Niagara’s Leaders Rise Up – The Standard

By Damian Goulbourne, special to Postmedia News

It feels like so many people in Niagara are again rising up.

Our region has a storied past of courageous leaders who rose up to make a difference in the lives of their neighbours, friends and family.

Harriet Tubman is part of Niagara’s story and we should be immensely proud of her efforts to protect and rescue those who escaped slavery. The Underground Railroad was built by the sacrifices of many who came before her but she was the conductor. It is written that Tubman told Benjamin Drew in St. Catharines in 1855, “I grew up like a neglected weed — ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it. Then I was not happy or contented.”

Niagara was seen as a gateway to freedom and the Freedom Trail ended at the British Methodist Episcopal Church/Salem Chapel in Fort Erie. Thousands of people escaped persecution on the trail and the citizens and leaders of the day stepped forward to support their cause.

This past weekend the fourth annual Niagara Leadership Summit for Women was organized by the YWCA, and it was reported that the theme for the summit was breaking barriers. Three-hundred strong rose up to attend, exercised their liberty and explored how together they can make a difference in Niagara.

Social media over the weekend was inspirational as photos and quotes from the summit where shared, re-tweeted and reflected upon. I have learned that various issues were explored with action to be taken economically, socially and politically.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Businessmen William Hamilton Merritt and Oliver Phelphs, known more for their efforts to build the Welland Canal, were abolitionists and helped Freedom Trail riders purchase land in Niagara. They rose up to support those who were fighting for equality and against individuals that would keep other people down. Many citizens in Niagara were “not happy or contented” with the status quo and did their part to support Tubman, who once said: “I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

Challenge and controversy seem to be the reality that many people are facing in Niagara today.

The efforts of our citizens to confront challenges and controversies such as inequality, discrimination, poverty and economic instability is one that we all can join.

Like Merritt and Phelphs, leaders who do not look like or are outside of the socio-economic background of those rising up must step forth and use their position of power and authority to give these citizens support and aid.

This cannot be an exercise in assigning blame but rather one where we encourage our fellow citizens to make the small changes in their personal and professional lives to improve society for all. Small changes by the collective can lead to a big change in a community.

As King Jr. said, “an individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

— Damian Goulbourne was mayor of Welland from 2003 to 2010 and is currently Niagara College’s associate dean (acting) of the school of hospitality, tourism and sport.