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The Martin Luther King Project, D250, and racism in Nova Scotia

An interview with David Sparks

by Maya Rolbin-Ghanie

The Martin Luther King Project, D250, and racism in Nova Scotia

Maya Rolbin-Ghanie: Why don't you introduce yourself and talk a bit about how the Martin Luther King Project Association got started?

David Sparks: My name is David Sparks. I'm a fifth generation African-Nova Scotian, and I'm currently President and founder of the Martin Luther King (MLK) Project Association, which was launched officially on January 21st, 2008. This idea came out of a peace march that was held in the Prestons in January 2007 in response to a double murder that took place there in 2006. We decided that we needed to address the issue of youth violence—black on black violence in particular. There were two young men who were tragically shot by two other black men, and we felt that we had to do something about that. What we tried to do is introduce Dr. King's philosophy of non-violence as a mechanism for social change. So we're trying to introduce that to youth—we're going into schools, communities, and trying to get people to look at the whole concept of non-violence, and how that can be used to create positive social change.

MRG: What kinds of initiatives has the MLK been a part of, so far?

DS: Last year was the 250th anniversary of Parliamentary democracy, and Nova Scotia has the reputation of being the birthplace of democracy, if you can believe that. So there were a number of celebrations going on throughout the year, and we were fortunate enough—the MLK Project—to get some funding from the office of D250 [Democracy 250] to do something around democracy, to talk about youth engagement, try to get youth involved in the electoral process, the importance of voting, and what that means, and civic responsibility. So, since September 2008, we've been travelling across the province carrying the message of democracy to black, segregated communities.We just came back from Digby this past weekend. We were there to help celebrate the African Heritage Month. They had a gala and dance so we went down to be a presence there and to give them some support.

I am now the Project Coordinator of D250, and we are working in the HRM area. We've targeted four communities: Dartmouth, Halifax, Hammonds Plains, and Beechfield. We're having the first workshop on the 7th of March at the Victoria Road Baptist Church. We're going to have some youth there and try to engage with them and create some kind of dialogue around democracy and what it means in 2009, living in Nova Scotia as a minority.

MRG: What kind of response have you gotten from youth so far? Are people generally engaged? What do they have to say about voting?

DS: We launched this initiative back in October on the eve of the federal elections, and our title was “Pizza, Pop, and Politics: Why Black Youth Don't Vote.” We wanted something provocative, right? You know, it's a rhetorical statement, because many black youth do vote. Not long after we launched the initiative, we held a youth rally in the community of North Preston. But we didn't get a lot of youth out. I think one of the reasons being was we didn't give ourselves enough time, we didn't engage with people who lived in the community, we didn't check with the so-called gatekeepers, the people who you need to talk to when you're going into a community. We sort of just went in.

MRG: Like, certain people with connections?

DS: Yeah, you know—civic leaders, community organizations. We did talk with the pastor, he was very helpful. But what I found was that we sort of had to start from scratch and talk about democracy itself: What is democracy? What does it look like? We had about fifteen youth out, I guess, from East Preston, North Preston, and Cherry Brook. And we invited some political leaders. Percy Paris, the MLA NDP person. He's the only Black MLA in the legislature right now. He represents the communities of Waverley, Fall River, and Beaver Bank. Ironically, they are predominantly white communities. I don't know of any blacks living in those communities. And he was elected.

The former MLA from Preston, Dr. Wayne Adams, was also there, and Jerome Downey was there—a young gentleman, 23 years of age, and he was running in the municipal election, in Halifax, downtown. It was a very lively discussion, a lot of energy in the room. I think for the youth it was conscience-raising. It was the first time that they'd had a chance to talk about democracy, and electoral process, and what it means. We walked them through that, the various levels of government: federal, provincial, municipal. Some were very interested in joining our MLK project which was one of our objectives—to get more people to join the organization. We haven't done any follow-up to that event yet—we've been busy in other areas of the province, commuting back and forth to Digby. Digby, as you know, has been in the news lately. There's been a lot of racial tension there, so we wanted to identify with the struggle there. As a result we haven't really gone back to the Prestons to do follow-up work, but there are a number of youth who want to do more, who are interested in what we're doing, who are interested in D250.

MRG: So what was the general attitude towards the Canadian political system among youth at that rally? Were they critical?

