UPlift Black continues positive advocacy regardless of racist, homophobic cyber attack

UPlift Black is a social service agency with an overall mission to uplift the lives of the Black community in Simcoe County and beyond.

“We’re kind of locally-based right now as we build our organization, so we focus on the Simcoe County community,” said Shelly Skinner. president and founder of UPlift Black. “Our anti-Black racism and cultural awareness education is something that we do nationally where we speak to the Black experience within Canada.”

In Simcoe County, UPlift Black supports public education, advocacy, professional development for Black business owners and artists to help create opportunities for them to be a top local business within the community.

“We do a lot of work with the Henry Bernick entrepreneurship centre out of Georgian College, and we do wellness,” said Skinner. “We focus on whole family wellness, so that’s everything from food security programs to mental health programs.”

As part of the wellness focus, she said UPlift Black also promotes fun, cultural community events so that they are not just concentrating on anti-racism all the time.

“We have a Black artist collective who meet once a month to network and build their art,” she said. “Then we have the advocacy council, which meets once a month. We work specifically with our allies on that council, helping them put their allyship into action. We have virtual wellness programs and upcoming in-person programs featuring BIPOC wellness experts, and you can check a lot of that on our YouTube or our social media.”

As part of the professional development programs, they are doing promo videos for Black-owned businesses across Simcoe County.

“We will be starting again to do some youth programming in the spring,” said Skinner. “That’s what is happening right now.”

It’s not enough to share a Facebook post or social media post and then think that they are allies. Allies take action, and we want our allies to step into their actionable allyship. We’re willing to help guide them on what that looks like through our advocacy council.

Shelly Skinner, Founder and President of UPlift Black

Uplift Black accepts donations from people who want to support their work.

Shelly Skinner, founder and president of UPlift Black encourages allies to show up and take more action than a social media share. (Contributed Photo)

“As a new grassroots organization, it’s very, very difficult to get funding,” she said. “So, unless we are working with collaborative partners that have been around a little bit longer than us as we develop and become more sustainable in the community, we are always looking for funding to help with that or more community partnerships.”

Volunteer opportunities start with a position in the advocacy council.

“Then once they’ve built some knowledge and understand the organization a little bit better, there might be some opportunities to enter a role within UPlift Black,” she said.

During a recent speaking engagement for International Women’s Day, Skinner was interrupted by a racist, homophobic cyber attack.

Three presenters were scheduled for the Barrie and District Labour Council’s International Women’s Day event on March 7. The first two presentations went off without a hitch, and then as Skinner began to speak, the feed was hacked.

“They started to draw penises on my presentation, they changed the music, they started blasting vulgar hip-hop music that talked about women’s breasts and private parts used the N-word,” she said. “It was very vulgar, especially when a black woman was speaking, so it was pretty clear and then what really, really got me is that they kept repeating my name over and over again. Nobody else, just mine.”

A video played of a man holding up the Pride flag and burning it during the cyberattack. After the flag burned, it was replaced with a flag that had a swastika on it.

“It was a pretty traumatic experience overall, just having this happen, and it took me a while to figure out what had happened,” said Skinner. “When they finally cut it off, I just looked at my computer in disbelief at what had just happened. Then I got an email from the Barrie and District Labour Council saying they hoped I could jump back on. I emailed back saying no, I do not feel safe to jump back.”

She was pretty affected by the attack, and since she had more International Women’s Day events to do the next day, it was not easy for her to get it out of her mind.

“March 8 was actually International Women’s Day, and I had a speaking event to do for the City of Barrie, and I also had a presentation to do for the Town of Innisfil.,” she said. “So, when I woke up that morning, I was nervous about jumping on those Zoom links. We had emailed to confirm that they were registered, and they would know who was jumping on before I jumped on, but it was pretty nerve-racking, and I’m still kind of shaken up about it for sure.”

During the cyberattack, Skinner was working from home, so her kids could hear what happened.

“They heard all of it – they came out afterwards, and they were like – mom, what happened?” she said. “They were pretty shaken up about it too and my partner as well.”

UPlift Black reported the incident to the Barrie and South Simcoe police detachments.

“We did that because UPlift Black is part of a Simcoe-Muskoka Black Unity initiative where we have leaders from many different areas within Simcoe County who are joining in on this conversation of how to better service the Black community,” said Skinner. “Both the South Simcoe Police and the Barrie Police are part of these monthly conversations through their commitment to creating safer communities. For our community to feel safe, we have to know they are doing that work.”

Although she said they “had a really good conversation” with the police services, Skinner found it “weird” that an email from the Barrie Police Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department to Uplift Black stated they had determined that this was not a targeted attack.

“To me, it’s just another way that the Barrie Police Service and the police service, in general, want to stop actual progress by limiting the ability for us activists to be out there to be speaking up,” said Skinner. “If they can’t see that it was a direct attack towards me when no one else’s name was called out when no one else’s presentations were interrupted when I was the only out queer person in that space, how do you tell me that is not directed towards me? So that blasé-ness of no big deal is something that they want us to assume that we should expect, and that’s not okay with me.”

The Barrie and District Labour Council released the following statement regarding the cyber attack on its Facebook page.

“The Barrie and District Labour Council Women’s Committee event was hacked. What happened this evening was unwarranted, intrusive, and does not represent the values of the Barrie and District Labour Council. We apologize to our guests and participants that this took place. We, as an organization, work hard to create safe spaces that allow all participants a place to have a voice. We will change future events to ensure greater security for all.”

Also, show up. Show up for events, show up in terms of donations of funds – it’s more than the share. We think of sharing as more than just a social media post. It’s connecting with your community, your place of influence and making sure they know about Uplift Black, that they are booking educational sessions, that they are tuning in and following as well. It’s a little bit more than just using social media as a way to amplify a message because that is not enough.

Shelly Skinner, Founder and President of UPlift Black

In light of the cyberattack on March 7, UPlift Black has called for increased protection at virtual events. The group suggested the following actions for online events in a media release.

  • Ensure there is an organized and thoughtful registration for the event, obtaining contact information and affiliation of participants before they can attend.
  • Create a Code of Conduct that all attendees must review and agree to before attendance.
  • Have a specified event entry period and then close the room.
  • Check your registration list against active participants if possible. Ask people to use the name they used for registration to compare quickly.
  • Ask someone responsible to act as security ready to mute, kick out, close the session.
  • Record the event if possible, so there is evidence if needed.
  • Take responsibility and take action if something does occur. Support the victim. File a police report and follow-up. Continuously review and revise protocols for safety.

Skinner usually doesn’t speak at any event where attendees are not registered.

“There was a miscommunication there,” she said. “I was not under the impression that Zoom link was going to be distributed right across many different social networks and to all the different labour union members. There was no way to track who was coming on and their intention when they were coming on. That is a definite issue when you are running any equity forum, equity panels – you’ve got to be able to create safe spaces for those speakers as they come and do this work.”

“It’s not enough to share a Facebook post or social media post and then think that they are allies,” said Skinner. “Allies take action, and we want our allies to step into their actionable allyship. We’re willing to help guide them on what that looks like through our advocacy council. Also, show up. Show up for events, show up in terms of donations of funds – it’s more than the share. We think of sharing as more than just a social media post. It’s connecting with your community, your place of influence and making sure they know about Uplift Black, that they are booking educational sessions, that they are tuning in and following as well. It’s a little bit more than just using social media as a way to amplify a message because that is not enough.”

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