Vancouver-based Buki Hough from Seaspan is no stranger to talking about diversity. But now she has taken the issue to the heart of who she is with a new initiative, Melanated Mariners.
As a Nigerian-Canadian working as an assistant manager of marine personnel in the shipping sector, Hough has often found herself as the only black woman in the room at meetings of 400 to 500 people.
But last summer, in the wake of the death of George Floyd in the US during his arrest by police and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Hough said she started to become engaged in more conversations.
“I just felt like something really switched in me,” she said.
“We keep talking about the under-representation of women and indigenous people, but nobody is addressing the elephant in the room in North America — that black people are not very well represented in the marine industry.”
Gamut of emotions
Hough said she ran the whole gamut of emotions last summer — first getting angry about the lack of action and having some unproductive conversations, before stepping back for some quiet time, reading and research.
It bore fruit. She decided that this was an area where she had experience and her initiative Melanated Mariners was born.
Hough put up a public page on Instagram, then posted on LinkedIn, Facebook and Canadian and industry social media pages asking people to check it out.
I firmly believe that representation matters and it's not impossible. But it's hard to be what you don't see
She asked those who responded to alert black people working in the industry to what she was doing, with a view to profiling them.
For Black History Month in October she shared stories of black mariners who she calls “the wavemakers”.
Hough said she spent hours scrolling through information and “chasing rabbit trails” to search out their stories.
“My biggest challenge was finding anything about black mariners in Canada,” she said.
But she had some luck with figures such as Nova Scotia seaman William Hall from the 1800s and Paul Smith, the first black commanding officer of the Canadian navy.
Melanated? “To be melanated is to be endowed with melanin — the pigment which makes hair and skin dark,” she explained.
“I want this to be unashamedly black. We are promoting black people and we are not apologising for that.
“Historically, blackness has been denigrated and this is reversing that and getting the message out that being black is a good thing. And we want to celebrate and showcase the excellence that comes along with black people in every industry.”
With Melanated Mariners Hough has two goals.
One is to show that black people do exist within the marine industry, regardless of what people see or do not see, she said.
The second is to show young black people that they belong in the industry.
“I firmly believe that representation matters and it's not impossible,” Hough said. “But it's hard to be what you don't see.
“So, when we don't see black people being front and centre or being showcased within our industry we are sending a message that they don't belong or that this is not a career that black people pursue, which is not the case.”
One of the things Hough is keen to do is to show the variety of experiences and careers that exist within the industry.
She profiled naval architect Zenzile Moore for International Women's Day.
Hough, who comes from a university recruiting and admissions background, started her career in the marine industry in 2014.
She admits to stumbling on the sector but now believes she is addicted to it.
At Seaspan she manages crew dispatchers and organises training and career progression for mariners. She says she loves helping people achieve their career goals.
Hough said Melanated Mariners is just getting started but the response has been “incredible” and “so positive”.
In time, she hopes it can mimic initiatives in other areas of diversity and send people into schools to mentor young black people about the careers available to them in the marine industry.
Hough particularly wants to see more participation from young black women, who she says face the double burden of under representation from not just gender but also race.
She also hopes this will promote the marine industry too.
“I feel like sometimes we are the world’s best-kept secret,” she added.
Melanated Mariners is an initiative launched this year.
Its aim is to showcase the contributions of black people working in both the seagoing and shore-based marine industry in North America.
So far, historical figures such as Nova Scotia seaman William Hall from the 1800s and present-day workers such as chief engineer Serena Martin have been among those profiled.
Ultimately, the goal is to attract more black people in the US and Canada to work in the industry.