Thiana Richards (photo left) is the founder of TRPR & Events and co-founder of BLACQ. BLACQ (Born leading African-Canadian Queens) is a Scholarship Organization that assists African-Canadian women entering post-secondary education and or those who are already pursuing one. The scholarship launched this year. However, due to gathering restrictions, BLACQ fundraising events were put on hold and another vision was born. The Feast launched in October 2020, and it has done an amazing job assisting others during these hard times. I spoke to Thiana about the positive changes she and her business partner, Champagne Johnson (photo right), are making.
We'll talk about The Feast in a minute, but I'm curious why you decided to start your philanthropic efforts with a scholarship for Black women.
I started out volunteering with a friend of mine. She is a Child and Youth worker, and she was running a program entitled Girls Club at a Parks and Recreation Centre. She invited me to come and speak to some of the girls on a Friday evening. They were having a career panel, and she wanted me to talk about how I got into my career and how my studies were going. I loved the experience, and I loved being with them. The ladies were between the ages of 16 to 29.
I started to go to as many Fridays as I could when I didn't have a work event or some sort of project. However, the program was getting cut by the City of Toronto (budget cuts). This particular evening, we were having a discussion on what the plan of moving forward looked like, and none of the girls had mentioned post-secondary education. It triggered me. There were about maybe 34 or so girls in this group, and out of this number, 27 of them were Black. Out of the 27, about 19 to 20 of them were single mothers.
When I asked them why they didn't want to pursue post-secondary studies, their biggest concern was finance. We talked about things like OSAP, but the strain of paying back OSAP can be a little crazy. We then had a discussion about scholarships which was triggering for me. I have experienced a lot of racial profiling applying for scholarships. I completely understood where they were coming from in terms of not trusting the system and a lot of these companies.
There aren't enough scholarships geared towards Black people, and the ones that are opened to everybody can be biased. I went home that evening and I spoke to my business partner because it really bothered me. I said to her, hey we do event planning for a living. Why not use our background to plan a few fundraising events. The goal was never to fund the entire education but to help out with entrance fees for applications, textbooks, and stuff like that.
It started out as a really small idea, and it completely blew into something else as we started to do more research and talk to more Black women. We put panels out on Instagram and things like that. We realized that there was so much more that was needed for Black women in Canada. We are now in the process of applying as a full-time non-profit organization.
You mentioned your experience with racial profiling while applying for scholarships, can you tell me about that?
I grew up in a single-parent home with just my mom and aunt. My aunt helped my mom raise my sister and I. My mom didn't have all of the resources needed to pay for education so we depended a lot on scholarships. As a result, I was very meticulous about my High School experience (e.g. volunteering and community hours) making sure that when I worked hard and applied for scholarships, I would stand out a bit more than the rest of my fellow classmates. Also because I'm a Black woman, and I knew that it was going to be something that would be considered. Growing up I experienced people looking at me differently and questioning me about my career choice. They would ask me what it was like coming from a single-parent home. As though there aren't white kids coming from single-parent homes. When I was starting to apply for scholarships and was invited for interviews, I realized that a lot of the questions being asked, I felt, were not appropriate. When I talked with other kids that I knew had applied for the same scholarships, we weren't being asked the same questions.
One experience really stood out to me. I left so mad and in tears. One of the interviewers asked me how they could be sure that I wouldn't be using the money for things outside of education. When I asked her what she meant, she said, oh well, you know, like the everyday life stuff such as your food, your clothes, and your baby daddies. I got so upset. I was like what makes you look at me and automatically think that I have a baby daddy let alone baby daddies. She said it with an 's.' I was like, first of all I don't have any children, and even if I did, why is that a question for what I use the scholarship money for. It is none of your concern. My personal life is none of your concern. We are here to talk about my educational life. It really triggered me. I was so upset I left in tears. At first, I didn't know what to do. I ended up having to call my uncle, and he came to pick me up. He went back inside and confronted them. They then tried to do the whole 'we're sorry. She is for sure going to get the scholarship type of thing.' This is after the fact. This is after you've crossed the lines, and now you are trying young women about how they already felt about the system (knowing what to expect before they had even gotten there). This was what was upsetting to me because you are now preventing other women like myself from being able to pursue a future because of fear of having to go through what others have already gone through.
