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Do-Gooder Extraordinaire

Sunday, November 04, 2018

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Donette Chin-Loy Chang on Friday was conferred with an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws of the University of the West Indies.

Her credo: Real joy comes not from ease or riches or from the praise of men, but from doing something worthwhile.

SO shares more, in her own words...

In the beginning...

I was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to Daphne A Chin-Loy (nee Lee) and Lloyd A Chin-Loy, a World War II veteran who served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) in England. He would later become a stalwart of the RAF and a member of Curphey Place for ex-soldiers. Curphey Place, incidentally, is where my siblings and I heard stories of the heroic acts of men and women who risked their lives for our freedom. These stories, as you can imagine, loomed large in my life.

Anyway, both my grandfathers were from mainland China — Ernest Chin-Loy and Henry Lee. My grandmothers were Jamaican with no Chinese ancestry — Ercie Simpson (maternal) and Daisy Watts (paternal). I lived in an ordinary middle-class Jamaican family and, like many Jamaicans, with multiracial parents; there is great richness in that. We were not financially wealthy, but the wealth from our culture, our heritage, afforded us quite a substantial world view. My father was Catholic and my mother Anglican. My two siblings, Jonathan and Suzette, and I were brought up Catholic; a promise my mother made to the priest. I attended St Theresa's Kindergarten and Prep School in Vineyard Town. Days at St Theresa's, and Vineyard Town in general, were very memorable. The nuns and priests treated us well, but were very strict. Then at 11 years old I won a half-scholarship for Immaculate Conception High School (ICHS). My ICHS days were filled with wonderful memories from which I emerged with great lasting friendships and a sense of gratitude. I swam, played tennis, participated in many school activities and was instilled with values similar to my parents' and my grandmother Ercie's. Ercie played an integral role in my upbringing. Throughout my life, though, I remember my parents as self-made, independent entrepreneurs and most weekends, and certainly every holiday, my siblings and I worked in the family businesses. My family owned the iconic Aquarius record store and studio in Half-Way-Tree, Kingston, as well as Fireside Fast Food. I spent many hours being introduced to not just people in the music industry but also the ordinary man in the street. My early influences were my parents who both believed in hard work, honesty, kindness, respect and tenacity. In fact, my father was the first feminist I ever met; he strongly believed that his daughters should be educated and receive the same privileges as his son. Education was critical, and my parents ensured that we had access at every stage. My mother, meanwhile, provided the 'softer', practical side; she was the very model of intelligence, patience, diplomacy, grace and tolerance.

The lay teachers and nuns at ICHS were also great influencers, including Sister Maureen Clare Hall, OSF, the former principal. At the store and recording studio I met many artistes who would go on to become Jamaican treasures — Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Beres Hammond and Ernest Ranglin, to name a few. My siblings and I also met iconic overseas talents. As a result of Aquarius, my early experiences were unique, much different from other middle-class friends and family. The store gave us children a bigger perspective on human nature and also a full appreciation of the 'struggling' artiste and his or her journey of creativity, as we were encouraged to 'reason' with them. You could say some of their works, through their lyrics, also influenced me as a young woman of the 1970s — this, along with the Women's Movement and the many projects for peace and justice. The recording studio had its own culture, of which ganja played a big part. My father was constantly apologising for the smell of ganja emanating from the studio doors! Even now I find this quite hilarious and still savour the irony, particularly as my parents — my father, especially — were adamant about non-use of street drugs, including ganja. In fact, our then gardener (who loved to grow and roll his own spliffs) would scatter the seeds in our yard! But before he chopped down the huge plants Dad would make us examine the leaves, cautioning us that when we went to Canada and were offered such, just to let people know we were from Jamaica and so were quite familiar but were actually trying to kick the habit!

The relocation

Canada was where my parents chose to emigrate to in 1971. They saw it as pristine, a country with no drugs, crime and the general angst of America. So, when I was in fifth form at ICHS, my family applied for and was granted landed immigrant status there. I went on to grade 13 (sixth form) at Thornlea High in Toronto. Needless to say, at Thornlea culture shock set in, big time! Having come from a Jamaican all-girls' Catholic convent, I was stunned at this experimental Toronto high school, where students spoke their minds freely, showed affection openly for each other in the hallways, and were encouraged to become responsible adults. I have to admit: it took some time for me to adjust. Luckily, my cousins were also attending at the same time, so I had a support system.

We lived in an upscale, mostly-white Toronto neighbourhood; there were hardly any Asians or other people of colour. We actually became the talk of the school and neighbourhood. In typical Canadian style we were welcomed warmly; we reciprocated in typical Jamaican style by spreading the sunshine and, before long, making them yearn to visit Jamaica.

