The Secret Life of Milk Bags

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Have you ever wondered what you could do with a milk bag? You know, those multicoloured bags that hold our milk. Well they can also hold a person, that is if you weave above 500 of them together. The School of Early Childhood Studies held an event this past week where I was able to do just that. I came together with other nutrition students and faculty, early childhood education students, and parents and children from the Early Learning Centre to turn old milk bags into mats and mattresses of a different kind.

MILKBAGSunlimited is an organization that works with schools and other institutions and individuals to create bedding and other valuable items out of old milk bags and donates them to people all over the world who need them. Working with donated milk bags that are durable, washable, don’t retain moisture, and will last for up to 25 years is not only economical but it is also environmentally conscious. These milk bags would have regularly ended up in landfills poisoning our earth and now they are providing comfort to someone who may have only a piece of cardboard to sleep on. MILKBAGSunlimited estimates that they have saved 5.7 million milk bags from landfills and created 7200 mats out of them.

MILKBAGSunlimited not only provides mats but they also collect supplies such as wheelchairs, crutches, school materials, toys, and tools and send them all over the world. What I found to be very interesting is that the mats are used as packing material, they serve a dual purpose, to protect and insulate the packing crates and to be used as a mattress at their destination. On top of all this MILKBAGSunlimited provides an opportunity for micro-entrepreneurship. They provide the supplies so that individuals in communities around the world can make their own products and sell them within their countries. This provides an opportunity for people who might otherwise not have the resources or occasion to earn an income. This allows these communities to prosper and the individuals who live there to buy food, clothing, and other necessities.

I was delighted when I heard that there was an opportunity to take some time out of my study schedule to weave together some old milk bags. It sounds strange but it’s actually quite fun and a bit of a workout. What was even more beneficial for me was getting a chance to work with the kids from the Early Learning Centre. I believe that children need a chance to learn new skills and be exposed to different kinds of work. Even though they probably had no idea why we were tying a bunch of milk bags together they got the opportunity to do something new with their hands which is very important. Kids need to see that there are different ways to learn even if they don’t see it that way, these kinds of experiences can be very formative for their brains. Additionally, being able to socialize with people who they don’t know will help them to grow.

After all the mats were finished being woven together I was given one to give away to someone who is experiencing homelessness. I regularly walk home from school and so I was sure I would find someone to give my mat to, but because of the extreme cold I had trouble. However, a few days later I was walking down Yonge Street and saw a man with his dog sitting on the street. Thankfully I had decided to try again to give the mat away that day. When I went up to him, a little nervousness in my step because I know if I were him it would be strange to have some random person come up to me and ask if I wanted some mat they made out of milk bags. After I explained what it was, he decided to keep the mat and he unrolled it and gave it to his dog to sleep on instead of using it for himself.

This whole experience made my heart feel a little lighter, but while I was walking I noticed more and more people experiencing homelessness that could have used my mat which made me sad. I found myself saying “damn I could’ve given it to that person too or that person”. It made me realize just how fortunate I am and it instilled some fear into my heart and mind. I don’t know how people who live on the street handle the stress, I can barely deal with assignments let alone not having a room of my own. I sometimes hear people comment about how disgusting homeless people are and how they are a waste and this rips my heart up because what if that were them? What if they had nowhere to go, would they want to be called disgusting? There are so many factors that lead into homelessness and so many things that come out of it that make it extremely difficult to remove oneself from it. People experiencing homelessness do not deserve to be treated as someone lesser, they are just as important to our world as we are. I feel that sometimes people create a “them and us” attitude when it comes to homelessness when it should really just be us. We are all responsible for homelessness and we can all do something about it. We should not “other” homeless people, they are a part of our society, and they are a part of us.

Pack the Court: No Silence on Sexual Violence

Supporters, including Mandi, outside Old City Hall during the Ghomeshi trial.

On February 1st, young feminists descended on Old City Hall in various shades of pink clothing and lipstick to attend a sexual assault trial.  We weren’t there for the Ghomeshi trial; we were there for the Ururyar trial.  We were there to support our friend and fellow activist, Mandi Gray, as she testified against Mustafa Ururyar.

The first three days of the trial were filled with rape myth-based motions, blatant victim blaming and parallels being drawn between what was happening one floor below in the Ghomeshi trial and what we saw in the courtroom we sat in.  Following three days, half of which Mandi was on the stand under cross-examination, the trial as put off until April to review new evidence.  After watching Mandi testify, she is no doubt the toughest person I know; the defense lawyer in this case has attacked her character and self esteem throughout the entire cross-examination.

Catherine Porter of the Toronto Star was present and covered what has happened in the trial thus far:
http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2016/02/07/the-sex-assault-trial-one-floor-above-ghomeshi-porter.html

Porter wrote, “there was a line up outside this courtroom too- not of journalists though.  Most of the crowd in the small domestic violence court were young feminists, here to support their friend, Mandi Gray”.  I want to talk about who that group was, including Mandi, and why we were there.

