Student activist creates space for diversity in hometown Winnipeg community.

By Jesse Mintz

 

Community building and representation are paramount in the eyes of Alexa Joy Potashnik, founder of Black Space Winnipeg. She jokes that, when it comes to activism, she was “born to be.” The passion she brings to the stage confirms as much.

Alexa shared her message with 15,000 young people at WE Day Manitoba last October, using her own story to motivate audience members to recognize the daily injustices people face.

Alexa was raised by her mother, a strong Jamaican woman. Her father was a Russian Jew from Ukraine. Black and Jewish, Alexa’s worldview was formed around stories of oppression and the journey to freedom. These narratives were important markers of identity while growing up in the suburbs of Winnipeg, in a predominantly white neighbourhood.

As she grew older, her mother’s stories about the racism she faced, foreshadowed experiences in Alexa’s own life. Light skinned with a mass of beautiful hair, she was picked on in the playground for attributes that made her look different than the bullies. “When kids make fun of your hair because it’s curly and huge, that’s how they notice difference,” she explains. “Kids bully people on their difference.”

Bullying and regular microaggressions translated into isolation for Alexa. The only person of colour in her school, Alexa put up armor to defend herself against the barbs and taunts of her classmates. As she tells the WE Day Manitoba audience, “I was the only black kid in school, so at times I felt really isolated and like there was nobody in my corner.”

When Alexa turned nine, her approach to bullies shifted. If she was going to be made fun of for being “different,” she was going to own it and create her own space. She started beatboxing. Beatboxing was a way to stand out on her own terms. “People wanted to be quick to judge or make fun of me,” she recalls. “But [when] they saw I did this really cool thing, it was my protection.”

In university, the tactics Alexa used to deal with feelings of isolation and discrimination further evolved. Here, she found motivation in learning the history of systemic racial injustice in Canada—she found even more reason to take action. She learned about the 200-year history of black slavery in colonial Canada, she read about Japanese internment camps in Canada during World War II and she became aware of the continuing impacts residential schools have on the country’s Indigenous communities, after the last of its kind closed in 1996.

University gave birth to her politics.

By 2016, Alexa was a zealous activist. As Black Lives Matter protests spread across the United States, Alexa was camped out in Toronto, part of a tent-city demonstration outside police headquarters. It was months after the police shot and killed Andrew Loku, whose death would be followed by the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Abdirahman Abdi all that same summer in 2016, all at the hands of police, all black.

With each death, a realization dawned on Alexa: the people she saw organizing on the streets in Toronto and in cities across the US were claiming spaces for black people—what about Winnipeg? “Just because we don’t see black people getting killed by the police [in Winnipeg] doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about these issues.”

That July, Alexa organized the city’s first Black Lives Matter rally on the steps of the legislature. Hundreds showed up, undaunted by gathering storm clouds and driving rain. For Alexa, it was a sign. “I’d never seen that many black people in one space in Winnipeg, all coming together, supporting one another,” she reflects. The energy was palpable—people wanted to know what came next.

Her answer: Black Space Winnipeg.

The grassroots organization behind the rally, Black Space Winnipeg was a way for Alexa to create a space for her hometown’s black community through engaging and informative events, ranging from screenings (Get Out was a recent film highlight) to speaker series with guests like activist/author Angela Davis. Take Nuit Noir, an event thrown during Nuit Blanche to increase visibility of black artists. Or there was the townhall and community rally the organization put together in the wake of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—timed with a spate of racist graffiti popping up at home.

Alexa summarizes the positive effect of such shared experiences: “It’s ok to talk about it […] to discuss isolation and microaggressions. You don’t have to fit into a box.” This is a lesson Alexa traces back to the playground.

Over a decade later, Alexa is still beatboxing as MC Woke. Unlike her school days though, this young woman isn’t using it as a form of armor. It’s no longer about seeming cool—it’s about the message she can share through her art. “We need radical minds, we need resistance, it’s time,” she declares, slipping into poetic rhythm as she speaks. “To quote Malcom X, ‘early in life, I learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise.’”

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