Tapfuma Garabga sees the potential for his new career as “endless.”

It’s not something the 28-year-old would have foreseen in his teen years, when he dropped out of high school. After returning to complete his diploma, he enrolled at Dalhousie University to study political science, but left in his second year to come home to Toronto and care for his mother, who was battling cancer.

He stayed as she recovered and was “listless” for nearly two years, Garabga said. He worked various jobs, such as at an auction house, but he didn’t see a future in any of them. He was interested in upgrading his skills by going to coding bootcamp, but it was too expensive to pursue.   

Photo: Tapfuma Garabga    

Finding the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals (CEE), a Toronto-based non-profit that aims to address economic and social barriers affecting Black youth, changed his trajectory altogether.

He signed up for CEE’s insurance underwriting internship program that involved 12 weeks of virtual classes about the industry followed by 12 weeks on the job. The program began in July 2021, and by October he was hired on by the multinational insurance company full time as a commercial insurance underwriter.

“It's been a wild ride and a lot of fun,” said Garabga. “It had a tremendous impact on my life. Without CEE, I would not have been able to enjoy the idea of my future as much as I do now.”

Developing skills for long-term careers

It’s an example of the long-term impact that CEE – which stands for Careers, Education and Empowerment – hopes to make. The non-profit aims to help Black youth acquire a marketable skill that can be parlayed into a stable career, said Agapi Gessesse, the executive director of CEE. They offer various programs including career training, facilitating job opportunities as well as social support.

“Statistics tell us that Black youth are at the back of the unemployment line. So how can we get them to the front, and how do we do that strategically?” she said.

“We need to equip them with a skill that not a lot of people have so that they can take advantage of those labour market gaps in those industries. For us, it's about giving a young person a skill that can't be taken away from them once they've learned it, and being able to generate an income for themselves.”

Photo: Agapi Gessesse,
Executive Director of CEE

February is Black History Month, a time to reflect on the strong contributions that Black Canadians have made to the country but also to raise awareness of the obstacles and challenges that remain for the Black community.

The pandemic has exacerbated and magnified these systemic inequalities, and the recovery process has been uneven, said Gessesse. But she also sees the economic recovery ahead as an unprecedented opportunity to address the challenges that existed pre-pandemic.

“There will likely be, in our lifetime, no better opportunity than now for us to all come together. For government, private sector and public sector to create a new way of working together in order to address these inequality gaps that we see.”

Scotiabank pledge supports clients, infrastructure upgrade

Scotiabank pledged $200,000 to CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals in June 2020. This investment supported CEE’s career training programs in several fields such as Social Services, Trades, IT, Coding, Entertainment trades, Hospitality (culinary arts), providing participants with skills development, mentoring and job/networking opportunities.

“We are honoured to support the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals,” said Maria Saros, Vice President and Global Head, Community Investment Strategy and Communications at Scotiabank. “CEE’s mission to bolster economic resilience among Black youth and facilitate opportunities to build long-term careers is meaningful and impactful, and we’re proud to be a partner.”

Scotiabank’s investment allowed CEE to boost the number of clients it supported from 30 to nearly 300, said Gessesse. It also allowed the non-profit to upgrade its infrastructure by switching to an electronic platform, allowing them to track clients and communicate among the team more efficiently.

CEE’s strategy to help Black youth overcome systemic obstacles is three-pronged, said Gessesse. First, it aims to address an individual’s personal circumstances and life experiences. That includes having full-time social workers on staff to help clients build more stability in their lives.

“If you are food insecure or housing insecure, or don’t have support in terms of childcare, it’s extremely stressful,” said Gessesse. “It’s hard for you to focus on your actual career and where you see yourself going, if those things aren’t necessarily in place.”

Secondly, CEE takes a trauma-informed approach, which includes providing Black youth with access to staff psychotherapists.

“I often say that in our community, our young people’s biggest problem when it comes to starting their own careers is that they’ve believed the lie that’s been told about them to them,” she added.

Thirdly, CEE provides culturally relevant programming that focuses on Black identity and the challenges that Black professionals may encounter in the workforce, Gessesse added. That includes pressure to change the way they speak or interact in order to adapt to the predominant culture in the workplace, rather than bringing their authentic selves.

“We believe our duty is really to have those open and honest conversations so that when they do experience it, they can name it and be able to pull out the tools that are necessary in order to combat it.”

Sparking ‘generational change’

Gessesse is hopeful that CEE’s approach, addressing these challenges in a holistic way, will help spark “generational change” for Black Canadians.

“If this generation is able to have a high-paying job with upward mobility, then they'll be able to provide for their children,” she said. “Their children will be able to live in a household that is not below the poverty line and likely won't need to deal with the childhood trauma that comes with that. When they get older, they'll be able to achieve, likely, more than their parents did. We have an opportunity here to change the trajectory.”

Beyond the classes and the internship opportunity itself, the other supports and encouragement Garabga got at the CEE were crucial, he said. That included taking professional headshots and access to therapy, if needed.

Garabga had accessed similar programs before, but this one “felt different.”

“It felt like they were really excited to build something, for me, you know? And that was really important, in my engagement,” he said. “To me, those little things show the genuine approach to what they are doing.”

He now works as an underwriting associate at a large multi-national insurer in their Toronto office, and is working towards getting his certified insurance professional (CIP) accreditation.

And in December, Garabga, who was born in Zimbabwe and lived in Kenya and other places before moving to Canada at the age of seven, became the first chair of his company’s African and Caribbean employee resource group.

“I’m focused on trying to build a strong, working black community here,” he said.