The line up outside of the courtroom where Mandi was testifying was made up of people from across Toronto; there were students from York, University of Toronto and Ryerson.  On all three days, there were between 30 and 40 people in the court room.  We were there to support Mandi and wore pink to show our solidarity.  I’ve had a number of people ask me why we were there and do we really think it makes a difference?  My answer is yes and no.

Why yes?  Apparently supporting a sexual assault survivor is a radical thing to do, both in our criminal justice system and generally.  With the Ghomeshi trial, the amount of victim-blaming and slut-shaming in the media, online and at dinner tables has increased substantially.  The media filed a motion in court to publish a photo of a sexual assault survivor in a bikini, need I say more?  The rape myths present in the criminal justice system continue to be blatant, especially during cross-examinations.  To come out and support a survivor who is testifying sends a clear message that we believe them.

In a world where over 50 women can accuse one man of sexual assault and we don’t believe them, believing women becomes viewed as radical.  In a world where survivors are not believed and face a criminal justice system that re-victimizes them, wouldn’t it be nice to have 40 people or even just one person in your corner?  The Crown and Judge aren’t in survivors’ corners; they aren’t there to make sure the survivor isn’t re-victimized on the stand.  We were there to be in Mandi’s corner.

Why no?  Our presence isn’t going to sway a ruling.  We were there because we all know that the system is broken and has always been broken.  We are all well-versed in the issue of sexual violence and know the criminal justice system does not protect survivors or convict perpetrators.  While we hold some hope that Ghomeshi and Ururyar will be found guilty, we know this is a long shot.  There’s been a lot of media focus on Ghomeshi’s lawyer and how the survivors were not prepared to testify, but these issues are much bigger than one individual case; this is an entire system that is ineffective in addressing sexual violence as a crime.

Our presence won’t sway a ruling and these rulings won’t sway us.  We know that a “not guilty” verdict does not mean violence didn’t occur.  These verdicts have no bearing on whether or not violence occurred; they have bearing on the criminal justice system’s ability to properly apply criminal law to sexual assault.  In court rooms filled with rape myths, victim-blaming, slut-shaming and a focus on literally everything but the violence in question, the answer is no, the criminal justice system is not in a position to determine if violence has occurred.

No matter what the judges in these cases rule, the response to these verdicts is going to be loud.  We won’t be going home and accepting that the criminal justice system has done its job.  The people who have been standing outside with signs aren’t going away.  Those of us sitting in Old City Hall are all advocates in a variety of ways; we are documentary film makers, members of Silence is Violence-York, placement students at VAW organizations, members of Silence is Violence- U of T and the Ryerson Feminist Collective, and individuals who want to see a world without violence.

We made a Facebook event to support Mandi.  We have sat in the court room laughing, sighing and making side comments throughout the trial, knowing the judge could kick us out (he didn’t).  Mandi has kept her head up despite the amount of attacks on her self-esteem and character, and will return to testify in April.  She is also bringing forward a Human Rights Complaint in how York University handles sexual assault.  We are unapologetic in believing survivors and we will be back at Old City Hall in April.

“Guilty” or “Not Guilty”, we aren’t going to be silent about sexual violence.

Black History Month Spotlight: Viola Desmond

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As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, this week, we shed light on a historic Black Canadian figure. Viola Desmond was born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She initially trained to become a teacher but decided to change career paths. She was a successful businesswoman who owned a barbershop and hairdressing salon business in partnership with her husband, Jack Desmond. In the midst of her business’ expansion, Viola left for New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946 to pursue a brighter future for her business.

It is in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia where Viola Desmond makes a name for herself as one of the most influential and remarkable people – especially as a woman – during times of segregation between Blacks and Whites. Viola Desmond innocently went to the movie theatres one night in New Glasgow and decided to take a seat in the main floor of the theatre. Unbeknownst to her, this specific theatre had specific tickets for African Canadians – who should be seated in the balcony area – and White Canadians – who may be seated in the main floor of the theatre, where the movie can be better seen. Upon being asked to leave her seat and relocate to the segregated seat she was intended to sit in, she refused. The police were called and Viola Desmond was charged without being advised of her right, ending in her spending the night in jail.

The following morning, she paid the fine of $20 for the alleged crime and was charged with defrauding the Government of Nova Scotia with the difference in tax between a ground floor ticket at the movie theatres and a balcony seat ticket. The difference amounted to approximately one cent.

Desmond courageously decided to fight the charges against her, understanding that the issue was not surrounding around the idea that it was tax evasion, but rather, inherently racist. Viola Desmond took the case to court, where she was able to gain public opinion on the matter both locally in her own community, nationally, and internationally. This issue raised significant awareness on segregation within Canada.

Viola Desmond’s arrest quickly caught the attention of the Black Canadian community. The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) raised money to per her fine and help her to fight against her charges. Carrie best – the founder of Nova Scotia’s first Black owned and operated newspaper, publicized her story in order to truly amplify her message and spread awareness.

