In sixth grade, Oluwatobi Taiwo was the fastest girl in her school. She had recently moved to Canada from Australia with her family. At her old school, she knew she was the fastest because she did track and field. She was ranked the fourth fastest girl in Australia in the 100-metre sprint. When she grew up, she wanted to be the next fastest woman in the world. She was used to having people follow behind her.
At her new school, however, Taiwo ran because she was being chased. As a sixth grader, Taiwo wondered what she had done to attract bullies. But, in reality, the fact that she was the new girl and spoke with a thick Aussie accent was probably enough to make her a target for bullies.
“They would chase me around after school … I don’t know what it was they were hoping to do, whether it was to beat me up or what,” says Taiwo.
Eventually, the girls would get tired and give up. “It was one of the advantages of being fast.”
On March 2, Ryerson hosted the 7th annual Viola Desmond Awards to honour Canadian black women leaders. Three women are nominated every year at Ryerson, including one faculty member, one staff member and one student. This year, fourth-year business student Taiwo, who goes by the nickname Tobi, was presented with the Lillie Johnson Award for her leadership as an anti-bullying advocate, and for her volunteer work to help improve legal and financial literacy among young people.
Taiwo was all smiles as she approached the stage to receive her award, bending to shake hands with her award’s namesake, the white-haired Lillie Johnson. Johnson, a lifelong public health advocate who is well into her 90s, emigrated to Canada from Jamaica in the ’60s. She was the first black director of public health in Ontario and started the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario.
At the awards ceremony, Taiwo listened in admiration as Johnson spoke emphatically on the importance of education and hard work. “I was just blown away,” says Taiwo. “It’s such an honour to be given an award in recognition of her.” As photographers jostled for the photo-op moment of her receiving her award, Taiwo only had eyes for her family. Taiwo credits her motivation to her mother.
“I see her, and how she’s so willing to be giving of her time and her energy,” says Taiwo. She made sure not to leave the stage until her mother could snap a picture with her iPad.
The Viola Desmond Awards are named for the Nova Scotian businesswoman and activist who challenged racial segregation in Canada. Desmond is often called the “Rosa Parks of Canada” for refusing to move from her seat in the whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre in 1946. Ryerson’s Viola Desmond Awards are held each year in early March, with the intention of extending recognition of black achievements beyond Black History Month in February.
Taiwo says that while she’s never experienced such blatant racial discrimination as Desmond dealt with in her day, she identifies with the feeling of being excluded.
“You’re excluded for being bold enough to stand up for your rights and being brave enough to say, ‘No, this is wrong, and it shouldn’t be done this way,’” Taiwo says.
Memories of being bullied still sting, even 10 years later. Normally, Taiwo is outgoing and personable, with a broad, friendly smile. But tears stream down her face as she recounts the years of physical and psychological bullying she experienced from other girls at school.
“It’s one of those things you just don’t forget,” she says. Taiwo describes feeling alone and isolated at her school. She distinctly remembers a teacher who watched another girl slap Taiwo during recess and did nothing about it. “It feels like everyone’s against you, because nobody’s standing up in your defence,” says Taiwo.
For a long time, she avoided telling her parents about the bullying she was experiencing.
“Moving to Canada, they already had enough to worry about as it was,” says Taiwo. “I just didn’t want to burden them.”
Things changed for Taiwo in eighth grade when she got involved in an awareness program called Empowered Student Partnerships, where she began to learn more about bullying and realized there were other kids going through the same thing. She became inspired to raise awareness about bullying by sharing her story with others.
Taiwo began giving anti-bullying talks to classes, addressing the same classmates that had bullied her since sixth grade. She went on to start her own initiative called Hand In Hand, where she gave presentations to kids and conducted surveys to get them thinking about the impact of bullying in their school.
After excelling in her high school business classes, Taiwo was encouraged to study business, but she was dead set on pursuing law and getting into the University of Toronto to pursue a legal career. But when she heard about Ryerson’s law and business program, she knew it would be perfect for her.
Taiwo’s passion for law and education is infectious. She admits that once she gets talking on the subject, it’s hard for her to stop. At first, she gravitated toward criminal law, because she saw the most potential to help people in need. But she began to see the same need within the business sector.
“There’s so much that’s wrong with the Canadian legal system,” she says. “I kind of have this idea that I’m going to go in and fix it.”
While at Ryerson, Taiwo got involved in SmartStart, a volunteer-driven program that aims to help mostly low-income and at-risk youth improve their financial literacy. She says the most rewarding part for her was seeing people engaging and connecting with each other by sharing their stories and struggles.
Taiwo will graduate from Ryerson this spring, and has already applied to several top Canadian law schools. First however, she’s planning a 39-day solo backpacking trip through Europe. But she’ll be back in time for graduation in June.
“There’s no way I can miss it,” she says. “My mom wouldn’t let me.”
Sometimes Taiwo goes to watch her younger brother run track and field. She doesn’t run anymore herself, but seeing him makes her miss it.
Taiwo doesn’t dwell on memories of being chased around the schoolyard. She remembers being the fastest girl in her class — not because she had to be, but because she loved running.