CEI Grant: Students For Change/Sister Writes

Stories are powerful. They reflect what we value, they reflect what we believe in, and they reflect what we strive for. Stories can also produce and reproduce socially accepted values and expectations; consequently, they often act as tools that spread sexist, homophobic, racist, or xenophobic ideologies in society. To challenge such hegemonic norms, Students for Change (SFC), a gender-equity focused club at the University of Toronto (UofT) that advocates for the rights of women and gender minorities, held a writing workshop that provided a platform for participants to tell the stories that explore intersectional feminism and challenge mainstream gender stereotypes.

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For the past few years, SFC has been partnering with Sister Writes, a Toronto based creative writing and literacy program that empowers women affected by homelessness, mental health issues, or any other extraordinary circumstances. Our writing workshop was held in collaboration with Sister Writes to engage community members and UofT students in writing fiction and non-fiction works pertaining to feminist issues and it was made possible with the Community Engaged Initiatives Grant. Through the workshop, we hoped to inspire participants to pick up the pen and paper share their stories and have their voices be heard in our community.

Our workshop was held in the warm and cozy Hart House Library and was facilitated by the Sister Writes founder, Lauren Kirshner, and instructor, Donna Reid. We had diverse group of 30 participants at the workshop, where roughly half were community members and the remaining were UofT students. Some of the exercises we carried out during the workshop included jolting down all of the random thoughts in our mind without sparing any details, discussing with a partner some of our proudest and disappointed moments in our lives, and sharing with the group our aspirations and fears in the writing. These exercises allowed us to flesh out stories that we were too ashamed or too afraid to share and gave us more clarity in understanding our own experiences as well as the experiences of other members in the community. After the workshop, we held a reception where participants continued to reflect and discuss some of the exercises in the workshop and what they had learned from each other.

Overall, we were moved by how the participants allowed themselves to be vulnerable and vocal during the event by sharing stories that were often marginalized and unheard of. As executives of SFC, we believe that the stories enable a new way of thinking about and understanding the experiences faced by female identifying, POC, queer, and disabled members of our community. If we strive for gender equity, our stories need to continue engaging and challenging people, not just in their minds, but in their emotions and values, about the role and importance of feminism in their lives.

Thank you to CCP for their support with our writing workshop. Thank you to Sister Writes’ Lauren Kirshner and Donna Reid for facilitating the lovely and insightful workshop. And finally, thank you to our all participants for opening up and sharing their stories with the rest of the group; we hope that you continue writing and sharing your experiences with the community as a vessel for social change.

–     SFC Executive team

Click here learn more about our Community-Engaged Initiatives Grant

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CEI Grant: Musical Minds!

Musical Minds Community Outreach is a student-driven organization at the University of Toronto that offers free music lessons and mentorship to kids and youth in the Toronto community who may not have the means or opportunity to learn music. Many of our kids come from at-risk communities, and face backgrounds of adversity, poverty, refugee/newcomer status and/or face backgrounds of abuse. Our instructors are volunteer music teachers who are pursuing degrees at the University of Toronto, in a variety of fields in undergraduate degrees and beyond. We are so grateful to have so many years of support from the Centre of Community Partnerships at U of T, where our lessons take place on weekends. We also partner with a breadth of city service organizations, for example United Way, Boys and Girls Clubs and newcomer centres to name a few.

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With the support from the CCP, we were able expand and grow our program. This year we were able to enrol 61 kids and youth, taught by 30 instructors. We understand the valuable role of stability that MMCO can bring on a weekly basis to many at-risk youth. One of the biggest challenges in our program is ensuring kids have an instrument to practice on throughout the year. Among other supports, we were able to purchase more keyboards for use by students whose families are unable to rent or buy instruments. We are also grateful to CCP for supporting our end-of-year recital, which gives our students the chance to showcase their hard work over the year. While learning performance skills is part of any musician’s development; working towards a recital fosters life-long skills such as dedication and goal-setting. Our instructors are positive role models – not only are they talented musicians and community advocates, but are pursuing education in a breadth of fields from music, to business, to mathematics, or chemistry, just to name a few. Through 1:1 mentorship with a youth instructor, students learn not only how to play an instrument, but also foster a variety of other qualities. Qualities that this mentorship fosters includes an enthusiasm for learning, using music as an outlet to encourage positive mental health, building confidence, and also learning about the importance of giving back to our community.

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For our instructors, our program encourages development of leadership skills, communication and teamwork skills, and importantly, community advocacy. These practical, real-world skills are invaluable in complementing an instructor’s classroom education and professional development. By working with diverse socioeconomic and cultural communities in Toronto, our instructors gain a first-hand understanding of the complex socioeconomic and cultural conflicts that arise in their own community. In addition, learning to run an outreach organization is a tremendous opportunity for our leadership team. We have learned that ideal leadership in outreach organizations means staying committed to the organization’s underlying objective with commitment to compassionate and supportive relationships with team members and families. Effective leadership in student outreach organizations also implies planning for the future and sustainability of the organization. Student leaders in our team have the opportunity to engage not only with other fellow students but also university faculty and staff, leaders in the community/city service organizations and families in the community – all of whom come from unique backgrounds and cultures.

The CCP has been a keystone partner to MMCO over the years. Undoubtedly, MMCO would not have grown to the organization it is today, without their amazing support!

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Recap: First Community Kitchen-Tuesdays at Hart House

The first community kitchen of the year was a powerful experience. This was the first one I had ever attended, and to be honest, I had no idea what to expect going into it. I walked in armed with a tupperware, a hair tie, and an empty stomach.

We were lucky enough to have Chef Johl of NishDish to introduce us to the Three Sisters stew, and share some of its teachings with us. Johl also shared the story of how he came to open the NishDish restaurant, which serves Indigenous foods and aims to foster a community around their reclamation of food.

We were also introduced to the very important and thought-provoking topic of food sovereignty, and of how food is one of the many things that were forcibly taken away from the Indigenous peoples. Johl shared with us how he is trying to rediscover these stories and recipes and foods now. I was deeply moved by his story, and his passion for what he does – aside from being a phenomenal story teller, the emotion is palpable in his voice when he speaks, and it draws you in.

It was a very different kind of learning to the static form that dominates our classrooms. Something about physically chopping the squash, chopping the beans, and shucking the corn grounded the histories of the ingredients and the dish in a way that made the telling all the more poignant.

I will not attempt to retell what was covered, as it is not my story to tell and I know I could never even hope to do it justice, but Johl has done an interview with Vice regarding the history of Bannock bread, if anyone reading this is curious.

While waiting for the stew to finish cooking, we had the opportunity to listen to Carolynne of FoodShare. She told us about her work there, and we learnt about the importance of having culturally relevant foods available, as well as the food insecurity in the Northern Territories. She also encouraged us to foster our connection with the land. One suggestion she made was to find a “Sit Spot” – somewhere where you would sit, for twenty minutes at a time, and observe the space around you, whenever you were able to do so. This is one thing I’m hoping to be able to incorporate into my life moving forward.

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The food was delicious, the stories fantastic, and the company phenomenal. All in all, a wonderful experience, and I can’t wait until the next one!

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By Yin Yot, CCP Work Study Student, ARW Project Leader Assistant