As a result of the garnered attention generated by Demond’s case, the government of Nova Scotia had no choice but to eliminate segregation laws. In 1954, the government completed repealed them.

This was quite a significant turning point in the history of segregation within Canada as it revealed and exposed the fact that segregation was still real and alive within Canadian borders. At that time, there was a notion that Canada was the safest place for Black people who are being racially discriminated and segregated internationally to go to. Canada was put on a pedestal for being “free of segregation and racial discrimination,” when in reality, such practices were still very much alive and not eradicated. This event urged the Canadian community – who was expected to be an ally in the Black Civil Rights Movement – to take corrective action and implement more inclusive and culturally-aware laws and policies into legislation. It significantly sparked the wave of Canadian Black Civil Rights movement, urging Canadians to explore, expose, and correct issues surrounding racism and racial discrimination within our own borders.

This event truly catapulted Canada’s policies and legislations towards a more progressive and inclusive direction. The Canadian government began consciously implementing more diverse, multicultural, and inclusive laws in the years to follow that incorporates Black Canadians into Canadian culture as valued members of society. As a result of the corrective action that followed after this event, Canadian people adopted a more culturally aware, inclusive, and diverse ideology about race. The issue of racism was brought to the forefront of social justice issues and light was being shed on racial discrimination as being very much so present in Canadian society, contrary to popular opinion.

This event ignited a very important movement in Canadian society. It sparked the discussion and the need for action towards a society that is built on a foundation of diversity and multiculturalism. Viola Desmond remains an influential historical figure in Canadian history who, despite how little her action back then may have seemed, took an action that is not only significant but extremely powerful.

Resources:

http://www.blackhistorycanada.ca/profiles.php?themeid=20&id=13

http://www.digitaljournal.com/print/article/249537

http://canada.metropolis.net/EVENTS/ethnocultural/publications/historical.pdf

Another Side of Domestic Violence

In discussions of violence against women, specifically domestic violence, there are themes that arise from peoples’ stories.  These themes include; domestic violence within an intimate partner relationship, domestic violence as a reason for divorce, custody battles, involvement of police and the criminal justice system, decisions about leaving, children taken into the care of child welfare agencies, ex spouses and partners, the experiences of young children, etc.  My experience sits on another side of domestic violence; one that is not part of the common narrative.  My experience and position within this issue is one that likely would have been addressed by law enforcement if it took place within an intimate partner relationship.

This is something I have avoided writing about and I have never talked about it publicly.  If I have written about violence against women or domestic violence, I have never included myself in relation to the topic as I have done with others such as disability.  This was deliberate as I did not want to share this widely and did not want to violate my mother’s right to privacy as our stories are intertwined.  Now that this blog has become involved in my experiences of domestic violence, as well as receiving my mother’s permission and blessing, it’s time to write about this topic and include my own experience.

There are currently seven Facebook accounts I have blocked; they were all created by or used by the same person with the intention to find me.  These seven accounts have been created and blocked over an 8 year period with the last one being blocked this week.  This person has shown up at my previous home numerous times, followed me to events he knew I would be attending and continues to make social media accounts to contact me.

This sounds like the definition of harassment, right?  This is the kind of harassment that would make a person a great candidate for a “no-contact” order.  I have no such order, nor have I ever had my own “no-contact” order to prevent this harassment.  When I was 15, I was included in a “no-contact” order for my mother at her request; I was tagged on to hers because I was underage.  That order has long since expired and while my mother has a new one, I do not.  With all of the laws about harassment, domestic violence, etc. it may seem shocking that I don’t.  The reason I don’t is because this person is my parent.

I am well aware of how law enforcement treats survivors of domestic violence in intimate partner relationships, but domestic violence involving an adult-child seems to be another ball game that lacks any rules.  Law enforcement viewed his harassing behaviour to be in relation to my mother but did not consider that he was also looking for me.  It was also considered to be loving gestures of a great parent.  The incident that lead to my mother getting a new no-contact order happened to take place on a day I was visiting Toronto for Discover Ryerson.  Even if I was there, I don’t think I would have been granted a no-contact order.

While I have had some good experiences with police around this issue, some woman-identified police officers have issued him a “warning”, the general response to this issue has been to make excuses for him.  Most recently, a person who takes police-related calls defended him and said maybe he thought I had changed my mind about speaking to him.  8 years, 7 blocked Facebook accounts, avoiding him and his family, reporting harassment… I send real mixed signals in this area of my life, no wonder he is confused [sarcasm].  If this had been my ex-partner, would the response have been the same?

I have done everything right in the eyes of harassment law; I have responded to relay my wishes not to have contact with him and detail that I will contact police if it continues, I have ignored further attempts to engage in conversation, I have contacted police promptly when this happens and I save copies of the messages.  I have done what I have been told to do and I’m still left with no legal assistance to deal with this harassment.

