged, tried to push [them] out of school, all of it. We had seen it all throughout elementary school, and we were hoping that once [they] get to grade nine it’ll be a different school with a different environment—new teachers, new people—and it was just more of the same.”
She noticed her daughter beginning to experience the same in her very first year of school after reading what teachers had written on report cards.
“They said she ‘needs to expand her friend group.’ So, I went to class one day and noticed that she was playing with all the other Black children. She is playing with people who look like her family, who she has gotten used to being around her whole life. I couldn’t, but also could, believe it. What does this have to do with her education?”
Angered and determined to put an end to the stereotyping that Black children have suffered from, she branched out once again to share her expertise on how to dismantle and rebuild a fair system.
Her work has included:
Chair, Homestead Public School Parent Council
Parent Representative, PDSB We Rise Together Community Advisory Council
Chair, Jamaican Canadian Association Political Advocacy Committee
Volunteer Researcher, Samara Canada
CivicAction Escalator: Jobs for Youth Facing Barriers Working Group
CivicAction DiverseCity Fellow
Adjudicator, Loran Awards Foundation
GenNext Cabinet, United Way Toronto & York Region
Board Member, Toronto Workforce Innovation Group
Chair, Black Business & Professional Association Young Professionals Committee
Member of the City of Brampton’s Community Safety Committee, and serves as a member of the Gun and Gangs Subcommittee.
“She has been working alongside her colleagues and City staff to host an event to focus community safety challenges, in ways that can support affected families, victims, and perpetrators of crime and violence,” Orughu noted.
Along with her contributions in the policing and education sectors, she has also worked to raise awareness around the lack of diverse representation on Brampton council, which is meant to accurately reflect the city elected members serve, yet has consistently fallen short in a place where more than 80 percent of residents are not white.
She might be taking more time to rest, but when talking to Dowdy, it’s clear why she suffers from insomnia, consumed by the fight to right so many wrongs, in the hope everyone someday soon will have the same opportunities.
“And then you see it in the City of Brampton, their hiring isn’t reflective of the community, their promotions are not reflective, the programs that they offer are not accessible.”
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