by Kelsey Harper
Sports, fitness, and advocacy have always played a formative role in Debbie King's life. Now, as a mother and community leader, she's creating a legacy of positive change.
At the time, we don’t always recognize the events and experiences that end up shaping our convictions. Looking back, King has a much clearer understanding of how she became the community advocate that she is today.
“In hindsight, a pull toward athletics and social justice have always simmered beneath the surface for me,” she explains. “Even as a child, I remember doing and saying things that had a real air of feminism, and were a nod to gender and racial equality.”
That awareness led King, long before it was more widely accepted, to be an advocate for Black and female representation. Today, she is a well-known figure in Toronto’s iconic Parkdale neighborhood, recognized for her leadership in women’s health and fitness, and more recently, standing up to an entrenched public education system.
King's impact on the community has roots in her childhood.
“What’s really connecting is the way that I was brought up, and the way a lot of Black women were brought up, particularly at a certain time in Canada,” she recalls.
King is a first-generation Canadian. Her parents emigrated from Jamaica during a period when many from the Caribbean came to Toronto, aided by the liberalization of Canada’s immigration policies.
“There were many of us who were the first children in our families to go through the [education] system. Because we were often the minority, I was usually the only Black girl - or the only Black person - in the class through elementary school in particular,” she explains.
“There was an unspoken expectation that you come in, be polite, follow the rules, don't get into trouble, and don’t draw more attention to yourself.”
This wasn’t hard for King, because the expectation was similar at home.
“My mom grew up in the Jamaican countryside and was a school teacher with a Christian upbringing. So, there was always this added parental influence, and implication to remain on good behavior and not challenge authority inappropriately,” she shares.
“Not that I was groomed to be completely silent, but I do think there was an understanding that as a girl - and as a Black girl - this is how you carry yourself to succeed.”
Quietly, the external pressure to behave a certain way began to conflict with King’s internal desire for something different. This became more evident when, in junior high school, she was at odds with herself over the fear and desire to try out for the volleyball team.
“I didn’t like that conflicting feeling, so I decided the next year that I would jump in and try out. I did, I made the team, and it all just flourished from there,” King recalls.
Her perspective changed almost immediately after stepping on to the volleyball court, and she vividly remembers being told by her coach to assert herself by yelling and saying ‘mine!’
The verbal affirmation was empowering.
“It sounds simple, but when I think back to it, it was hugely symbolic and metaphorical for me - to be instructed to use that energy to claim something, hold space, and command a stage,” she says.
"It gave me permission to do that and to be that person.”
Through high school, King began to excel in multiple sports, as well as academics and the arts, but there was something more visceral and physical about the athletic experiences that had a lasting effect on her.
“It fostered a lot of my friendships and social connections. There was this wonderful sense of belonging and sense of identity that developed for me around sport, and I started to emerge as a leader," she shares.
“I think sports was really intertwined with my development as a young woman – finding my voice, finding my confidence.”
After achieving success on the volleyball court, King assumed that it would translate to the University stage, but it was not meant to be. Through her experiences, though, she remained changed for the better and forever.
With her focus now on her studies at the University of Windsor in Ontario and an understandable phase of making not-the-best choices, King graduated with an honors degree in Communication Studies.
“My interest was in advertising and media, and wanting to change the representation that I saw. My half-serious vision at the time was to have my own ad agency, and I would just put out all the beautiful Black people everywhere,” she recalls half-jokingly.
King went trailblazing through the advertising and marketing world, eventually securing a coveted and comfortable position at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, who are renowned for their marketing department. However, her career was becoming less and less satisfying.
“There was a dissonance that was growing in me,” she explains.
“I’d done well in my work, but advertising is very much a lifestyle, party, and consumption-driven field.”
“I wasn’t feeling well. I wasn’t feeling that confident. I wasn’t feeling connected to the Debbie that I knew myself to be.”
Unhappy with the life-choices that she was making, King knew in her heart the direction that she needed to go.
“There were little signs if I think back now. Any time I heard about somebody doing something fitness related, I remember a curious pull and mild sense of envy, and that’s where I was feeling that dissonance,” she says.
“There were people around me who were getting trainers, being active, and looking strong. I used to see myself as one of those people, and now I wasn’t.”
This was a gap in her life that King was eager to close. Newly married and without children at the time, she felt the freedom and courage to make the best decision for her.
“I decided to leave that job - which people thought was crazy - but to me, this was the opportune time to make that kind of change,” she says.
With more time on her hands, she fulfilled her lingering desire to get active again.
