WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, April 22

A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

Feminist Community Building with Laura Salamanca

Part of an ongoing series profiling women in Toronto politics, community-building, activism, and other aspects of municipal or political life.

By: Talia Bronstein

MUJER is an organization working to engage Latin American women and gender non-conforming people in the issues that affect them in Toronto, including gender-based violence, issues of racism and sexism in formal education, gender inclusion, and more. We spoke with Laura Salamanca, MUJER treasurer, counsellor, and sexual health advocate extraordinaire, about lessons she has learned from being involved in this grassroots community building organization.

Laura Salamanca Pic

Q:  How did you get involved with MUJER?


A: I was at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and I saw a poster advertising a Latina Feminism course, which was organized by MUJER. I had taken Women’s Studies courses in university, but we hadn’t focused specifically on Latin America and I saw this as a major gap. The objective of the course was for women-identified people to have a better understanding of feminisms in the context of Latina identity. The course inspired me to join MUJER and later that year, there was an opening on the Board so I joined as Treasurer. This year, the open-access, free course is called Decolonizing Lantinx Feminisms – look out for our call for applications in the spring!


Q: What is MUJER’s goal, and what projects are you working on?


A: MUJER uses an anti-oppressive, anti-racist, feminist, decolonizing perspective to bring the Latina community in Toronto together to foster engagement on municipal issues that affect the community. We also stand in solidarity with other groups and communities, such as Indigenous communities, to advocate for justice. Through consciousness raising and educational opportunities, we create tools and spaces for Latinas in Toronto to expand our voices and be heard in municipal politics.


Aside from the course, we have also run advocacy campaigns, such as our “Draw the Line / Hasta Aqui No Mas” campaign of 2013, which resulted in several PSAs about sexual violence prevention and bystander education in Latino communities. We also offered a summer camp for 7 years to build community amongst Latina youth in Toronto. We foster discussions about leadership, bullying, body image, and gender-based violence in order to mitigate some of the issues that result in increased high school drop out rates and poverty.


Q: What are some factors that have led to MUJER’s successful projects?


A: We are very much a grassroots organization. We invite people to participate and bring themselves where they are at. They don’t need to have a certain politics to attend our events, and they don’t even need to identify as feminist. All people need to be is open and willing to learn and engage in respectful discussion. We do our outreach through social media mainly, which allows us to reach a large and diverse amount of people quickly and efficiently, which is important for our organization that is completely volunteer-run and has a very limited budget.


We also strive to avoid being overly academic. In our Latina American/Latin@ Feminisms course, we have tried to move away from academic materials that are heavy with jargon and replace it with arts-based materials to reach people who learn in different ways.


Finally, we run ourselves as a collective. Differing opinions are welcomed. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows – conflicts do happen – but we try and be sure to hear each other out and come to a compromise.


Q: What are some of the challenges you have faced being involved in MUJER, and what tips can you offer others who are trying to get involved in community building and advocacy in Toronto?


A: One of the biggest challenges for us is that as a volunteer-based organization, people have varying amounts of time to contribute, and the amount of time a person can offer is not proportionate to what they can bring to the organization. We consciously set the pace of our projects to allow people who have limited time to contribute, so that their voices are not minimized due to their other life circumstances.


Like many organizations, we have faced growing pains. New board members and volunteers bring new perspectives and ideas about the direction of the organization. Our strategy (which is currently in process) is to develop a clear understanding of the goals and objectives of the organization outside of the individuals who are involved, so that the organization remains sustainable in the future. We are starting an official volunteer program so that volunteers get training and opportunities to guide MUJER’s direction and programming in a formal way.
My advice is to show up to events that interest you with an open mind. There are so many groups organizing in this city, and they are mostly volunteer run and in need of passionate people! Volunteering is such a rewarding opportunity to learn and meet new lifetime friends. Everyone has something to contribute.

