Named after Audre Lorde’s poem “A Woman Speaks,” Team Sophomore met with nine writers, artists, researchers, journalists, educators, and counselors behind the movements that have shaped today and continue to shape the future.
I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
and not white.
Photography by Carrie Jade Cai
Makeup by Olivia Taylor assisted by Jason Fleming
Studio provided by The Ryerson School of Fashion
What role would you like to see government and culture play in both raising awareness about Indigenous issues and also making change?
In terms of raising awareness, I think that we need to actually go back to what it means for Indigenous people to be sovereign. As a country, if we can acknowledge Indigenous sovereignty and understand what treaty rights really mean, then we’re going to be able to move forward with an entirely different type of awareness and allyship.
I think the biggest problem that we have in Canada is that people inherently don’t understand the complex history of Indigenous people, and therefore have all of these misconceptions, which cause us to see each other differently. So, I think it’s less about culture and more about information. Canada’s done a really good job embedding Indigenous culture into everything, and it’s not necessarily doing any good in the situation between Indigenous people and our allies. We need to stop covering up these things with culture and things like Canada 150, because it doesn’t help us move forward; it doesn’t add to our ability to interact and to come together.
There has been a lot of “meanwhile in Canada” or “this isn’t America”—a sentiment that arguably enables inaction, what do you think enables this thinking and how can we combat it, especially in this threatening political climate?
This past year, I’ve been working a lot in the States with tribes, and one of the things that comes up is that there’s this idea that in Canada, Indigenous people, or people in general, have more rights and are able to talk about things. And also when you compare it to what’s going on in the States, there’s also this idea that people are not able to have an uprising or are not able to take any action.
People are always going to make excuses to not be active, and they’re always going to use their own personal placement as their climate. I think as Indigenous people, we’re sovereign, and, in Canada, there’s been a really big misconception that we’re better off, and it’s untrue. What we need to do is stop making barriers and stop defining our climate as “American” or “Canadian,” or this or that, and actually start seeing our situation as people. It’s not that different, and the things that we’re up against are quite similar, and so I think the idea of inaction is just solely based on people not wanting to stand up, and not wanting to acknowledge the political system that they’re in.
I don’t see any difference between Canada and the US. I’m not any more threatened by Trump than I feel threatened by Trudeau—I think they’re the same entity and I think that people need to rise up against injustice in the same way. Whether it’s a kinder face with better hair, it’s the same evil and it’s the same kind of uprising that we need to see.
People have a lot of excuses. People make a lot of assumptions about what they can and can’t do, and all of it fundamentally comes down to whether or not you want to resist, and I think we have to resist regardless of any of the opposition or what the walls look like.
How do you stay resilient as an activist?
“Resilient” is a really interesting word. The tagline for the work that I’ve been doing is focusing on Indigenous resistance and resilience around the world. I’m not sure that I have a good answer for that right now, because my honest feeling right now is that I’m really, really tired, and I think it’s important to be honest about that.
This past year, what we’ve seen in Standing Rock, what we’ve seen happen in Canada, what we’ve seen with the approval of pipelines without due consultation, has been really, really exhausting, and to have that come on the heels of the Trump administration and so much injustice to black and brown and red bodies, I think I have to be really honest and say that it’s incredibly difficult.
I don’t really have a formula for it, but what I do know is that doing this work and seeing the kinds of amazing frontline communities that are popping up everywhere, seeing the amount of people marching, seeing the amount of people waking up provides me with fuel. In the same moment I feel like I just can’t get up and go to another rally, I just can’t read one more press release that is heartbreaking and makes me feel powerless—it’s those same things. Seeing young people rise up, that provides me with fuel. The movement continuously wears you out and lifts you back up and feeds you. I think that’s why it’s important to stay in tune with it.
You are also getting me in like a really real day, because what’s going on right now in the States is just fucking heartbreaking. You can’t put a fucking spin on any of this—and that’s my job, to put a spin on things so people can hear them—and you can’t spin this. You can’t spin the trauma that people are experiencing right now, you can’t spin the fact that people are going to get killed at Standing Rock—no matter what happens, that’s what’s going to happen. It’s real.
I watched your documentary on Shoal Lake 40, and there was a moment where the youth were hesitant to ask Justin Trudeau about the issues that they were facing. We had this conversation during a meeting about how you shouldn’t treat politicians like celebrities, and how it’s very easy to think of them as these larger-than-life figures, so I was wondering how you navigate that, and how do you hold politicians accountable?
In terms of Shoal Lake 40—Indigenous people got Justin Trudeau in office. He inspired them to vote, we saw record numbers, people were running out of ballots, and I think that Shoal Lake 40 was such a huge wake-up call for me, because there’s this guy who’s supposed to be there to help Indigenous people navigate through the political system—that’s his job—and those kids felt like he was a celebrity. Those kids felt like they needed to act a certain way, they needed to be a certain way, and that was the first time that I was really aware of that. I think in Canada, it took a year for people to realize that Justin Trudeau is not a celebrity. He is our Prime Minister and he needs to be accountable.
