Part of an ongoing series profiling women in Toronto politics, community-building, activism, and other aspects of municipal or political life.
By Julia Chew
When Kristyn Wong-Tam chose to run for office in 2009, she surprised herself. As a tireless community advocate, Councillor Wong-Tam was alerted early on to societal injustices as a child of immigrant parents and as a racial minority. Five years after her first election, Councillor Wong-Tam can now look back and see political life as a natural evolution for her lifelong advocacy work and passions. We spoke to her to discuss political life, community engagement, and what the women of Toronto need.
Q: From your point-of-view, how do we build a truly equitable Toronto? What do the women of Toronto need?
A: Women in this city need policies and decision-making that is women-centered. If you start to build communities for women, you build communities for everyone. Women aren’t just 52% of the population, there’s an intersection to womanhood that brings together women with disabilities, immigrants, young/old, vulnerable, racialized populations and many more.
In order to have gender-informed decision-making, we need to build a gender equity lens over all of policy-making. When you create budgets in the city that are women-focused, you start to re-evaluate your spending. For example, women are the majority users of public transit. Women also work in areas that aren’t in the financial district. So would we build transit lines that primarily facilitate travel to the financial district? If we were building transit with women in mind, we would build transportation that allow for greater connectivity, flexibility, and affordability.
To build a more compassionate, more inclusive Toronto, we need to start by recognizing that misogyny and sexism exists, and that decision –making has not traditionally reflected the real life experience of women. We need to acknowledge that the political and policy tools we have right now don’t address the needs of women, simply because they were developed by men for their own needs within a framework of patriarchy.
Q: How has political life shaped your advocacy work and activist roots?
A: It makes perfect sense now that what I wanted to do as a private citizen, I am just now doing in a position of power at City Hall. I am the same person, informed by the same principles, objectives, and values, but am now more aware of the political processes of policy-making.
Not every activist needs to run for office, but the activist within me was -limited to a certain extent and could not reach the next level of engagement and execution. We need to respect people for where they are. Often times, especially for progressive work, there is a level of impatience as the injustice affecting the many is so great But the struggle for equality and inclusion is not necessarily stagnant. We must build political support and awareness at every opportunity and never stop.
Q: How do you communicate and engage with the community?
A: I developed a simple process that involves the acronym C-E-P. “C” stands for communication. It is important to be clear in communications and not to insult people with heavy academic language because we are competing with other interests for people’s time and attention. It is crucial that a message have easy access points to communicate in a way that people will accept.
Communications leads to “E” for Engagement. By providing the community with greater opportunities to engage whether it is through a film, art, etc., there has to be an opportunity to respond through engagement or two way dialogue or interaction. This flow of information or a transfer of knowledge and creativity sparks “P” which stands for Participation. Now that you are keenly engaged, what is the physical action we will take? Shall we call our elected officials? Create a pop-up urban design project? How do we execute? What does participation look like for each unique individual? And how do we leverage and respect that participation will mean different things to different people.