The Word on The Street: A Reflection on Writing and Community

Written by: Vivian Li

The Word on the Street (WOTS), Toronto’s Book and Magazine Festival, is an annual fall event showcasing authors, publishers, and performers at Harbourfront Centre. This year, the marketplace tents were set up for Sunday September 22, from 10 am to 5 pm. I attended a cool panel and had the honor of tabling (for the first time!) for Augur magazine, a speculative online and print magazine. I originally thought it was going to be a glamorous experience (since people were eager to answer my questions whenever I stopped by booths in other festivals), but I was surprised by how hot it was even underneath the white tents and I became very sleepy. Still, I had a great time and met so many cool people!

During my break, I also attended a discussion session about Empire of the Wild, a novel with elements of the traditional Métis story of the Rogarou, by Cherie Dimaline. I really enjoyed the panel (it was really engaging and I laughed a lot!) and I was especially drawn to one of the points she made. She said that some stories are repeated word for word because they represent one’s history and map one’s culture, but other stories can be told with changes and incorporate other tales to show that one has learned its moral or understood its themes.

Picture of a notebook ONE OF MY FAVORITE NOTEBOOK COVERS WITH MY PEN OF CHOICE!

Showing up to literary events like WOTS made me realize the numerous reasons and ways people decide to put their pen to the page. Sometimes it could be a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings [with] emotions recollected in tranquility” (Wordsworth) but other times it can begin with an interest in the sound of words. For now, my writing impetus involves facing the darkness and also gives me time to become “friends” (or at least acquaintances) with some of the spiraling thoughts within me.

Toronto is really an amazing space with literary events happening every week, and I’m often overwhelmed with the number of choices. This year, I want to try attending every large event, starting with the International Festival of Authors! I’m also planning to go to events with friends (to make it slightly less scary and to keep me accountable).

Writing can often be an isolating and solitary experience, so it’s always great to get out there and meet people who care so much about sharing and preserving stories! It’s definitely hard to find time to attend literary events, especially with my academic and extracurricular commitments, but I feel re-energized after speaking to people and the energy in the room often sparks my imagination, propelling my desire to write.

Reflecting on the Future: Alternative Reading Week Project Leader Training

Written by: Vivian Li

I really loved my experience with Alternative Reading Week (ARW) last year, so I decided to get more involved with ARW by becoming a project leader. In preparation for the three-day volunteer event in November, I attended an orientation session on Saturday. We talked about equity, privilege, and allyship, as well as how we can help students in our team feel like they belong. The training was very hands-on and it was interesting to see ARW from behind-the-scenes, as well, it also gave me a lot of ideas about how I can approach future event planning initiatives!

Project leader presentation                                                      EQUALITY, EQUITY, AND LIBERATION

One of the most interesting moments of the training was when we got into groups and drew the traits of an ideal project leader. For my team, we thought that listening (represented by large ears) encouragement (we gave our imaginary project leader a thumbs up on her shirt), positivity (a large smile), and juggling multiple things was important for a project leader (we considered drawing multiple arms but decided against it). Some other groups talked about having being caring (a large heart), observant (dark, peering eyes), and prepared (with a fanny pack).

Project leader orientation presentation                                         TRAITS OF GOOD PROJECT LEADERS

We also looked over different projects, wrote down our top three choices, and made a skit based on what we’ll be doing in the future! For example, one of the teams demonstrated the worst situation possible, which left the project leader all alone, while the other team represented the worst and best situations when contacting community partners. Some take-aways for me is that it’s really important to ensure that everyone participating knows what they’ll be doing beforehand, that the students are comfortable with each other, and that (more practically), emailing community partners during the evening will make sure your message comes up first for them the next morning.

Project Leader presentation on next steps                   WHAT ARE YOUR NEXT STEPS WITH COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT?

However, for me, one of the most important moments was when it was time to reflect. We were given small notebooks to write a letter from ourselves in the present to us in the future about what we want to learn by next February, but my letter somehow became one from a far-away future directed towards who I wish to be in February. I’ve always been a sensitive person and I’ve been having trouble handling my emotions, schoolwork, and family relationships recently. I’m also struggling to learn how to care for and love myself unconditionally (even on my worst days). So it was very important for me to talk about the future having a future, and including everything that I love to do in it when I’m in a stable state. I signed it, “Warmest wishes and with LOTS of love, Vivian :).” I hope that by taking little steps like these, I’ll be able to shift something within me.