How-To with Laura Pin: Setting the Wheels in Motion for Community Change

This is part of a new series on the WiTOPoli blog: a series of How-To posts with women who have made change in their communities by working with (and sometimes fighting against) the institutions that make our city work. These women inspire us and remind us that though the challenges to having our voices heard are many, they are most certainly not insurmountable.

By: Talia Bronstein

Laura (right) with members of the Cycle Toronto's Ward 14 Advocacy Group.

Laura (right) with members of the Cycle Toronto’s Ward 14 Advocacy Group.

“When I first moved to Toronto, I considered myself to be a cyclist, but not a cycling advocate.”

It was experiences of feeling unsafe and marginalized on Toronto’s chaotic streets that led Laura Pin to start volunteering with Cycle TO, a member-supported organization that advocates for a healthy, safe, cycling-friendly city for all.

Nowadays, Laura proudly identifies as a cycling advocate, serving as both the co-founder and current co-captain of the Cycle TO Ward 14 Advocacy Group, which brings together energetic, passionate community residents to promote and advocate for cycling in their community.

After successfully pushing for bike lanes to be installed in her neighborhood, Laura walks us through the step she took to make the community change happen.

Step 1: Identify the Problem

Laura notes that while her neighborhood of Parkdale/High Park “has one of the highest concentration of bike commuters in the city, it has very little infrastructure to support these cyclists.” The lack of bike lanes in the area left cyclists with limited options: either battle the traffic on Queen or King, or meander through disconnected one-way neighborhood streets, sometimes against the flow of traffic. The result? Unsafe conditions that could lead to collisions.

Step 2: Understand the Problem

Laura and her Ward 14 cycling advocacy group began digging to try and understand why there were so few bike lanes in the neighborhood. They discovered that there was a municipal plan for the area that recommended a series of contraflow bike lanes (bike lanes on quiet residential streets that flow in the opposite direction of traffic), but that the plan had never been implemented.

They then turned their attention to uncovering the reasons behind the government inaction.  Through meetings with staff at the City of Toronto, they learned that the city did not want to build any new contraflow bike lanes (even though several had already been instituted) because there was some ambiguous language in the Ontario Transportation Act about whether contraflow bike lanes were legal in the city.

Step 3: Show Up and Be Heard

Once they understood the root of the problem, Laura says, the advocacy group teamed up with the staff at Cycle TO and began to “talk to absolutely everyone – our city councilor, our MPP, city of Toronto staff,” to discuss the importance of contraflow bike lanes in their community and to brainstorm how to make them happen. By educating and raising awareness amongst their elected officials, the group was able to build political support.

In 2014, a major opportunity arose: The Ontario Transportation Act was opened up for amendments.The Ward 14 Advocacy Group and CycleTO HQ jumped on this chance to have their voice heard. “We made sure to be at those public consultations and participate in the dialogue,” Laura explained, in order to educate policy makers and push for them to clarify the language about contraflow bike lanes in the Transportation Act.

Step 4: Celebrate your Victories!

After successfully advocating for the Ontario Transportation Act to change its language to allow contraflow bike lanes in the city, the advocacy group continued to meet with municipal politicians and staff to ensure the bike lane plan was actually implemented in a timely manner. Parkdale/High Park welcomed its first contraflow bike lane into the community on Fermanagh Avenue and additional contraflow bike lanes are scheduled to be built in summer 2015.

Step 5: Reflect on Lessons Learned

Laura suggests that when it comes to meeting with elected officials and government staff, be sure to do your homework beforehand. “Confidence goes a long way. You know your stuff. Don’t psyche yourself out! You have something important to say.”

For anyone trying to make a change in their community, Laura recommends connecting with the local groups in your neighborhood. Most communities have resident associations and other established advocacy groups who can offer support and help navigate the system.  “The most significant thing is to get organized. It’s not just about policy change; it’s about building a sense of community and bringing people together.”

How-To with Farrah Khan: Working to End Gender-Based Violence Through Community Organizing

This is part of a new series on the WiTOPoli blog: a series of How-To posts with women who have made change in their communities by working with (and sometimes fighting against) the institutions that make our city work. These women inspire us and remind us that though the challenges to having our voices heard are many, they are most certainly not insurmountable.