How did you go from focusing on the scholarship to focusing on providing free meals?
Champagne and I had plans to officially launch BLACQ this year, but due to covid, we had to cancel all of the fundraising events that we had planned. It was about seven to eight events we had planned for the year. We kept gathering, but the numbers were going up and down so we decided it would be best to postpone the launch until next year. While having discussions and meetings about what we were going to do for the future, I told her that there is still something that I felt like we should still be doing during this time. I reached out to a few of the shelters I had volunteered with during my High School experience and asked them what they needed most during Thanksgiving. Their biggest concern was feeding a lot of their residents and having to turn away a lot due to number restrictions. I was like, you know what, how about we try to provide as many meals as possible to as many shelters as we could. We decided to take on this monstrous project two weeks before Thanksgiving, and we reached out to a few kitchens in the city.
Kitchen 24 was one of the first kitchens to say 'we love what you guys are trying to do. Here is some space in our kitchen that you guys can use to prepare these meals.' I put out a few posters in the different BLACQ groups on Facebook telling them what we do, what we were looking to do, and that we needed some chefs to work with. We got a great response from three ladies, and we went out and made posters asking for people to make donations. We had one organization that was interested in helping us, but at the last moment, they decided that they weren't going to help us. This was because somebody sent them a message telling them that because we were a Black organization we only intended to feed Black individuals. As if you can walk into a shelter and say, here is a box of food and you can only give it to Black people. They called me the day before we were supposed to start preparing in the kitchen. They said, hello Miss Richards we heard that this is what you guys are doing. We can't stand for this so this is why we are not going to bring the groceries that we had committed to bringing. Without giving me a chance to explain or talk about everything, they just hang up in my ear. We started to freak out a bit because at this point we had a little over 1200 people registered from the shelters that we were supposed to be delivering to. We only had a handful of donations.
Once again I went back to the BLACQ groups on Facebook and asked for help, and in less than two hours we got a little over $500.00 with e-transfers from random strangers who wanted to help. We rushed to Costco to get as many groceries as we could and rushed back to the kitchen. For the next two days, we helped in the kitchen and delivered a little over 600 meals to a few shelters within the shelters in the GTA. This is how we started the Feast for Thanksgiving. We really didn't have any intentions to do one for Christmas only because of time constraints. We realized that it was too close to the end of the year, and you can't really reach out to organizations and grocery stores to ask for donations because they allot all of their donations, normally, at the beginning of the year. As a result, we thought why not wait till next year. We will start preparing and making sponsorship packages to reach out to organizations next year, but about three days after the Thanksgiving Feast, I went into our inbox and there were over a hundred emails from different shelters, organizations, and families from all over Canada asking if there was a way we could also help them with the Christmas holidays. It is really hard for me to say no to people when they ask for help, and there were so many asking for help. We decided that someway and somehow we were going to have to try to make it happen. We are now doing the Feast in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Montreal, and Ottawa. We have teams and kitchens in these cities that are willing to work with us.
How can people help financially if they want to help?
Right now we have our campaign that we started on Go Fund Me called #EachOneFeedOne. What we are asking is for people to make a $20.00 donation. They will be sponsoring a meal for somebody in need. The money will go towards helping us to buy groceries, items, care packages, containers to pack the food, beverages, and stuff like that. As it is not possible to get big donations from companies this year, we have to try to buy as much as we can. Our goal is to make $20, 000.00. We need more, but we put it at this amount to make it reasonable for people.
For more information on the Feast visit @blacq_north or @msthianarose on Instagram.