Politicians are regular people, and the worst damage we’ve seen is from people who stand up and refuse to talk to the people. I think we’re in a better place, because at least Justin Trudeau wants to talk, but people need to use that.
I try not to treat anyone like a celebrity. I feel like we’re human beings, and I think this whole idea of ‘celebrity’ is bullshit. If you can’t talk to someone on a real level, then they shouldn’t be held up. We just need to change that. If you’re in a place of power and you have a platform, then you need to be a human being, because what’s the point? What is the point of having a platform if you are not accountable to other human beings? And that’s it. Politicians, celebrities, the Queen—I don’t really care. You’re human and if you can’t talk to me, then I have a really hard time respecting you.
You recently wrote an article for the Globe and Mail that emphasizes the importance of alertness during this “political shift,” to put it lightly. What, to your mind, does the alertness actually look like— is it just a matter of reading as much as possible, or are there more actionable ways we, as young women of colour, can contribute to the cause, both online and off?
I think it’s about a bit of everything, so I think we’re all sort of learning the danger of sitting there and absorbing news, news, news, Twitter, Twitter, Twitter. I think it’s important to know what’s happening in the news, but it’s also important to know what’s happening outside of the news—what people are doing to organize around specific news or political events, but also what people are doing to build their communities and just sort of strengthen the ties that we need. Especially in times like this.
I take your point that it’s dangerous and detrimental to log off, but it’s also incredibly draining to read one upsetting headline after another, so do you practice any form of self-care to keep yourself healthy and ready to engage in the fight (to use the military term)? And what sort of tips would you give to those of us who may feel emotionally and mentally defeated?
Self-care, you know the basic Audre Lorde idea of it, is a day-to-day practice. It’s eating as healthy as you can and exercising when you can and surrounding yourself with positive people as much as you can. Having that as a sort of basis is very helpful so that, again, when we’re in moments of crisis or moments that are very tumultuous, you can build on that and decide to selectively log off—balancing that is very, very important.
I didn’t mean to suggest in the column that people should always be online every second, because that’s actually its own way of being paralyzed. So I think that if you have a basis of taking care of yourself emotionally and physically and everything, you can build on that and decide, when do I need to log off, when do I need to say, “forget all this stuff, I am going to sit on the couch and eat a bag of chips because that’s what I need right now.” I hope we can all build our basic self-care routine—acknowledging that it’s OK to feel crappy because crappy stuff is happening. You don’t have to feel OK all the time.
I’m really trying to—especially because I work in professional journalism—resist people’s instinct to over-intellectualize this moment. Of course it has historical precedence, and of course there are theories and things that we should talk about and relate to, but our feelings are also really relevant. Just acknowledging that and finding out how to honour them while avoiding that paralysis at the same time, and accepting the mistakes that we’re going to make, too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the colour code episode titled “The Angel Complex” amidst what’s been going on in the USA. The rhetoric seems to consistently be about “saving America” from Trump and the populist racism, but we have our own problems, and it’s only a matter of time I think before these same or similar ideologies bubble up to the surface here in Canada. What would you say to those who say, as they often say to me, that “it’s not that bad here,” and are perhaps too quick to congratulate Canada for its human rights track record (which is actually more problematic than we are willing to admit)? How do we use these increasingly frequent conversations about the USA to pivot back to Canada’s own issues?
It’s hard not to compare stuff to the States because it’s so massive and it’s so close to where we are, but I don’t really know why they need to be our benchmark as Canadians. Just because we’re less bad than another place I don’t know that that’s something to necessarily be proud of. For myself, I am trying to learn a lot more about Indigenous ideas and Indigenous past and present, because I think that that is the largest part of painful Canadian history that I also never learned in public school. Knowing that is a really good way to say “No”. The United States have a different history than us, we also have a history of anti-black racism, but that [history] is so much larger and so much more entrenched in the United States. We can’t just use that as the thing that we are going to pivot around, and say that’s the thing that drives what we want to be as Canada. For myself, number one: why is the States what everyone has to compare themselves to? And two: learning more about Canadian history, because we have a lot of garbage history that we just have decided to ignore.
There’s a need for discussions about sexual violence with a lens that looks at intersections of identity and oppression. What do you think is lacking from conversations around consent and gender-based violence?
Well, I think who we believe—so when people use that adage, “We believe survivors,” I think we have to go beyond just believing those that get access to the criminal justice system. Because usually people who are accessing the criminal justice system—people that are believed by police officers, by the courts—are usually not bodies that look like black bodies, or sex workers, or people that have been criminalized, or people that are Muslim. So thinking about who gets included in conversations and who gets left out.
For me, a lot of my work has been with mostly marginalized women who have been impacted by sexual violence, but I think when we talk about that, too often those bodies don’t get to be seen as important or willing, or people are willing to rally around them. I’ll give you an example: a woman was sexually molested when she was a child until she was 12 years old and when she was 16 she went to the police and said, “My uncle and cousin have been molesting me for a number of years.” The police went to her dad and said, “Is she lying?” Her dad said yes, so they dropped the case. When she was 32 she went back to the police and said, “This is happening to me, this happened to me from my uncle and cousin, can you charge him?” When they did and they were charged and they went to trial, she wore the niqab (face veil) and the judge listened to the defence who said it wasn’t a fair trial because she was covering her face. She had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to fight for her right to testify in a sexual assault case.