By: Heather Jackson


“I’ve never started movements. Movements started way before me and I’m very lucky to be in company with community members who encouraged me, challenged me and taught me.”

Farrah Khan comes from a family with experience in community organizing. Her father fundraised to build a mosque in Malvern and organized a prison support group, a cancer support group, and a Muslim soccer league. His mantra: “If there are gaps, we fill them.”

Farrah lives by the same code. Since she was a teenager, Farrah has been working to end violence against women through grassroots activism. At sixteen she organized concert fundraisers and spoke about being a sexual assault survivor between sets. At eighteen she and two friends produced a zine about child sexual abuse. By twenty she was a founding member of the Young Women’s Anti-Violence Speakers Group (now called ReAct: Respect In Action).

Currently Farrah works at the Schlifer Clinic, specifically with their Outburst program, which looks at the needs of young Muslim women at the intersection of addressing violence in their lives, be it racism or family violence. She also works with Heartbeats: The Izzat Project, a comic book created by young south Asian women about issues of violence in their community, and Femifesto, a group of young feminists who created a toolkit for the media on how to speak to and report on sexual assault. She is quick to point out that she is not the leader of these initiatives, but rather a supporting adviser. “Most of my programs now are based on the leadership of the people that are most affected and are at the center of it, and I’m supporting them doing the administrative pieces.”

For example, the Outburst program supports the voices of young Muslim women survivors through education and safety training, art-based programming and counselling. Part of the education portion is looking at how policy affects young Muslim women’s lives. The program then supports these women as they approach their city councillors about what’s needed in their communities, but it’s the young women themselves who do the talking.

Residents working to create positive change within their community are the foundation of grassroots organizing. But how does one start? Farrah has five great suggestions:

Step 1: Redefine what community is.

Farrah points out that community can be multiple things; it’s not just location. “When I first moved here, community to me was through my Muslim identity, so I was connecting with other Muslim women online and meeting them in a safer public space.” Community can also be based on causes, hobbies and activities.

Step 2: Connect.

“I think what’s really neat is knowing that there are people already doing this stuff,” Farrah muses. Community organizing is less daunting when you realize you don’t have to start it all yourself; you can connect and collaborate with people who are already working in the community. Farrah suggests attending local events or contacting a community organizer and asking if you can meet them for a drink and talk about how they do what they do.


Step 3: Start small.

There’s a saying in Farrah’s family: “You can’t eat an elephant in one bite.” So it’s okay to start small, for example, by having tea with an activist you admire, or attending a clothing swap with the intent to meet women with similar interests, or volunteering to work coat check at a fundraiser. You don’t have to become a community organizing master overnight. Or at all (see Step 4).

Step 4: Think about the skills you can bring.

Farrah explains, “A lot of us have these really neat skills that we don’t see as valuable, but they are valuable.” Not everyone needs to be an organizer. In fact, successful community groups require people who do different things, such as supplying food or providing childcare for an event. Your skill might not even be tied to an actual event – it could be taking care of your friend’s children so she can attend a community meeting, or checking in with an elderly neighbour to relay community news. As Farrah reiterates, “A part of my service is making sure that other people can be part of the communities where they want to make change. It’s not just about me doing the work, it’s about how I can support others so they can be involved too.”

Step 5: Be gentle with yourself.

Farrah knows that talking about violence against women and other issues can take a toll on one’s well-being, and she encourages everyone to recognize that part of your community work can be taking care of yourself. For Muslim women to love ourselves hard and our community hard is groundbreaking, so if that’s the self-care we need right now, well then let’s do that self-care. As a survivor of sexual assault, if you want to turn off the TV and the radio right now and you don’t want to look at your phone … that is the best form of activism that you can do.”

Energy like Farrah’s is infectious, and when you look at her accomplishments, it’s clear to see that those she works with feed off this energy. In working to make change, it’s important to remember that everyone can play a part – everyone can fill a gap.

