If you grew up in the Canadian school system, you’ve at least heard about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs once in your life. If you need a refresher: Maslow stated that humans have to first meet physiological needs (water, food, warmth, rest) before we can meet safety needs. Once safety needs are satisfied, we can meet our psychological needs like community building, belongingness and love. After that, we can meet our esteem needs. When all of those needs are met, we can have full self-actualization. We can finally meet our needs of self-fulfillment and focus on creative activities, like going after our individual career goals, etc. Later on, he added self-transcendence, where self-actualized individuals would pursue goals outside of themselves, finally caring for others.
What many people don’t know, is that Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs framework was actually rooted in the Blackfoot Confederacy teachings. In the summer of 1938, Maslow went to stay with the Siksika Nation, in Alberta. He was interested in testing his hypothesis that humans formed social hierarchies based on dominance and submission. While studying their conception of time and collective existence, he adapted the teachings of the Blackfoot Confederacy, to fit the western notion that the individual is the most important part of existence. The Blackfoot perspective actually places self-actualization at it’s foundation. Once self-actualization is met, community actualization takes place. Once those two levels are met, then we reach the peak: cultural perpetuity. The Gitksan people call it, “the breath of life.” It’s the understanding that we as individuals will be forgotten one day, but we play important roles in ensuring that our people’s important teachings live on for generations. The erasure of this expansive perspective makes me wonder if it’s one of the reasons why there are so many injustices in Canada, around the world, and ecologically to the planet itself.
I thought about the Blackfoot teachings when I spoke with Vanessa Simon. A woman of Haitian heritage, growing up in an all white family, in a very white part of the world; British Columbia, Canada. She began by telling me her experience of being lonely in Victoria, BC. This yearning for a community but unable to find it, resonated with me, and I’m sure it does for many people living in BC, especially if they are Black. While discovering and growing into her identity as a Black womxn, athletics and mental health helped propel her into the world of activism. After living in Victoria for 6 years, she is helping shape the community. She’s helping it achieve community actualization.
The beginning of Vanessa’s journey on this path of social and mental activism began when she joined two distinct communities. The first was through her collegiate athletic career, where she often felt alone. The other was a group supporting each other’s mental health journeys. Although, most of the people in these groups were white, she was able to use these experiences, as well as her desire to belong to a community, to first recognize her own traumas that she had been carrying. After acknowledging her personal traumas, she began on her journey of healing and growth. This growth would eventually lead her to having the strength to help others, and building a community in the process.
Most of us know, before 2020, Black folx were largely erased from almost every conversation about British Columbia. Non-Black Canadians would question why we need to talk about Black people in Canada since “they don’t exist here”. If you really searched for the information you might have heard about Hogans Alley in Vancouver, and during Black History month, you’d learn mainly about American Black history, and if you’re really lucky, you’d hear about Viola Desmond: “the Rosa Parks of Canada.” What we don’t discuss though, with the erasure of our Black history here in BC, is the deep rooted trauma we, as Black people, experience.
During this past May, we were dealing with a new pandemic on a global scale. While many of us were confined to our homes, with only social media as our outlet to the outside world, we collectively experienced the brutal murders of several Black and Indigenous folx. There was no time for people to process what was happening between the all encompassing news reports and social media posts. Although this was incredibly difficult for many of us, Vanessa reminded me the important truth, “you can’t have accountability without awareness.” She accurately describes what occurred for many people, like a Band-Aid ripping off. For the first time, people, who up until this point were able to avoid the brutalities against Black and Indigenous Peoples, were now forced to finally see it first hand. Now that we have this level of awareness and understanding, it allows for the opportunity to pursue the healing process from our collective trauma.
At the end of May, Vancouver and many cities across Canada had already organized a protest in response to George Floyd’s murder. No one had been organizing a protest in Victoria, making Vanessa feel like the only Black person living there. After debating, she decided to hold a protest and vigil inviting just a couple of friends, on the Monday following George Floyd’s murder. She thought she would be the only person attending, but surprisingly, a few hundred people showed up. Then she organized a second protest, with the help of Pam Buisa and Asiyah Robinson, on the following Sunday, where it’s been reported that 9000 people have showed up, and thousands joining via live stream. Vanessa explained to me that the most important reason for her to organize these rally’s was to bring community together, and create a sense of belonging.
Unfortunately, we live in a country where the dominant society doesn’t validate Black folx. We’re often dehumanized, intentionally and unintentionally, individually and systematically. Vanessa uses this knowledge to guide her actions, “this is the reality of life, how can we as a community, come together, and fix this, solve this?” The first step she explains, is to build a community, where we can all feel validated, be seen, be appreciated. It’s not an easy task, as we all have layers of trauma embedded both individually and culturally. Within the Black community there’s a varying spectrum of beliefs and ideologies that cause separation between some people. Then there’s the reality that especially here in BC, the Black community is spread out, and there isn’t a central area, or a group we can all join to connect. There are a few small organizations and collectives spread out across the province, but they’re often difficult to find and sometimes quite exclusive. One positive outcome from our great spring awakening has been the spread of knowledge. People have been amplifying Black and Indigenous organizations, businesses, educators and leaders, and there’s been a rise of many new leaders like Vanessa Simon.
Beyond connecting with more Black folx in our city, we also have to figure out a way to come together with other marginalized groups, and with allies, to build a true community. There’s been a lot of talk about having a seat at the table, taking over the table, or starting our own table. But Vanessa explains that regardless if we’re taking over the table or starting our own, we can’t do it alone. In Canada, Black people make up 3.5% of the total Canadian population, in BC that number drops to 1%. Most of us are the only, or make up one of the very few, Black people in our work places, our friend groups, or our schools. That’s why it’s so important to move forward as a full community. Vanessa also stresses to keep in mind the intricacies of our differences as well as having compassion for our differences. She explains that we both may be Black but our traumas could be vastly different. The fact that we’re both Black doesn’t automatically mean we’ll connect, and the fact that we have different ideologies or traumas may not mean we won’t connect. It’s about finding the commonality, despite our differences. She explains how her white therapist opened her eyes to the fact that non-Black folx can help in the process of healing from trauma. When Vanessa explained to her therapist instances of being racialized, having a white person listen, validate, and understand what was taking place was transformative. It meant that just because a person didn’t experience the exact thing you’ve experienced, they have the capacity to understand the emotions and feelings you have, which expands beyond skin colour. We can only heal ourselves individually so much, but to fully heal we need community. And to fully heal this society as a whole, we need to do that as a community. Only then, can we reach community actualization.
Vanessa ended our conversation by describing a beautiful dream she had early this year, foreshadowing what was to come. She was floating on the expansive ocean on an inflatable tube. After a while of drifting alone, she suddenly saw one Black person drifting towards her. Instead of passing each-other by and not saying a word, as usual in BC, they waved at one another and connected. Then, another Black person, and another came floating towards them. This kept happening for a while, and eventually they were able to make a giant island. All connected, never to drift on the ocean alone again.