How did my job with this blog become involved in my experience of domestic violence?  I hadn’t heard from him in 2 years until I wrote a blog about disability and absenteeism.  I received a message shortly after it was published from a man saying that his daughter was experiencing similar problems at McMaster University.  It’s not unusual for people I don’t know to message me about my blog posts so I didn’t think anything of it, but I never got around to responding.  I’m really glad I didn’t engage in conversation because this was a fake account made by him to contact me.  I only found out because my birthday fell shortly after and he messaged me, outing himself as the person behind the account.  Another account that I assume is fake has contacted me since and I assume these will be the first of many.

As of now, I’m continuing to block the Facebook accounts but will not be contacting police anymore.  I’m extremely concerned by the lack of response from the law and police to deal with this issue as there’s adult-children out there whose experiences of this type of domestic violence are much worse than mine.  I’m extremely fortunate that he doesn’t know where I live in Toronto and doesn’t have my phone number.  We need to move beyond the idea that children should talk to their parents no matter what because they are family.  We also need to move beyond the idea that we may change our minds; some of us may and some of us won’t.  This should not be a reason to deny us the tools to ensure our safety.

I wanted to write this blog for two reasons:

First, I wanted to share another side of domestic violence that isn’t always talked about and hope it reaches others with the same experience- I see you.

Second, since this blog has obviously been found; again, stop trying to contact me.

What I Learned From A Child Soldier

You never know what to expect when you come to Ryerson University. Surrounded by such diversity and opportunities, I’ve come to take every day as an unexpected journey – an everyday Bilbo Baggins. That’s why when I saw a poster that read “In Conversation with Michel Chikwanine: A Former Child Soldier,” I couldn’t look away. Although my parents were expecting me home in the next 2 hours, I knew this was another one of those “once in a lifetime opportunity”.

The International Issues Discussion (IID) series is designed to engage the community on major events and issues in contemporary global affairs. Michel’s presentation was incredibly captivating as he effortlessly took us back to when he was a boy living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a refugee in Canad and now, a public speaker and  student at the University of Toronto. I had not intended on retelling his story on this blog but I feel it is important to do so. His story is special because he survived but it isn’t unique as people to this day, are still living his story.

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Courage and the pursuit of knowledge are two things that Michel has come to live by. For one, I think courage is a loaded term. What one might find courageous, another finds idiotic as it often means fighting the norm or what is expected of you.


“If you want anything you must be resilient’ – Michel Chikwanine

It was when Michel was a boy that his one courageous act is the reason he is still alive today. When he was a boy, Michel stayed afterschool to play soccer with his friends – defying his father’s order. It was there that soldiers came and abducted him and his bestfriend. There, like thousands before him, he was conditioned to become a weapon. Stabbed in the arm with cocaine and gun powder, he was blindfolded and told to shoot the gun that was placed in his small hands. The foreign curves and weight of such a violent tool was too much for him and he dropped it. But as the hysteria from his wounds took over him, he finally shot. When he opened his eyes, he saw his best friend lying there, in a pool of his own blood. He was 5 at the time and his best friend was 12.

That was his initiation. The soldier then evoked more fear by saying because he had killed his best friend, his family will never love him and they are his family now. This initiation step has forced children to believe a lie that encapsulates them in a life of fear, hate and violence. But Michel knew he needed to escape and he finally did when the soldiers took him to a village. Everyone went with their guns into the village but Michel ran into the forest. He ran for days, in a direction he did not know without food or water. To this day, he still has scars around his body. After days of running, he came out of the woods, to a shop that looked familiar. He ran into it, mumbled hysteria and passed out. He woke up in the hospital with his family around him.

After that things got worse and better. Michel’s father was a human rights lawyer and was abducted and tortured because he spoke out against the injustices that went unnoticed. When soldiers came to his house they made Michel watch as they raped his mother and three sisters. They said they would come back the next day so they fled that night with the clothes on their backs. Their journey as refugees was brutal but they eventually made it to Canada. To my shock, they were billed for the flight and food they had not only on the plane which amounted to $5,000.

Today, his family is not whole as his father was poisoned and one of his sisters went missing when she was getting her refugee papers. But Michel remains optimistic and courageous. He speaks about his experience and advocates for change that one day children won’t have to endure the terrifying experiences that he went through. I leave you now with the words his father told him many times before and that he strives to live by:

“Who in this world won’t die? But what defines us is the legacy we leave behind”  – Ramazani Chikwanine

Do I Have to Wake Up?