You can support Outburst!’s efforts to send their leadership team of six young Muslim women to Chicago for INCITE! Colour of Violence Conference (COV) from March 26-29, 2015 by checking out their fundraising campaign here.

How-To With Fiona Crean: Creating Equity from the Ground Up

This is part of a new series on the WiTOPoli blog: a series of How-To posts with women who have made change in their communities by working with (and sometimes fighting against) the institutions that make our city work. These women inspire us and remind us that though the challenges to having our voices heard are many, they are most certainly not insurmountable.

By: Lauren Atmore


“What inspires me is the idea of having everyone included in the city. That’s the aspiration, what keeps me up at night, what drives me.”

As Toronto’s Ombudsman (the title is actually gender neutral), Fiona Crean is tasked with ensuring equality and equal access to information, services and opportunity in the city. Though her role is abhorred by some and lauded by many, her office is undeniably in demand: Ms. Crean says that requests for assistance are up 128 per cent since the office was created in 2009.

The Ombudman’s office is happy to review any municipal issue pertaining to fairness of services or the delay of them, though the majority of Fiona’s time is spent focusing on Toronto Community Housing (TCH) and how City Hall operates.

The Problem

When asked what task she has found the most difficult since taking on her role, Fiona says that “probably the most challenging was the one around seniors being evicted from Toronto Community Housing. That was certainly the most difficult, the most painful.” In 2013, the Ombudsman’s office completed an investigation into the eviction procedures concerning seniors relying on TCH services. This came after the death of Al Gosling shortly before his 82nd birthday, five months after being evicted from his home of 21 years. The Ombud’s office looked at seventy-nine cases and concluded that the “[Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s] application of its eviction prevention policies was either inconsistent or inappropriately used”.

The Goal

In undertaking this review, and in all her work as Ombudsman, Fiona explains that “it’s about making the systems better, more comprehensible, more transparent, more communication, in order for more citizens and residents to be included. I’m trying to bring equity and fairness to a greater number of people.” Her intentions echo not only the values set out by the Ombud’s office values but the results they are able to achieve through their work.

The Steps Taken

The Obudsman’s office looked at 79 cases of eviction of seniors in Toronto Community Housing. While the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) had already identified a severe issue with the inconsistent or inappropriate application of eviction prevention policies, Fiona’s investigation conclusions were “more unsettling in this case than previous investigations and inquiries, because the TCHC’s prior undertakings and promises remain unfulfilled.” Her team took the time to understand the systemic cause for abrupt eviction and provided the TCHC with several realistic steps to apply reasonable policy more fairly.

The End Result

After realizing where many of the cracks were forming during her investigation, the Ombuds’s office established a report called A Duty to Care. “What we established at a systemic level was that there was no capacity for the City to deal with residents with diminished capacity,” notes Fiona in regards to special social support some residents require. While this report was inspired by a situation unrelated to TCH, it still strives to put “a system in place so that everybody working for this government understands where they can go for help and how they need to treat and interact with citizens.” Fiona points out that the very nature of government doesn’t allow it the flexibility to change as demographics do.

The Advice

Fiona’s advice for those looking to make a change goes back to the basics. “Do your research. Talk to your councillor if that’s appropriate. Be tenacious, persevere, be persistent, keep records. I cannot overemphasize. Even as simple as the resident calls 311 with a problem and they don’t take down the tracking number. If you’ve got the tracking number then you’ve got your evidence as you work your way through the system.” If going it on your own doesn’t work, Fiona does suggest calling the Ombud’s office. “You’ll be given a straight answer and advice on how to navigate the system, and it is a complicated system.”

Having confidence and determination in your position is paramount to being heard and seeing results. But our Ombudsman is optimistic for women looking to make a difference in Toronto. “In terms of policy work for women, in terms of access and inclusion, the City probably superior to most governments,” Fiona notes before acknowledging the reality of the systemic disadvantages women face more generally, not to mention the other intersecting oppressions many women face. She urges women to consider their intuitiveness, relationship building skills and capacity to include as strengths in an atmosphere where “bossy” and “aggressive” are words used to describe only women.

