By Karen van Kampen
At the age of 16, Sylvia Parris Drummond discovered the importance of learning in order to teach others. She got a job overseeing a summer camp program in her community of Meadowbrook Hill, Nova Scotia, which provided her firsthand experience and insight into the education process. “If you give something of yourself, then you can help others benefit,” she says. “I recognized my passion to work in education and with the community.”
Sylvia’s lifelong dedication to learning, community building, and social change has made a profound impact. She is CEO of the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute, that is committed to creating academic change and opportunities for learners of African descent while celebrating the accurate history, heritage, and contributions of Black/African Nova Scotians. In 2020 she was recognized for her accomplishments with the Social Change Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours an exceptional leader of a registered charity, social enterprise, or not-for-profit that is dedicated to their unique brand of social change.
Community has always been an integral part of Sylvia’s life. She remembers families in her neighbourhood being generous in sharing their praise and expertise, which included baking soft molasses cookies. Childcare was provided for neighbourhood children as a part of community support.
As the second youngest in a combined family with 15 children, Sylvia understood the importance of taking care of family and kinship. “There was always that accountability that the older one took care of the next younger sibling,” she says. “That learning is rooted in you, and you don’t even realize how much it might show up in different things until you have the opportunity to think it through.”
Sylvia was in grade nine when her father passed away. Two years later, her mother died. “No matter your age, you are an orphan when your parents are gone,” she says. “For me, it was so important to continue taking care of my younger sister.” Sylvia’s parents had taught her the importance of faith in her life, and during this time she found strength in her faith.
“The intertwining of our humanity is so important, and the recognition that if you are successful, I am successful. Our hearts, our souls, our resilience, and our existence are still within our locus of control.”
She moved with her sister to Antigonish where Sylvia attended St. Francis Xavier University, earning a science degree and teaching degree while her sister attended high school. Sylvia had a couple of part-time jobs during university and says, “It was a gift to be able to take care of my sister.” She had the benefit of caring people in her life, including professors at the university who kept an eye out for Sylvia and her sister.
Sylvia continued her studies, earning a Masters in Curriculum at Saint Mary’s University. In 1995, she got a job at the Department of Education in Halifax where she worked in policy and diversity. She gained experience in the provincial and municipal government, which gave Sylvia a strong sense of how policy was developed, applied, and implemented. In 2010, she completed a Masters in Africentricity Policy Leadership at Mount Saint Vincent University. “It’s such an opportunity to be able to have studied and lived experience for your work,” she says.
In 2015, Sylvia was appointed CEO of the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute. Today, she continues to work with the Department of Education as well as Regional Centres for Education, Labour and Advanced Education, and community organizations serving Black/African Nova Scotian communities to ensure there is genuine access to accurate information on the contributions of Black/African Nova Scotians.
“We draw upon the diversity within our diversity and our uniqueness, but also the common thread within us,” says Sylvia, explaining that the essence of Africentricity is “the centring of our voices and our needs in terms of community, with a recognition that getting this right will benefit everyone.”
The institute’s research, education, and policy activate the African philosophy Ubuntu and its belief in “I am because we are” and the universal bond of humanity. “The intertwining of our humanity is so important,” says Sylvia, “and the recognition that if you are successful, I am successful. Our hearts, our souls, our resilience, and our existence are still within our locus of control.”
The organization’s reach and impact on individual and community pride continue to grow along with its Africentric publishing program, dedicated to sharing stories of the 50-plus Black/African Nova Scotian communities. Books include The ABC’s of Viola Desmond in both English and French and Black History: Africa, The Caribbean, and the Amercias that is used in African Canadian Studies courses.
Reflecting on her experiences and lifelong journey of learning, Sylvia offers some sage advice: “Continue to value and respect those who went before you and all that they have done, because none of us get where we are by ourselves,” she says, adding that we also need to recognize our own strengths and accomplishments, and take time for self-reflection.
“Your body and mind will tell you when to think about where you are at and what you are doing. Are you still going where you wanted to go?” asks Sylvia. “Have a vision, hold to that vision, and work for that vision.”