Chiedza Jones had to forge her own way once graduation led her beyond her original expectations
Unlike many newcomers to the region, Chiedza Jones reports little in the way of culture shock when she arrived in Nova Scotia at the age of 18 to study international development at Saint Mary’s University in 2011.
“Of course, winter is always a shock,” Jones says, adding, “From the time I arrived, it’s almost if I had this little community.”
Jones chalks up her luck in this department to a few different factors. For one, she was moving to attend university, so that sense of being thrown into something new in a strange place was one she shared with practically the entire freshman student body. Plus, with a large quotient of international students who come to SMU, she was hardly the only one coming from away. Some of her classmates were even people she knew from her home country of Zimbabwe.
Another factor, she surmises, was the fact she hailed from Zimbabwe itself. As a country with a great deal of colonial history, Jones was already pretty familiar with western cultural norms and she spoke the language.
“Language wasn’t a challenge,” Jones says. “English is my first language. Because of colonization, that is Zimbabwe’s official language.”
One thing she did find surprising here in Nova Scotia was how grades, which mean everything during scholastic life, meant much less out in the real world.
“After graduation, it actually took me a while to find work,” Jones says. “Where I come from, there’s this great dependence on, ‘if you get good grades, you can do anything and be anything.’ And I did. I got great grades in university, but struggled to find work for almost a year after my Masters degree.”
Studying international development, Jones always assumed she’d end up working abroad for the United Nations, the World Bank, or another international organization. But when she chose to stay in Halifax and raise a family here, Jones found her options seemed more nebulous.
“If you study law, [what does everyone] assume you’re going to be? You’re going to be a lawyer,” Jones explains. “Or if you did medicine, you’re going to be a doctor of some sort. It didn’t feel clear-cut with me, with international development. So, what do I do, if I decide I’m not going to leave Halifax?”
The great thing about not fitting neatly into a box is it gives one the opportunity to think outside of it. For Jones, this meant rather than being boxed in, she chose to explore the possibilities her skillset and her life experiences provided her, rather than just her credentials.
“It allowed me to depend a lot less on the degree, and a lot more on the experience,” Jones says. “Both of my degrees were thesis-based, and I love to learn. So, [I’m] able to research and get a good understanding of what is good research, good data, and how can data support projects. That was one of the first things I was really able to build upon, my love of research and good data.
“I knew I had what it took. I think sometimes, it just [takes] people who will give you a chance and see your potential.”
For a few years, she lent those talents to Feed Nova Scotia, where she used her data management skills to advocate for food security across the province. But last year, it was the folks at the Black Business Initiative, a provincial institution that supports Black entrepreneurs, that saw potential in her and recruited her as a field agent with the Supporting Black Canadian Communities Initiative (SBCCI). The SBCCI is the group’s first major foray into supporting Black-led or Black-supporting non-profits.
Ayo D. Makanjuola, the chief financial officer for the BBI, was also the lead on this initiative and had Jones working closely with him.
“Over the one year I worked with her, I could see some great potential and other expertise she brought to the table,” Makanjuola says. “I saw her passion, her creativity, her adaptiveness to solving problems. She’s more than her qualifications.”
It was because of these unquantifiable qualities that, when the BBI was in a position to grow not just their operations, but their team as well, that Makanjuola recommended Jones for a data management position, newly created to help the organization expand into the other Maritime provinces.
“If I look at 2015 to now, I can tell you we’re operating at four times what we did, right now,” Makanjuola explains. “We were looking for a visionary who could look beyond the immediate and give some suggestions and ideas around where we could move. She fits very well into that space.”
Jones started in her new role as Director of Corporate Strategy, Research and Communications at the BBI in January, meaning she’s still pretty fresh to the task. But she’s excited to use the skills and life experience she’s gathered over the years to cultivate a strategic plan forward for the organization.
“At this time of growth, and especially with 25 years, there’s a lot of data we probably have,” Jones says. “How do we ensure we’re using that data to make the best business decisions we can?
“That’s also a big piece, in making sure as we’re growing, we’re growing well.”
Seeing differences in the Black Nova Scotian experience
There was one more element of culture shock Jones spoke about in her interview: there are far fewer Black people in prominent or powerful positions in Nova Scotia than back home in Zimbabwe. Yet, she says few African Nova Scotians seem to think that’s odd.
“The doctors were Black and the CEOs were Black,” Jones says. “Coming here and not seeing that, it doesn’t feel like it’s not achievable for me, because I’ve seen it before. When I look at the African Nova Scotian experience, as I perceive it here not having lived it of course, you don’t see as many. There are some, but you don’t see as many African Nova Scotians who may be in these roles.”
Much of her future work will be in service of changing that, building up Black entrepreneurs builds up Black wealth in the community. That wealth and prosperity will be seen by younger members of the community as something to aspire to.
But this discrepancy, between the immigrant Black experience in Nova Scotia and the African Nova Scotian experience, is not new. Lately, many newcomers notice the difference between these two communities.
Jones, for her part, can see a bit of both sides, having come from a young country like Zimbabwe with deep colonial roots. Zimbabwe’s been an independent nation as long as she’s been alive, but Jones recognized the scars of colonialism growing up all the same.
“The influence of colonialism is quite significant, in terms of what it does psychologically,” Jones says. “In terms of how you see your Blackness. There was this sense of what success looked like… was so associated with White identities, if I can put it like that. That was also tied to my high school, you would get in trouble if, in a formal setting, you spoke in our local language. Shona is the local language I spoke. You could only speak in English.”
As for overcoming this aspirational difference, Jones believes the answer is in highlighting similarities, but also celebrating our own personal uniqueness.
“While there are differences, there are also some big similarities in our experiences,” Jones says. “I’ve always said, Black people are not a monolith. We have such a variety of experiences. But I think, even in that diversity of experiences, if I’m able to look at what my experience has looked like as a female immigrant who is Black in Canada, I’m able to use that lens to hopefully be able to inform, empathize, and better understand.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that your differences can be your strengths,” Jones says. “For me, it’s always been, how do I look at those differences… that may be perceived as weaknesses, and how do I make them strengths? I also think that’s the beauty of Halifax; its diversity, as it grows. There are so many stories.”