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Community organizer takes aim at how Ottawa police address mental-health crises

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Man beside window. Image credit: Fernando @cferdo/Unsplash

In December, we at rabble.ca asked "What are the organizations that inspire you? Who are the activists leading progressive change? Who are the rabble rousers to watch in 2021?" And you responded. Over the next while, we'll be running both print and audio features about the people and organizations you nominated. Follow our rabble rousers to watch here.

One of the nominees for rabble rousers to watch in 2021 was Robin Browne, coordinator of 613-819 Black Hub (the Hub), co-founder of the Federal Black Employee Caucus (FBEC), and longtime contributor to rabble.ca

Robin and his colleague and co-activist Richard Sharpe co-founded both the Hub and the FBEC in December 2017 to address anti-Black racism in the Ottawa-Gatineau area and in the federal government. The following is taken from an interview with Robin Browne by Victoria Fenner, rabble.ca podcast network coordinator. 

Robin Browne: Organizing your workplace is not easy. I had been working for the federal government since 1999. During my time in government I noticed that other colleagues were getting privileges that I wasn't. At first I thought, Oh, well, it must be me, I will work harder.

In 2017, after we launched the Federal Black Employees Caucus, we began to work together to start challenging systemic anti-Black racism in the federal public service. The reaction from my bosses was pretty immediate. They hit me with one sanction after another and I kept impeccable notes, and I launched a couple of complaints against them with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and union grievances. Eventually, my employer came around to settling and the settlement allowed me to go off and do what I'm doing right now which is organizing for change.

Here is a blog Robin wrote about his experience and the toll discrimination has had on his life. 

In 2019, for the first time, the Public Service Employee Survey allowed respondents to self-identify as a specific visible minority group. The FBEC had a large role to play in making that happen and this data has provided important insight.

The survey found that 15 per cent of Black employees indicated they had been a victim of discrimination on the job in the past 12 months as did 11 per cent of non-Black visible minorities, as compared to only eight per cent of the public service overall. The vast majority of Black federal employees cited racial discrimination as the type of discrimination they faced. 

In December 2020, federal employees of African-Canadian descent brought a class-action lawsuit against the federal government to demand recompense for racism. Read about the plaintiffs and support the lawsuit here. 

Now Robin is working full time with 613-819 Black Hub, which regularly brings people of African descent in Ottawa-Gatineau together to coordinate volunteer-led efforts to address anti-Black racism through systemic change primarily in education, justice, employment, business and politics. 

Robin Browne: The current campaign of 613-819 Black Hub is around policing. Too many people from visible minority communities have been killed after police were called in to address a mental health crisis. Too many people in Ottawa, in communities across Canada, the United States, and the world. Partly in response to that, the Ottawa Police Services Board (OPSB), which is the civilian body which is supposed to oversee the police, has launched a process to review the mental-health response system.

To date the community experience with the OPSB has been that they rubber stamp what the police wants. A recent example is from November when the police budget was up for approval. The OPSB has to approve the budget first and then it goes to the council. Generally, 10 to 12 members of the public come to public board meetings in Ottawa. In November, 94 people were present at the OPSB meeting, and 93 of them asked the OPSB to not approve this $13-million increase to the police budget. The members of the OPSB listened -- then recommended that Ottawa city council approve the increase anyway. 

The Hub has no faith in the OPSB process for addressing mental-health crises. The process is slated to take three years just to come up with recommendations. Therefore the Hub has launched our own campaign to get a study done to see what it would take to implement an alternative non-police mental-health response system here in Ottawa.

One of the examples the consultants will look at is the Cahoots program in Eugene, Oregon. It has been running for 31 years now -- and when people call 911, routers send a van with a social worker and a medic. In their 31-year history, they've never had a person that they're trying to help killed and they've never had a worker hurt. The Hub is doing a fundraiser right now to support a study that will recommend non-police alternatives like the Cahoots program. 

Right now, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and due to the organizing by activists across North America, all governments are making statements about their support for the Black community. We must use this moment to both point out where these statements are not genuine and organize to win long-overdue change. At the Hub, we are also taking on systemic racism by private-sector employers because some Black community members have been reporting that businesses in their neighborhoods aren't hiring local Black people. 

Since Robin has been contributing to rabble.ca for over 15 years, we couldn't help ask him what rabble.ca means to him. His response resonates with all of us:

"At a time when media is so fragmented, when progressive voices are pushed to the side or our movements are co-opted and watered down, we need a space where progressives share ideas and build with uncensored and unadulterated voices. I've found a family among activists and and certainly a purpose that helps me to maintain my mental health."

Maya Bhullar is the Activist Toolkit coordinator at rabble.ca. She has over 15 years of professional experience in diverse areas such as migration, labour, urban planning and community mobilization.

Image credit: Fernando @cferdo/Unsplash

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