Soup and Substance: Ryerson’s Campus Climate

soupandsubstance

On February 23rd, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel for the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’s Soup and Substance.  The event discussed campus climate in relation to events both on and off campus, centering the voices and experiences of students.

The panel consisted of 6 students with diverse identities but with the common experience of a hostile and unsafe campus climate at times.  Student groups represented on the panel included: The Trans Collective, Muslim Students’ Association, Indigenous Students’ Association, Feminist Collective and Students Supporting Israel.  There was also a student present who spoke about the experience of having a disability on campus.  Before I go any further, I would like to point out that this selection of student groups did not contribute to a safe space for all students to attend and to participate in the panel.

In my representation of the Feminist Collective, I spoke broadly about the structures of misogyny and sexism, and how those have played out for our members this year.  The events I chose to focus on were the threats against women, feminists and specific departments at the University of Toronto in the fall and the visible emergence of a Men’s Issues group at Ryerson.  I spoke about how these events impacted our collective in general terms with a few specific examples of the harassment we experienced.  While I did not use “I” statements, I’m really glad that fellow panellists did as it demonstrated the ways individual interactions contribute to an unsafe campus climate for students.

In discussions about social justice, both on and off campus, we often discuss the structural nature of individual experiences.  We discuss how addressing racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, Islamaphobia, anti-Semitism, etc. at structural and institutional levels will impact individual experiences.  Many solutions to social injustice are based in eradicating these systems of oppression at systemic levels, as they should be, but this panel reminded me that all of these systems live in individuals.  With that being said, one of the ways we can create a safer campus climate is addressing the individual actions of students and faculty.

While the eradication of oppression needs to happen at a systemic level, there are very simple things individuals can do to change students’ experiences of campus climate.  Eradicating systems of oppression are long and hard-fought battles that will continue beyond our time at Ryerson; I commend all student activists who are fighting to address the heart of the matter which is systems of oppressions entwined in institutions.  Ryerson does not have a shortage of these activists, but if we want to see an improvement of student experience, individuals need to do some reflection and change their behaviours.  During the panel, I heard students share heartbreaking stories of their experiences on campus that ultimately reflect the individual choices of students and faculty in how they will interact with students.

Students with service dogs are being told to leave because their dog is scaring people; students without disabilities are taking the accessible seating in lecture halls and when asked to move, claim they got there first; trans students are being harassed for the clothing they wear and are concerned for their safety when they wear what they want; professors are using incorrect pronouns despite being told of the pronouns individual trans students use; students are being spit on and harassed while holding an event on campus; students with disabilities are being told to use the stairs to access the Student Learning Centre; students with disabilities that impact their vision are being told their eyes are scary; women who wear the hijab are being harassed on their way to class.  This is just a few examples.

All of these experiences which impact campus climate and a sense of safety at Ryerson are the result of individual actions.  While micro and macro manifestations of oppression are inherently related, one can change their individual actions.  Everything I described above manifests from the actions of individual people in the Ryerson community and they can change their actions at any time.

While the eradication of systems of oppression at institutional levels and the liberation of peoples affected by those systems is crucial, we can’t wait for widespread change.  Current students are unsafe now and they are impacted daily by the violence I described above.  A partial solution to a safer school climate lives within the individuals who hold privilege and attend/ work at Ryerson.  Those that hold privilege based on race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion, ability, etc., are making this school unsafe through individual actions.  This is violent, unacceptable and we need to do better as a community at Ryerson.

The Story Behind The Storyteller

The Storyteller Logo

The Storyteller Logo

I think the Internet is full of trolls and it’s not necessarily the safest place to share things, that’s why I love the idea behind The Storyteller.

In a nutshell, The Storyteller is an online platform that gives people the opportunity to speak about things they might not be open about sharing with other people. It is not affiliated to Ryerson or the RSU. The only relation The Storyteller has to Ryerson is that it was started by Ryerson students.

