When David Simmonds was a young boy, his family attended the Harry Jerome Awards Gala in Toronto. The event, organized by the Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA), celebrates excellence within the Black community.
As each awardee was honoured, Simmonds was awed by their accomplishments.
“Never did I think I’d one day be on that stage,” he said. But this Saturday, he will “have that privilege” as the 2022 recipient of the Harry Jerome leadership award. Simmonds is among 12 people being celebrated, including Olympic bobsleigh athlete Cynthia Appiah, and Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados.
Simmonds has long led the way in championing inclusion, in both his volunteer and professional roles.
His passion for social justice has seen him make meaningful impact in his work as a member of Western’s board of governors, director and president of the Canadian Club of Toronto, governor of the Stratford Festival, and as an advisory board member at Catalyst Canada.
As current senior vice-president, global chief communications and sustainability officer at Great-West Lifeco and Canada Life, he actively supports the company’s strategy, development and execution of programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Having his efforts acknowledged by the BBPA carries special significance for Simmonds.
“To be recognized by my Black Canadian community for work I care about and believe in is something I don’t take lightly,” he said. “It’s a real honour to be seen as someone they put stock in and to be counted among the people who’ve won this award in the past. And to have my name associated with someone with the stature of Harry Jerome is tremendously humbling.”
Jerome, a Canadian Olympian track athlete, was also a social advocate, who took on the concerns of his community and country, “epitomizing excellence, determination and dedication.”
Doing ‘what’s right’
Simmonds’ proclivity to “do the right thing,” comes naturally. He is just modelling what he’d witnessed growing up, the youngest of six children and twin of his sister, Danielle.
“I’m really grateful for the examples I have in my life,” he said of his immigrant parents, and of his grandparents, who were both ministers.
“It started from a young age, watching people organizing within our church community, where they’re still very focused on issues like voting and service for people who are underhoused.”
On Sunday mornings, Simmonds would stand in front of the congregation, speaking on the need for change, compassion and social justice.
“I’ve often said I can’t separate the concept of Black liberation from Black faith, because for so long the idea of liberation was driven by this belief that freedom was on the way, and we had to just keep working. I definitely get strength from knowing that doing the right thing, at the right time, really moves the dial.”
Simmonds also understands the power of storytelling in advancing change, having experienced the influence of compelling narratives first-hand.
He and Danielle were often the only Black children in the class. Such was the case in grade four, when Simmonds’ first Black teacher asked him to read Black Beauty.
“Reading the book caused this collision of identity,” Simmonds said. “That’s when I understood I looked different, and I was trying to reconcile what that meant for me.”
In grade six, he read the biography of Martin Luther King, which caused a further awakening. “It was a pivotal moment for me, in learning the world isn’t as fair as it should be,” he said.
Rather than retreat inward, he harnessed his natural gifts to inspire others to join him in making things better.
“I was always high-energy, maybe a little hyperactive, and sometimes, also charismatic,” he said. “As a result, I could naturally get people to do things. I leaned into that, realizing that with other people, I could do more. I wouldn’t have articulated it that way in grade six, but now I look back and think it impacted my leadership style.”
It’s a skill, Tanya van Biesen, senior vice-president, global engagement for Catalyst, has seen in action, in Simmonds’ work for the global non-profit, which champions workplace inclusion.
“David’s courage and optimism is infectious and his ‘leading by doing,’ sets the pace for all of us,” van Biesen said. “He asks questions that need asking, pushes boundaries that need pushing, and then he makes us all laugh. When it’s over, we are all the better for it.”
Simmonds has been an active member of the Western community since sitting on the student union executive and senate as an undergraduate studying political science.
As past president of the alumni association and Homecoming chair, he played an instrumental role in advancing equity and inclusion.
“When I had the good fortune to chair the alumni board, we were very declarative and deliberate about achieving gender parity on that board,” he said. “Around 40 per cent of us identified as minorities.”
Under his leadership, Western also hosted its first LGBTQ alumni event.
“I remember at the end of the event, two senior alumni told me they’d never thought Alumni Western would see them for who they are. That was a really moving moment for me because they were over 65, and that was their first Western Alumni event. I feel very lucky to have been part of the group that helped make that happen.”
Today, Simmonds is hoping to have a similar impact serving on Western’s equity, diversity and inclusion council. He also serves on the Western Board of Governors, alongside former dean of the Ivey Business School, Carol Stephenson, who has known Simmonds since he was a student.
“David is so deserving of the Harry Jerome award,” she said. “Throughout his career, he has made tremendous progress advancing diversity in both his corporate and volunteer roles. For the last several years serving on the board together, I have watched him inspire, motivate and lead by example.”
When people ask Simmonds why he loves Western so much, his answer is, “Because Western loved me first.”
“Western has been around in times of transition in my life in impactful and informative ways, whether it was my first year as a student away from home, coming out, changing jobs, or the recent teaching opportunity I had at SASAH (Western’s School of Advanced Studies in Arts and Humanities).
“I’m grateful for the university’s support, and the support of the BBPA and the other organizations I am involved with. And, I hope that any young person at the gala this year who sees me on that stage will believe that one day they can be up there, too.”