I have always felt that the worst part of a holiday is when it ends. The beginning is so relaxing, you don’t know what to do with all your time and you feel like everything is so much better; everything tastes better, feels better, and looks better or maybe you’re still dreaming. But slowly time passes and then it passes quickly and before you know it you’re back. At the end of a holiday I never know what I have accomplished, generally because I don’t accomplish much on vacation. Growing up as a child the only part of back-to-school that I enjoyed was the back-to-school shopping. I would run around Staples picking out pens, pencil crayons, sticky notes, erases, calculators, binders, and whatever I felt I needed for school, even though I had a lot leftover from the previous years. Suffice it to say I didn’t enjoy going back to school as a child and my parents knew it. They would tease me at the end of summer or in the New Year counting down the days to when I would return to school and in effect lose my imaginary freedom. It is interesting to note however, that I no longer have that attitude and my parents don’t tease me about it anymore either. This past winter holiday from Ryerson was my longest at five weeks, but also my potential last.

I accomplished a great deal over the past five weeks and I know exactly what it was for a change. It doesn’t feel as though I have had much of a holiday since I was doing school related work most of the time, but it was more relaxing than my last semester so I might have to take that back. However, I am ready to go back to school; at least I think so anyway. Schooling provides many things to many people. School gives me not only something to do but too it gives me a purpose. I feel that everyone needs a purpose, regardless of what it is so that we feel useful and as though we are accomplishing something. Grownup me loves holidays for their laziness but I think if I was on an extended holiday I might get antsy and uncomfortable.  I don’t like to feel useless and as though I am not contributing to something. It is nice for a short period of time to do nothing but then it starts to get boring. You can only binge-watch so much Netflix or click so many links on Wikipedia before you end up in that weird area of “I Googled Sailor Moon and now I’m looking at Ted Bundy”. I need to say that I did not get to that point on this vacation, I didn’t have the time. Perhaps that is why I am ready to go back to those old Ryerson hallways, I never really left them. Or perhaps because I know I am leaving them soon enough.

The idea of graduation brings with it excitement and fear; you don’t always know what will become of you once school is over, you don’t even know if you’ll leave. I know a few people in a few different positions in life and looking at them I try to predict what will happen to me; of course it doesn’t work but my imagination is stronger than I. Will I come back for another semester, will I leave and find a job, will I go on to grad school, or will I simply run away to sunny Mexico? I don’t know yet and that is why it is both exciting and scary to know that in 3 or so months I will have a different life, potentially anyway (don’t want to say anything concrete till I have that piece of paper or plane ticket). I hope that I will graduate this spring and I think having that hope has made the end of this holiday not so terrible. I want to go back to Ryerson so that I can finish my degree and move into the next stage of my life and this coming semester is the only thing standing in my way. I can’t really say I am excited for exams and coursework, but I am excited for learning. I said that school gives me a purpose and that purpose right now is to learn as much as possible and I plan to.

Everyone has their reasons for why they hate or love school, but it is an important thing to consider. By reading this you can see that I do it all the time, along with planning run away trips to Central America. I ask myself these silly questions all the time, imagining my future world, and I think it does some good. We should all look at our lives and analyze whether or not they bring us joy or any other emotions, you never know what you’ll find when you open your heart and mind. By thinking about my past, present, and future it allows me to see how I am really feeling and it tells me when I have had enough. Right now I have had enough with rambling and with that I say welcome home Ryerson students. If this is your last semester, enjoy it, time passes so quickly before you know it you’ll have forgotten what school feels like and hopefully be realizing what a sunny beach feels like, or am I still dreaming?

Sushi & Beer

Every week I ride the Bloor Street Subway out to Scarborough and back into the city. If you have been on the subway before you know what it’s like; people talking, sitting, reading, and minding their own business as the train rumbles beneath the city streets. The subway is a kind of strange place because it’s full of people who we do not know and who we do not always notice or even pay any attention to, we are generally concerned with who is in our immediate surrounding and when our stop is coming. While on my most recent trip home from Scarborough I noticed a man getting on the train at Coxwell Avenue. I was sitting on one of those old stained red and silver seats nearest to the sliding doors with my head leaned up against the glass. I was half asleep, as I often am on the subway, the rocking and warmth having lulled me into a semi-conscious state where the Queen could walk on by and I would still be trying to hold my eye lids open (this is also why I often miss my stop). As I sat there with my head half-tucked into the top of my wool winter coat, my collar popped up around my neck, and my toque low on my face I saw the man enter the train and sit down on the floor. I thought that in my sleepy stupor I was seeing things; why would someone sit on the floor when the train was half empty? This man caught my attention and pulled me back into consciousness as I continued to observe him.

 
He sat on the floor with his back leaned up against the red doors opposite me, these doors wouldn’t open again till Yonge Street So he had time to make himself comfortable. As the train pulled us farther into town I saw more and more of this man; his grey hair sticking out from under his tattered blue and white Maple Leafs toque and the dark creases and dry pale skin that enveloped his hands and face. His acid wash baggy blue jeans were torn up at the bottom showing off his beat down formerly white sneakers and he wore an old Maple Leafs jersey which matched his hat. The man was carrying a reusable shopping bag with him that looked like it only had one tug left in it before it feel completely apart. I found out later that in this bag he was carrying his dinner, a small take-out box with a few maki rolls in it and a pitcher of light beer wearing its own toque to minimize spillage. After the man removed the contents of his bag with extreme care so as to protect them from the unstable and unpredictable movements of the train he did something that in the moment surprised me. He put his hands together in prayer, closed his eyes, and began whispering something I was too far to hear. He then took a single maki roll and a sip of beer and cautiously returned his meal to his dilapidated sack. As I watched him eat I thought about how I never thank anyone for my food other than the waiter who brings it to me. This man was thanking his Lord for the pitiable amount of food he had and yet I take a full cupboard and fridge for granted.

