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Ujamaa Career Conference

Expanding career goals at the Ujamaa Career Conference

By Shellene Drakes-Tull


When asking some of the Black students at the Ujamaa Career Conference what their goals were, a lot of the answers were the same: basketball. But what was different was their Plan B goals: chemist, engineer, music producer, electrician, computer designer — the point of the career conference held at the Africentric Alternative School in northwest Toronto.

With more than 150 students in attendance, the students had the opportunity to talk to mentors from the Black community in fields like fashion, urban planning, video production, publishing, software engineering, law and more. The mentors shared their experiences and highlighted career opportunities outside of the NBA.

“It’s really important to give back and to tell the youths about the different opportunities that are available to them,” says Neil Lowhar, a civil engineer. “Really show them that it’s not all about sports. It’s not all about music. There’s a lot more that they can do.”


Closing opportunity gaps for Black students

The Ujamaa Career Conference was created by TDSB educator Karen Lowhar, a student success transitions counsellor and a teacher for 18 years. In January 2019, she volunteered at the Toronto Black Youth Conference and one of the students envisioned a career conference for Black students. Karen thought it would be a good fit for the TDSB and approached Colleen Russell-Rawlins, Associate Director of Equity, Well-Being and School Improvement.

“Our students need to see people who look like them so that they can believe in possibilities for themselves,” Karen explains. “Our multi-year strategic plan calls for closing opportunity gaps and the Ujamaa Career Conference’s main goal is to close those gaps for Black students. Our students need to have career mentorship and this is going to make a difference for them.”

While all mentors are helpful for young people, there is a something to be said about having mentors who have experienced struggles unique to the Black community, such as anti-Black racism, says Nike Onile, an interior designer and Cityline small space design expert.

“I found that my Black mentors had a better understanding of what I was going through or facing,” she says. “For example, with television I didn’t see a lot of people like me. Having a mentor that looks like you allows you to have a big brother or sister that has gone before you.”


‘Inoculating our kids with confidence’

Young people need to see what is possible and expand their worldview, says Michael Carter, chief headhunter and corporate coach for a human strategy consulting firm. “We don’t have to be basketball players or rock stars, but there’s a million other things that can allow you to be just as great. I also want Black kids to recognize that you don’t have to be a lawyer, doctor or engineer to be successful.”

Parents play an integral role as advocates and cheerleaders for their children, Michael continues. “As parents, we have to inoculate our kids with confidence. Enough that when they do get out there, it doesn’t matter what profession they choose, they’re able to speak about themselves with confidence.”

For Karen, and all the career mentors, ongoing career planning support for Black students is a necessity. “This can’t be a one off,” says Karen. “We have to have support and make it a circle of care. We need the students. We need the parents. We need the community partners — we all have to join together to make this initiative a success going forward.”


What students are saying about the Ujamaa Career Conference

“I’m going to Grade 9 next year, so that means I’m going be 14 and legally allowed to work,” explains Grade 8 student Kamal Regisford. “I think a career conference is going to help me — push me down the right path and help me pick a career that’s the best fit for me.”

“Why is this conference important? It’s important because they had difference people here that can show you different careers, different paths,” says Grade 8 student Jesse Mark. “Encourage you to go down the right path and not the bad paths.”

“It’s important because I get to meet a lot of people like mentors and these workshops can help me learn something new,” explains Grade 8 student Ephraim Johnson. “And also I might get a job offer because I was told to bring my resume — maybe an opportunity is here for me that I can take.”

“It helps young kids who don’t know what they’re doing. I learned to focus more on studies or going to college, than just to focus on girls,” says Grade 7 student Josiah Serrette-Saddler, with a grin.


Career tips from the professionals

The mentors in attendance shared some tips for young people who are beginning their careers. What do they say?

“It might sound cliché, but follow your heart. A lot of time we feel that other people know better or because we don’t see people like us, we don’t feel like we should take that path. Look for the things that will allow you to be successful and follow your intuition.”
- Nike Onile, interior designer and Cityline small space design expert.

“Make and nurture good relationships with the people you meet along the way because you never know who’s going to help you.”
– Neil Lowhar, civil engineer and project manager.

“Believe in your brand as a person. Recognize what makes you unique. If you’re special, then you have to believe it—you have to live it. When you recognize that you’re special, the way you treat other people is very different because you realize, ‘if I’m special, there’s a likelihood that you’re probably special.’ It changes the dynamic.”
- Michael Carter, headhunter and corporate coach.





A lover of stories and a wordsmith, Shellene Drakes-Tull has been a communicator in both the corporate world and in media for more than 15 years. Through telling the stories of TDSB students and educators, she hopes others are inspired to create more equitable, anti-racist and anti-oppressive school environments.


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