When we talk about equality or equity—I don’t think all survivors have equity. I think we can look at the rates of violence against Black women—who are not safe when they go to the police—how do we make it safer for them? How do we make it safer for trans women when they feel policed and challenged around just being able to exist? I think we have a lot more work to do.
I heard you speak at the Women’s March. I thought it was incredibly important to hear your voice, considering how sexual violence and its language have been a huge part of what is so frightening about this current US administration. How has this threatening political climate affected your work?
I’m a queer Muslim woman who is a sexual assault survivor, so it feels like every part of me is being attacked at this moment. Six people in a mosque were killed while praying. They were vulnerably praying in a mosque and somebody thought it was okay to come in and murder them. This affects me. But we’ve been living under Islamophobia for a long time in Canada and I think Indigenous people have been living under racism since Canada was created. Black folks have been dealing with anti-black racism for a way longer time than I’ve been dealing with Islamophobia.
This political mess that we’re in now wasn’t created just by Trump. It was created by Canadians who ignored Muslims when they said that we had an Islamophobic government. By people who ignored Black folks when they said that we have to talk about police brutality. So I think that yes, this is one piece, this is one moment in time, but it’s not the beginning.
Is this the moment when people are going to start realizing that this is important? I felt that way with the [Jian] Ghomeshi sexual assault case too. Last year we had an unprecedented conversation about sexual assault in Canada. It was one of the first times where we saw people really pushing back on narratives around victim blaming and survivor shaming. Yet just yesterday, the Calgary Herald had a headline in their media that said, “Taxi Driver Convicted of Raping a Drunken Fare.” As if a woman’s body is this object—this fare. As if it was somehow her fault that she was drinking, somehow why she was in that cab. So we still have a long way to go, and I think as someone who participated in a women’s march, my expectation is that allies and community members and myself will be accountable to the communities that are most harmed by these horrible practices coming in by the United States and the horrible practices in Canada.
We talk about allyship and the women’s march and there’s a whole conversation about how white women need to create space for black women and women of colour. When we talk allyship (allyship in the context of gendered violence)—how do you be a good ally?
I think one of the first things you can do to be an ally around sexual violence is to believe people when they tell you someone’s hurt them. 80% of all sexual assaults are by someone we know—someone we trusted, someone we loved, maybe a partner, maybe a friend, maybe a family member. It’s really hard when someone discloses to you they’re going through hurdles to tell you that, “This person hurt me.”
We have to be in a place to ground ourselves when someone discloses to us and say, “It’s not okay, I’m sorry it happened to you and of course I believe you and it’s not your fault.” I think that is a huge thing that allies can do because too often we are blamed, we are shamed, “Well, what were you wearing, what were you doing, why were you going out there?” And so this is an opportunity as an ally, it’s such a powerful thing to say, “I believe you.”
Another thing that’s been a conversation amongst Sophomore a lot is the topic of coercion, and how it is, in many ways, a grey area. How do we talk about that?
I think it’s how we’ve constructed sexual violence. We’ve constructed it with that guy behind the bush or that creeper that comes to your school with the sliding van that kind of puts you in, or the kidnapper. We don’t talk about the way in which sexual violence normally happens or usually happens, which is somebody you’re in a relationship with, or someone you know that keeps pushing down on your boundaries.
Maybe the first time is they send you a Facebook message, that they’re like, “What are you doing, are you up right now?” And you don’t really want to answer them but you feel like, “Oh they’re in my class, so maybe I’ll answer them.” And then the next time they message you maybe it’s 2 AM and they’re wondering what you’re doing, and you don’t reply to them and two days later they call you a bitch, or a prude or stuck-up. And then you feel guilty so maybe you’ll hang out with them. And when you hang out with them, maybe they start touching your arm and it feels really creepy, and you don’t really want them to touch your arm but they keep doing it. How that escalates and how we’re oftentimes to believe that we’re doing something wrong—that somehow we should’ve said no, that somehow it’s our fault because, you know, we should be that strong girl. Listen, you’re hella strong and someone can still push on your boundaries, and you can be really strong and someone can assault you. It’s not about you; it’s about power and control and someone being an abuser. We need to hold them accountable.
A part of self-love and healing is going, “It’s not my fault, it’s not okay what happened,” and for people to recognize that that kind of sexual violence happens so much—people pushing on our boundaries, saying, “Come on you did it last night, you did it five hours ago,” or, “You sexted with me, you told me you wanted to do this”—just because I sexted with you doesn’t mean I want to do it, I just wanted to sext with you. Or, maybe I did want to do it two hours ago, but now I’m not feeling it. We have to allow people to figure out what feels good for them.