"I got into running,” King shares. “I joined a local [running program] and I had the goal to do a 5k.”
“It was very much about getting back to that person who’s not afraid to challenge themself; establishing a regular fitness routine and seeing myself as that athlete again.”
King relished the challenge.
“The challenge was in conquering something that I thought I couldn’t do. As a former sprinter, I never thought I could do 5k’s, but wanted to prove to myself that I could,” she explains.
“That’s what launched everything.”
From her first 5k, King worked her way up to a half-marathon and then a coach at the running club where it all started.
She also got back into the weight room, and after meeting a trainer that introduced her to the world of body-building, she entered and won her first competitive figure show.
More recently, King began training for and competing in track & field, a sport she loved in high school.
“As I recount [my] journey, any time that I was feeling away from myself - not living to my full potential, not feeling confident – it was always a draw-back to some kind of fitness or sport that reconnected me,” she recalls.
“There's like an essence - this kind of inner athlete that is very authentic for me - and I seem to do better when I'm tapped into that and utilizing it."
Naturally then, fitness made for the perfect new career choice. It also would unwittingly bring her back to the stark realities of Black and female representation.
Toronto’s motto is ‘Diversity Our Strength,’ and is often referred to as the most multicultural and diverse city in the world. Rightfully so, with over 230 different nationalities and over 50% of its population identifying as visible minorities.
King knows, however, that reality is more complicated.
“We are diverse on the surface with a population that includes so many intersections of race, culture, religion, sexuality, gender identity, and more. But, when you speak to those people about the reality of their lived experiences, and when you examine power structures, you absolutely see that our systems and institutions are steeped in racism and oppressive practices,” she says.
“They say that racism in Canada is subtle. Canadians are very polite, we’ll smile, but it all lurks underneath.”
Such were King’s observations of the fitness industry.
“In the mainstream, the [women’s] fitness world is very geared toward - and representative of - young, white, slim, hetero women. It’s very much a homogenous look,” she explains. “On a personal level, however, I connected with so many professionals and other fitness-goers and athletes that were women of color - and that were Black women specifically.”
“So, there was this contradiction and misrepresentation, where to the outsider and to the world, fitness looked very white. But I knew that there were a lot of talented, passionate, really dynamic Black women that were a part of this industry. They just weren’t getting the same platform that white women were.”
Seeing through the challenge, King sought to use her renewed dedication to fitness, and her personal and professional network, as an opportunity to tell a better story.
“It became really important to me to use my position and platform to help shift representation within the fitness world,” she shares.
Primarily through what King describes as a quality social media following, she connects professionals, change-makers, and fitness enthusiasts to advance her mission for change.
“It’s something I’m always conscious of, and from whatever position I’m operating from, I want to put more Black and non-Black women of color out there,” she says.
King was beginning to think about how she might expand her work on a grander scale when the COVID-19 pandemic, and troubling events at her daughter’s school, shifted her attention.
Queen Victoria Public School sits at the southern tip of Parkdale, one of the most historic neighborhoods in Toronto.
“It’s a gentrified neighborhood with fiercely loyal long-time residents, a history of activism, and a wrap-around neighborhood kind of feel,” King explains.
Parents are highly involved with the school, and King is no exception. She first volunteered for a field trip simply to help out, but also enjoyed the first-hand experience of the classroom and social dynamics that are such a big part of her daughter’s life.
“I had a ton of fun, and that just encouraged me to continue volunteering and being involved,” she says.
Her involvement took a serious turn when a parent approached her to ask for help with an issue that was putting a large amount of school funding at risk. Information on exactly what was happening was not readily available, and parents’ questions were being met with vague responses.
The lack of transparency wasn’t going to stop King, it motivated her.
"What I came to understand was that because we're in a largely lower-income neighborhood, it had made us eligible for a ton of funding that, all of the sudden, we were no longer going to be getting,” she explains.
“There was a lot of concern among parents that were in the know about this. They felt there were classroom and extracurricular opportunities that could cease to exist for their children because of financial barriers.”
“I remember feeling; I have no clue what any of this is about. But I understand that if there’s going to be a big financial shift, I know which kids here are going to be affected - which families are going to be affected – and that’s not ok with us.”
This was King’s introduction to the political side of the education system, and representing the parents and students of Queen Victoria became a new calling. She spent the next two years serving as co-Chair of the School Council, and in the last year of her tenure, allied with the newly appointed Vice-Principal.
