“Privilege is about having people who champion you. Telling you that you actually matter and have worth. There are a lot of people who didn’t have that privilege. We’re trying to show them they can do it and give hope.”

In celebration of Black History Month and to mark his appointment as the new Chair of BBBST’s Board of Directors, Mark Harrison joins us for a discussion on the importance and need for Black individuals in roles of corporate leadership and mentorship.

In addition to joining the BBBST Board of Directors as a Member at Large in 2018, Mark donates his time and energy to several charitable organisations and initiatives across the country, including the CAMH Foundation, NFL Canada’s Football Development Advisory Committee, and most recently, the Anne Marie D’Amico Foundation which supports survivors of domestic violence.

“Empowering people, promoting social equity, and reimagining a world where entrepreneurial passion and purpose comes to life.” This philosophy does not solely guide Mark’s volunteer work. Throughout his marketing career spanning over three decades, Mark has always been led by his unwavering belief in purpose. It is what inspired him to start the award-winning agency, T1 Agency, and The MH3 Collective, a group of ventures focusing on marketing, talent, and education. On his website, Mark writes about the need for brands and companies to be brave. “To stand for something. To be something. To do something.”

“Companies are nothing but people. The reality of life is, talent today has all the power, they vote with their feet. Talent is going to look at companies and say ‘I want to know that you have a purpose. I want to see a company that looks like me, whether that be skin tone, gender, sexual orientation, values, or beliefs.’”

Over the past two years, this sentiment has gained significance. In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd, businesses are invested in learning about and tackling the racist – specifically anti-Black – practices that can be found in most pockets of society.

“There are many types of racism, discrimination, and prejudice against Black people and Indigenous people in Canada. What White people don’t understand is that for us, our feelings of marginalisation are rooted in sheer, horrific violence. Violence of being taken from our countries and sold as property. For Indigenous people, the violence of being torn out of their land and stripped of their dignity, their language, and their family. And as we now know, often significant abuse and maltreatment leading to death. That foundation of violence, I think is something White people don’t think about.”

While the temptation might be high to solve the race and diversity crisis in the workplace as soon as possible, Mark argues that immediate and rushed solutions might do more harm than good.

“Companies are changing the way their marketing looks. They’re issuing grants, they’re joining committees, they’re signing pledges.”

But that isn’t enough, Mark argues. With his recently founded Black Talent Initiative, he focuses on two fronts: creating opportunities for young Black Canadians in the workplace and tackling structural, institutional, and systemic racism in corporate settings.

“We’re trying to inspire companies to understand how they’re racist. I use that word because companies like to throw around acronyms like EDI (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) and JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) or inclusivity, exclusivity, and belonging. But no one wants to talk about racism. Racism is the thing we have to deal with. Racism isn’t about the confederate flag at the Ottawa convoy – that’s bigotry. Racism isn’t when I walk into my smoothie shop and I’m told by the cashier that the Uber drivers line up over there – that’s prejudice. Racism is systemic. Racism is when I look at your leadership team or your Board and there are no Black people. Therefore, you are telling me that I am not welcome.”

To Mark, the mission of the Black Talent Initiative was clear from the very first day. It was designed as a vehicle to empower the youth of today – specifically Canada’s Black youth – and to set them up for success. It was about giving people access to a world they historically weren’t a part of. It’s about privilege and providing it to those who don’t have it.

“Privilege is about being in the right networks. It’s about being able to go to post-secondary school. Privilege is about having people who champion you. I have benefitted from always having people around who cared for me. And I believe in having somebody that looks out for you. Telling you that you actually matter and have worth. There are a lot of people who didn’t have that privilege. So that’s what we’re doing with the Black Talent Initiative. We’re trying to provide the opportunity for Black people to get on the same tracks as White people.  We’re trying to show them they can do it and give hope.”

In addition to his efforts to positively impact young Black talent and support them in the workplace, Mark co-founded Park Street Education in 2020. Operating as the first remote-learning school of its kind, Park Street provides children with accessible, inclusive, and consistent education. At the beginning of the pandemic, he witnessed a friend struggling to manage the education of her child who has a learning disorder, all while taking care of her full-time work, supervising projects, and virtually managing teams.

“COVID sucks for everybody. But it’s more difficult for the people in the margins, especially people with different challenges. There is a lack of ability to get the treatment or support they need. I’m not trying to rip apart the education system. I’m just trying to help a few kids. So we created this little thing to help tackle barriers. And honestly, if all of this has helped one kid a year, I’m happy.

“Probably one of the biggest motivators was looking at the work that you at BBBST are doing and the incredible work that Bigs are doing. At Board meetings you hear about all the amazing things that having a Big Brother or a Big Sister does for a Little. And all of it comes down to the simple fact that Littles at BBBST are given the opportunity to get out and see things they might not have ever seen or be with somebody they might not have had as a role model. These opportunities are a basic fundamental.”

“Education – I don’t want to call it the great equaliser – it’s the great energiser. And that education can literally be the Little going for a walk with somebody who works in a business that they never even knew could exist. Education isn’t just in schools.”

As we can faintly see the end of a two-year pandemic on the horizon, what is next? Where do we go from here to make sure that together we build a safe and supportive community for future generations?

“The number one thing I would say is this: Push your company, push your government, push your local educators. Push them on disabilities, neurodiversity, mental health. Push them on gender, sexual orientation, and queer identity. Push systems on creating the Canada we’re supposed to be. A Canada of belonging.”

Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Toronto, is thrilled to welcome Mark Harrison’s guidance, insights, and perspective as Chair of our Board of Directors as we continue to explore Anti-racism, Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Policies within our workplace and the communities we serve.