And I think knowing the laws and even understanding how consent operates, that at anytime I can say no, and even if we’re naked, the condom is on—whatever you’re doing, you can say no. When we do say no, that “no” needs to be respected, and oftentimes it’s kind of seen as a challenge instead of a definitive “no.”
Actually challenging sexual violence is knowing about what we want and don’t want, but most importantly, it’s the people that are interacting with us that need to treat sex like a collaboration, not a conquest. Something that we’re doing together, like making music.
[If I have a new partner], how do I have a conversation that’s like “This is why you need to respect my boundaries”? I feel like when we raise boys, we teach them no doesn’t mean no, it means try harder. I find that when you bring up these things with people that don’t experience that repercussion, it’s very difficult to get them to understand. It takes them a long time; they get defensive.
And they’re like, “I’m not that guy.” Well, maybe they are, but we don’t want to believe it either. We don’t want to believe that someone we know and love can do something that’s not okay.
We have to ask men to step in, talk to each other, have those hard conversations. One of the things that I have in my workshops when I talk to young men is I ask them to turn to the person beside them and say, “What would you say to each other if you found out that one of you had hurt someone? That one of you maybe had gone too far, one of you had sexually assaulted a woman. What would you say? How would you call each other in?” And make them practice that. We need to practice how we call each other in. We need to practice the way we show love, by calling people in and making that change.
I think in terms of partnerships, I think one thing that is really important to know is that every time you date someone, don’t assume that they’re not a survivor. We know that one in three women, in their lifetime, will experience some form of violence. People we love. Ourselves.
So if you are someone who’s going to date women, then you need to know how to treat survivors. You need to know how to ask for consent every moment. And not say, “Well, you didn’t say anything, so I didn’t think it was a problem.” Check in. And I think moving away from this idea of checking in just at the beginning, “Okay, you want to do this?” But check in the whole time, and check in in ways that are kind of hot. Like, “Does this feel good for you?” Because I would like people to ask me, “Does this feel good for you?” And if it doesn’t feel good, let’s try something else. Or maybe you want to stop for a moment, “Can I get you a glass of water?”
Has your approach for racial justice and equality always been to-the-point and unsympathetic? Or, perhaps like many of us, you started off with patience and gritted teeth, before you realized enough was enough?
Yeah, definitely. I think that when I first started getting into feminism and activism, a lot of the people that I learned from were well-meaning white women, and I think that’s always where a lot of people start from. So I think it came with a lot of learning through people who were very well-intentioned but weren’t very intersectional or well-learned in their beliefs, so it came with a lot of struggle.
I felt really mean for wanting to divert from a kind brand of social justice, where you’re always interested in teaching and you’re always interested in being so kind and letting people learn. And learning’s a huge aspect of it, but I think that after a certain point, it’s very easy to feel like you’re exhausted, you’re very tired of explaining the 101 stuff to people over and over again. And you’re very tired of white people in your inbox being like, “How does this work?” and you’re like, “You should know, you created this system!”
It’s very tiring to do that, but after a lot of years of being asked questions all the time and the expectations of free labour, I was worn down. It ended up being something that played to my advantage, because now I get to be someone who’s not scared to say what I’m thinking, and I think that’s a really big advantage to have.
From your article, “On White Feelings,” you write about how people of colour “have to think about race every minute of every day,” and you bring our attention to the eloquent words of Lester K. Spence, who adds, “at any point I may be forced to defend myself, defend my presence.” What words would you share with other people of colour, who are trying to find those spaces where one can feel comfortable and at ease with their own identity?
I think for people of colour, and especially for women of colour, it’s important to create those spaces. In order for us to be able to thrive in these spaces, we need to be the ones that are creating them. And there is typically going to be pushback and a lot of people who are wondering why these spaces need to exist, but they need to exist because we need to be able to come together with our fellow women of colour, with our sisters, to be able to take a break from living in a world that’s constantly trying to break us down, constantly asking questions of us. And I think the best way to create spaces, is to find people who have similar beliefs and similar ideologies—not to create an echo chamber—but to create a space that’s equally healing for everyone involved.
Some words of wisdom for being unapologetic, on being yourself, and demanding more from the people around you?
That’s kind of hard…I think it’s “don’t be afraid.” I grew up in a strange time where social media was just becoming a thing, and because of that, a lot of people were afraid to put their thoughts online, because it ended up being a “The Internet is written in ink,” kind of thing. Say what you need to and put it out there, because more often than not, you’re saying things that other people are afraid to say, too.
It’s important to be able to be the person who takes that stance, so other people feel comfortable joining you, because I found that, after posting things online, after really talking about how I feel more often than not—I’ve gotten a couple of awful message because the Internet is the Internet—but more often than not, I’ve gotten women contacting me being like, “That was amazing and I’ve never been able to say that because I’m afraid that I’m going to apply for a job at, like, Gap, and they’re going to be like, ‘Remember that one time you called out someone?’” It’s terrifying, but it opens you up to a whole new world of opportunities and people that you don’t get to meet otherwise. So, be unafraid and be unapologetic for what you believe in, definitely.
What are your methods of self care and what do you recommend?
