She spends her birthdays handing out gifts of care packages to those in need
Everything Joanna Kanga does is about ‘shifting the narrative,’ helping Montrealers see past financial and cultural barriers to recognize themselves in others.
CBC Quebec is highlighting people from the province’s Black communities who are giving back, inspiring others and helping to shape our future. These are the Black Changemakers.
Joanna Kanga refuses to ignore inequalities in her own backyard.
The political science and international development student spent two pandemic birthdays at downtown Montreal Metro stations, handing out care packages filled with hygiene products, socks and bags to people in need. It’s a birthday tradition she intends to continue.
“There’s always someone that needs your help and that needs a little more out there,” she said.
Seeing people with no option but to stay outside in the cold during a global pandemic, Kanga, 23, says she asked her friends and family to donate whatever they could to help her gather supplies for people experiencing homelessness.
“It’s really small, but it’s really helpful just for them to have those personal items for themselves,” she said. “Even if you are going into a public bathroom, to know that you have soap that smells good, I believe brings them a sense of dignity and a sense of joy.”
She said she gets something back from the experience, too.
“You get to be exposed to people who, at the end of the day, are just like you.”
Kanga emigrated to Canada from Cameroon at 12 to receive surgery for severe scoliosis.
She says the culture shock she experienced upon arriving helped her gain awareness about her own privilege, as her family had the financial means to come to Canada for her treatment.
That’s what she says primed her interest in philanthropy.
Helping people learn about each other — and themselves
Kanga serves on the board of directors of Y4Y Québec, a youth organization advocating for young anglophones in the province.
A francophone, Kanga joined the group in 2019 to help English and French Quebecers realize they have more in common than they think.
“I’m just a francophone who wants to help and who wants to make sure that people just get together and learn about each other,” she said.
“People should be able to show up at a table in the way that they truly are and to be able to embrace a certain identity simply because they are able to relate to it, and they live it through every day of their lives.”
If those commitments weren’t enough to keep her busy, Kanga also volunteers as an outreach co-ordinator for the Force AVENIR award-winning book club Black Girls Gather. It’s a space for young Black women to discuss literature by Black authors and to encourage them to define their own sense of Black femininity, which she said her mother encouraged her to do.
“[Black Girls Gather] teaches them about being proud of who they are,” she said. “It teaches them that there is a place for any version of themselves that they might imagine, and brings them a lot of hope.”
“That’s the beauty of it, that we are shifting the narrative.”
The Black Changemakers is a special series recognizing individuals who, regardless of background or industry, are driven to create a positive impact in their community. From tackling problems to showing small gestures of kindness on a daily basis, these changemakers are making a difference and inspiring others. Meet all the changemakers here.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.