 
Our journey continued across the Bloor Street Viaduct and I noted the darkened sky lit up with the luminous glow of downtown business towers and condos reflecting off the clouds. Our train stopped on the bridge and I could feel the wind brushing against the sides of the train, the doors rattling in and out, and the screech of the wheels as we slowed to a halt. Looking out the train window I felt the whole city get cold even though this is an unusually warm December. I wondered to myself where this man would go, what would he do when he reached his stop and was faced with a still harsh December? In the time that I was distracted by the city skyline and my thoughts I hadn’t noticed that my traveling companion had slipped into his own state of half-consciousness. He stretched his legs out along the doorway and his head and back were upheld by the glass separating the seats from the doors. His left hand and arm were hugging his shopping bag and in his right hand he had a lighter. It was at this point that I saw the cigarette sticking out from under his toque amongst his scraggly hair. He was playing with the lighter, rubbing it with his fingers and tapping it on the train floor. At one point he threw his arms up into the air and as they crashed back down to the floor I could see his face drop into sadness, as though he were giving up and submitting to the thoughts that were running around in his mind. Maybe he was expressing frustration, depression, despair, desolation, or hopelessness, I don’t know what he was thinking but he did not seem happy, he looked tired; exhausted in a way that I hope I will never have to feel.

 
Our train picked up and we started into the tunnel, eventually reaching Sherbourne Street where the man rose to his feet and switched over to the opposite doors now lying directly beside me. As the doors slid open at Yonge Street I watched the changing faces of the new passengers. Men and women went from smiling and laughing to disturbed and disgusted. People scoffed and turned up their lips in a grimace, passing judgment over someone they didn’t know and had no contact with. Some people didn’t even notice him as he lay at their feet. Every person with the exception of one man parted at the doorway moving further into the train and filling it. The man who remained bent down and pinched the arm of my now sleeping traveling companion waking him up. The new man dressed in a dark woolen coat and boots asked the laying man to get up as he was in the way, even though he was not bothering anyone. It’s not as though people were stepping over him to get to closed doors that would not open again until Spadina Avenue which I later learned was this man’s stop. A heated conversation ensued with yelling and swearing resulting in a now irate and fatigued man being forced up and out of his resting position and off the train. This entire exchange was pointless and unnecessary and only resulted in anger and the perpetuation of stereotypes. After the altercation the atmosphere on the train changed, for a moment there was a noticeable dip in the collective mood. The woman across from me said “what can you do?” and shrugged off the whole event, the man next to me said to his friend “they’re all the same” and continued their conversation as though nothing had occurred.

 
Why was this happening? Why did this whole show come about? Why did this man feel it was his right to upset and force someone off the train who was doing nothing wrong? Was he assuming that because of the way this man looked or was acting he shouldn’t be on the train with us? Or perhaps he went into the situation with good intentions, but we all know where that road leads. I don’t know why this happened but all I can say is that my traveling companion deserved the same peace and respect that I receive. I am often asleep on the train and while I may not be lying on the floor no one bothers to wake me. Being in a seat puts me in no one’s way but this man was in no one’s way either. He knew the door schedule and would have gotten up the same way he did the last time. This man never even said anything to anyone, he was minding his own business the same as everyone else and yet society decided it was their right to intervene and not to help but to make things worse. It’s been my experience that assumptions do not lead to good solutions and going into a situation with stereotypes in the back of your mind will not help but hinder. People experiencing homelessness aren’t stupid or worth less than anyone else. This man simply wanted a warm place to eat his sushi and beer and to take a nap, he was not impeding the travel of or bothering anyone else and yet he was interrupted and attacked. Why?

Disability and Absenteeism

absent

I hate missing class; it stresses me out and I feel like I’ve missed out when I’m not sitting in a lecture when I’m supposed to be.  Being the nerdy go-getter than I am, I rarely miss class and think long and hard before I do so.  Unfortunately, absenteeism comes with the territory of having a disability.  Those who have followed my blog over the past few years would know this but for those who haven’t, I have a traumatic brain injury.  Since the age of 16, I have experienced all of the lovely perks that come with a brain injury including headaches, nausea, feeling off balance, blurred vision, floaters in my eyes, shaky hands, fatigue, etc.  My symptoms have improved over the years but I still experience some daily.  While I try my best to go to class/stay in class, sometimes it’s not possible.