After high school, though I was accepted by three other universities in Ontario, I chose Ryerson, which at the time was Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, later becoming a full-fledged university. Ryerson's practical approach, together with equal balance of theory, was just my comfort level. Remember now, too, Ryerson was then a small campus. My major was journalism, and, upon graduating in 1978, I worked with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in radio.

I have mixed feelings about my time at Ryerson — there was much anxiety about getting through classes but also so much joy about the courses, faculty and friends made, some with whom I have remained close. But it was at Ryerson that I really found my rhythm. Got involved with campus life and worked part-time in the Admissions Office. This would prove to be quite an eye-opener about students and other learning institutions. Part of my job was filing and cross-referencing student admissions. I discovered that even with first degrees, people wanted to attend an institution that prepared them for the real world. At Ryerson, there is a saying that goes: “A Ryerson student is prepared for the job on day one.”

As an aside, Ryerson's hospitality course is renowned and many outstanding people in the hospitality industry worldwide were trained there. In fact, Isadore Sharp, founder of the Four Seasons chain, is a Ryerson alum.

The journalism faculty was a veritable feeding ground for media in Canada and all over the world. Writing for The Ryersonian (which at the time was considered Toronto's third daily newspaper) was a great highlight for me. Many of my classmates went on to become great journalists, lawyers, public servants, social workers, and so on. Funny thing about being at a 'foreign' university — all the associations approach you to join — Caribbean, Black, Chinese. In the end, I chose to remain on the periphery — taking the best of all worlds, so to speak.

The return

I guess I just got lucky and was in the right place at the right time! In 1984, I was headhunted by Ruder Finn & Rotman, one of the USA's largest and most respected public relations firms. The client was — would you believe — the Government of Jamaica and the Office of the Prime Minister! It was March — dead of winter — and this gig of course looked very, very attractive. Going back home in the height of winter: priceless! However, being back in Jamaica was not exactly a walk in the park. It required some reminding about cultural competence. And my colleagues (other members of the J team from the US and Canada) and I were not welcomed by all. I was the only Jamaican-born member of the team; the others were primarily white and American, though the leader was Canadian. The rounds of house hunting, getting used to driving a Lada (provided by the Government), navigating the issues of culture and the workplace in Jamaica took some getting used to. I was primarily posted at JIS (the government information service) and reported to the director, the incomparable Winnie Risden-Hunter. But in the end it was the Prime Minister Edward Seaga, who was also minister of information and finance, who had the last word.

My sojourn was joyful, for the most part. I went on to become the head of JIS Radio, setting policies, guidelines and settling issues. My greatest joy, though, at JIS, was the camaraderie and experienced staff from whom I learnt much, and who I hope learnt from me. There was, naturally, resentment by some members of staff who did not understand why 'foreigners' were brought in to restructure and take their jobs, so personal upheaval was overlaid with gender, professional and race issues. One senior, well-educated reporter in the department questioned my choice of not having children yet at the ripe old age of 34! Talk about cultural nuances. Of course, for a young, 'Canadian' trained and acculturated woman, this was a rather alien question. It was a discussion totally outside my wheelhouse.

Joy also came from being able to reconnect with my parents who were back on the island, after being domiciled in Canada for about 17 years. Who would have known that in 1998 my father would be diagnosed with lung cancer? He passed away shortly after the diagnosis, and I was so grateful that the stars had all aligned and brought me home to Jamaica so I could have had those last years with him.

I have to say, though, that it was through Ruder Finn & Rotman (and later when the agency switched to Greycom) that I cut my teeth in the area of public relations and public affairs. I learnt from the project account executive, Harriet Weiss, a doyenne of public relations, well-known and respected internationally. JIS taught me that, given the chance, creativity can be taken to another level, and given the budget it did great things during my tenure. Several shows including Jamaica Magazine were born under my watch.

After the three-year contract ended with JIS, I was asked, through a friend, by the then chairman of Musson Jamaica Desmond Blades, to come to head the marketing department. Now that was school! For me, Desmond Blades was a gentleman and a straight-shooter, but he was also a spendthrift who in the end would hire and then lose some of the best employees. I learnt from Mr Blades that your word is your bond, that you reap what you sow and that anything is possible…just don't mess up the payroll! Also, “the leaking roof cannot be fixed; it costs too much money, so just put your garbage bin on the desk when it rains. Problem solved, Miss Chin-Loy”! Tales abound about Desmond Blades and most are probably true.