I think in terms of self-care, especially now, when we’re seeing a lot of bigger protests spring up and a lot of people starting to get involved in activism, I think that something that’s important to remember is that resistance isn’t always screaming and yelling and punching Nazis. It’s not always this force that needs to be reckoned with—those are important aspects of it, I think we should punch Nazis—but I don’t think that’s 100% what resistance implicates. Resistance still means being able to take part in activism through teaching, taking care of those who’ve been hurt, donating to organizations that make important strides, and creating spaces for people to come and heal. Those are forms of activism and in my eyes as well as self-care. For me, self-care isn’t necessarily taking a big break, because I think that we need all hands on deck, especially in times like these. But I think it’s being gentle with yourself, and knowing when to take a step back. It’s knowing when you can be present and understanding what’s important for you.
I’ve read and heard a lot about the lack of inclusivity of the Women’s March in DC, as written by black women whose opinions I respect, but I don’t believe I’ve seen anything similar written about on the march here in Toronto. Did you attend the Women’s March here in Toronto? Whether you did or didn’t, what are your thoughts on the protest? Do you have any critiques or praise regarding its organization and effectiveness?
I didn’t go to the march. I do have some criticisms, but I’ll first say that I think it’s amazing that 30,000 people came out in Toronto. That’s phenomenal and points to a really massive and unprecedented opportunity to organize something really major. My critiques are that I think symbolic actions are really important, but I think at this current moment, it could have been used to call for something concrete. There could have been requests for policy changes that would’ve really affected the way that women are able to participate in society. That would be my major critique of both the women’s marches that have happened in Toronto and the ones that have happened across the United States.
Obviously marching as a form of protest is something very valuable to BLM and its various chapters, but following the Women’s March, we hear and read in the news critiques on the viability of marches, and whether they are in fact still the most effective form of protest. What are your thoughts?
Every single form of protest is going to be strategic to whatever the goals are. Marches are something that we have used, but I think in Toronto we’ve only used it, maybe once, as the grandest tactic of a particular action. Sometimes you need to really do an analysis about what your goals are and what type of action is going to help with that goal. I think for a symbolic action, if we’re talking about the Women’s March, that marching really does achieve that goal.
Can you talk a bit about how Black Lives Matter uses social media?
Social media is a huge, huge part of the way that we organize because we need to reach a mass audience to make policy changes, to pressure people who normally wouldn’t make the changes that we want to see make those changes. When you’re trying to communicate something with traditional media, it’s filtered through a medium and the person who’s controlling that medium and then to the audience who’s receiving that message, which can sometimes be a game of broken telephone. What we’ve done is created our own medium through social media so that we can make sure that—at least on our side—the communication that we’re putting out there is exactly the way we want it. We’ve been really successful with that, we’re really happy.
Different activism movements have in the past come together—an example is when people marched outside of City Hall against the Jian Ghomeshi verdict and then up to the police headquarters and met up with Black Lives Matter. How can movements support each other in that way? Is joining up two different protests the most effective way? What are other ways you can, as a member of one movement, support another movement without a physical presence?
I think that if you really distill a lot of our movements and the reasons why people are agitating in the way that they do, you’ll find that there is something that is common. If we’re talking about sexual assault for example, the way that sexual assault affects people of colour, Black people, Indigenous people is different. If you want to truly get at the heart of that issue, you’re going to need to engage in that—engage with Indigenous people, with Black people, and so on. A lot of these movements very naturally have a place where people can come together and join together to create stronger fights and stronger linkages for what we are calling for.
When you find resistance from movements, what’s the next step? An example being the Black Lives Matter sit-in at Pride last year.
There wasn’t a lot of push back in the way that certain media reports want to make it seem. The Pride annual general meeting overwhelmingly—and that’s not Black Lives Matter—voted to adopt all our demands. So that means that there’s an undercurrent of a movement that was already there. Of course there was quite a bit of backlash outside the queer and trans community, and in mainstream media for sure—especially from the white community within the queer community. It’s difficult, but it means that there are people within these communities that really need these types of movements and advocacy to happen. I’m unapologetic about the action that we took because it is going to improve the experience of Pride for so many people who have been demanding these things for years, assuming that Pride follows through with what the membership has asked for.
As an activist, how do you practice self-care? If you’re constantly engaging with these issues and immersing yourself into them 24/7, how do you take care of yourself physically and mentally?
Well, for me, my activism is a form of self-care. I need to work on these things, I need to believe that there is a possibility of changing the world and winning the things that I would like to see for my community, for my family, for society. Working on these things, knowing that I’m getting closer to that goal, is a part of self-care for me. Also, sometimes you just need to move aside, read a book, go to sleep, you know, do “normal” things, or things that feel normal to me. Because it doesn’t feel normal to always be hit with vitriol for saying, “I just want to be able to live with dignity.”
When you find yourself feeling hopeless or it’s like a lost cause, how do you motivate yourself to keep going?