DS: Well what I discovered was, and what sort of debunked my theme, “Why Black Youth Don't Vote,” was that there were youth there who were saying “I vote,” which I found surprising. You know, you usually think of voting as being for adults, older people. But there were a number of youth there who said they did vote, and others that said they would be voting as a result of the rally. One of the things we wanted to do, was we wanted to provide people with transportation to get to the voting booth—pick them up, make sure they got there and voted, but we didn't have the resources to do that. After the elections I called Elections Nova Scotia to find out how many youth actually voted, and what I found out was that they don't keep stats based on age, gender or race.

So we had no way of determining how many youth actually voted. I thought to myself, well maybe that would make an interesting project for someone next time around, you know, in four years, when they have the elections again. Because—that was one of the concerns that government had—the apathy among young people, especially between the ages of 18 and 25. In the last federal election, not this one, but prior to, only 25% of that age group voted.

MRG: Is the D250 Campaign still giving funding to the MLK Project?

DS: No. Actually, it ended December 31st, last year. It was just for the year's celebration.

MRG: Does that mean that MLK is struggling for funding, generally?

DS: Yes. But we still have some funding left from D250, and we are carrying on the work.

MRG: What are your thoughts on the D250 Campaign? Has it been targeting the right people, has it been focusing on the right areas? Some people have complained that the campaign backfired and turned people off of voting.

DS: Yes, it hasn't been delivered very well to the communities. A lot of people didn't even know about it. Even to this day, when I was talking to Pastor Armstrong from Beechfield I said 'Have you heard of D250?' and he said 'No. What is it?' I'm surprised at the ignorance out there regarding this celebration. 250 years of Parliamentary democracy, and there's so little known about it. The MLAs—I think there are 52 MLAs in this province—they were responsible for getting the word out in their constituencies, and they didn't do their job. We have an MLA who sits on our board, who didn't tell us about it. It was only after I approached him that he started divulging information about D250. So it was poorly, promoted and publicized. There was something like $9 million available to celebrate this event.

So that made it difficult. We were promoting something that people didn't know about. We had to educate people, which I think says something about democracy itself. In fact, the article I'm writing [about D250, for The Chronicle Herald] addresses that issue: democracy and how it came into being, and the fact that it didn't involve people at the grassroots level. It was done in Ottawa, it was done to appease certain fragments of the population, it was decided by politicians for the most part. The average Canadian had no say in confederation. So we're suffering as a result of that today—we see the apathy. Because we failed to engage people in the very beginning to be a part of the process. This is why you have this apathy towards politics in general and the electoral process in particular.

MRG: So what do you say to people who don't feel that they are participating in a democracy by voting, who don't feel that democracy exists here in the first place, who simply feel that they are not represented in the system?

DS: First, of all, I say that democracy is not simply about voting. It's a large part of it, you know, but we've been equating democracy with the right to vote. So I say, 'democracy means a little more than that.' There are certain values that democracy tries to promote and protect. At the center of democracy is freedom. But are you really free if you're being denied equal opportunity? I mean, are you truly free if you're living in poverty and insecurity? So what I say to people is, 'we have the conditions to make democracy a reality.' We have certain freedoms that we enjoy: freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech. So we should be using those mechanisms to make democracy a reality for all of us. Democracy is always a work in progress. I challenge people to say, 'let's revisit democracy.'

MRG: What role does the media play in a democracy, and in apathy, both?

DS: The media plays a big role. I've a had a love-hate relationship with the media for a number of years. I'm a long-time community activist and I've always had to take them to task for their lack of balanced coverage, or sometimes no coverage at all. The media, oftimes, is an arm of the establishment. It reflects the attitude of the status quo, and when it comes to the black community, usually it's the sensationalized story that they'll cover—some tragedy, some crisis situation, crime, violence—that's the kind of thing they'll cover. So, they don't have our interests at heart. I think the media should be held accountable. I think they have a certain responsibility to reflect the views of the citizenry. I also think that we need to do our job, in terms of holding the media accountable, making sure that the right stories are getting out there, that our stories are being told, that the mainstream media can serve our interests as well. We don't need our own newspaper, or radio station. Whatever's there for the general good is there for everyone, not just the white, dominant culture.

MRG: So you feel that what's already there should be fought for, utilized, and made better?

