Activist Shailene Panylo shares her experience with racism and how she is making a difference

By Jackie Graves

Shailene Panylo is an outspoken activist, intersectional feminist, and the former NPD candidate for Oshawa, Ont. Photo By: Shailene Panylo

Shailene Panylo, 23, of Oshawa was adopted by older, white parents when she was just a baby. Panylo lived a happy life with her family, but says there was a piece of her identity she felt they couldn’t fully connect with.

“My family was very supportive, a great family unit, we pushed each other, we celebrated successes together, but there was always a part of my journey that they didn't understand,” she says. “And that was being a racialized black girl growing up in Oshawa.”

Panylo has been an outspoken presence in the Black Lives Matter movement locally as well as a long-time advocate for Black rights. Recently, Panylo participated in and shared information on Instagram about how to properly participate in #blackouttuesday, a social media protest designed to show solidarity and to stand against racism and police brutality.

Panylo also helped organize a protest on June 7 in Oshawa at Memorial Park. Multiple Black speakers joined Panylo along with about 2,000 people. The action-based protest was intended to mourn unnecessary lives lost to systemic racism as well as police brutality.

However, before Panylo became a voice for the Black community, she had to face years of racism first-hand.

Facing Racism

Panylo says what she experienced as a child went far beyond the scope of typical school yard bullying.

“That was labeled as bullying, but looking back, it’s harassment, it's assault, abuse -- the things that used to happen to me, I would get hair ripped out, things thrown in my hair, I'd get beaten up at recess,” Panylo says. “Girls didn't necessarily want to be friends with me because I was too boyish, but I was also not pretty enough because my hair was different, my skin was different.”

She says she wasn’t only the target of her peers, but that teachers also took part in the harassment.

“When I got a little bit older, both sixth or seventh grade, it started to also be perpetuated by teachers,” says Panylo.

She says her gym teacher made “off-handed” comments about her race, claiming she was only a good athlete due to being Black. Panylo says she felt like a tool, something she says is a form racism where Black athletes are used for their bodies and abilities.

If she wasn’t bullied for her outward appearance, she was bullied for not fitting negative Black stereotypes.

“I was also bullied because I was smart. On top of that, I was Black, and that's not a good alignment – I wasn't a ‘true Black girl’,” says Panylo. “They call you an ‘Oreo’ and say that you're Black on the outside but white on the inside. I speak a certain way, so, that's not Black either.”

When she finally reached out to her school principal for protection, she was told she needed to “grow thicker skin” and that there was “nothing” that could be done.

“I really struggled with mental health, and during that year specifically, suicide,” says Panylo.

One teacher noticed the decline in Panylo’s mental health and sat the young girl down to find out what was going on. Finally, she was able to tell someone about the abuse.

“If she hadn’t said anything, I don't think I would be here today because nobody else really knew,” says Panylo. “I hid it from my family, because I felt responsible, like I had to deal with it myself.”

The abuse didn’t stop until a member in Panylo’s community, who happened to be a police officer, intervened – something Panylo says is very ironic, given that she has since openly spoken out about police brutality.

“They found it unacceptable. As anyone I think should. And then using the position and privileges they had to go into the school and say: ‘This cannot be’,” she says. “We started to put together a case against the teachers, the students. I would have been able to press charges.”

However, Panylo says she didn’t want make the issue bigger and chose not to move forward with formal charges.

“You just want it to go away. You want to keep moving forward, you don't want to draw attention because you don't want to make it worse,” says Panylo. “I got called to the principal's office, and she said sorry, and said that the gym teacher said that he would try to do better. And that was all I got.”

Finding her voice

Things eventually improved when Panylo went into high school at Maxwell Heights Secondary School in Oshawa.

“High school was the turning point for my life,” says Panylo. “It was the first time I ever had a Black teacher. It was the first time I was surrounded by other Black students from different walks of life and different experiences.”

Panylo says she made the choice to get involved in sports and social programming, including joining the Students and Teachers/Together Against Racism, or STAR, where she became a counsellor for the STAR camp which took place every fall.

“All of these things were kind of set up to combat racism and to combat discrimination,” she says. “I was lucky to have teachers that were Black and non-Black who were true allies who put the work in to get those programs up and running.”

Panylo even began starting her own programs and initiatives, including integrated tutoring for the Grade 9 and Grade 10 students, hosting cultural soirees and different projects for Black History Month.

“[For] Black History Month, I did a poster project where we photographed Black students across the different grades and had them put quotes,” she says. “We had these giant posters made and plastered all over the school during Black History Month. They still use those, I don't even know, like six years later.”

Panylo was also an Ambassador for the Durham District School Board’s And Still We Rise conference, as well as a student advocate against the Ministry of Education’s


The Shailene Panylo Award for Diversity and Positive School Culture and Award for Black Excellence at Maxwell Heights Secondary School, Oshawa, Ont. Photo By: Shailene Panylo

Since graduating, Panylo has started an award for Black Excellence and an award for Diversity and Positive School Culture, which is dedicated to students who actively work to combat discrimination, racism, and systemic barriers. 

“We were able to really formulate a way to have those meaningful conversations at the high school level,” she says. “My world opened up a lot, and I took the lessons I've learned and the hurt that I'd experienced and turned it into something positive, with the hopes that somebody else wouldn't have to go through it.”

New Experiences

Panylo went on to study at the University of Toronto, earning herself a Bachelor of Science molecular biology, immunology and disease with a double-major in women in gender studies.

She also ran as the NDP candidate for Oshawa in the 2019 federal election – an experience she says was very positive, although she did face some challenges.

“The debates were fantastic. I was a little nervous about it at first, but I settled right in fairly quickly because when you stop trying to quote from a book and you just start speaking from the heart, it’s so much easier,” says Panylo. “My fellow colleagues got along pretty well for the most part, I didn’t really have any conflict with them.”

While she says the election had a very quick turnaround and she didn’t win, the experience had a positive impact on her.

“Even when I was knocking on people's doors who had completely different views to things than me, often times we could isolate where we saw the problem and just had different solutions,” says Panylo. “Some of my most powerful conversations were from people who had different news than I did. That's when I really got to test you know my own knowledge and my own ability to understand and listen to understand. I appreciated those conversations as hard as they sometimes were.”

Looking to the Future

Once the COVID-19 pandemic ends, Panylo is looking forward to implementing her education into another passion of hers: hairstyling.

“It was actually my hairstyling teacher , who said find a way to combine your love of hairstyling creativity with science,” she says. “So, I stayed in my academic and university stream all through high school, so that I could go to university and get my science degree with the intention of doing cosmetic science formulation research.”

Panylo says once the pandemic is over, she is on track to also complete a hairstyling apprenticeship at a salon in Oshawa to make one her dreams a reality.

For now, Panylo has effectively made her advocacy against racism a full-time job, though she is shifting her focus and planning for her eventual return to her studies.

“Being a support to young people who are struggling right now, being a support to the Black communities that exist here and to the other marginalized communities that have had similar experiences and are now allies - they couldn't imagine having the extra layer of anti-Black racism on top of that,” says Panylo. “It'll still need a new balance to also continue to combat this because it can't be a backburner issue. It has been for a long time.”