By Karen van Kampen
Lloydetta Quaicoe learned from a young age the importance of helping and caring for others. When Lloydetta’s mother prepared a meal, she would tell her daughter, “You should always leave something at the bottom of the pot for strangers,” for anyone passing by who was hungry. Growing up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Lloydetta would give up her bed for the night when someone needed a place to stay.
“We talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion. That was very much a part of my upbringing,” says Lloydetta. “Diverse groups of people came to our home and were welcomed equally. They were provided for, whether it was food, shelter, or clothing.”
After moving to Canada, Lloydetta became concerned about the school experience of immigrant and refugee children who struggled with gaps in learning, racism, and social isolation. To help children find a sense of belonging, Lloydetta launched Sharing Our Cultures, a non-profit organization that provides opportunities for children to share their voice, culture, and history through mentorship, programs, and events.
As founder and CEO of Sharing Our Cultures, Lloydetta was the 2021 winner of the Social Change Award, Regional Impact, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours an exceptional leader of a registered charity, social enterprise, or not-for-profit who is dedicated to their unique brand of social change.
With a PhD in Education from the University of South Australia, Lloydetta’s passion for learning was instilled by her parents. The youngest of six children, Lloydetta says, “My parents felt that if you had a good education, you would always be able to work at a good job and take care of yourself.”
“I always say that play is a child’s best school.”
At 19, while working for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service, Lloydetta recognized a gap in children’s programming. She proposed and went on to create a TV show for children that was entertaining as well as educational. “I always say that play is a child’s best school,” she says. Lloydetta invited elementary school children to the studio where they read personal essays, listened to stories, and engaged in fun, educational discussions.
In 1982, Lloydetta moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where her husband was hired by the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science at Memorial University. Aware of the challenges experienced by immigrant and refugee children at school, Lloydetta got permission from the department of education and the school district to conduct a study of the psychosocial needs of immigrant and refugee children in the school system.
Lloydetta interviewed students from grades 4 to 12, teachers, administrators, and parents. She learned of children’s experiences with bullying and racism. “New students didn’t have the language or the vocabulary to report to teachers, or they were too scared to do so,” says Lloydetta. Students struggled to communicate and connect when there were no other students with the same cultural background and they were unfamiliar with the language.
The ESL program, which focused on the transition in learning from one language to another, posed difficult for children who had the additional challenge of gaps in their education. Some children’s education was interrupted after living in refugee camps.
On March 21, 2000, the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Lloydetta presented her findings to leaders in education including individuals from the Department of Education, Memorial University’s Faculty of Education, and the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association as well as the Department of Canadian Heritage. Some of the student participants in Lloydetta’s research shared their schooling experiences and were brought together with local students. After the event, newcomer students wanted to continue to meet regularly, and Sharing Our Cultures was born.
“I realized that this was what I wanted to do,” says Lloydetta. “To help immigrant and refugee school children find ways in which they could build that sense of place and belonging, and that they could work with local students to make that happen.” Through programs and events that are held in five regions of Newfoundland and Labrador, Sharing Our Cultures connects culturally diverse students and celebrates the identities, cultures, and experiences of all children.
“I realized that this was what I wanted to do. To help immigrant and refugee school children find ways in which they could build that sense of place and belonging, and that they could work with local students to make that happen.”
The first Sharing Our Cultures event was a drama production about a student from Afghanistan who was being bullied. Students from local schools attended the production, and their teachers wished there had been an opportunity for the audience to interact with the young performers. Lloydetta came up with the idea for an annual trade show to create an inclusive space for students to interact and learn about each other’s cultures.
For five years, Lloydetta ran Sharing Our Cultures by herself, going from school to school to meet with students and help them work toward showcasing their cultures at the annual event. “What I do, I do with all my heart,” she says. “Someone said, ‘compassion is feeling somebody else’s pain in your heart.’ I see some of the students struggling. They don’t have a lot of social networks when they are new here, and I feel that is important.”
Sharing Our Culture’s annual program runs from September to March, culminating in a four day event in St. John’s with the first day open to the public and the remaining days attended by grade six students with 200 students per session. Sharing Our Cultures fits well with the grade six social studies curriculum that explores world cultures. “To be able to interact with someone from the culture you’re learning,” says Lloydetta, “it’s a lot better than learning from a textbook or watching a video.”
Sharing Our Cultures has a partnership with St. John’s Memorial University that provides meeting space and workshops on presentation and time management skills. There are also mentorship opportunities for high school students who are matched with international students with similar cultural backgrounds.
Today, the organization has eight part-time staff across Newfoundland and Labrador who are hired annually based on funding. Lloydetta remains the only full-time employee when there is sufficient funding, and volunteers her time when there isn’t funding. “What I do is not a solo job,” she says, explaining that it’s important to look to people with the necessary resources and expertise. “Bring people in who will help you find solutions and make the difference that you want to make,” she says. “Get people around you and share your heart with them, and if they catch the vision, you’ve got it made.”
In 2021, Sharing Our Cultures launched the social enterprise Impactful Gifts to provide high school students an opportunity to learn business, retail skills, and gain work experience to help them find a job. Through Impactful Gifts, high school students make and sell reusable bags at local markets, and the bags are also available for purchase online. Lloydetta hopes to expand the initiative and include local products in bags that could be distributed by corporations at conferences.
The first cohort of students in the Impactful Gifts program graduated in September 2021. Lloydetta believes strongly in lifelong learning. “That has come back full circle for me because that is how I grew up. My parents were always learning and helping us see the value and importance of a good education,” she says. “That’s something that will always stay with me.”