DS: Yeah, make it work. We have this tendency not to resist, not to challenge oppression or injustice. We accept it. We oftimes end up starting our own separate whatever, because we're not gonna challenge the status quo. So we have all these black organizations, supposedly designed to address systemic and institutionalized racism, and inequality, but they become self-serving. They simply perpetuate the situation.

MRG: Is that a structural problem, perhaps? You know, building anew, but repeating the same old structures?

DS: Yes, structural problems, and that's what systemic racism is. We are not able to break into the mainstream where we are part of the decision-making process. Decisions that affect our lives are made by people who are indifferent, for the most part, to our culture, our history. So, we accept that. I've said, on many occasions, that the only reason racism exists in Nova Scotia is because we allow it to exist. The struggle's in our hands. We've gotta do something about it.

MRG: What needs to happen? What's the first step? It's hard to know where to start.

DS: I think the Martin Luther King Project Association is a good start. As I said, we're trying to bring Dr. King's philosophy of non-violent direct action to Nova Scotia. We need a mechanism. We need a method, a technique, a means to fight against racism. The organizations, the current groups that we have, are not radical enough, are not militant enough. We need a militant organization that stops at nothing short of justice. That's what I hope the MLK Project will achieve. We need to bring people into the streets, we need to engage in sit-ins, information pickets, you know, that kind of stuff that Dr. King engaged in. We do Dr. King a disservice when we honour him with concerts and church services. There's a cost involved, for the dream. There's a cost involved, and we're not prepared to pay that cost. We give lip service to Dr. King's dream, but we're not really prepared to apply it, and ask, 'What is this gonna cost me? What do I have to do?' I've paid a price for that. There's always a cost involved when you take a stand and you put yourself out there.

MRG: So, you just said that starting things new is not the answer, that we should work on improving exisiting structures. Yet, isn't the MLK is something new? How is it different, structurally, from other organizations out there?

DS: We have an elected board. We're registered with joint stocks. We're trying to get charity status. We have about twelve people involved, and that number fluctuates.We meet twice a month, and we've got an annual meeting coming up on the 14th of March. We're stilll recruiting, we're still in the infancy. There's still a lot of growing pains, there's still a lot of head-butting, personality conflicts, people having different visions of what this project is all about. We're still trying to coalesce, trying to reach a happy medium, trying to get on the same page, trying to reach consensus. When I first started this idea, I wrote the original proposal, and sent it out to various people who I thought would be good to have on board. I knew there would be problems, I knew that we would run into opposition, but I didn't think it would come from within. I'm finding that we're fighting a lot internally. We burn ourselves out sometimes, just trying to get organized, trying to structure the organization, and never getting to the issues that have to be addressed.

MRG: Mmmm. Sounds familiar. Are the divergent visions significant enough to really stall the process, or are they just a temporary setback?

DS: They could stall it. I got an email from one of the members last week, and she starts out by saying, 'I think this project means something different for me than it does for the rest of you guys.' So, yeah, it could derail the whole process. I think one of the things I failed to do when I started recruiting people for this organization was check out where they were, in terms of their mindset. I should have sat down and we should have brainstormed, and had a discussion. But I just invited them to the meeting. People were coming in off the street, and just joining up. But I didn't do my homework—I didn't take the time to really flush people out. One of the central pieces of this project is the spiritual dimension. When I talk about Dr. King to audiences, I usually start out by saying, 'Dr. King was first and foremost, a Baptist minister.' He was a preacher of the gospel. If you miss that part of him then you really miss what he was all about. He had people around him who were of likeminds, he had an inner circle. Most of them were clergymen, ministers, Christians. I have a theology background myself, and I didn't seek out Christian people to be a part of this. I just cast my net very wide, and brought people in, in the hope that they would become Christian like-minded.

So in our meetings, we usually start with devotions. We have some time for bible readings, or prayers, personal testimonies. We try to lay the theological, religious foundation, 'cause I believe if that's not there, this can't work, and I've told the members that. It has to be the foundation upon which we build this group. So that's always a problem.

MRG: Does not being Christian necessarily mean that they don't share the same general vision?

DS: Yeah, they come with a different view, a different mindset, oftimes a humanistic mindset, or a Marxist mindset, you know, they don't understand Dr. King, they don't have appreciation for the Christian faith.

