How the Ryerson alumnus, YouTuber and creative director at the Nia Centre supports young Black creatives.
It’s conventional wisdom that criminology students go on to pursue law careers, but as Femi Lawson can attest this “linear way of thinking” can keep students from discovering all the professional paths open to them. “I think my mind changed for my major about three, four times while I was at Ryerson, which is something very common,” he says.
After choosing the criminology program (formerly criminal justice) Femi, a first-generation Nigerian Canadian, discovered that the inclusive tone set by faculty made the program uniquely valuable. One professor in particular really impressed him with the open and collaborative learning environment she created.
“I remember one thing she said that really stood out to me was really around just not judging a book by its cover, because a lot of students come from small towns and they might not often know about certain communities. So early on that was the tone she set in the class saying that there’s a lot that we don’t know, there’s a lot that I don’t know, but we’re going to learn together and it’s going to be a collaborative process, and I respect that,” he explains. “Especially being a professor – you hold such value and such weight on how these future students are going to be, because some of them are going to be future judges, some of them are going to be police officers and they are going to work in these systems.”
The cultural issues discussed in his classes inspired Femi to address similar themes through videos he produced on his YouTube channel. The channel, which he began as a student, enables him to put out messages and create meaningful dialogue that can be immediately seen and shared. Femi recognizes the importance of using art and comedy to explore and challenge larger societal issues, like racism, stereotypes and how people perceive each other.
For Femi, who previously worked at Ryerson’s Tri-Mentoring Program and the Pan American Games, having a leadership role at the Nia Centre is an extension of the many skills he gained as a student. Founded in 2009 and located in Toronto’s Oakwood Village, the Nia Centre is a not-for-profit organization that promotes and supports young people and emerging artists across the African Diaspora. The centre also provides the community with opportunities to experience the creative works of established artists through festivals, exhibitions and arts programs.
“The Nia Centre is a centre focused around Black creatives, both those emerging and established,” Femi says. “I run a program called Creative Connect, I’m the creative director, and what that program essentially does is it pairs young Black creatives with those who are more established in the different art fields . . . visual arts, dance, photography, acting, you name it – and it’s very similar to the Tri-Mentoring Program as well.”
Like the Nia Centre, Ryerson’s Tri-Mentoring Program promotes belonging and development. It offers mentorship opportunities to incoming students of all identities in order to help them successfully transition into their first year. As a first generation ambassador, Femi welcomed new students and helped them acclimate to university life. He appreciated the opportunity to bring his personality, roots and culture to the mentorship role and he credits the experience with playing a big factor in how he leads programming at the Nia Centre.
In addition to working at the Nia Centre, Femi hosts big events and festivals and works on his music, another creative outlet he’s passionate about pursuing. “A big opportunity that I got through my YouTube endeavours was creating a song with Kforce in which Travis Scott remixed and put on his album Birds in the Trap.” Femi is also an actor and recently starred alongside Michael Blackson in Rich Africans, a film reminiscent of Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America. When asked where his creative future lies, Femi says, “I’m working on a sitcom series of my own as well too, kind of touching on that Nigerian Canadian experience.”
From being the vice president of the Black Students Association to bringing the first Black Students Conference to Ryerson, Femi is grateful for the opportunities he had to acquire many different transferable skills. Looking back, he pinpoints one moment in particular that exemplifies his time as a Ram: when he ran for election and won a position representing the Faculty of Arts on the Ryerson Student Union. He recalls, “In that moment I realized how much support and love I had at that school.”
Ultimately, being a Ryerson graduate gives Femi a lot of joy, pride and humbleness. “One thing I can say about Ryerson is that the environment is very inclusive. They [support] a different array of people, a different array of cultures, beliefs . . . morals, and it’s a very fun environment as well too.”