Young activist honoured with Harry Jerome Award

The significance of September 11th, 2001 means different things to different people. For Saron Gebresellassi it was a call to action.

“(September 11) was a launching pad for what will be a lifetime of activism (for me),” she said.

After joining Students and Teachers Against Racism at her high school soon after that fateful day, Gebresellassi never slowed down.

“It had a profound impact on me. I saw the way my community was being targeted and profiled,” she said.

“The world stopped. We knew when 9/11 hit … communities would be treated differently and there was going to be increased suspicion. That inspired me to help raise awareness about social justice.”

Gebresellassi noticed a change in the world’s perceptions of Muslims and realized that encouraging open conversation and education could help remedy the rift.

“I feel that if we all had the opportunity to learn about things we didn’t know about I think we’d be in a much better place,” she added.

“Was I ever called a terrorist? No, not outright, but it’s definitely been implied. I was born in Saudi Arabia so when people learn about that it’s interesting to see the response that it has garnered, even though I’ve lived in Toronto my whole life.”

Now a community activist and women’s rights advocate, Gebresellassi, 23, is currently working on a PhD at York University.

Nearly nine years after that fateful day, Gebresellassi has worked tirelessly on numerous activist campaigns, from teaching black youth about the benefits of education to women’s rights and pay equity.

On Tuesday, March 23rd the recipients of the 2010 Harry Jerome Awards were announced. The annual national awards dinner honours the achievements of members of Canada’s black community.

Organized by the Black Business and Professionals Association, the official awards ceremony will be held on April 24th. Gebresellassi will be given the Scotiabank Group Leadership Award.

The news took some time to sink in. After some reflection, she articulates what it all means to her.

“My work is valued and it’s seen as influential,” she said, smiling. “It’s telling me that my work is having an impact and, to me, that means the most.

“The community realizes that this is actually benefitting young people and so it makes all the late nights really worth it. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when we’re just working and doing all these day-to-day things.”

When asked what inspires her most, Gebresellassi pauses for only a brief moment.

“I’m really inspired by young people,” she said. “When I think of young people I think of the civil rights movement, high school students who desegregated lunch counters and young people in South Africa who fought against apartheid…(youths) who have always been catalysts for social change.”

Having recently given a talk at York University to young girls about challenges they may face, Gebresellassi pinpoints exactly what makes all the hard work worthwhile in the end.

“After I gave my talk there were a couple of young girls who came up to me and they were actually welling up (with tears) and saying that I made an impact,” she recalled. “They also want to be activists and make changes in their communities. That’s very gratifying.”