I quit Musson after three years. I needed to expand my portfolio and move on. First day without a job, I was depressed. It was Melody Cammock, who worked with a Musson competitor and with whom I became a friend and colleague, who insisted I call Gurney Beckford at Dunlop Corbin Compton (DCC), to see if he had any vacancy in public relations. But how would I do that, after having fired DCC as Musson's agency, at the behest of Mr Blades, of course? Oh well. I did call Gurney and, thankfully, he gave me freelance work. I will be forever grateful to that wonderful advertising icon for lessons learnt along the way; important lessons, like 'Never take anything personally, especially when it has to do with business'. At DCC I thrived, made new contacts, and worked with fabulous clients. School again: Gurney and his partner Greg McClure would, in many ways, become the catalysts for my further immersion into public relations and marketing. I was now well-armed. The next chapter was my best to date.

After spending some time freelancing at DCC — about a year, I think — I was called on to work the Wray & Nephew launch of their Rum Cream product. Little did I know that working that weekend gig would catapult me into Donette Chin-Loy & Associates! This is how it materialised: the late, great Tony Burrowes was so impressed with my deliverables — writing speeches and assisting in organising the event — that he told Judith Douglas, manager at Edwin Charley, the distributors of Johnnie Walker. It was fortuitous that they were in fact looking for a PR agency to manage the Johnnie Walker World Championship of Golf (JWWC) at Tryall. I met with Tony and Judith, signed a deal of six figures (consider what this meant in the 1990s), and with Gurney and Greg's blessings, took on the JWWC — and the start of Donette Chin-Loy & Associates. Of course it was an easy fit; after all, I come from a golfing family! The joke has always been that the proposal for the JWWC was written at my family's dining table. True story! I started that business in my one-bedroom apartment, a typewriter on a small desk, and a fax machine sharing my bed.

The rest, as they say, is indeed history.

My agency grew to be one of the most respected in the Caribbean. The cadre of clients included concert productions; the financial services sector (banks, insurance, etc); the sports and entertainment fraternity; radio productions, and a host of others. My brand was strong and we delivered every time with a full-time staff of eight and a number of freelancers in the mix. My parents loaned me the funds for the start-up: equipment, office space (the first office was built onto the back of their home) and they were both directors of my boutique firm. We grew and grew. In fact, at one point, the company had several financial institutions, all at once. But none of them seemed to mind; no conflict of interest there! Another lesson learnt: trust is paramount, especially when you are working in a small society. I also had the privilege of working with other agencies in need of PR services — McCann Erickson comes to mind. Oral McCook was one of my greatest champions and it didn't hurt that he kept work coming my way.

Every once in a lifetime a comet does come along!

Life was great. I was more or less resigned to singlehood; my social life was enmeshed with the lives of the clients, who always needed one more cocktail party or opening event when you were organising dozens for clients. Family was, and is, important and my parents played a big part in my life. I got involved in various causes — Woman Inc, the PR Society of Jamaica, ICHS alumni association, Ryerson Jamaica alumni association, the St George's College fund-raisers, and a host of others. I can't remember when, but CARIMAC offered me a space in their new Master's programme. Excited, I immediately sent for my Ryerson transcript. But in a most pragmatic and serious way, my father said, “You have a business to run, how are you going to go back to school?” Another lesson learnt: Like the little train going uphill, you can if you really want. Another: Follow your heart and your dreams, because they are yours.

My dad died in 1998, a few months after Lady Di's own untimely passing. He was so sad, Britain being so very close to his heart after having served in the RAF. And, I suppose, facing one's mortality is a hard thing to do, even though at the time he had not yet been diagnosed. After he died, my mother, my sister and I became like three peas in a pod. I moved in with Mom when he died. I felt as if the earth had disappeared beneath my feet — the sense of emptiness and uncertainty was unfathomable. As the old African sentiment goes, the patriarch had now become an ancestor. I lost interest in many things, including the agency, and had become really disillusioned with Jamaica: the crime — including white-collar — the meltdown of the financial sector, corruption, governments that kept promising and not delivering.

Still I continued moving. Shortly after, some family friends from Toronto came to visit, and were on their way to a St George's College event in downtown Kingston. They thought a good friend of theirs, Ray Chang, should pick us up. I had no idea who the friend was, but he was an hour late, having had to pick up another person. By that time I had reluctantly decided to go to the function, and drove downtown myself. Ray walked into the event and I was instantly bowled over by his smile, a smile that somehow communicated: 'I own the room.' But, you know, in a nice way! Over the ensuing years, I would be smitten, time and time again, by that smile and that presence, which never sucked the air out of a room, but rather, gave everyone oxygen to breathe. Ray was self-assured, shy and, if you can believe, six feet tall. You don't find that many tall Jamaican Chiney men!