MRG: How do you see the MLK working out in the end?

DS: It's gonna have to come to a head. People are gonna have to decide whether or not they want to continue with the organization, on the condition that—and I don't like putting conditions on people—but, they're gonna have to have a spiritual understanding of what we're doing here. That's not my own bias, but it's the only way I see that it can work. We used to have a pastor in the group, who has since stopped coming. But I remember, he was saying, in one of our early meetings, 'I hope some people get saved!' I mean, it was the furthest thing from my mind, right? Because I knew what I was dealing with. But that was his hope, that people would actually come to the lord. So, maybe that's where it has to go. But there are those who feel that that should not be a requirement.

MRG: Has the MLK taken part in political actions or campaigns aside from D250? What other involvements has the group had so far?

DS: No, we haven't. We haven't taken part in anything of significance. We are going to be identifying with the Lincolnville issue. Lincolnville is a small black community in Guysborough County, I don't know how many families are there now. But they put a landfill site near the community, and they're putting in a second one. It's contaminating the land, the water. People are getting sick. So people are trying to have it shut down. NSPIRG [Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group] is traveling to Lincolnville on March 10th to meet with the residents there. So I suggested that we put it on the agenda at our next meeting. So, hopefully, we will be identifying with that struggle. The MLK Project has not been very active, and I guess one of the reasons is, we have been trying to get funding in place, trying to get structured—trying to do certain things before we became too political. Strategically, it makes a lot of sense.

MRG: So, not being from Nova Scotia, and not being of African descent myself, I'm not entirely clear on racism in this province on a daily basis. How does it manifest itself in 2009?

DS: Racism in Nova Scotia is alive and well. Invisibility, the marginalization of minorities. I was at a meeting last week , and we were talking about how invisible black people are becoming in various government departments. We talked in particular about the Department of Finance for the province, which is downtown Halifax. And it takes up about three, four floors. Somebody was walking through there, and there were no people of colour. And this is typical. Or you can walk into any store on any day of the week, and you don't see people of colour. When I was more active, I remember holding a protest against the IGA food chain, in the Westphal area. I would go in and I would talk with employers. There were a number of businesses where blacks were shopping, spending their money, but they weren't working. They were unemployed. And so I would go in to an employer and say, 'You have no blacks working here.' And he'd say, 'Well, I don't hire on the basis of race.' 'But all your employees are the same colour, they're all white. So you do hire on the basis of race.' I would challenge them. Then they would say, 'Well send me an application.' And they'd go through the process. We had a few successes.

Black people, it seems, no longer question it, they no longer challenge it. When we started picketing against the food chain, I remember one elderly gentleman coming to the store that day when we were picketing. He said 'I didn't know that. I never noticed that.' That there were no blacks working there.

MRG: The invisibility is normalized.

DS: Yeah. People accept the status quo. I remember when I was at the university, we had the director of the Balck United Front, Habid Rashid, and he used a very interesting analogy to describe the apathy of black people. He said, 'It's like having a bottle, and there's a fly in the bottle. And you put a top on that bottle, and the fly will attempt to get out. But when he realizes that there is a top on the bottle, he stops trying. He realizes it's futile. And even after you take the top off, he doesn't try anymore. Because he's burnt himself out trying to get out while the top was on.' And that's the way it is with us. We've burnt ourselves out. We're tired. We've given up the fight.

MRG: Is the top of the bottle off?

DS: I think, in some ways, I guess. We've made some great inroads. We've come a long way from the 1800s era, and the 1950s, you know. But we're still moving at a horse and buggy's pace, with token forms of advancement. We've come to accept token representation. I was telling someone the other day, one of my members, I said 'I'm not interested in individual success stories.' We've always had those. We've always had individuals making their mark. I'm not interested in token forms of progress. I'm concerned about the masses. Everybody, moving forward. Not just the ones and twos. And that's what we've come to accept.

MRG: What are your thoughts on Obama? (snickers).

DS: I have some interesting views about that, which I won't share with you today (laughs).

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3841 words


Great Interview

Really appreciate the frank perspective of the complications of community organizing in Halifax. Interesting about Spark's view that any community organization that hopes to be effective in African-Nova Scotian communities needs to have some foundation with the church. Thanks again, Maya.


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