Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A 29-year-old First Nations woman who grew up in Liverpool has been presented with Acadia University's 2021 Outstanding Young Alumni Award.
Kayla Mansfield-Brown, whose Mi'kmaq name is Dancing Deer, received the award last month. According to the university's website, the award "recognizes the outstanding achievements of an Acadia University alumnus or alumna whose endeavours have distinguished them professionally or in the community and brought honour to the university."
Mansfield-Brown has overcome a number of challenges in her life and made numerous achievements to be considered for the award. She credits her mother with instilling in her an ambition to succeed.
"I watched how hard it was for my mom to raise all her children and to have the support and education that she needed to be successful," said Mansfield-Brown.
Mansfield-Brown's mother is of Mi'kmaq and European descent, her father French Canadian.
Growing up in Liverpool, she had little knowledge of her Mi'kmaq ancestry in her early years, but this changed at the age of 10 when her mother took a job with the Native Council of Nova Scotia. Both she and her mother now identify themselves as Mi'kmaq women.
She considered her family as being "poor," and by age 15 she had her first child. She recalls "struggles and adversity" in being a teenage mother, and "complexities" with her relationship with the child's father.
"There were a lot of challenges to overcome – inter-generational poverty, inter-generational trauma, racism, colonialism – it was a lot to go through, and things I continue to face," said Mansfield-Brown.
A teacher at the Gorham Memorial Education Centre (alternative school) in Liverpool, Jessica Corkum met Mansfield-Brown when she was in Grade 9.
"I walked by her classroom that first day she was there and I saw this young girl sitting there. She was pregnant and she just looked like a lost soul," recalled Corkum. "She continued to do her high school through the alternative program and she excelled. Throughout that time she had her bumps, but she continued on."
She said that, as a high school student, Mansfield-Brown was always a little nervous and didn't seem to know who she was or really believe in herself. But as she moved on to community college, she started to come into her own.
"She began to understand, I can do this; I am capable and I have strength. Boy, did she prove a lot of people wrong," said Corkum.
"It is really something to watch, as a teacher, to see this young girl sitting there looking so lost, to all of a sudden she has become a successful young woman."
After completing high school in Liverpool, at 18 Mansfield-Brown moved to Truro with her son. She was on social assistance and living in a women's shelter. But with a thirst for knowledge, she embarked on a two-year Recreation Leadership program at the Nova Scotia Community College.
This led to a two-year Bachelor of Community Development program at Acadia University, with a major in environmental sustainability studies. She then eased into a four-year Masters of Education program, with a major in leadership, and graduated in 2019.
During her post-secondary schooling, Mansfield-Brown had three more children along with two miscarriages. She has shared her story of perseverance in publications, workshops and speaking engagements.
"I've come to a place where I shouldn't feel ashamed to tell my story and to hold systems accountable for the truth, experiences and adversities that I've had to go through as an Indigenous woman," she said. "This includes a lot of the system that still exists today within education, health care and government, because all of these are founded on colonial principles which are inherently systematically racist."
Other awards that Mansfield-Brown has received during her post-secondary education career include the Dwight Dorey Youth Advocacy Award and the Canadian Evaluation Society scholarship. In 2019 she was the Acadia Students Union Graduate Student of the Year, and in 2018 she earned the Fearless Leader award from One Woman International.
Mansfield-Brown now lives in Canaan, along with her four children and her partner of 10 years, Kevin Brown. She's employed as a support worker for the Aboriginal Peoples Training and Employment Commission in Coldbrook, providing Indigenous off-reserve or non-status First Nations people equitable job opportunities and funding for training and education.
She was also a guest lecturer for the Department of Community Development at Acadia University.
"I really have a love for working with people, being a part of movements, meaningful change and dialogues. And I hope that comes out of my research," she said. "I hope to keep building, establishing, de-colonizing and overcoming colonialism and helping others to do the same."
Meanwhile, her quest for more knowledge continues, and she's decided to pursue her PhD.
"I think my outlook was always just to do better for myself and for my kids," she added. "I think there was always that internalized light to do this."