High school is never easy, but years of racist bullying made Imani Pinder’s first crack at it painful and isolating, prompting her to change schools.
In spite of the challenges, Pinder set out to make sure a new generation of Black students wouldn’t have to feel alone. She spearheaded a Black Students Union at her new high school and took on activist work in her community. The soon-to-be graduate has been granted a $70,000 TD scholarship for community leadership, in recognition of her work to create safe and empowering spaces for Black students.
In grades 9 and 10, Pinder attended a private Catholic school where she was one of just a handful of Black students. Pinder describes facing countless racist, misogynistic and discriminatory incidents from her peers during those years. She said staff refused to support her.
"It felt very isolating; I felt very alone," Pinder said. "When I went to the administration multiple times, even my parents went to the administration multiple times, I saw no changes."
Midway through the first semester of Grade 11, Pinder transferred to Garden City Collegiate, where the student body was significantly more diverse. Pinder quickly built friendships with other Black students.
Just months after transferring, the industrious high schooler decided to bring her peers — many of whom had similar stories of racist mistreatment — together in a safe place.
"When you can talk to somebody who looks like you or have the space where you can share those experiences… not only are you bonding over it, but it’s almost therapeutic as well.” ‐ Imani Pinder
"I just came up with the idea of wanting to create a safe space for Black students so we can share our stories and also celebrate our culture, but also have a safe space to go to when you’re facing these things," Pinder said.
At her previous school, Pinder said, there was nobody she could turn to when students belittled her and staff left her to fend for herself.
"When I was facing microaggressions or blatant racism, I could talk to my non-Black friends or white friends about it, but they wouldn’t really understand, or they wouldn’t try to understand. When you can talk to somebody who looks like you or have the space where you can share those experiences… not only are you bonding over it, but it’s almost therapeutic as well," Pinder said.
"I feel like those spaces are so important because you can actually discuss these issues and address these issues and not feel like you’re alone."
This time, Pinder wasn’t alone. With the support of a Black teacher, the principal and a group of friends, the club was founded just after spring break.
Since its launch, members of the Black Students Union have held meetings, attended events, and swapped stories and strategies with Black students unions in other school divisions, Pinder said. The group even joined Mayor Brian Bowman in a Black History Month kickoff luncheon.
This year, of course, has been different. Clubs aren’t running, owing to COVID-19 restrictions, but Pinder said she and the teacher in charge have kept in touch with all the members.
“The conversation around anti-Black racism was starting to happen in the classroom and everywhere, and I thought that was an opportunity for me to do as much advocating as I could. I’m super passionate about that." ‐ Imani Pinder
Pinder’s activism — her passion, as she describes it — didn’t end with the students union.
Last summer, as a wave of Black Lives Matter actions spread across North America, Pinder saw an opportunity to reach out to Justice for Black Lives Winnipeg, hoping to volunteer with the group as they planned a summer rally to honour those killed by police organizations both locally and abroad.
"The conversation around anti-Black racism was starting to happen in the classroom and everywhere, and I thought that was an opportunity for me to do as much advocating as I could. I’m super passionate about that," she said.
To Pinder’s surprise, the group invited her to help organize and speak at the rally at the legislature in front of thousands of people.
In recognition of her efforts, Pinder was one of 20 people awarded a TD scholarship from 80 finalists across Canada.
Pinder, who says she’s "still shocked" that she won, plans to use the $70,000 to chase a degree in political science from the University of Winnipeg. From there, the 18-year-old hopes to enter law school, and then land a job as a human rights or immigration lawyer.
When Pinder graduates this year, the leadership roles at the Black Students Union will be passed down to a new group of students. Though Pinder missed the opportunity to meet the newest cohort of Black Garden City Collegiate students because of remote learning, she knows the work she’s started will continue.
"The issue is never going to stop. It’s still here," she said. "Just because it might seem a little bit quieter than it was last year doesn’t mean that issues that Black people face have just vanished — not at all."
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.