And for those who shy away from rocking the boat? Take it from Fiona: “so long as somebody is angry with you, you’re doing okay.”

You can hear more from Fiona Crean and hang out with her, as well as other folks who share your interests, at our WiTOPoli Winter Warm-Up mixer, being held next Tuesday, March 3, at HiLo Bar in Leslieville. You can find details here.

How-To with Idil Burale: Building bridges for community safety

This is the first post in a new series on the WiTOPoli blog: a series of How-To posts with women who have made change in their communities by working with (and sometimes fighting against) the institutions that make our city work. These women inspire us and remind us that though the challenges to having our voices heard are many, they are most certainly not insurmountable.

By: Cherise Seucharan

How do we prevent crime instead of always having a reactive response to it?”

This was the question Idil Burale began to explore in the summer of 2012 when gun violence in her Rexdale community rose to an alarming high. Idil, a former MaRS Studio Y fellow and a columnist for Spacing.ca, worked to establish the Toronto Police Service’s Somali Liaison Unit. The initiative has reduced the crime rate through developing bonds between community members and police officers.

idil headshot

Step 1: Identify the issue

A longtime Rexdale resident, Idil had not been involved in her community until the gun violence in her neighborhood began making headlines. “I started recognizing a lot of Somali names in the news,” she said, referring to the almost bi-weekly reports of gun deaths that summer. She started asking questions, and was soon invited to a community meeting of mothers concerned about their children’s safety.

Step 2: Get involved

From that community meeting, an ad-hoc group called Positive Change was formed, with the goal of creating a safer neighbourhood for Somali youth.

The group created a 10-point policy for community change, and Idil involved her local MP Kirsty Duncan and MPP Mike Colle in the process, who then brought it to the federal level. However, the slow political process meant that they still were not seeing the immediate, community level change that was desperately needed.

“One thing that we could do with our two bare hands, that didn’t require money, was reaching out to our local police,” she said. The relationship between the community and the police of 23 Division in Etobicoke was tense, and fear of speaking to the police was major factor in the number of unsolved murders. For the safety of the community, it was clear to Idil and her collaborators at Positive Change that the relationship with police was in dire need of repair.

Step 3: Build a shared understanding

“We walked into our police division and we just had a frank meeting with them,” Idil explains. “We said that this is not working for us, and we don’t think its working for you either.” At the time, the Toronto Police Service was already developing a policing model that dedicated officers to high-risk neighbourhoods. Positive Change met with the two officers assigned to the Dixon area, and discussed how they could begin to develop a relationship.

The group brought the officers to community events, and set them up with cultural sensitivity training to better understand the community’s needs. The officers also got involved in local programs, such as running basketball programs for youth.  Some proved to be unexpectedly successful; an initiative in which officers helped to paint donated bikes was very popular with the young boys.

However, ingrained attitudes on both sides were still a barrier to building trust. Rexdale residents were suspicious that the officers were only there to collect information on them. The officers working in the community also struggled to work within a police culture that didn’t understand the type of “social work” they were doing. “It took a mind shift- not only for [the officers] but for the community,” Idil said.

Step 4: Improve continuously

Slowly, the project grew roots and the crime rate in the community fell dramatically. The project faced a major hurdle in 2013 when a big police raid intruded upon residents of Dixon Road. However, the local officers committed to rebuilding trust, and the continued success of the Somali Liaison Unit has attracted press coverage and political attention. The TPS has now extended the project for another two years, and scaled it across the entire service, reaching Divisions 31, 51, 12, and 32.

Idil has continued to work with the TPS, and is currently on the committee of the Policing and Community Engagement Review (PACER) which oversees improvements to policing.

You can do it!

Idil recommends that anyone with an interest in community safety to contact their local division, or attend the Community Police Liaison Committee, which occur every month at every police division. She is adamant that anyone with an interest in improving their community can make a positive contribution, no matter how small the act. “Political engagement is an everyday transaction,” she says. “You can build your city Monday through Sunday, at any time.”