Barrie woman builds community through diversity and inclusion

Shelly Skinner said for white people, it is not enough to just put #blacklivesmatter on a post

Shelly Skinner’s favourite c-word is community.

“Everything I do is about building community and building a stronger community through diversity and inclusion.”

Skinner is black, has two children ages 11 and 13, and lives with her partner in Innisfil.

For the past week, she has watched protests and violence erupt across the United States in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis police custody. Over the weekend, solidarity demonstrations happened in several Canadian cities including Toronto, Montreal, Windsor and Vancouver.

“A lot is happening in Simcoe County and in the news in Toronto. It’s not just what is happening south of the border such as the things we are seeing on social media and in the headlines. We have to pay close attention to what is happening locally,” said Skinner.

She thinks it is a risky proposition for Canadians to get smug about the outrage in the U.S.

“We cannot be complacent in the ideology that we are better than the United States. Canada is known globally as an incredibly progressive country and in the grand scheme of things we are. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done on the ground in Canada and in Simcoe County when it comes to fighting racist acts that are happening in our community, and not just with police officers.”

Skinner said she encountered racial profiling while growing up in Brampton.

“As a teen, and [for] my partner at the time, it was a regular occurrence for us to be pulled over by the police just literally for driving while black. That was my first experience with police officers. The only experience I ever had was basically being profiled up until an adult.”

Skinner is careful not to single out all police officers. She has family members who are police officers.

“I know about good cops. They exist out there. I also know about bad cops. It’s not necessarily a good cop-bad cop scenario. It’s a system problem we have. That’s the real problem.”

Systemic racism is what Skinner is referring to. She claims it is deeply rooted in all of our big corporations and organizations.

“I have experienced this first hand in non-profit organizations in Simcoe County, in going shopping with my kids just to go to buy clothes for them at the local Walmart. This is my partner experiencing this in other levels around transphobia and homophobia. It is deeply rooted and it is a systemic change that needs to happen.”

Skinner moved to the Barrie-area in 2012 and said she was shocked by how deeply rooted racism was in the area and how even today it affects her children.

“It’s a regular occurrence for my children to come home and tell me the N-word is used freely in the playground. Again, it is systemically and deeply rooted.”

Skinner is not one to walk away from a good fight. Her fight is to make change, even if it is one step at a time. In 2019, Skinner partnered with Michele Newton to create Making Change Across Simcoe County, a non-profit that is all about building community and educating people in a region that has become more diverse.

L to R: Stephanie Gourlie (volunteer), Michele Newton (Making Change co-founder), Shelly Skinner (Making Change co-founder)

With a team of volunteers, Making Change held a series of events to celebrate Black History Month in 2020. Skinner and Newton found it difficult to find events in the region that marked Black History Month. Their kids were coming home from school telling them they didn’t see anybody talking about it at school and they had done nothing about Black History Month.

“It is really important within Simcoe County that Black History Month becomes something we all talk about,” said Skinner. “The contribution of Black Canadians, past and present, is a really important conversation we should be having.”

Making Change went into the schools in January and February and worked with students in an Art Engagement project, where kids were encouraged to explore the past and present contributions of black Canadians. The group also hosted an all-female panel of black business leaders.

For white people to be an ally and to continue to make change across Simcoe County, Skinner said they need to uplift black voices, hire black people and promote black art.

“They need to do the work. They need to walk the walk. It’s not just enough to say #blacklivesmatter on a post. You have to do the work.”

Skinner said she has seen a tremendous amount of hope because some people want to talk to others in the community and find out what is actually happening.

“People like to jump on the bandwagon of outrage. What needs to be done instead of going with the trend is to do the inner work and to see how you are part of the problem. Nothing is going to change until white people start looking within. They have to vote differently, think differently and listen differently to Indigenous people and black people, especially right now.”