“A profile on two of the most influential Black women activists in Vancouver today, Nova Stevens and Shamika Mitchell. Only this year, their relentless organizing efforts led to the proclamation of August 1st as Emancipation Day in the City of Vancouver. August 1st, 1834, marks the day when slaves were freed in Canada.”
Nova Stevens: A Vessel for Truth
The first thing I noticed about Nova was her smile. I mean, she is a Miss Universe Canada finalist for a reason. Her warm smile hints at her naturally generous spirit. I began by asking Nova how she would describe herself, and further, how she would like to be perceived. At first, she balked at such self-directed questions but it didn’t take her long to come up with answers. She said to me that she would very much like to “be known for kindness” as well as a big heart, courage and standing up for what she believes in.
Nova moved to Calgary alone at the very young age of 6, after fleeing a brutal civil war in South Sudan. Even with all the odds against her, she excelled and did a lot of community work from a young age, always with a positive outlook. I asked Nova when she fully realised her blackness, since she arrived in a pre-dominantly white neighborhood. Even as a child, she’d always noticed that her features were different from most of the girls in her grade and wished otherwise. It finally dawned on her that different could instead be beautiful when she watched the popular 2000’s Black film, “Deliver us from Eva” which starred a young Meagan Good. Starry-eyed, she recounted how she’d realised that Meagan’s “full lips” were just like hers and since she was obviously very beautiful, that helped Nova to see the innate beauty in herself. “This is why representation is so important,” she shares. Since then, women like Beyoncé have continued to instill that confidence in her and other Black women everywhere. Now she affirms simply that, “Melanin is worth more than gold.” An apt observation, because what else could have her radiating so confidently over even our virtual meeting?
The next issue we discussed sounded almost oxymoronic: Vancouver and blackness. I asked Nova if she thinks the city recognizes our community and holds space for us. In other words, does the city recognize its blackness? Nova firmly disagreed. An outsider’s view might think so, as Vancouver appears a progressive city, but a closer look reveals that the city’s actions often highly differ from their words. One very good example would be the painfully recent proclamation of Emancipation Day in the City of Vancouver, as if slavery was a new concept. Emancipation Day wasn’t news to the US but it’s completely foreign to most Canadians (Nova has explained this in many an interview).
On a personal level, Nova shares that being African, dark-skinned and 6ft often made life rather complicated for her. She was often called “exotic” and stared at. This made her dating prospects very sparse because too many men would treat her as some sort of fetish or hidden secret rather than a normal human being. Also, this alienation occurred even as many people were paying to have features very similar to hers. This inconsistency didn’t seem to faze her - it was clear she knew her worth. Her reaction surprised me a little because I personally know one too many Black girls in Vancouver who have been understandably bothered by the deserted dating scene and anti-blackness here. I took something she said to me as some sort of explanation: “There’s no way to hide your blackness.” So why be ashamed of something she couldn’t change and clearly loved? Furthermore, she believes that within the Black community, dating prospects aren’t as dire as the media may suggest: Black men do not reject Black women as often as is believed, and she believes there are many Black men who actually love and date Black women.
"But I couldn’t help but wonder: who would protect her while she tried to protect everyone else? Throughout the interview, Nova certainly was not claiming victim status nor wanted to be depicted as such"
These expectations that Nova has to handle in her personal life continue to extend into her profession as a model. This goes to show you that no area of Black women’s lives is without politics and apathy is not really an option. Some progress has been made regarding inclusivity in the modeling industry but there is still a long, long way to go. Black models are often encouraged to cut or straighten their hair because the agencies don’t hire hairdressers that can do Black hair. As with other models, there is pressure to be the perfect measurement which leads to many young women breaking down under stress and turning to less healthy coping mechanisms such as eating disorders. Couple that with the very limited “diversity” criterias in place, which make space for the token, sole Black girl – who, more often than not, is of a lighter complexion – but leave women like Nova with many odds stacked against her. Black women have to be 10 times better than their counterparts to get ahead in this industry. But still, Nova maintains a positive outlook, the same positivity that kept her through moving to Canada alone. She tells me that modelling gives her the chance to travel and to play “different characters” and reinvent herself. Her advice to aspiring Black models is to not let the challenges define them and to press on, like she continues to do herself.
