Pride Toronto's New Director Tells Us What Her Job Is *Really* Like

In our 9–5 series, we ask women at the top of their game how they made it. This week, Toronto Pride's new executive director Olivia Nuamah gives us an inside look into what to expect this summer and why she's not surprised BLM isn't marching in the parade

Olivia Nuamah, executive director of Pride Toronto, wearing a blue shirt and looking at the camera

(Photo: Nick Wong)

Age: 45

Education: Bachelor of arts in international development and social anthropology from the University of Toronto, a masters degree in the social anthropology of children and child development from Brunel University, and a doctorate in computer science from Warwick University

Length of time at current gig: Since February 2017

When Black Lives Matter stopped the Pride parade last year, you were volunteering at a Pride event in another part of the city. What was your reaction when you heard about the protest?

I have to admit that being a person of colour myself, and given that I am very interested in the dynamics between Black communities and the services that are meant to support those communities, it felt to me that what was happening was part of an international movement to look at the practice of policing as it applies to Black communities. It felt very natural that it would happen at a Pride event because Pride traditionally has been a place where communities that have felt like they are not adequately represented, have represented themselves. This festival sells itself as one where a range of voices can come and be themselves—and in this case, it looked like this was a group of young people, who are residents of this city, who are using the festival to voice their concern. It felt totally natural.

When you first got hired, a lot of people talked about your role in bringing diversity to the festival and their perception of what your role was—but I’m curious, how do you see your role as the executive director?

For so many years, the people that have been involved in this organization have asked for it to respond to different voices within the organization. They’ve not felt that they have gotten it, to some extent. When last year happened and the organization decided it was going to take stock of where it was at and try and understand what it needed to recruit for, the recruitment process was really focused on that community development and bridge-building element. So I would say that the executive director of Pride Toronto has to be first and foremost a facilitator—somebody who understands public policy for sure, but mostly understands how that public policy impacts on local communities—and ensure that through the product of the festival, that we are reflecting those needs. They hired me with that view in mind, and I would honestly suggest that to date, the role is mostly organizational management, but also stakeholder relations and creating an environment where the community feels like they have access to the organization through the executive director and our staff.

You’ve worked as the executive director of the Atkinson Foundation and with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to help end poverty in the U.K. How did your previous job experience help prepare you for this new role? 

My main skill is in facilitation. All of my leadership roles have involved an element of facilitation with the local community. Whether it was between the community and the public sector or between individuals and an institution, I’ve always acted as the bridge between the two groups. Every leadership role that I’ve had has focused on translating the narrative of the community into policy and practice that the community can see themselves reflected in. Coming into this role, it seems like it was looking for the same thing—somebody who had public sector experience, but also whose main skill is working collaboratively with the community to obtain results that everyone wants to see. When this role came up, it seemed like that’s what they were looking for and it turns out, that’s exactly what they needed.

Now that you’ve been in this position for a number of months, how have you approached negotiating and connecting with the different communities involved with Pride? 

There’s a certain process that works for me, and it starts with trust building. It involves a combination of talking, revealing who you really are to people, and the more public-facing piece, where you hope to create a narrative that people can see themselves reflected in. In this case, there is also the festival-planning piece where you translate into action what people want to see after all of those conversations. The way I’ve done it is to try and be as personable as possible, to be available and position myself as someone who isn’t here to tell people what to do, but instead is here to facilitate what they would like to see.

You mentioned “revealing who you really are to people.” For our readers who might not get to meet you personally, how would you describe who you really are?

I am a queer woman of colour, who is a mother to two adolescent and pre-adolescent boys, who believes in community accountability, and who tries to do that through leadership roles that have community interest at the centre of them.

Pride Toronto hired almost an entirely new staff this year. How did you handle that as a leader, when you’re new to a job and your entire team is new as well?

The great thing about Pride Toronto is there’s a paid staff, and there is a volunteer team that’s about 10 times bigger who have been putting on this festival for as long as it has existed. Everyone who has been involved in the festival since its inception are still involved with Pride Toronto. When I started the role, there was the challenge around the team coming together and understanding what was required of us. That was complex, because there was no member of staff with historical or institutional knowledge. But by the same token, there’s a group of around 70 team leads who are responsible for every aspect of the planning and delivery of this festival. So there is someone to tell you what needs to happen at almost every aspect of the delivery of the festival. They, to a large extent, have carried us through this process by telling us what needs to happen and when it needs to happen.

In The Globe and Mail, you said you actively “wear your race.” What does that mean right now in your role?

I have always done race and equity work. I don’t deny that I am nothing more than a student trying to understand the history and the genesis of race and how it manifests in our present day lives. When I say I wear my race on my sleeve, I am really saying that I don’t shy away from the fact that I believe that I have a deep understanding of the dynamics of race and its application in present day. As a Black person raising two Black boys, I don’t pretend to know anything else better than I know that subject.