Well, I think I’m very rarely ever hopeless, but during Tent City I was exhausted. When it felt like I had nothing left to give, I would look around at Tent City and all the people who had gathered at police headquarters, who had slept night after night in freezing cold weather and who would be holding each other and singing and dancing, and I was re-energized. It’s the community, and the movement that forms around that community, that really inspires me, gives me the energy to keep going.
What are your thoughts on allyship? What can white women tell other white people, or how can white people take on or absorb some of the burden or work?
It’s just that: it’s conversations and it’s explaining things to the people who are closest to you and not closest to you, it’s the people around you who you spend time with, who you hear something that they said. The burden is really on all of us if we’re going to try to change society, and I think that white folks have a lot of work to do in their communities. Look at the political environment we find ourselves in in this world today, white supremacy is on the rise. Violent white supremacy is on the rise. White folks are going to be so much more effective at talking to one another about that issue and changing what’s going on within that subculture, and I don’t want to waste my time focusing on that when I have so many things to focus on within my own community.
What responsibility do we have as Canadians to participate in activism?
I think right now we’re—I don’t want to say “as a nation” or “collectively” in any sort of way because it’s a very divisive time—but some of us are going through a critical place right now, considering what happened recently in Quebec [Canada]. And as a result of that, we are seeing a lot of activism, we are seeing a lot of folks from these communities, and I pluralize it because many of us relate to, or connect to, or are being impacted by what happened in different ways, whether we identify as Muslim, were raised Muslim, if we are from one of the seven banned countries, or if we might appear as if we come from one of the seven banned countries. And as a result of that, a lot of us are in a critical space where we’re trying to create healing. We’re trying to get together, we’re trying to have discourses, and we’re also trying to figure out how to move forward from this. That is activism in itself, we can title that activism, or we can also identify it as just trying to survive.
What do you urge others to start doing to maintain true allyship with Black and Muslim communities, even small things we can do?
I feel like I’m going to say this over and over again, but I have a lot of strange relationships with a lot of words, like ‘allyship,’ and I don’t know if I completely believe in the concept. But if you were to try to act as an ally or be an ally, I think the first thing is knowledge and knowing who you are and what that means—in this particular moment, but also in general, in this society and this state. Having a deep understanding and knowledge of the historical implications of who you are and why you get to navigate the world the way you do, versus other folks like myself, who might not be able to. Figure it out on your own and understand that you shouldn’t go to folks, either Black or Muslim folks, trying to learn those things.
Also, in the past couple of days a lot of people have been asking me, primarily through social media, “How can I be an ally right now? What can I do, what sort of things need to be done, what space can I create, where can I donate money?” Again, this is information that you can go and find yourself. You’re asking a Black Muslim woman in that moment who is suffering as a Black Muslim woman from Somalia, knowing that my identity is under attack—and is perpetually under attack, but particularly in this moment—you are asking me to participate in labour that you can do yourself as an ally. You can figure those things out by yourself—don’t depend on people like me for answers.
I think another crucial part of allyship, in any form, involves money—if you have money, do something with it. I know multiple communities creating spaces of healing right now—go give them your money. Help them out, that’s the last thing they need to be figuring out.
One of the previous participants spoke about recognizing your own imperfections with allyship, like where you have failed as an ally, or wronged someone, and how you can move forward from that. Do you want to speak to that a little bit?
I think a big component of allyship is guilt, and I think that we need to start articulating guilt in a certain way. Guilt tends to mean that there’s some part of you that has done something wrong, you’re not doing anything at all, or you’re not doing enough. A significant part of being an ally is interrogating that guilt, and trying to articulate, on your own, what is it that’s missing right now?
If you make a mistake as an ally, it’s something that you recognize there and then in that moment. You need to interrogate that and do the work of figuring it out on your own, like, “What was the mistake I made, why was it wrong, and how can I correct this?” I think sometimes the biggest mistake that people make when a mistake is made as an ‘ally’ is, “I apologize, I apologize, I’m so sorry!” or, “I did this!” and in that moment you’re technically unloading the guilt onto that other person to figure out and juggle and navigate. Keep that shit to yourself and figure it out. Figure out how you can correct it, how you can do better next time. Being an ally, no one expects you to be perfect, right? We all encompass power in some way or another. Daily, hourly, as often as you can, you need to be checking yourself as to how I might be replicating this power, how I might be participating in this power, what am I doing with this power.
What are your self-care practices?
I’m still figuring that out, I think I’m still learning what self-care looks like for me. I think in the past, it’s been basically just taking time off of work or school, sitting in front of Netflix and eating a bunch of junk food and just having time to myself. Maybe turning to friends, being around folks like me, engaging in dialogue and discourse.
Sometimes, I’m realizing especially from the past week, that that might not necessarily be working the best for me. I mean, self-care looks different for everybody. Self-care can be going to the gym, it could be going for a walk, it could be listening to music, making music, crying, fucking, it could be anything. But, I think it’s important to locate what it is that particularly works for you as an individual. I’m still, straight-up, trying to figure out what it is for me, or what it looks like for me.