I had the honour of meeting up with the creators of The Storyteller and learning about the inspiration behind it all.

Banner with 'The STORYTELLER' written on it

Banner with ‘The STORYTELLER’ written on it

Trisha Rolfe is a fourth year Child and Youth Care (CYC) student here at Ryerson. She told me that she learned a lot from other people’s stories and that’s why she wanted to start the blog. She’s found that she tends to be a person people come to when they need someone to talk to and it’s made her realize how much she’s learned from being an open ear. She wants to give people an opportunity to learn about aspects of peoples’ lives that they may not necessarily share openly with others. The original plan was to start a blog with her friend however that kept getting pushed back so she just ended up spearheading The Storyteller alone. Now there is a team of four working together to maintain the blog and various other social media sites.

The team! <Jamie Lupie, Kiri Witmer, Trisha Rolfe, Deanna Aguiar>

The team! Jamie Lupia, Kiri Witmer, Trisha Rolfe, Deanna Aguiar

Trisha first recruited her friend Jamie Lupia, a 3rd year student double majoring in creative writing and labour studies at Brock University. Initially, Jamie was just to help with the blog’s illustrations but she eventually started contributing posts based on some of her own experiences as well. She is the one responsible for the beautiful illustrations found throughout the blog. Afterwards, two more CYC students, Kiri Witmer and Deanna Aguiar, joined them.

Around the same time the blog was started Kiri had posted a video talking about her experiences with suicide. Kiri expressed how important it is for people to talk about issues however she felt that she keeps a lot to herself. Trisha saw this video and approached Kiri because she thought that she embodied ideals that would fit well with The Storyteller. Similarly, Trisha approached Deanna as well because she also thought that she would also be a good fit as she is extremely supportive. Each of the four members contribute to the blog in their own way.

Trisha started The Storyteller blog back in April 2015 and it is amazing how much it has grown since then. They have had several events one at Brock University and an open mic night in Niagara as both Trisha and Jamie are originally from there. They also showcased The Storyteller here at Ryerson during the FCS Student Achievement event. Trisha told me that this was her favourite event as there were a lot of people interested in reading stories. Also, it was a great way to bring awareness to our faculty to inspire people to do things outside of the classroom.

The Storyteller booth at the FCS Student Achievement Event at Ryerson University

The Storyteller booth at the FCS Student Achievement Event at Ryerson University

However, the classroom has helped fuel some of the ideas behind The Storyteller as Kiri has told me that they use concepts they’ve learned throughout the CYC program. One extremely important concept being self-care which is something that we can all relate to and should practice. It’s meant to be an outlet for not only sharing experiences but also to educate as well as to be a sort of therapy. The Storyteller also incorporates a strength-based approach because they want to focus on one’s strengths as well as celebrate the challenges or barriers one was able to overcome.

The Storyteller stresses the idea that “You are not alone” and that all of us are The Storytellers. That’s why submissions are strongly encouraged as sharing may find the solution or sharing might very well be the solution. It’s a way for people to get things off their chest so they want your rants! Submissions can be about any topic and in any form of media: stories, poetry, art, songs, etc. You can choose if you want your posts to be anonymous. They will be accepted and shared as long as posts aren’t racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ablist, sanist, or discriminatory in any way. If you’re interested in making a submission click here! 

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OR if you would like to know more or if you would like to contribute in other ways you can email thestorytellerweb@gmail.com or visit any of their social media platforms: the blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

Honouring with Silence, Shouting for Survivors: Discussing the Trans Day of Remembrance

TDOR

Last week, the RSU Trans Collective hosted the event, Honouring with Silence, Shouting for Survivors:  Discussing the Trans Day of Remembrance.  The Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR) takes place yearly on November, 20th.  These days are often marked with vigils to honour those taken by transphobic and transmisogynistic violence.  More recently, these events have moved towards honouring those lost by celebrating their lives.