Sketching the Stories of Planets: Community Action Projects (CAPs) Orientation

Written by: Vivian Li

On September 13, 2019, I attended the Community Action Projects (CAPs) Orientation for Story Planet, an organization that combines literacy, art, and drama to engage children as well as youth in under-resourced schools. CAPs are opportunities for students to volunteer at and learn from non-profit organizations as well as to explore new communities, potential career paths, and to develop communication skills. Although I came in wanting to meet new people and to understand Story Planet’s goals, I ended up leaving with an interesting model, a cool new icebreaker idea, and more insight on reflection!

We started off the orientation with a quick game of “Human Bingo,” a way to get to know each other through statements (ex. “I love Samoyeds”), which were laid out as squares on a 4×5 grid. Afterwards, we discussed what community engaged learning was, talked about the difference between equity and equality, and chatted with a representative from Story Planet.

Two girls reading a book                        READING ABOUT CRAZY ADVENTURES IN STORY PLANET

By the way, if you’re interested in checking out more CAPs opportunities, including the SciHigh program at Mount Sinai Hospital and the City Adult Learning Centre with the Toronto District School Board, you can register on the CCP website (the next session is October 25, 5 – 7 p.m)!

I learned a lot in the two hours, but here are my top three takeaways from the experience:

  • The importance of asset-based community development when interacting with organizations. For instance, challenging us (the outsiders) to view a community in terms of its strengths rather than its weaknesses.
Community Engaged Learning: Preparation, Engagement, and Reflection                                  STEPS TO LEARNING AND ENGAGING WITH COMMUNITIES
  • The Derpy Dog exercise! The goal of the activity was to promote a growth mindset, to push past any innate resistance, and essentially draw a derpy dog in 30 seconds. After we finished, we passed our papers to a student to our left and drew another dog. Then, we passed the papers again and drew a human owner. It was a little stressful as the facilitator started counting down and had a timer! I definitely had trouble drawing the body of my dogs but it was fun to make a narrative for the pets and the owner. I named them Boopy, Choopy, and Jimmy respectively. Unfortunately, I don’t have photos as they’re quite shy!
Powerpoint presentation of Reciprocal Model    CHALLENGING ASSUMPTIONS, WORKING OUT A WIN-WIN SITUATION FOR BOTH PARTIES
  • From the reflection portion, this quote from John Dewey really struck me: “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” It prompted me to reflect on the reason I was taking my courses, as well as to think about why I wish to become a writer and musician. Other questions started to come up: how can what I’m doing right now help get me where I want to go? And what skills do I want to learn from this experience and from my extracurriculars?

My goals this year as a potential volunteer at Story Planet are to become more verbally communicative, practice my artistic abilities, and learn to be more patient. As well, I wish to try facilitating (small!) workshops and engage with drama and playwriting. In essence, I’m really looking forward to my next steps with Story Planet and to future collaborations with the community!

Community Engagement at U of T and Beyond

Written by: Vivian Li

Hi everyone! My name is Vivian and I’m the new Centre of Community Partnerships (CCP) blogger this year. In this post, I’ll be writing about why/ how I got involved with CCP and why I wanted to be a blogger for the centre.

As an English and Philosophy Major, many of my courses are very intriguing but at the same time are mainly theoretical. While I improved in writing essays and conveying my thoughts on paper, I felt that I withheld the same amount of attention to my verbal communication, especially in front of groups. Last year, I really wanted to develop as an orator as well as to connect more to the community. Participating in Alternative Reading Week was a bit scary at first, but I really loved my team and had a lot of fun creating a podcast! It was really inspiring to see the team work together and research, script, and record everything within a few days. After my experience there, I realized I really wanted to be more engaged with CCP and connect to more people who cared about social justice.