We started corresponding by email, and discovered we had mutual friends. In fact, I realised I actually knew his sister Thalia, and it was only at that point that I made the connection that he was the same person she'd been referring to whenever she mentioned her brother who sold mutual funds in Canada. I had no idea what mutual funds were and did not know Ray was the chair of the then third largest mutual funds company in Canada.

A year later I joined him in Toronto. Another lesson learnt: Every once in a lifetime a comet does come along!

On life's journey

My life had been one big high; I had the world by the tail when my father died. Then the bottom fell out, and I was the lowest I'd ever been. Staying true to the values instilled at home and at school, I worked hard, applied myself diligently and kept my eye on the prize. As my sister told Aldo Smith's Marketing Management magazine in 1995, when a cover story was done on me, “She gives 110% every time. This is the essence of her.” The values of hope, faith and charity have remained with me and have sustained me, even in the darkest of times. I did not lose faith. Then I met Ray Chang, and another high came when we were married. We were like two kids and I relished it all. I miss him a lot today, talk about him all the time.

The lows

The death of my father Lloyd — I thought I would simply evaporate. The death of my husband Ray — a piece of me, I think, died with him. A friend told me when Ray died, “You now live every couple's worst nightmare.” In many ways it is still very surreal. We were together for what I consider a short time. Still, I never question why; I just am grateful that we had the time together. We carry on his legacy — his children, Andrew and Brigette, and I, although I have to admit, it is bittersweet. It is the 'how do you move on' question that gets sorted out after almost five years. And being married to an icon who was so well loved by so many in so many places made it even harder, but, weirdly, easier too, as I am comforted in knowing how loved he was. Would I do it all over again, even knowing what I now know? Yes, absolutely!

Upon Ray's death I truly learnt to live in the moment. It's like surviving an earthquake — find the nearest doorway, stand in it. Don't go forward and do not dare go backward. Stay in the moment until it feels like the earth has settled somewhat. Be careful though: in the aftermath, there are lots of holes in the earth.

Noblesse Oblige

I saw my parents and grandmother giving back to individuals, and then to communities, so giving ba ck has been embedded in my psyche. An incident with a profound effect on me was my dad hiring Al. Al was a young man who knocked at the studio gate one day asking for a job. The night before, he had witnessed a crime in his inner-city neighbourhood. The first question my dad asked: “Have you eaten?” Al became our bodyguard and driver, living upstairs the recording studio. Years later, he would become the manager of a boutique hotel in the US, as a result of his own act of kindness: one day he offered a young woman a seat on a bus in Kingston. She had been visiting from the US, and they struck up a friendship. She would become his wife and file for him to go to Washington. The rest is history.

Giving is second nature and getting is never expected because it is in the giving that you create joy, satisfaction and love, seeing another person thrive.

I try to live by the motto: Real joy comes not from ease or riches or from the praise of men, but from doing something worthwhile.

On Love & Married Bliss

In many ways I wanted to live that feminist dream of having it all. I thought I could be a professional, one day a wife and then a mother. My trajectory was quite different from most of my peers and family. I did not get all the elements, but I am very blessed and grateful that I met my love…not many are able to say that.

I often think my father sent Ray. Ray was kind, considerate and did not tolerate ignorance or arrogance. His dreams were big and his worldview broad. He advocated for the best for Jamaica and did the work in Canada for a better community and society. And for this, the land of his birth and the land of his choice awarded him their highest honours: the Order of Jamaica and the Order of Canada. (The only other person who has both, at an honorary level, is Nelson Mandela). Ray's sojourn into academia (as chancellor of Ryerson University) made me proudest. He was a true champion for students, often showing up at their classes — first one was a ballet class (Ryerson is renowned for its dance school). He'd often wander around on campus, engaging with faculty and chatting to the hot dog vendor on the sidewalk.

He was protective of me and his family; whenever there was disagreement, he was respectful. He was quick to point out that I influenced many of his decisions regarding philanthropy and community engagement, as we shared those values of giving back. When you've had the best, everything else seems like Pablum in a baby food factory!

Life was great with him. His positivity, stemming from an 'anything is possible' mindset, was contagious. But, make no mistake, he could be stubborn, particularly if he found someone offensive! I would temper that side of him. His family was kind to me and we have, for the most part, remained friends.

Back to Canada...

