Colleen James has a Masters of Education in Educational Leadership and Policy; was one of the top Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Persons of the Year in 2021; was one of the top 100 Black Women to Watch in Canada in 2020 and was awarded the Leading Women, Leading Girls – Building Communities Recognition in 2020. Last month, she became the first Black woman on the Waterloo Regional Council.
“We’re in a time where people don’t trust government officials,” James said.
“Our community has changed; it is not the same. As someone who was born and raised here, it is significantly changing and that means the models that were working in the past are no longer going to work anymore,” she said.
James’ core values of building trusting relationships, equity and informed community discussion guide her work.
James is a documented change maker and a creative collaborator. She puts the core principles of diversity, equity and inclusion into practice. As a Black woman from the region, she also adds a perspective that was so far missing from the Regional Council.
“Typically, the Region kind of expects people to come to them. They say, ‘We have a public consultation, here’s where it is’. That doesn’t work for everybody. We can’t have the expectation that people are going to come to us; we need to be purposeful and go out and meet with community,” she said.
The 2022 Municipal elections took place on Oct. 24 and saw around 20 per cent voter turnout in Waterloo Region. This left the future of the community in the hands of one out of every five residents.
James visited homes, tents and community sources during her campaign.
“The number one priority I heard from residents is our housing crisis.It’s expensive to live right now, people are just surviving,” she said.
James hopes to push the region to new collaborative solutions, creating and leveraging community partnerships.
“The region can’t do everything; it shouldn’t. That means we need to know exactly who’s here, who’s doing what, and empowering, amplifying and supporting them to get to solutions,” she said.
James also said that programming is not always accessible to all residents.
On its website, Waterloo Region returns close to three thousand search results for the word “program”. But James found that the programs are either not known about or are inaccessible to those who can use them.
“Even if you look at our transit systems,” James said. “Outside of the downtown core, service is reduced. There are a lot of people who don’t have access, which doesn’t help our environment and it doesn’t encourage people to take the transit.”
In general, the Region’s ease-of-access leaves something to be desired.
“A lot of people don’t know of regional services, or the services aren’t meeting their needs,” James said.
She plans to address this through pushing for public informed policy changes.
But there is a lot of work ahead of James and her newly sworn-in colleagues.
“We are a very wealthy community and I think if we leverage partnerships in the right way we can address some of those social issues that are really at a crisis situation right now,” she said.
“Reconciliation is a value of mine. And it means mending relationships. We can speak to the Indigenous community and mending those relationships, but also to the broader community—how are we mending relationships and not creating more silos between government and residents?” James said.