When I saw the CCP Blogger and Social Media Assistant work study posting, I felt that I’d be able to develop some skills I already have and also get to know other projects happening in U of T and other communities. I also wanted to challenge myself to write for a different audience, as I’m often writing academic essays or stories and poems. At the same time, I knew that I wanted to build communities in the future and connect to people through art. This summer I was assisting an artist who led a series of workshops on African Vegan Art at a community centre servicing new immigrants and refugees. Over a period of two months, I got to know the people who came regularly to our program, and the room became a safe space for sharing languages and culture, especially music. I’m interested in combining my passion for the arts with community engagement, and I’m looking forward to the orientation for one of the Community Action Projects (CAPs) called Story Planet! Community Action Projects (CAPs) are long-term volunteer opportunities with local non-profit and public sector organizations in the City of Toronto. Story Planet engages youth and children with creativity, art, and literacy in an inclusive environment.

It’s my last year at U of T, and one of my goals this year is to leave behind positive changes. As such, I look forward to learning from other people, improving my writing, and helping people create more spaces that are safe and service others.

CEI Grant: Find Your Path

Written by Tuli Chowdhury

Almost 1 in 4 black students in Toronto drop out of high school. In 2011, Dr Karen Robson at the University of McMaster studied five years of data on race and academic achievement from the Toronto District school board. Results showed that black students had the lowest grades compared to any racial group and were disproportionately represented in applied and special education programs. Only 49% of black students were placed in the academic stream compared to 77% of white students – this means that more than half of the black students in Toronto could never apply to university, even if they wanted to (Verma 2018).

In order to help address the low graduation rates and post-secondary matriculation rates among Black students, we created Find Your Path in 2019 while in high school. Find Your Path is a student-run non-profit organization that aims to help marginalized youth reach their academic potential through the coordination of engaging, restorative educational programing and a scholarship fund. Thanks to funding from the University of Toronto, the Yale University Afro-American Cultural Centre and Eyitayo F. Dada Law, this year we were able to embark on our fourth year of embracing ethnic diversity to help bridge gaps in student achievement as part of the movement for black educational empowerment in Toronto. Our Afrocentric Summer Mentorship & Enrichment Program ran for four weeks at the Rexdale Community Hub during August 2019 serving a total of 28 youth and delivering 2 scholarships. The goal of the program was to increase participant self-confidence and academic engagement so that they are more likely to act in accordance with high academic and professional goals.

The youth participated in weekly experiential learning modules, that drew on African-centred sources of knowledge, covering the four disciplines of: entrepreneurship, medicine, history and civics. For each theme, a successful black professional/expert who was well-versed on the often-neglected African contributions in their discipline, spoke to the youth about their journey. Students were paired with mentors of colour who were current university (undergraduate and PhD), college, medical and law school students. Mentors walked students through fun, thought-provoking Afrocentric academic activities in each of the disciplines in addition to leading discussions on growth mindsets, goal-setting and overcoming barriers.

Our 2019 scholarship winners were Anita Anning and Faizo Mayow, graduating students who will be attending York University and George Brown College in the fall, respectively. They stood out among the applications we received because of their academic excellence and commitment to supporting their communities. We were so happy to award them each with $350 to support them in their exciting and inspirational educational journey as the first in their families to receive a post-secondary education. Both were also able to benefit from the mentoring discussions and insightful speeches in the final day of the enrichment program.

The program began with the theme of entrepreneurship which included an insightful workshop from Chris ‘Mr. Inspired’ Duff, a local entrepreneur and owner of Inspired Initiatives: an innovative consulting firm on a mission to build solutions that level the playing field for marginalized communities and help people in need, which offers a range of services including helping young people monetize their passions. Participants also had the opportunity to compete in an entrepreneurship cup where they designed their own business plans. Mentors led participants in discussions on growth and fixed mindsets.

The theme of the second day was medicine, where the vice-president of the Black Physicians of Ontario, Dr. Andrew Thomas, spoke to the students about his educational and professional journey including attending medical school at a HBCU.  Students participated in a family medicine workshop where they were taught the importance of primary care, explored the implications of the shortage of black male doctors and tried their hand at diagnosing patients through testing reflexes, checking blood pressures and using an otoscope. A lucky few also got the chance to practice suturing on a banana! Mentor pods discussed strategies for overcoming fears and challenges using Maya Angelou’s poetry.