With corporations getting involved in social responsibility things (like #BellLetsTalk, Lyft), obviously it’s very performative and everything like that has a financial motive behind it. But, as a consumer, how do you respond to those things? Are you deleting Uber, are you going to be looking for alternative ride-sharing services?
So the #DeleteUber thing I thought was interesting. I understood the motives behind it, I deleted Uber after that, a lot of friends around me deleted Uber after that, but I think an important conversation that stemmed from that, or needs to stem from that, is understanding also like, there’s a privilege associated with that, too.
I live in an area that’s relatively safe, whatever the hell that means, TTC-accessible, and I have ample methods or ways of getting home, so I was in a place and position to be able to delete Uber. If someone were a young Black trans woman living somewhere in the city who needs Uber for affordable ways to get home, that’s not really an option and them deciding not to delete that, I don’t think that’s necessarily not being in solidarity—you have to also consider your own livelihood, right?
Lyft, I noticed, just a couple days ago, I’m pretty sure a bunch of us got the email, but they totally rode off that. They saw that Uber, their primary competitor, especially in the US, was just falling under. Everyone was just like, “Fuck this company, no longer relying on it.” And then whoosh Lyft just jumped in like, “This is the perfect opportunity to do some branding, do some whack-ass capitalistic shit, and email anyone”. Once I remember signing up for Lyft, I think a year ago, not knowing that it wasn’t available in Toronto, and I guess they still had my contact information on file, and I got an email. I didn’t even end up reading all of it, but it was whack shit. It was just like, “We’re here, we’re against division and we’re about unity,” and like all this language that was like straight-up branding, basically saying, “Sign up with us and give us your money, because we didn’t fuck up like Uber did.”
There’s often this sentiment that art created at threatening and frightening times (like we are living in now) will be at its most powerful and best. How do you navigate the sense of needing to create, write, perform, and also needing to take care of yourself? What are some of your favourite methods of self-care?
One of my favourite methods of self-care is not creating, not performing, not giving myself to the public. It’s certainly true, I think, that our art is at its best or its most powerful when created in times of duress. I also think that self-care is most important, and the ability to say no is essential. When pressure is so intense, one of my favourite things to do to take care of myself is to go home and not perform. It’s to spend an hour meditating and not on the computer, not answering emails, not in an organizing space, not in a protest. Our bodies are on the line every day. I’m a trans woman of colour—I’m in danger every day. Going to work, being on the metro, that is my activism. Living is my activism. Preserving my own life is activism. And I deserve that, we all deserve this—to do nothing but be at home with ourselves and one with our bodies, so that we have the energy and the power to step forward and join the fight when we must.
How do you think activists can channel feelings, frustrations and more into their work and art? What does this mean for you and your work?
I think the most essential piece of art-making for activism is truth. I’ve quoted the poet John Keats before and I’ll do it again: “Truth is beauty and beauty is truth and that is all you need to know.” And when it comes to my own art practice, I think that means facing the ugly truths within myself, the truths that are not always so beautiful—the ways in which my activism is imperfect, the ways in which my self-care is imperfect, the people I have failed to protect, the analyses I’ve failed to have in the right moments. When we can do that, when we can tell the truth about that, we become capable of telling the truth about everything. We become capable of exposing the lies and the misinformation that is so characteristic of the era we now live in, in which pretty much every politician and mainstream news outlet is telling us complete fabrications. We need to know the truth that resides in the centre of our cells. We need to be able to centre our own realities and bring them into the world, with all the courage and all the pain that that entails. So when we become capable of that, then we become capable of anything.
You wrote of the narrative of the “doomed trans woman.” How can activist spaces do better to protect Black and Indigenous trans women, and trans women of colour?
I think this is a very important question. You know, I’ve really worked to refute the idea of the “doomed trans woman,” so my novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, is about a vigilante girl gang of trans women who decide enough is enough after one of their sisters is murdered, and they go out and beat up straight girls for fun (and end up killing some cops along the way). This is my contribution to my idea that trans women are powerful, that trans women of colour are dangerous and full of vitality, and that vitality and danger is what is necessary in a time that is so desperate, in a time that so, really, really, desperately calls out for change—the power of trans women to survive and to fight is what we need. To foster that, to bring that into the centre of their spaces—of our spaces—activist circles need to start thinking about making hard choices, about funnelling resources and time to trans women, to bring them into as much a space of economic and psychological security.
That means paying trans women for our work, that means protecting trans women, that means giving up space and airtime so that trans women can speak and be seen and be heard, and on our terms, not just say the messages that activist organizations think might be helpful for them, might bring funding into the right places. Trans women need also to be given control of that funding, need to be given control and agency of our own lives and the programming that is directed toward us. I think activist spaces have to make a choice about what’s really important to them—is that Black and Indigenous trans women and trans women of colour? Or is it someone else?
How did you get into activism?
I’m becoming more involved in autism advocacy, both on campus at U of T St. George—where I’m completing my double major in psychology and international relations—and within the GTA.