The event was an opportunity to come together for a meal, panel and discussion about what the Trans Day of Remembrance, what it means, what does it do, what does it fail to do.  The panellists included: ki, Rosalyn Forrester and Jasbinda (Jassie) Sekhon.  All of the panellists spoke eloquently and honestly about their experiences with the Trans Day of Remembrance.  While the panellists come from different places and backgrounds, all expressed complex relationships with the Trans Day of Remembrance, and how this event impacts their communities.

A big contention about Trans Day of Remembrance can be brought forward in a single question; what about the other 364 days of the year?  The City of Toronto held a flag raising this year with councillors speaking to the issue of violence against trans people.  Toronto needs to be talking about this violence more than one day a year and make efforts to prevent these deaths.  Toronto being in allyship is more than raising a flag and gathering once a year, it’s actively dismantling and challenging the systems and culture that allow transphobic and transmisogynistic violence to occur and continue.

With that being said, many losses in the trans community are not from blatant transphobic and transmisogynistic physical violence at the hands of another person.  Many of these losses are at the hands of systemic issues those outside the trans community may fail to see on a daily basis.  Transphobia runs in more than just individuals, it runs in the very systems that dictate peoples’ lives.  Transphobia in systems results in unemployment, poverty, hunger, homelessness, mental health issues, suicide, isolation, etc., all of which kill people.  All of the panellists reiterated the need to honour those who are murdered by systemic issues, not just by individuals.  While these losses to the community occur in different forms, they are lives taken too soon and losses to the community.

Several Trans Day of Remembrance events have moved towards a more celebratory space that focuses on healing.  One of the panellists described Trans Day of Remembrance as a “slit your wrist” type of event, one that is depressing and leaves little hope or healing in a world full of transphobia.  The event also brought up many questions I would encourage my fellow cisgender people to consider when they attend, post or tweet about Trans Day of Remembrance: why do we only talk about trans people when they’re gone?  Why aren’t we celebrating all of the amazing things trans people are doing in the present?  Why are we only centering trans experiences once a year?  Why are we not making changes to prevent these deaths?

It’s time to celebrate, honour, and ally with trans folks for all 365 days of the year, not just one.

It’s a Devastating Thing to Forget

It seems September is always about mixers; a party that every student association wants you to go to and wants you to partake in. Ironically I went to my first mixer in my last year at Ryerson. RyePRIDE, an Equity Service Group, represents the voice of the Queer and Trans community at Ryerson, hosted a mixer this past week as part of the Equity Services Orientation Week. If this mixer is just a taste then I like the way RyePRIDE parties. Dirty bingo with dirty prizes, drag performances by Church St’s Divine Darling, educational trivia, and everyone’s favourite: free condoms and food. The dim lights, loud music, sounds of sex, and group swearing made for an exciting night. And buttons! So what else does a student party need? Rainbow coloured penis shaped shot glasses? They had those too! Unfortunately, I didn’t win anything but I’m hoping they will have those shot glasses at their next event because that’s what I need, and maybe the vibrator.

 
There’s more to RyePRIDE than just fun parties, they are trying to create an inclusive and open community that is safe for all its members and have been doing so since 1977. They make this well known at their events by pointing out that discrimination towards anyone is not tolerated. RyePRIDE works with the Queer and Trans community at large to provide support, advocacy, education, and a little fun for Ryerson students. In addition, RyePRIDE has an open door and ear, so if anyone wants their help they are available for assistance.

 
One support service that Ryerson offers for students is their Crisis line (416-979-5195) and Centre for Student Development and Counseling in Jorgenson 07, where any student can get immediate support if they are in a crisis. There is also a lesbian, gay, bi, and trans youth line (416-962-9688), which is a local crisis line that provides peer support to youth. In addition, the Sherbourne Health Centre (416-324-4180) provides comprehensive health care to the LGBTQ community. The services offered by Ryerson and RyePRIDE came about as a response to the rampant homophobia that plagued Ryerson’s campus in the past which still affects students today.

