“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Nelson Mandela once said.
South African-born educator Vicki Bismilla, a 2011 inductee to the Scarborough Walk of Fame, has lived those words.
Bismilla immigrated with her husband to Canada in 1970. She graduated from the University of South Africa with a BA and worked toward her masters in Canada.
She is a former teacher, principal and superintendent of education, a community volunteer, and is currently the vice-president, Academic, and chief learning officer at Centennial College.
In an interview with the Toronto Observer, she talked about her life in South Africa, social equity and her service to the Scarborough community.
Toronto Observer: What was your first reaction when you heard about your nomination?
Vicki Bismilla: The [Centennial College] president’s office nominated me at first. When they told me they were nominating me I was embarrassed, because I didn’t think I should.
There are so many outstanding people in Scarborough, but they felt that since it’s an education award, I should be nominated.
The award is more of an education award for the recognition of 40 years of work. I lived and worked in Scarborough for many years and I’ve always worked with students. In that regard, the college felt they needed to give some recognition.
If anything, it’s an acknowledgment of an educator that has spent 40 years doing this work.
TO: When you were younger and lived in South Africa, Nelson Mandela often visited your family. What was that experience like?
Bismilla: I was 6 to 7 years old at the time. In South Africa, because of apartheid, non-white people like myself had no rights at all.
My uncle was involved with Nelson Mandela, trying to protest against the apartheid.
They would meet at our home late at night because the races were not allowed to mix. Mandela was black and we were Indian and the government does not allow whites and Indians and blacks to mix together.
So, they would meet at our house late at night to talk about protests and protest marches.
TO: Is Mandela someone you look up to?
TO: You’re involved with 20 social equality programs, including World Wildlife Federation, Greenpeace, and World Vision. What made you want to help others?
Bismilla: Equity had been in our blood since a very early age because we were born on that side of South Africa.
Even though Canada has been very good to me and has special democratic processes, I’ve always regarded my duty to help people that are marginalized. People [that are] interculturally marginalized, gender, disabilities — whatever the challenges are, there are many of us who feel like we have to advocate for them.
TO: Out of all the equity programs, which are you most proud to be a part of?
Bismilla: When I was in the school system, we looked at mentoring minority positions. Often times, minority educators have a harder struggle.
I started mentor groups to help them. I started mentor groups for those who wanted to be in roles of principal or superintendent.
TO: Through your experience working as a principal and board educator for 35 years, do you believe Scarborough has a good education system?
Bismilla: Yes, it’s a great system because they are very conscious of marginalized people and address the needs of all students, not just bright students.
TO: What are the strengths and weakness of the school system in Scarborough?
Bismilla: Funding is always an issue. The schools need to have funding for repairs.
Despite the fact schools may not be in very good shape as far as their building are concerned, there’s a great deal of commitment by the educators to give the best possible education to the students with what they have.
TO: What advice would you give people who want to give back to the community like you do?
Bismilla: Anyone can give back to the community regardless of where you are or what you’re doing.
There are always volunteers wanted. For example, in the public school system we have breakfast clubs. It’s very easy to give an hour of the your time to seek children who wouldn’t normally have breakfast.
TO: If you could coin one phrase to describe your achievements, what would it be?
Bismilla: I served the children of Scarborough.