Fortunately, I have accommodations through the university to be able to miss class and not be penalized.  This was the first semester that I have been questioned and shamed for missing classes, despite having these accommodations.  I have missed two classes this semester and left early once.  I don’t miss any more school than the average student does but my absence becomes visible because I have to ask to use my accommodations.

I was really upset for being shamed for missing class but not for the reasons one might think.  Sure, I get really annoyed having to constantly explain that I have a brain injury and accommodations multiple times throughout a semester but what really upset me was how much I wish I could have been in those classes.

I didn’t miss those classes or leave early because I wanted to.  I would love to be able to wake up, attend all of my classes and do all the things I want to do without my brain injury getting in the way.  I don’t really like the words “high functioning” but I know that I’m extremely fortunate;  I’m doing way better than my testing and type of brain injury would suggest and post-secondary education is out of reach for many people with brain injuries similar to mine.  It looked like it was going to be out of reach for me as well at during high school. Even compared to the average student without a brain injury, I do a lot; I do well in school, participate in extra-curricular activities, hold a job in the summer, co-organize a student group, volunteer outside of school and have a busy social life.  Even though I am able to do all of these things, I’m not able to do everything that I want to because of my brain injury.

I missed a lot of school right after I acquired my brain injury.  My high school graduation was delayed a year because I had missed so much school.  For a few years, I only went to school for one class and took one through the home instruction program.  Sometimes I was only able to stay in that one class for half an hour.  I didn’t write any tests or exams, did no homework and had extensions for my assignments.  It wasn’t until my fifth year of high school that I went back full time and completed all of the course work (except data management but come on, the side of my brain that controls math skills is damaged so cut me some slack).  People have told me that I am lucky to have been able to miss so much school but it’s actually really sad to think about how much I missed out on when I look back.  I wasn’t allowed to sit in the cafeteria, I wasn’t allowed to go to the library, I wasn’t allowed to walk myself to and from class and I had to fight to go to things like football games, school dances, etc.  These things don’t make me lucky; the only thing about my brain injury that I would consider lucky is that one of the tears wasn’t closer to my brain stem.  This is what drives me attend school as much as I can now that I’m able to.

With that being said, I have missed too much school.  School is something that I love and I get very upset and annoyed when I’m unable to attend classes.  Being able to be a full time university student is a really big accomplishment for a person with a brain injury and I’m very fortunate to be here.  I want to be here and I want to be in class, especially since I’ve missed so much school in the past.  I already feel awful when I’m unable to go to class or do other things that I love; it’s a reminder that I’m not a “normal” student.  I don’t need to be shamed for this, I feel bad enough not being able to do the things I want to.

I try really hard to go to all of my classes, even when I’m not well, which means I leave at break sometimes.  There are some days that I don’t ask to use my accommodations.  I would rather lose the 1 or 2 percent participation grade if it means avoiding another awkward conversation where I have to disclose my disability yet again, explain what symptoms I’m having while my classmates stand a little too close for my comfort level to be having this conversation.  People with brain injuries struggle with social interactions at times, to keep having to repeat this social situation doesn’t get any easier.  While I’m quite open about having a brain injury, I still deserve privacy.  No one in my class needs to know that I’m leaving because my vision is blurred.

I’m not leaving because I want to, I’m leaving because I have to.  I have learned to listen to my body because if I don’t, I will be on the floor…literally.

Shaming me for not being present and drawing the entire class’ attention to my absence isn’t going to get me into a classroom.  Students with disabilities become hyper visible in a large class where most students maintain their anonymity since we have to ask for accommodations.  I can’t speak for all students with disabilities but as someone who has had to miss a lot of school, if I’m not present, it’s not by choice.

If you’re a professor or instructor, please know who your students with accommodations are and respect when they are unable to be in class.  We are given the accommodation of being absent for a reason, not because we want to miss school.  If you’re a student, please stop telling students with disabilities that they are lucky to be able to miss class.

If you are a student with a disability currently going through post-secondary education, it’s a rough ride but hang in there.  We are defying the odds by being here.

Photo from: www.angelabrook.com

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.

 

I Have Nothing to Wear

In my closet there are easily over 30 sweaters, 15 collared shirts, 20 pairs of pants, 40 t-shirts, 10 jackets, countless socks, every accessory I never needed, and we can’t forget about shoes (I have too many of those too). That’s just what I can remember; only the armoire knows what I forgot (hats!). Suffice it to say, I have too much clothing; something I never thought possible because I wear all my clothes and the holes in my shoes are the evidence to prove it. What can I say? I’m a consumer and I consume and collect clothing just like everyone else. Also, just like everyone else I don’t always think about what goes into my clothing, specifically who is making them and how they are made. I know who designed them and had them made, but where did they really come from?