“She is a Black woman, a Queer Black woman, and she is a force,” King describes. “I respected her leadership, loved her ideas, and felt inspired to do more with our school community.”
“[The new Vice-Principal] was instrumental in supporting Black students, as well as the entire school. She came in and effectively mobilized Black parents and families, getting an African Heritage program started, and really encouraging parent engagement."
“We had this wonderful trifecta, which I’ve come to realize is actually quite rare. We had Black parents that wanted to engage, we had a number of Black and ally teachers at the school interested in working with us, and we had a Vice-Principal that was able to facilitate that connection.”
From these powerful relationships, the Black Student Success Committee (BSSC) was formed and chaired by King. Their founding mandate was to holistically support Black students, and at inception, focused on addressing their long-standing academic achievement gap.
“We know that Black kids are not achieving at the same level. The TDSB (Toronto District School Board) does research on this, and you can see that as a whole, outcomes for Black students are not on par with other racial groups, particularly white students,” says King.
To understand how to best support the students and teachers at Queen Victoria, the BSSC requested to see the race-based data for their school. The TDSB has been collecting this data for years, however, King’s request was not met welcomingly.
“As a group, we spent about six months trying to get that information, hitting barrier after barrier from a white principal who seemed very uncomfortable with us having it,” she explains.
“This is where we started to get a lesson in how systemic racism works.”
In addition to the bureaucratic barriers, members of the BSSC also began to notice that some of the Black teachers they had been working with were absent from school for weeks. When questions about their absence were met with unsatisfactory answers, King and her colleagues became suspicious.
Everything came into focus when a letter was anonymously forwarded to King and the other members of the BSSC.
The letter used racially charged language to attack the now-former Vice-Principal and took credit for her removal. Further, the author referenced members of the BSSC and other teachers, saying: ‘Well, I got rid of [redacted name]. Now I got rid of you. Just have a few more on the list to go. Ha!’
“It listed all of the Black and racialized teachers that had been working with us. The ones that were already removed [from the school] were crossed off hit-list style,” King explains.
Also, the letter was originally sent four months prior to King and the BSSC becoming aware of it, which meant that much time had passed with no communication or consequential action from the school or TDSB.
“We shared it on social media demanding answers from TDSB leadership,” says King.
Everything blew up from there, and suddenly the communication lines opened up. King led a group of dedicated mothers who worked full time for more than three months to demand transparency and hold the people involved accountable for what had happened.
“Number one was the letter itself, but number two; the way the entire incident was handled was completely irresponsible and damaging,” she emphasizes.
Their efforts landed them a Zoom meeting with the Director of Education (equivalent to the Superintendent of Schools in the U.S.) and the senior leadership team of the TDSB.
“It was significant, empowering – it was such a big moment,” says King.
"A veil came down in that meeting. We sat there, eye to eye with people with big titles - and even bigger salaries - who had to look us in the eye and apologize. Whether it was genuine or not, they still had to do it.”
The opportunity to speak truth to power, and seeing that the people behind the veil are not above them in any way, led King to maneuver with a different sense of confidence and authority.
While a formal investigation is still ongoing, King and the BSSC created real change. Their actions reverberated throughout the school and the wider community.
Policies for how anti-Black, and any racist, incidents are handled were revised. The Principal of Queen Victoria was placed on leave, and parents in other school districts mobilized to form their own, similar coalitions.
Most powerfully, King’s lesson on empowerment stands for all of us to be inspired by.
“It’s in our hands. We can’t just sit here and wait for the people [in power] to make the decisions and have our best interests at heart. We’re the ones that have to dictate it. It has to come from the bottom-up, and we have to be so determined and so clear in what we need and what we want, that they need to listen and take direction because at the end of the day it’s a public service,” she says proudly.
“They’re serving us, and we seem to have forgotten that somewhere along the way.”
King is a force of female empowerment, supporting others while prioritizing self-care. Beyond being a positive example in her community, she is also an official R.E.A.L Role Model for Fast and Female, a non-profit organization whose mission is to keep young girls healthy and active in sports to set them up for success in life. REAL is an acronym for Relatable, Empowered, Active Leaders.
With a journey that’s still more ahead of her than behind, she is guided by her convictions, her faith in God, and conscious of the uncertainty that surrounds the world today.
“I’ll continue to trust and follow my gut wherever it leads,” says King.
She knows one thing for sure, though.
“Definitely, I’m not stopping.”
ACTIIVST supports the fight for racial justice and donates proceeds from every purchase to caused-based organizations that have a positive impact in the world. To learn more about the organizations that we support, click here.