UNB Alumni
Telling our #ProudlyUNB stories

Community fuels great projects and even greater dreams

Author: Thandiwe McCarthy

Posted on Feb 16, 2021

Category: Young Alumni , Inspiring Stories , UNB Fredericton , Kinesiology

My name is Thandiwe Jelani McCarthy and I graduated from UNB in May 2020 with a degree in Recreation and Sport Studies with a major in Community Wellness. I think my graduation was unique in that due to the pandemic outbreak myself and many other students didn’t get to have one. Not only that but moments after finishing my degree in recreation and community wellness the entire recreation sector was shut down. Communities were being fined hundreds of dollars if they were caught organizing in person.

It’s safe to say that in those first few months I felt that everything I had learned up to that point was thrown out the window. None of my higher education applied to this environment that shifted so fast and dramatically to an entirely digital landscape.

My career opportunities for working in the recreation sector vanished in seconds. Leaving me with a large amount of debt and specialized skills that could not be used to begin paying it off. Lucky for me the things I learned in the Recreation program could be scaled back to affect myself and my own wellness.

Perhaps I couldn’t use my classes in organizational management to run sport organization, but I could use the knowledge to better manage my life. And while it didn’t look like my advanced sport marketing class would be of service to any government recreation department any time soon; it could be of service in helping promote another part of my identity. So, I leaned into another skill set that I discovered during my time in university: writing. Creating spoken word poetry and writing personal essays became a way to explore my culture and identity.

Now my hobby was fused with the knowledge of my university education and I applied the business moves of running and promoting a sports team into training, testing, and promoting myself.

This academically-charged self-exploration led to me having the privilege to perform my spoken word poetry at the Frye festival (Atlantic Canada’s largest literary festival). I was asked to be a featured digital reader for the Tipsy Muse, and was paid by the League of Canadian Poets to perform poetry in a digital performance put on by Woven Cultures. All these are paid opportunities I was able to do because of the education I received. My knowledge in understanding the local sports environment to spot opportunities translated into tools I used to map out the Art environment and apply my new knowledge to a different set of valuable skills I had.

This all came together in me having the great honor of being award a $5000 provincial Arts Creation grant by Arts New Brunswick. These grants are only given to professional artists and there are strict standards a new artist must meet before being approved. With my sports management knowledge and understanding of systems of governance I was able to do this in a year.

The grant was awarded to me so I could write a memoire along with my own poetry about my experiences with racism growing up in New Brunswick. I had never written a book before, and up to this point had only a six-week course in novel writing. What I did have is many credit hours and experience in project management, which is why I am proud and incredibly shocked to say that my memoir titled Social Oblivion: Raised Black in New Brunswick is finished. I am just looking for a publisher now. If you know anyone send 'em my way. I would also love to have some professors read and give reviews on what they think of the book (advanced marketing at work, see it was all worth it hahaha).

My fusion of poetry and sports marketing had me on CBC information morning defending a poem I recorded and performed. The poem titled “Enough” was chosen by the Fredericton Poet Laureate to play at the beginning of the city council meeting (the Poet Laureate is tasked with opening every city council session with a poem of their choice).

Our local government thought the poem was too dangerous to play because “it might upset the police chief” (the poem had nothing to do with police or the local government). This led to my work on some projects with Black Lives Matter organizers. I was asked to be part of a national poetry protest when Fredericton city councillors tried first to remove the Poet Laureate position permanently (which failed so then they tried to remove the requirement of the Poet Laureate to open meetings with poems). The poem I shared at the protest was what I imagined they believed the first one to be. Also never in my life did I think I’d be in the middle of politics, anyway.

My passion for community and creativity has allowed me to be one of the co-founders of the New Brunswick Black Artists Alliance (NBBAA) - a new professional multidisciplinary non-profit arts organization with the mandate to highlight and help both emerging and established Black artists in New Brunswick. We aim to improve their creative practice, improve their promotion, and offer more opportunities for projects - the three P's of being an artist that I made using the five P's of sports marketing.

My curiosity for literature and culture has also led me to work with Saint Thomas University to help republish a piece of local Black history: the book Blacks in New Brunswick. The book had a new cover done by an artist from the NBBAA, the preface written by a former Black History professor at UNB, Dr. Funke Aladejebi, and the forward written by myself. This book places the conversation around systemic racism and cultural erasure at New Brunswick's doorstep, allowing us to get an honest view of what early Black families had to endure from the communities and how Black families today are still feeling the effects. (Books are 15$ and can be purchased by emailing giving@stu.ca all funds go to bursaries for Black students).

My graduation wasn’t anything I expected. I entered UNB wanting to be a personal trainer and sport coach. My dream was to own my own boxing gym and create a space where our amateur athletes could train for free so that we could better promote the strength and skills of New Brunswickers on the national and Olympic stage. What I ended up being was a poet being paid to perform in national festivals and a writer who is accepted into national workshops.

But the most important thing is that I ended up blessed and thankful for all the skills I’ve learned in University because even in this greatly different setting I am still leaning on the wisdom and lessons I learned on campus. The things I learned were not intended for the situations I’m currently in but I've got to say… they're doing a damn fine job getting me through the day.

So to my other pandemic graduates: use the knowledge you learned to fuel other things you love. I am so blessed to have been able to accomplish all these things but do not let me mislead you. I had help, I’ve messaged professors more times than they’ll admit and I have built a community of friends and family that loves, respects and supports all the accomplishments made by anyone in the group.

I would have never written the book without my amazing writing coach and editor Kayla Geitzler and writer friends who helped lift me up (especially Kim and Pat! Yah Great!). Would have never performed at the Frye Festival if my mother wasn’t there to support me. Could never have the courage to stand up to the Fredericton city council if our poet laureate Jenna Lyn Albert wasn’t right there with me. The New Brunswick Black Artists Alliance would just be a dream without David Woods driving four hours from Halifax to Fredericton to mentor a room full of Black artists in what it would take to make the organization work. And there is no way I would have gotten that book reprinted if it wasn’t for how amazing Jeffrey Carleton of STU was in responding to my email and immediately agreeing something can be done.

Knowledge is power, yes, and experience is confidence but neither of those will get you anywhere without community. Because having good people around you is the fuel you need to sustain great projects and even greater dreams. So maybe all you have right now is knowledge and can’t get your foot in the door for experience. That is okay. I say work on building a team of amazing friends. If you can complete projects with friends using what you learned in university, you won’t need to job hunt. The jobs will hunt you.