Celebrating Black Women of Distinction

To mark Black History Month, we are taking a look back at Black women who are amongst those honoured with YWCA Toronto’s Women of Distinction Award. This annual award is bestowed upon women who have demonstrated an iron-clad commitment to improving the lives of other girls, women and marginalized groups. It has been going strong for 37 years – and counting. As you read through the excerpts below, get to know these remarkable Black leaders. Trailblazers, door-openers, activists and change-makers – YWCA Toronto celebrates and promotes Black women’s leadership and activism.

We must also recognize that systemic racism is pervasive in our society. A recent campaign from the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants highlights the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism, specifically, in our communities and city. Black and other racialized women make 53 cents to every dollar white males make. In Toronto, 41% of Black children under the age of 15 live in low-income families, compared with 29% of all Toronto children. 26% of Black people are food insecure, which is more than double the national average. For Black people living with disabilities and Black people in the queer community, the barriers are even greater. This is unacceptable.

Let us all take inspiration from the achievements of these Black Women of Distinction as we continue working to build a fairer and more equal Toronto. It is the responsibility of all of us, working together, to challenge and break down systemic barriers that uphold racism, prejudice and discrimination.

Jean Augustine – 1987 Woman of Distinction, Community and Public Service
Jean Augustine’s contributions to the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, and the Congress of Black Women; combined with her experience mothering two daughters, all have pointed to her unshakeable belief that “one has to leave this place better than one found it.”

We remember Muriel Collins – 1989 Woman of Distinction, Labour
As a Nursing Attendant and Metro Unit officer for CUPE Local 79, Muriel Collins reached out to other women who were new to this country and needed someone to fight for their rights.


Claire Prieto – 1992 Woman of Distinction, Arts and Entrepreneurship
As a filmmaker, Claire Prieto’s goal is always to put positive images of Black people before all audiences, especially before Black youth.

We remember Beverly Mascoll – 1993 Woman of Distinction, Entrepreneurship
Beverly Mascoll capitalized on a significant void in the beauty industry for Black beauty products and blazed a trail for Black women entrepreneurs.

The Reverend Paulette Brown – 1999 Woman of Distinction, Religion and Community
Rev. Paulette Brown founded the Created For Life youth ministry in the Jane-Finch community, offering seminars and training sessions to help youth become more aware of their strengths and abilities.


Eslin Payne – 2000 Woman of Distinction, Community Leadership
Eslin Payne is celebrated for her transformative community-based work with youth facing difficulties and women who have experienced violence.


Joan Grant-Cummings – 2000 Woman of Distinction, Social Action
The first Black President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Joan Grant-Cummings’ successful campaign was a direct result of her grassroots community work on issues impacting the lives of women, children and men who have been marginalized in our society.

Dr. Avis E. Glaze – 2001 Woman of Distinction, Education
An international leader in the field of education, Dr. Glaze has been extremely powerful in her work to provide opportunities for all of her students, but particularly for young women and racialized students.


M. NourbeSe Philip – 2001 Woman of Distinction, Arts
M. NourbeSe Philip’s poetry, articles and essays have provided many women, particularly Black women and other racialized women, with empowering visions of self and powerful frameworks for understanding their experiences.


Hesper Philip-Chamberlain – 2002 Young Woman of Distinction
From elementary school on, Hesper Philip-Chamberlain used letter writing to campaign on key issues, including the rights of women and girls to not be harmfully objectified in the media, and for the rights of Black South Africans.


Kamala-Jean Gopie – 2002 Woman of Distinction, Community Service
A trailblazer, Kamala-Jean Gopie became the first woman president of the Jamaican Canadian Association in 1979 and she was one of the first racialized women to run for provincial office in 1981.


June Veecock – 2003 Woman of Distinction, Labour
In the early 1990s, June Veecock was a major player in the first successful discrimination case on the prohibited grounds of racism to be investigated and settled by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.


Debbie Douglas – 2004 Woman of Distinction, Social Action and Justice
As Executive Director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, Debbie Douglas is a tireless advocate for the social and economic inclusion of newcomers to Canada.

Ebonnie Rowe – 2005 Woman of Distinction, Arts and Entertainment
Ebonnie Rowe is the founder of PhemPhat Entertainment Group, a dynamic, all-female non-profit company that provides promotional and educational opportunities for up-and-coming women artists.


Beth Jordan – 2005 Woman of Distinction, Social Justice
Beth Jordan is known for her leadership in solidifying and expanding the Assaulted Women’s Helpline, a life-saving telephone support service for women isolated in abusive situations.


Tonika Morgan – 2005 Young Woman of Distinction
Inspired to make a difference in the lives of other young people, Tonika Morgan immersed herself in community initiatives such as the Toronto Youth Cabinet, the Task Force for Socially Isolated and Homeless Persons and the Toronto City Summit Alliance.

We remember Kay Blair – 2006 Woman of Distinction, Community Leadership
Best known for her work as Executive Director of Community MicroSkills Development Centre, Kay Blair provided settlement, training, employment and self-employment services to immigrants and racialized people, with an emphasis on the needs of low-income women.

Saron Ghebressellassie – 2007 Young Woman of Distinction
As a mentor and organizer, Saron Ghebressellassie helps other women to lead by passing on skills and information, one event, panel, radio show and retreat at a time.


Ayan Hersi – 2008 Young Woman of Distinction
Ayan Hersi spent the summer of 2007 in Namibia where she worked in solidarity with local women and girls to advocate for anonymous HIV/AIDS testing centres, counselling, and treatment and prevention programs.


Angela Robertson – 2009 Woman of Distinction, Social Change
Angela Robertson is a strategic thinker, an innovator, and a woman who is widely respected for implementing life transforming programs for women who have been left behind.

Mary Anne Chambers – 2010 Woman of Distinction, Community Service
Through all of Mary Anne Chambers’ life’s work she has been motivated by a firm belief that by creating opportunities for marginalized people, not only are individual lives changes for the better, communities are changed for the better.

We remember Joan Lesmond – 2011 Woman of Distinction, Health Leadership 
From launching programs to improve women’s access to health care to mentoring racialized women and girls from low-income families, Joan Lesmond fought to break down barriers faced by women and girls of diverse backgrounds at every turn.

Angela James – 2012 Woman of Distinction, Sport
Angela James is one of Canada’s most spectacular athletes and in 2010 she became one of two women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining the 200 top-ranking male hockey stars in the world.


Dr. Akua Benjamin – 2014 Woman of Distinction, Social Justice
Dr. Akua Benjamin’s groundbreaking work weaves together feminism, anti-racism, immigration, policing and economic justice.


d’bi. young anitafrika – 2015 Woman of Distinction, Arts
Committed to providing a space for Toronto’s youth and artists to share and hone their talents, d’bi. young anitafrika founded Canada’s Watah Theatre Institute, where she mentors artists to tell their stories and express their politics.

Teriano Lesancha – 2015 Young Woman of Distinction
Teriano Lesancha established the Masaai Girls for Education Project, which is providing girls from her village in rural Kenya with the same opportunities she had, an education and a chance at a changed life.