Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
“I am used to being the only,” says Jocelyn Dorrington about her recent success as the first African Nova Scotian woman elected to a municipal council seat in the town of New Glasgow. “I was the only African Nova Scotian woman working in the school board office and I have been the only in other places. I don’t mind being the only for now but I want to inspire other young women in our community to become leaders and for the young men to understand that their mothers, their sisters, their aunts and their girlfriends all have the potential to be leaders too.”
Jocelyn Dorrington may be the only black woman sitting in the council chambers on Provost Street in New Glasgow in 2019 but that’s where the solo act stops. She is now part of a group of trailblazing African Canadian women engendering the political landscape, who are challenging the establishment and starting to put a crack in the glass ceiling that continues to be an obstacle for women but especially women of colour trying to find the top step of the ladder. It’s a small but powerful co-hort that she belongs to. Racialized politics on all levels is idealized but rarely, if ever realized. In a country where diversity is celebrated the decision-making is still left in the hands of predominately white male governing bodies. This lack of diversity is finally being identified as a risk to our municipalities. Even in areas of our country with a strong percentage of cultural differentiation, diversity in leadership is almost non-existent. While it is an issue at the top of the agenda for the Federation of Municipalities, Jocelyn believes that real change is in the hands of the people who have been traditionally left out of the political arena.
“Real diversity looks like people coming together and having a sense that we are different but we bring the best of what we have to offer. We bring all our different skills and opportunities to the table or wherever we find ourselves. We need to take what everyone has to offer and we weave it into a tapestry that is ours,” says Jocelyn of her own vision for change.
African Nova Scotians represent a little less than 10 percent of the population in the town of New Glasgow. For many years most of this population was concentrated in Ward One. Its catchment is the south side of the town and includes the Hospital, Aberdeen Business Centre and the newish North Nova Education Centre. It also bundles one of Nova Scotia’s historic black communities along the Vale Road. It’s where Jocelyn grew up with her five brothers and sisters in the community she now represents since winning the Ward One by-election this past May.
Jocelyn came of age in a house where lively discourse was the norm. She says that community and talking were the family hobbies. Their dinner table was the soapbox for each family member to share their opinions and question the rigor of political systems, the principles of social justice and whose sports teams were number one. She remembers that the chatter could become heated at times and for a new friend or colleague not used to the Dorrington debates, a visit to their house when the volume was dialed up could cause a person to question whether the big happy family was happy at all.
“I had to tell a few friends that were scared away not to worry. That’s just the way we talk. We all love each other but we all also really love to get our own point across.” She says that even today when the family reunites from lives transplanted to other parts of Canada and the US that her siblings quickly disperse with the niceties and jump right in where they left off the last time.
Today, Jocelyn lives on Morris Street, a short lane that nips in off the Vale Road and neatly tucked in behind the monument in the Africentric Heritage Park. The slice of green space was opened in 2000 to commemorate the past, present and cultural future of Nova Scotians of African descent. It seems appropriate that the park is her front yard. Like so many other families the park pays homage to the Dorrington’s personal story where they can trace back the migration of their ancestors to the province and generational changes that gradually shifted away from the systemic racism that isolated black families. Since she was a girl, Jocelyn witnessed the layers of discrimination slowly peeling away. She saw people in her community taking bold steps and creating their own opportunities. She was both an observer and participant in the changing mindset in society where cultural differences were starting to be celebrated and an awareness that inclusion and diversity were the secrets to everyone’s success.
Jocelyn and her siblings had a front row seat as change started to be played out in their own community. Her father Francis was knocking over historical prejudices and obstacles left and right. While she is the first black woman to hold a council seat in New Glasgow, her father was the first African Nova Scotian in Pictou County municipal politics. She learned about being the “only” from him as he went on being the “first” and the “only” or “of a few” on many different boards and organizations for over 20 years.
“We have to continue to celebrate the ones and the twos as they happen,” says Jocelyn. We need people to understand that we have the same hopes and aspirations as everyone else. We want to contribute and help shape our communities but we need the opportunities. Because we are small in numbers we can’t rely on us voting for us because it’s not going to happen that way.” says Jocelyn.
Mentored by her parents, strong community members and her colleagues during her career in education, Jocelyn has curated a healthy list of values that she says will define her approach to municipal issues. She believes that her own values will align with the good work already being done by the current slate of councillors.
“I will rely heavily on the advice given to me by my father. You have to be available for people. You have to communicate and reach out to people in their own neighbourshoods. You can’t rely solely on email and social media to get your message out. You need to pick up the phone, you need to knock on doors and you need to talk to and with people.”
It was knocking on doors during her campaign that Jocelyn heard a lot of what she already knew. Her constituents were feeling a loss. There is always a price to pay for progress and when the people living in Ward One lost both the YMCA of Pictou County on South Frederick Street and the John Brother MacDonald stadium she says that a little piece of the community went missing. Understanding the process that led to the change in infrastructure and the reality of fiscal restraints, she hopes that she can work towards other ways of elevating the south side of town that will benefit the wellbeing of all of her constituents. She says that her hope is that by looking at things a little differently there can be real solutions and giving her constituency a lift that will reverberate to other parts of town.
“I will be looking at things through a lot of different lenses. I will be looking through the lens of gender. I will be looking through the lens of social justice. I will be looking through the lens of race. I will be looking thought the lens of equity. I bring those things and I speak those things because these are the values I carry.”
Jocelyn entered politics at a time where she felt that she could give it her all but she says the system can’t wait for women to retire to step into politics. With a national appetite in all levels of government to create more diversity and see more women enter politics she believes that they system needs to change to allow for real change.
“Women need to feel like they will be supported. We need to make a few changes to the way the system works. Even the scheduling of meetings and having support for young and middle aged women with children to have the supports in place so they can engage,” she says.
Last winter Jocelyn felt that support. It was after a conversation from her childhood friend Crystal States that she really took a pause to consider all that she had to offer. She had sat on a few town committees and had the knowledge of her father’s political careers as a foundation to build on. It took a few days for her to pause and consider, part of her own natural style and then she said yes.
“I had the most incredible campaign team,” says Jocelyn, sitting in a cozy chair in a newly renovated space in her home. “They were mostly women and my mother was over the moon with my decision.”
Because she won her council seat during a by-election, Jocelyn doesn’t have a lot of time before the next municipal election. She feels that while there is a lot of positive work to be done she also is aware that she really needs to open her ears to the needs of her entire community. She sees the good things that are happening that are continuing to attract new people to her town and a growing entrepreneurial culture that will continue to contribute to the prosperity of the region.
“People ask me what I want. I see so much potential. I want to continue to create that tapestry where different races and generations come together with a vision for our town that is inclusive and accepting. That’s what I want.”