Now for the crux of why we are here: Nova’s activism journey and the establishment of the Black Freedom Society which led to the fateful marches of June 18 and August 1st respectively. On May 31st, Nova attended her first ever protest. After the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests sparked all over the world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the first and largest in Vancouver took place on May 31st in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Nova attended with her friends, armed with signs and masks. Then something happened to Nova while listening to the speakers. She felt an “urge to speak,” almost like she had “no choice.” And speak she did. After the march, Shamika Mitchell reached out to her to ask if she wanted to co-organize a march for June 18, or Juneteenth, which commemorates Emancipation Day in the United States. She was spurred to do this in order to shed some more light on issues she didn’t feel were fairly covered in the May 31st march. Nova agreed and that was the beginning of the Black Freedom Society. The first march on June 18 had the best turnout, almost 15000 people. In Nova’s words, Vancouver showing up for Black lives in that moment “showed so much love” and that “good outweighs evil.” The next march on August 1st had significantly less numbers because it was a long weekend, but it started with a bang as Vancouver proclaimed August 1st as Emancipation Day. This happened because of the Black Freedom Society’s constant campaigning and the renewed conversation around racism that events in the US had sparked everywhere in the world, including within Canada. These great accomplishments, however, didn’t come without their share of hardship. Nova and Shamika worked long hours without sleep or food, invested their own personal resources and spent all of their valuable time and energy on the organizing, even though they are working women. Nova’s advice to aspiring activists is to expect long hours and judgement from both within and outside the community. People often messaged her saying passive aggressive things like, “Oh you think you’re an activist now” as if activism was a mere hat one put on; as if she wasn’t risking overworking as well as her modelling career for being openly political. But she “learned to see the good in everything” and focus on why the work was being done and for who. At this time in the interview, it was clear that Nova had the heart of a giver, even if it cost her deeply. In a short span of time, she had gone from model to activist and now had to juggle the two. But I couldn’t help but wonder: who would protect her while she tried to protect everyone else? Throughout the interview, Nova certainly was not claiming victim status nor wanted to be depicted as such. This is a simple fact about the plight of the Black woman.
" I consider her existence, survival and her identity as Nova – a beautiful, spirited, and generous Black woman – just as laudable as the activist she has become"
“It’s a lonely path to be a Black woman”, she said to me near the end of our interview. I have to agree. By all measures, Nova had become a super-woman, serving others without knowing if she’d get the same treatment back—something not everybody is able, nor bothers, to do. While Nova’s activism efforts and life in general are very impressive and inspiring, I implore us not to think of her as particularly “special.” Look at her, a Black woman in the public eye, and imagine how much worse it is for Black women who have less voice, confidence, positivity, safety and resources then she had. The Winnie Mandelas and Funmilayo Kutis and Oluwatoyin Salaus of the world, whose work only goes truly noticed in death and suffering. Think of how much they sacrificed and are sacrificing, how much we don’t see. And yet, Black women are still here – organizing the protests, protecting our people, dying at the hands of some of our men, and giving our all for our community. Taking care of the world.
But like Nova, I’ll try to consider the good in this situation. Nova’s strength inspires me and a host of Black girls in Canada. She is unique and confident and loving and generous. I consider her existence, survival and her identity as Nova – a beautiful, spirited, and generous Black woman – just as laudable as the activist she has become. Black women’s level of sacrifice should not determine their worth and trying to use that as a measure is a losing game. The real victory is that she thrives despite it all. Black girl, remember that sacrifice or not, you deserve to thrive despite it all.