Since leaving his home in Cape Town (South Africa) at the age of 16 to pursue his basketball dreams in Canada, Litha Ncanisa has seen plenty.
A boarding school stop for three years in Vancouver followed by four years of U Sport competition as a member of the Laurentian Voyageurs has provided a series of very memorable experiences.
Now Ncanisa, along with teammate Kadre Gray and close friend Hediyah Karimian, are hoping to open the eyes of others.
The fascinating troika created ULU (pronounced "oo-loo") as a means of sharing an important message, one that emphasizes full and complete inclusion, building a group whose mandate is largely to foster the discussion necessary to help bring down the walls of discrimination.
"When you look at the discrimination that has happened, a lot of which is because people were afraid of the unknown, not understanding another group or a different culture, fearing that it might infringe on their own culture," said Ncanisa recently.
The concept of ULU, which represents an acronym that blends in African words for "humanity" (Ultuntu in Swahili), "justice" (Lungisa in Xhosa) and "equity" (Usawa in Ndebele), was kick-started as these L.U. students shared stories of some of the challenges facing the black community.
Though Ncanisa could draw easily upon the memories of his youth in South Africa, and both Gray and Karimian could lean upon recollections of growing up in Toronto, it was the similarities of the Sudbury situation that really hit home.
"We were talking about some of the problems here and there was not a lot of support, on and off campus," said Ncanisa. "We started to wonder what we could do to provide some help for other students."
Make no mistake: Ncanisa considers himself fortunate, with fans of the Laurentian men's basketball team often willing to provide an initial reach out.
"We were lucky, because we do have a support system within the basketball community," he said. "For me, being an international student away from home, the fact is that there are families in Sudbury with children who play basketball, who would come to our games and welcome me in."
"I really appreciated that. What we wanted to do was create a brave space where we can support students who might not have those same advantages, a place to empower these students, having a system that is peer net, students supporting other students."
Partnering with Public Health Sudbury & District, ULU received a $200,000 federal grant for a project dubbed "The WOKE Age: Youth-driven Racial Equity Action in Sudbury".
"We've done workshops in classes, in high-schools, in work places, university classes, talking about racism and discrimation, how to be allies, having those conversations," explained Ncanisa. "Most of this drew on our experiences and thinking what we wished had been there for us."
There is little doubt that northern Ontario does not feature the same population diversity that might be seen in either Vancouver or Toronto. "In Toronto, you always see people from different corners of the world," said Ncanisa.
"When I go outside, I don't feel like I stand out. In Sudbury, I do stand out."
All of which makes the dialogue that much more important.
"People come in with different backgrounds and different biases, a different understanding of so many different things," Ncanisa added. "Some of our biases are simply a product of our environment, or perhaps the media, or in a textbook."
"It's still taboo to talk about some of these things, but if we don't talk about it, then we're enabling it. The truth is that people will have questions."
ULU does not profess to have all of the answers. But the conversations they are generated are clearly worthwhile - and needed.