Political science student helps spark conversations about Black struggles and successes

As co-host of the U of A podcast BlackTalk, Zack Penddah speaks frankly with prominent Black leaders from around the world — and shows young listeners that anything is possible.


As co-host of the BlackTalk podcast, U of A political science student Zack Penddah channels his passion for global politics in conversations with Black cultural figures about issues of racism, diversity, equity and inclusion. (Photo: Ryan Whitefield)

It was one of those “pinch me” moments.

As a third-year political science student at the University of Alberta, Zack Penddah found himself alongside international politics expert Andy Knight, interviewing former Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes about her experience as a Black leader in Canada.

“She had a lot of obstacles to overcome to get where she is, and that was definitely a very eye-opening experience, one of the highlights of the whole season.”

“We got the chance to talk to her about her experience in Ottawa, and what a situation like that is like for a Black woman,” said Penddah.

The interview was for BlackTalk, a podcast launched last year by Knight featuring luminous Black cultural figures on issues of racism, diversity, equity and inclusion.

In the fourth episode, Caesar-Chavannes shares a story about the years she spent earning her BA at the University of Toronto, with a predominantly white and Asian student population.

Feeling alienated and invisible, she plunged into a deep depression and crisis of confidence, she told Penddah, extending her three-year degree into six years. Years later she became the only black female MP in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s predominantly white and male government, famously clashing with Trudeau after he is said to have advised her not to resign from the Liberal caucus on the same day as Minister of Veterans Affairs Jody Wilson-Raybould.

“It's just nice to be able to talk about both the struggles that are associated with being Black and the successes achieved,” said Penddah of the author of the recent memoir, Can You Hear Me Now? How I Found My Voice and Learned to Live with Passion and Purpose.

“It's important for especially the younger generations to see that you can do a lot of these things.

“One thing I like most about the podcast is just being able to lift up some of the younger generation and show them that anything is possible.”

Early interest in global politics

Penddah was born in Edmonton, the son of immigrants from Ghana. Growing up with parents struggling to forge a new life in a foreign country — acutely aware of the differences between the developing and developed world — stoked a keen interest in global politics, he said.

“I was interested in learning about the power relations between different countries, and how some countries are able to have better means of life and others are trying to acquire those means for themselves.”

When he entered the U of A, he was drawn to political science, eventually landing in Knight’s course on international organization and global governance.

“That was right up my alley, and it was really an incredible course that introduced me to the United Nations, some of the issues that they face and how the world works together to help with famine, poverty and issues of security.”

Zack Penddah's interest in global politics led him to study political science at the U of A, which in turn led to the opportunity to co-host BlackTalk with international politics expert Andy Knight. (Photo: Ryan Whitefield)

One of the class assignments in the course was a video presentation, which showcased Penddah’s multimedia acumen. That’s when Knight approached Penddah to help with a new podcast he was developing on anti-Black racism.

Penddah started in a supporting role, editing content, “kind of in the background.” He also recruited other students to the project. But over time Knight added “more responsibility to my plate, and then it ended up with me being a co-host,” he said.

“A good conversation going on”

By the time BlackTalk launched, Penddah sat right beside Knight for interviews with prominent Black figures such as author and journalist Cecil Foster, international thought leader and global activist Sir Hilary Beckles, U of A nursing professor Bukola Salami and former Fort Valley State University president Ivelaw Griffith.

The podcast quickly caught fire and began to create buzz.

“We were interviewed by Global News, and a few different news outlets wrote articles about the show,” said Penddah. “There's definitely a good conversation going on about the podcast.”

Penddah has rounded out his degree as a research assistant with the Kule Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS) and is a recent recipient of the Stephen and Lynn Mandel Scholarship in Political Science and the Jason Lang Scholarship.

He has also served as a student assistant with the Canada Border Services Agency as a member of the Hearings and Appeals office in the Refugee Protection Division.

Now finishing his honors thesis, he hopes to graduate next fall, while waiting to see whether BlackTalk receives funding to produce a second season.

“After that, we'll see what comes,” he said. “I'm definitely interested in graduate studies, but I’m just happy to move on and see what the next chapter holds.”