 

Fashion is a notorious industry. It has come under fire for promoting unattainable beauty standards causing mental and physical health concerns in youth, allowing and profiting from animal cruelty, and for enslaving and endangering the lives of millions of labourers around the world; those countless socks are made from more than just cotton. Untangling the web of malice in the fashion industry is well beyond the scope of this blog but it is necessary to note that it still exists, there are still people dying to make our clothing. Companies still employ the use of sweatshops, or harsh and unsafe working conditions that provide no support to workers for little pay.

 

The idea of sweatshops, or “sweated labour”, came about in the 1800s when urbanization and the Industrial Revolution were taking shape in the Western world. New products and variety for things such as clothing were increasing in demand and so companies created factories to supply consumers with what they wanted. This drew people from the countryside to cities where they could get a job in a factory and earn a wage. However, this was also at a time when labour laws were almost nonexistent and so there was no protection for factory workers. Employers took advantage of the lack of regulations and created working conditions that lead to the death of many labourers. In addition, these labourers were paid by the piece, i.e. piecework, this means that the more items they produced in a day the more they earned that day and vice versa regardless of time spent. This was thought to promote employees to work harder, longer, and faster for little money and allow corporations to make a higher profit. As sweatshops evolved and labour laws stood stagnant the tension between labourers and employers began to spark.

One of the most horrendous revelations about sweatshops came to the surface in 1911 when a fire broke out in one of the Triangle Shirtwaist garment factories in New York City. The factory was located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floor of the now Brown Building in Greenwich Village. When the fire began employees tried to flee the building but were stopped by a locked door, the only exit had been locked and was kept locked. This was a common practice in garment factories at the time to reduce unauthorized breaks and employee theft. 146 people, mostly young women, either burned to death behind a locked door or jumped out of the windows falling 8 stories until they met the stone road that lay beneath them. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire is cited as one of the worst industrial disasters in the United States and it ultimately lead to the villanization and progress to eliminating sweatshops in the West.

After the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, labour unions and work safety regulations began to take prominence. However, while labour laws came about to provide safety for workers and a fair wage, companies began looking elsewhere for cheap labour ultimately moving to Asia and South America. This globalization of the garment industry lead to a black market within the industry in the West with illegal sweatshops employing new immigrants and continuing the deplorable traditions of the past. This came about because contractors who hired garment workers would threaten to export their business unless they worked for less than the minimum wage and by the piece. In the end, the garment companies moved to Asia for cheap labour and the garment-production labour force in the West was depleted.

While sweatshops are thought to have died off in the West during the 1990s, they are still very much alive in countries such as India, China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. These countries and their people are enslaved by the garment industry to provide the cheap labour to make our cute shoes and little black dresses. Garment factory workers in Asia face the same if not worse working conditions than the sweatshop workers of the past. This is evidenced by the string of fires and building collapses that plague garment factories, such as the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse near Dhaka, Bangladesh which killed over 1000 people. These people are being forced to work in appalling conditions for very little pay and for what? So that we can have another sweater to toss on the floor and a large corporation can add another 0 to the end of their balance sheet. Why is this happening? How did it ever get this far? The simple answer – because it was allowed to.

Fashion is a very tricky business. Consumers want clothing at an affordable price, companies want to make a profit, and garment workers want to earn a living. Unfortunately, all these variables don’t add up to a positive, someone will lose. To keep the price of clothing low for consumers companies hire foreign contractors to produce their clothing. These contractors pay their employees as little as possible so that the cost of the product stays low and profits stay high. Additionally, to keep production costs low contractors only go as far as meeting minimum standards, if that, for building standards and employee safety and training. Obviously these building and safety standards are too low if the factories are falling down. So why not just raise the minimum standards? If a contractor has to pay more to construct a building they will take the cost out of employee wages. Labourers in the majority world cannot afford to live at their current wages if they were reduced they would be even worse off. Additionally, there will always be another country that won’t require a factory to meet safety standards or they will be so low that it’s economical for the garment contractors to move their businesses as they did 40 years ago in the West. In addition, corruption within the garment industry and the governments who police them allow for contractors to get away with not meeting minimum standards. Garment workers are trapped because factories provide the highest wages for them and if the factories leave the workers’ livelihoods are at stake, not to mention the economic situation of the country. Countries like Bangladesh rely on the garment-production industry to keep their economy moving. So what can be done to save the lives of garment workers without sacrificing profits and consumer demand? I don’t have the answer and I doubt that there is a simple one. As I said fashion is a very tricky business. It’s too late to go backwards and it’s very difficult to start over, but something needs to change.

 

I must say that at the onset of this I did not intend to write about sweatshops. In fact I was going to promote the fashion program here at Ryerson, specifically the men’s show Fixate that ran on Friday November 27. However, I found myself in a strange position because I began to wonder about who makes our clothing. I am familiar with sweatshop work but only in theory. I have never had to sew a piece of clothing in a cramped room, with no natural light, no air-conditioning, no air, and behind a locked door so that I can feed my family. I truly hope I never have to and I truly hope that sweatshops one day become only a theory and not a reality.