The big news recently has been that though many of the requests made by Black Lives Matter were met this year, the group did not register to march in this year’s parade. That came as a surprise to many people, but what was your reaction?

It didn’t come as a surprise to us at all, only because what they did was voice concern about something they felt affected the lives of members of our organization. That seems to be a completely separate conversation to whether they march. I’m struggling because I still find it hard to understand the connection people are making between the protest and BLM not marching this year. Like, either they’re not marching and it’s people figuring that BLM is done with Pride or they’re marching and we’re having conversations about why we would let them march again this year after last year. I’m not surprised, I didn’t expect it would be the case that they would want to march in our parade contingent so when they didn’t, it was a non-event for us.

Speaking of the parade, we’re well into Pride month with the Toronto festival fast approaching. What is a typical day like for you right now? 

It is busy for sure. I have an 11-year-old that I have to drop off at school every morning so I get up, get dressed, get him dressed, get my 13-year-old up and get him off to school. After the 9 a.m. drop off, several things will happen. There tends to be some sort of emergency that I’ll have to deal with, so I’ll often be on the phone with a board member or a senior manager of our many stakeholders to brief them on the news from the day before. Right away, I’m also responding to several emails, mostly having to do with organizational management. I’ll get into the office and start dealing with the next event that is happening. Right now, our big thing is emergency preparedness, so we are not only trying to run events, but also making sure we have contingency plans in place. So there are many meetings and briefings about emergency planning. Then there’s side concerns that usually come up, usually media-related, so we deal with that as well. Then almost every night, there’s an event that I’m appearing at, such as the recent police reception and a human rights panel. I tend to give open remarks at whatever is happening and then I stay for about an hour and a half. Then I have to get home, where I often start working again because there are final reports or grant proposals or budget adjustments. I’ll work on those until around 12 a.m. and then often go to bed around 12:30 a.m. I tend to go to the gym most mornings so I tend to do that around 6:30 a.m. and then do it all again.

There’s been a lot of talk about the changes to this year’s Pride, largely focusing on the reduced involvement of police, but what are some other changes that people will see this year that aren’t being talked about? 

Many of our community stages are back, and that was a BLM demand, but it was a community demand as well to bring back our South Asian and Latin stages, and we’re giving Franco Queer community more space this year. That was the first thing. The second is that we’re introducing more community focused events so we have art installations that have been selected through OCAD and other organizations. We put a call out to artists so we’ll have art installations as far across the footprint as possible to highlight young queer artists. We’ve also introduced a youth stage at Yonge-Dundas square, which is the first time we’ve done that, with programming for people largely under 25. Then the rest is really about trying to introduce more locally-based artists to our stages so you’ll see our roster has a lot of local talent on it. We’ve tried to be more accommodating in terms of our accessibility—Norman Jewison Parkette will be open Saturday and Sunday and it will be a Deaf Space. We’re also looking at our accessibility areas and our stage areas to make sure they’re workable. The parade itself will also have a heavy Indigenous component lead by the Assembly of First Nations Chief. Across the festival, you’ll also see more queer artists of colour, to be honest. We tried to be as varied as possible, but keep it mostly the same look and feel that it’s always had.

Now, you’ve been to dozens of Pride events in the past. What has been your best Pride memory? 

Seeing Frankie Knuckles perform at Tree House during Pride.

What’s your worst memory of Pride? 

The year when it rained a lot and everything was damp. That was probably the most disappointing.

If someone wanted to get involved in this type of community leadership, what advice would you give them?

I would say do what I did. Start volunteering. Everyone who is part of Pride Toronto has either volunteered or taken part in activities or performances. We all have a history with Pride. Getting involved is absolutely the best way to work your way through. Now that I come to think of it, all of our team members are here because we’ve been able to speak about an experience at Pride. All of us have known of Pride and have been involved either here or in another city for years before we decided that we could lend our skills to it.

We talked about how long your days are. When you finally stop working, how do you unwind? 

What I’ve been doing lately is being addicted to Facebook, which is so ludicrous. At 12:30 a.m. people are going to start seeing a pattern of posts where I’m lying down, trying to go to bed and think about something I want to post. I also love good television, so at the moment I’m really into Better Call Saul and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Final question. You came out at 40 and you’re now living with your partner in Toronto and leading one of the biggest Pride events in Canada and around the globe. What does Pride mean to you? 

I often think about women like me who would have struggled internally with what their identity looked and felt like sexually. You come to an age where you ask yourself: am I going to continue doing this the way I always have or am I going to try to give my life depth and meaning? It’s the hardest thing, especially when your life is fully set, as mine was. So many women like me are out there, who question their sense of self but don’t know the road to explore that more fully. I want to be that example that says, “It’ll be OK.” Really, that’s what I hope happens. That ordinary queer stories, like mine, that people see themselves in it—even if they can’t attain it.

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