The third day centered on history and included our very first field trip. We partnered with the amazingly talented Jacqueline Scott- a historian and PhD student, who led participants on a black history tour of downtown Toronto focusing on murals, monuments and spaces pertaining to Black influences on the city and country. Mentors also took the time to discuss how they have learnt from their mistakes and how the students can too.

Our fourth and final day began with our keynote speaker, Yale alum and New Haven Alderman, Albert Lucas, who joined us virtually and shared his words of wisdom on civics and giving back to the community. We then showcased local talent through a spoken word performance on how art can lead to self-growth followed by a poetry-writing workshop led by guest Brian Osei-Boateng.  Participants then walked through a series of academic goal-setting activities looking to our mentors as models for setting and achieving high goals. We concluded by giving participants certificates of achievement with unique superlative awards. Finally, we had closing remarks delivered by our long-standing cheerleader and supporter, Eyitayo Dada.

If you would like to learn more or support our work through volunteering or donating, please check us out here: www.fypcanada.com

 

References Cited
Verma, Sonia. “Black Students Still Face Major Hurdles Getting into University.” Brighter  World, 1 May, 2018, https://brighterworld.mcmaster.ca/articles/black-students-still-face-major-hurdles-getting-into-university/

CEI Grant: LAMP Community Health Centre

Written by Rachael Gustave

Members of the South Etobicoke/Lakeshore community have been active in their affordable housing advocacy efforts after seeing increasing barriers to accessing housing. Recent patterns of gentrification and urban renewal in this mixed income community has left long time residents priced out of the current rental market in South Etobicoke. Within the last year, recent trends in Toronto’s rental housing market had amplified impacts on vulnerable groups such as low income residents, newcomers and youth, who have sought support from local service provider agencies to address the impacts of reno-evictions, skyrottening rental prices, and harassment from landlords.

In response to growing community concern, LAMP Community Health Centre became a safe space for residents to voice their concerns and priorities for housing in the neighbourhood. This collective concern had materialized into a neighbourhood housing advocacy and action group that meets monthly to address a local housing strategy.

While a collective vision for affordable housing had been blooming through the community’s recent housing initiatives, input from local youth–those of whom make up a significant part of South Etobicoke/Lakeshore–was largely absent from the conversation. This is where my volunteer involvement with LAMP CHC kicks into gear, as we sought to find avenues to mobilize youth for the ongoing affordable housing initiative.

The 2019 Lakeshore Affordable Housing Youth Round Table was a youth led community initiative aimed to develop a network of local youth who are dedicated to community development and achieving solutions to the affordable housing crisis that includes the needs of all members. Working with a small team of local youth, we were determined to find out how the diverse group of students from the nearby college our impacted by the community’s housing plans.

Through this event, residents had the opportunity to share their experiences with housing in Toronto, gain insights from the most recent statistics and facts about housing, and begin to identify sustainable strategies that will fill the housing demand. The evening featured young professionals involved with advocacy and housing services sharing their experiences about the current rental climate in South Etobicoke. Our keynote speaker from the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO) broke down important info about Toronto’s current housing market and options for individuals seeking housing. Local youth discussed their experiences accessing housing and changes they would like to see within their community. Through this dialogue, we found that these local residents want the following in their community:

  1. housing affordability: affordable rents through equitable housing programs such as subsidized housing and maintained rent controls
  2. housing accessibility: housing that is livable for people regardless of their health circumstances
  3. anti-racist & non-discriminatory rental practices: a community of landowners and residents that understand, respect, and value diversity
  4. inclusionary zoning: affordable units available in all new housing developments
  5. collaborative planning: collaborative planning that supports the needs of citizens and other stakeholders
  6. shelter spaces: emergency, short term and long term shelters with adequate support resources
  7. supportive housing models: assisted living support for people with personal and care needs
  8. livable conditions & environmental sustainabilty: housing developments that are well-maintained and safe for the community
  9. diverse housing models: living arrangements that support both traditional and nontraditional households
  10. effective avenues to home ownership: supports for individuals and groups wanting to purchase a home. e.g. co-ownership and rent-to-own programs

It’s important that every person’s voice be heard and included in decisions that will affect their lives. The 2019 Lakeshore Affordable Housing Youth Round Table was an effort to inspire youth towards a vision for an affordable, livable community, where all community members have equitable access to public goods including housing, education and social services. This should be our standard for progress in society.