My brother’s actually on the autism spectrum, and what I realized over the summer after taking part in autism research, is that there’s not a lot going on for people who are more on the “low-functioning side.” So over the summer, we decided to start a club at the university to advocate for people who otherwise wouldn’t receive the same advocacy and discuss the limitations on parents and people on the spectrum.
Can you explain what the spectrum is?
The autism spectrum refers to the spectrum of autism disorder, or autism conditions, and it’s reflective of the idea that no two cases of autism are exactly the same. It shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as, “Oh, there’s low-functioning and high-functioning autism,” because you can have people with high-functioning autism who have a lot of difficulty with just social communication, whereas you can have people with low-functioning autism—people who might be nonverbal, have trouble with communicative language—very much crave being in social situations.
This summer, we decided to start the University of Toronto Coalition for Autism Research, which is meant to increase awareness about the lack of research for people who are considered to be “low-functioning” with autism, people who are nonverbal, people who would otherwise be funnelled out of the school system fairly early into special education classrooms, and might not otherwise get the opportunities that they deserve.
With a condition like autism that is so variable from person to person, how do we create a model for a movement that includes everyone?
I think the first step is to actually make autism a topic of discussion, and to make people feel comfortable talking about autism without changing the subject—or the idea that “I don’t know enough about autism, I’m not in science, I don’t know the neurology behind it.” Autism affects approximately 1 in 68 people now, and so, almost everyone you know does know someone else with autism. We’ve all come into contact with people with autism whether we know it or not, and being able to talk about it openly and freely, and being able to empathize with the experiences of parents, with the experiences of people on the spectrum themselves, is the first step. So, that’s why I think that it shouldn’t be funds-based, it should be awareness-based when it comes to creating the model.
You do a lot of work organizing with the Young Communist League of Canada, which makes several appearances at major Toronto protests. I once saw them carrying a sign reading, “There is no racial equality without economic equality,” can you speak a little more on what that means?
I think as a woman of colour I was attracted to Marxist organizing because of the fact that it’s so inclusive to a lot of groups. But I think a lot of the times—and there’s a lot of history in the past where Marxist spaces and Marxist organizing spaces have been predominantly white men, and they’re really dismissive of sort of the racial aspects in regards to organizing—some Marxist spaces are really dismissive of identity politics.
Identity politics can definitely be counterproductive in some aspects, but at the same time, within Marxist organizing specifically, it’s important to not be dismissive of movements such as Black Lives Matter, or other organizing in regards to challenging the oppression of other ethnic minorities. So I think first, when we talk about economic equality, we have to make sure that we’re not just organizing for equality for white people. So for example, when we talk about wage inequality and the white man’s dollar to the white woman’s dollar—the white woman makes 77 cents to the white man’s dollar—but what about Black women? What about Latina women? What about Indigenous women? How much do they make to the white woman’s dollar? So I think first we definitely have to organize around the fact that we need to talk about racial inequality in order to have a successful and a productive Marxist, socialist, communist organizing space.
How does your work with the YCL respond to recent rises in fascism like in the States and Europe?
With the Young Communist League—specifically in Hamilton, which is the faction I am a part of—we respond to a lot of fascist instances on campus. For example, there was a room booking in McMaster where somebody booked it under ‘KKK’ and anti-immigration posters looking to protect “white identity” have been pasted in Hamilton. So the Young Communist League, as well as a lot of other allies on our campus, created these anti-fascist posters, and posted them around our university to encourage a dialogue with students on campus as to why is fascism rising. Why is it becoming so prevalent within today’s context? I feel that it’s very important to have this sort of dialogue, but also to challenge these notions.
Could you share why this movement attracted you so much and how it shapes the way you organize?
I think one of the reasons why socialism really spoke out to me and resonated with me was because of my socioeconomic background. And once I started organizing with the Young Communist League, specifically in Hamilton, a lot of my comrades would sit with me and go through communist literature with me. And while reading it, I would be like, “Hey, these are really plausible solutions for the decaying system of capitalism.” And then I started to ask myself, “Is capitalism really a sustainable economic system that caters to a lot of people?” And I realized that capitalism specifically, for ethnic minorities, is not a plausible system and there’s a lot people who suffer from it and are exploited and are continuously oppressed by it in the global north, as well as having implications in the global south.
The work you do is pretty intense. What are some methods of self-care that you employ to kind of help you be centred with this work?
That’s a really good question, and I was asked this a few weeks ago. For me, self-care is really important as an activist because a lot of the work that I do involves a lot of physical and emotional labour, and sometimes my mental health can play an aspect in that where I would have to take breaks from my organizing because it can be really intensive. Constantly fighting fascism within the GTA specifically and other forms of oppression as a woman of colour, and because of my socioeconomic background—it gets really tiring sometimes, and I can’t always challenge these oppressive systems.
So I would take part of self-care—not in the neo-liberal sense where I’m constantly going to do my nails or getting an expensive facial—self-care for me is doing things that make me feel good and restore my sense of self. So whether it would be reading literature that I enjoy, having a movie marathon (specifically Studio Ghibli films)—that’s essentially what I do in forms of self-care, and hanging out with my friends who make me feel good.