I returned to Canada to join Ray, a decision we both made. It was not easy. The city had changed so drastically in 16 years. Also, I'd been experiencing bouts of mild lethargy and low energy — never depression, mind you. Reconnecting with friends and colleagues was bittersweet — time had taken its toll on many, but time was great for others. Lucy La Grassa, my Ryerson schoolmate, became my tower of strength through re-establishing roots. Together, we opened La Grassa Chin-Loy Communications in downtown Toronto. Our clients included people from the Caribbean as well as Canada. We eventually closed for personal reasons. Lucy went on to do her PhD and is these days a well-respected advisor and council to many government agencies in Canada. I set out to carve out a niche with freelancing and pursuing the Master's in Communications & Culture. In year two I quit (in spite of spectacular marks) to dedicate more time to the philanthropic projects Ray and I started, along with travel and other pursuits.

Jamaica will always be where my navel string is. But today, Canada is my home of choice. Whenever I am asked, “Are you going home?”, my answer is, “I am home.” I love Toronto. It provides a big world of unseen and seen opportunities, while allowing me a fair amount of anonymity and an even bigger slate to make a bigger difference for those in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.

Loss... X

A long time ago I decided to live my life by taking the high road. It's lonely up there but, for me, you cannot go wrong doing so.

I treated Ray's illness the way my mother did with my father; she took the lead and my sister and I followed. With Ray I did this; his children were included in every single decision. I was very mindful that Ray's life didn't start with me, though it ended with me. It has been, and will probably always be, the greatest loss I ever experienced; my world changed forever.

After the flurry of activities surrounding his passing — in particular, the funeral and reception, which was huge, as you can imagine in Toronto — and everyone went back to everyday living, I was left facing the question of how to now survive. A new mantra I took on was: Choose life or die a slow painful death. I chose to live every moment of every day. After all, one of the last things Ray told his children and me was, “Enjoy life.”

Without knowing it then, I had devised a six-point plan (which I now call my survival kit):

1 I called on Monsignor Gregory Ramkissoon for spiritual guidance.

2 Snoopy, my beautiful Coton de Tulear, was bought.

3 Choosing communities that I wanted to remain engaged with so I would remain current.

4 Getting physically, thus mentally, stronger through CrossFit.

5 I recalibrated relationships.

6 I commissioned a book to be written about Ray.

With great precision, I looked at every one of my relationships and decided who I wanted to keep in my life, who was teetering on the edge, and where I wanted those to go, and who I would bring back into my sanctum sanctorum.

This survival kit has worked for me, and I'm now finally in a good place after almost five years.

I came up with another mantra upon Ray's passing: Take what you need and walk away from the rest. I also speak my mind, and speak it respectfully, but there isn't a thing anyone can do or tell me now that will devastate me more than the death of Ray.

I still miss that amazing guy.

Giving back: Part 2

Now, more than ever, I find even greater joy in giving back. Once you've witnessed the death of a loved one your own mortality becomes clearer. So, certain questions (How am I living? Why am I doing what I do? How can I leave a better world behind?) come to mind. Legacy time.

I give of my time, my name and influence and, whenever I am able, my resources. Education and health remain the main focus, with a bit for the environment.

My greatest accomplishment is in heading several campaigns and projects which in total have awarded over 600 student scholarships in Canada and the Caribbean. Built two schools in Jamaica and was part of the team that built over 50 schools and homes in Jamaica and some in Haiti through Food for the Poor Canada. We shipped food, medicine and school supplies to the most vulnerable. Recently, I assisted in funding the rebuilding of 200 homes in Dominica after the hurricane in 2017. I am also a member of the Can$1BILLION campaign committee for the University Health Network (UHN), which combines four hospitals in Canada.

My ties to Ryerson University remain and I continue to be a scholarship donor for the university, sitting, as well, on the Dean's Advisory Council in the Faculty of Community Services (under which 10 schools fall, including nursing, early childhood education, urban planning, and architecture). I remain, also, a donor for several high schools in Jamaica including, and in particular, Immaculate Conception, where I started the biennial Hall of Fame, the school's largest fund-raiser, and the St George's College, which Ray attended.

One of my greatest joys, when I travel to the Caribbean, is not to hit the beach, but to meet with students, particularly The University of the West Indies (The UWI) students. Recently, along with my friend and colleague from The UWI Toronto Benefit Gala, Toni Spooner, we met with students in Barbados on the Cave Hill Campus.

I encourage the young not to be discouraged but to know that the changing world needs them; they are part of the solution, and the hope. Our generation didn't intend to screw up so spectacularly, but, in spite of that, we have left a great foundation. Work hard, work smart. Seize the moment. Honour your elders and ancestors. Give of yourself; then, if possible, some of your resources. Take nothing for granted. Enjoy life; it is not long. Not everything can be measured in dollars and cents. Live so you have no regrets — regrets are a waste of time and energy.

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