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Break out of the comfort zone

If Ann Divine has one message she wants to share with every immigrant that comes to Halifax, it’s this: you need to be uncomfortable. Divine’s experience, both here and growing up in her adopted home in England, is that immigrants too often tend to only reach out to their fellow countrymen or other immigrants. This limits their network and costs them connections that could mean the difference between success and failure in their new life.

“As immigrants we may find we’re relying on a small pool of immigrants [to connect with] and just might be serving that community,” she says. “We, as immigrants, have to open ourselves to different experiences. We may not feel comfortable, but I think it’s important for us to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

Divine says immigrants need to make sure they interact and connect with all kinds of    people; by doing so, they’ll be able to open  themselves to different and possibly better experiences in order to be more successful.

Divine knows what she’s speaking about. Born in Guyana, South America and raised in England, Divine says upon arriving in Halifax one of her challenges was making connections with others in the community and learning about her new home.

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“It was a new country and I had to adapt to my new environment,” she says, noting she took a step back, didn’t work for a couple years and took part in programs offered by such places as the Keshen Goodman Library.

But it isn’t just immigrants that need to be open minded. Haligonians, and Nova Scotians in general, also have to understand there needs to be ways for immigrants to succeed without losing their sense of self or their cultural identity.

“It goes both ways; it’s about more than the immigrant integrating into Canadian society,” Divine says, noting the two groups have to work together. “It’s about meeting half way… we shouldn’t ask anyone to leave their culture behind, but we should look at ways where we can build on each other’s success.”

In doing this, Divine believes it will help make Nova Scotia and Halifax more appealing to newcomers and make the area a more inclusive, diverse and better society.

“We’re all contributing to the sustainability of our economy, of our community, and that diversity and those differences are what’s going to drive us and help us grow,” she says.

After all, for immigrants to contribute to this growth they need to have a good experience in Halifax or another area of Nova Scotia.

“If my experience is a good one, I can give that message to my family and then they might like to come here, but if as an immigrant my experience isn’t good, I can’t share it with my family,” she says.

The immigrant experience in Halifax may vary, but for Divine the best part about coming to the city was finding a community that made her and her family feel at home.

Divine immigrated to Canada in 2004 after her husband accepted the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Studies at Dalhousie University. However, a few years into their stay her husband was involved in an accident. Without asking, her neighbours and other community members would often help Divine and her family out during the time whenever they needed it.

“There’s a sense of humanity where [for example] coming home and finding food on your doorstep from one of your neighbours,” she says. “They did what they did from the heart; that’s the best Halifax experience I’ve had.”

While Divine has a good experience living in Halifax, she knows the decision to come to a new country isn’t without its challenges and that not every immigrant experience is entirely positive. In the 1960s her parents moved their family from Guyana to the United Kingdom during a time when there was a lot of racism and dislike of newcomers.

“Even though a lot of people, like our parents, were highly educated, they were given mediocre jobs; they’d do the jobs English people wouldn’t do, like being a bus driver,” says Divine, whose parents were a nurse and an engineer. “They [her parents] didn’t allow it to stop them because they wanted a better life for their children.”

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This better life included giving their children a quality education and a vast range of  opportunities.

“They wanted us to accomplish far more than they ever accomplished, so a lot of sacrifice was made on their part so we were able to do that,” Divine says. “Education is the foundation; we were always told education is the key to the world and that’s how you’re going to succeed.”

Divine adds that her family was fortunate to live in a diverse and inclusive neighbourhood when they moved to England, which is a trend she has continued in her adult life. She worked as senior probation office for the North East London Probation Service —the largest bail and probation hostel in Europe—from 1997 to 2000, and as the chief aid officer to the chief probation officer at the London Probation Trust from 2001 to 2004. She also worked as an education social worker and was the vice chair of the Association of Black Probation Officers.

It was in these roles Divine not only learned different skills, but was encouraged to interact with different types of people.

“I was encouraged to take on a diversity of work; I was encouraged to take on responsibilities and to work with different groups of people,” she explains.
Due to this work ethic and abilities, Divine often received reassurance and praise from peers.

“One person I worked with recognized I had leadership skills and wanted to nurture those,” she says. “Therefore there were people who were mentoring me even before knowing what the word mentoring meant.”

After two years in Halifax, Divine decided to go back to work. Knowing how much it meant to her to have good mentors and teachers, she decided to take on a similar role and help other immigrants’ transition to a new country. From 2006 to 2007 she was the planning and development officer for the Nova Scotia Office of Immigration and from 2007 to 2014 she was manager of Race Relations, Equity and Inclusion at the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. Currently, she’s the CEO and founder of her own business, Ashanti Leadership and Professional Development Services, which was founded   in 2011.

Ashanti is a consulting service that’s designed to provide extensive career and    professional guidance for its clients. Divine’s current goals are to help women of all     backgrounds and races, especially immigrants and women of colour, be successful in their own business endeavours.
As someone who has been in Halifax and  subsequently Nova Scotia for more than a   decade, Divine acknowledges there are overarching issues that need to be addressed, no matter if a person is immigrant or domestic resident.

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This is one of the reasons why the Halifax Experience has asked Divine to be one of its keynote speakers. Halifax Experience organizer and fellow immigrant Ifeanyi Emesih says the event will help others tap into local resources they might not know are available to newcomers. This will also help them grow their own business or build upon a pre-existing career and hopefully encourage other immigrants to stay in Halifax.

“I didn’t have those resources,” Emesih says, “but I kept on believing, I kept on working and I kept on asking questions… so I want to put everyone in one room where we can network, encourage each other and encourage people to stay in Halifax and help it grow.”
He also hopes Divine shows other attendees, through her experiences and community involvement, how far hard work, dedication and networking can take a person.

“Ann is able to look back and encourage    people to believe in themselves, especially women,” he says. “She’s empowering women to be leaders [and] so her story is an inspiration to immigrant women and the immigrant community coming to Halifax.”
Overall, Divine says she’s looking forward to being a part of the Halifax Experience and connecting with other immigrants who may need advice or encouragement.

“Its great idea,” Divine says. “It’s like having an object in a shop; you have to display it in a way that’s inviting. So when we have the Halifax Experience, you see individuals—like the organizers —demonstrating what Halifax is about and our experiences.”

Alongside her work experience in both the U.K. and Canada, Divine has volunteered and participated in organizations and events designed to help immigrants and women. These include helping to organize Halifax’s International Women’s Day in 2014 and 2015, founding the Black and Immigrant Women Network, being a member of International Women’s Forum Canada, being a board member for Dress for Success Halifax and leading the first Business Cohort for Women Leadership in partnership with the Black Business Initiative and the Department of Labour and Advanced Education.

In 2014, Divine was recognized by Diana Whalen, deputy premier and Attorney General of Nova Scotia, at the provincial legislature for “demonstrating extraordinary leadership and determination in her efforts to empower black and immigrant women to have successful and fulfilling careers.” In 2011 she received the  Correctional Services Employee Recognition Award for her work with  Nova Scotia Correctional Services.

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