 

Digging in the Ryerson Library Archives (on the third floor of the library) reveals some horrifying realities. While skimming through 30 years of Ryerson newspaper clippings I found far too numerous accounts of dangerous homophobia on Ryerson’s campus. From the beginning, with the first meeting of the Lesbian and Gay Men’s Club in 1980- which received bomb threats and forced the group underground- you will see a history of hatred that tormented Ryerson. In 1982, the club received a new space in Jorgenson and this was met with vandalism and ultimately set fire to. Throughout the 1980’s, 1990’s and into the 2000’s the queer students of Ryerson were terrorized by peers- verbal harassment, hate mail, threatening phone calls, destruction of queer rights material, and death threats were day-to-day occurrences.

vandals paint gay office in fourth attack this year, dana robbins ryer, apr 6 82In the fall of 1991 the homophobia pot began to boil over with three physical attacks of students on campus. The first, in a library washroom where a female student who was putting up posters for the new Bisexuals, Gays and Lesbians of Ryerson club (BGALOR) was cornered by three girls and assaulted verbally and physically. The second, another female student was physically assaulted by four men outside her classroom after admitting to being gay in a class discussion. Details about the third attack were lost in the files, but needless to say these three attacks were the catalyst that pushed then Ryerson president Terence Grier to initiate a study of the homophobia on Ryerson’s campus. A study led by George Bielmeier, a social work professor and head of the Advisory Committee on Homophobia, which was also created as a response to these attacks.

img002After eight years of research, the study was released and everyone knew the realities of homophobia at Ryerson. The finger was pointed in the direction of business and engineering students, however, all of the faculties shared responsibility in spreading homophobia, even the university itself. Ryerson had a hand in the homophobic attitudes that were present on campus, but this was the attitude of the time and Ryerson made strides to remove homophobia from its grounds and still does. However, the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world and when a gay students’ association has to boycott its own school’s department for harassment and discrimination because they dismissed their complaints, there is a problem. When a school newspaper is allowed to publish anti-gay commentaries and quotations that attack and hurt members of its own community, there is a problem. When staff are denied health benefits for being openly gay and have to watch their partner die because they can’t afford medication, there is a problem. When students are terrified to be who they are because they are afraid of their peers and don’t feel protected by their school, there is a problem.

ryer nov 27 92Ryerson has its share of problems and thankfully they take care of them. Throughout its history, Ryerson has tried to change the attitudes on this campus. In 1986 Ryerson became the first university in Canada to offer a credit course on gay and lesbian studies as well as being one of the early institutions to offer same-sex health benefits in Ontario. Ryerson acknowledged the homophobia that had taken root and now every student and staff are established the same rights. Because of this we are fortunate enough not to experience the level of day-to-day violence that once occurred within Ryerson. That being said, homophobia is still a part of our world and with the vandalism of the RyePRIDE offices in 2008 and the hate crimes against Ryerson students in 2011, it is clearly still a problem.

img015One event in particular that shocked the Ryerson community was the violent murder of graduate Christopher Skinner in 2009. Christopher was an openly gay man and his murder was speculated as being a hate crime. Christopher was an active member of Ryerson’s community and now RyePRIDE offers a bursary in his memory – any self identified gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or trans student who feels they have contributed to challenging homophobia or transphobia can apply for the $500 Christopher Skinner Memorial Bursary.

img014This truncated journey through Ryerson’s history has taught me something, for which, I am very fortunate. I live and love in a place that fought and changed public opinion, a place where we can feel safe. I still look over my shoulder because it’s not over yet, but there’s hope that it will be. Going through the 30 odd years of Ryerson’s history has exposed to me and hopefully to others events that we can never forget. The work and pain that has occurred on this campus is too important to be lost in a dusty file at the bottom of a drawer. Thank you to the people of history, who rallied not only for their own opportunities but for mine and for every lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans, queer, two spirited, questioning, asexual, intersex, and any other student. To all of your stories that will not be lost or forgotten to a bottom drawer.

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