A Political Perspective with Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam

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.

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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.

 

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WiTOpoli Weekly: Friday, September 26

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.

  • This week, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam tweeted a photo of a threatening letter she received containing racist and homophobic slurs. Wong-Tam, who is Toronto Council’s only openly gay member, explained that she shared the letter publicly because “it’s very important for us to name it and try to change it”. A copy has also been sent to the police.
  • In response to a Canada Public Safety Report released this week on the effect of human trafficking on Aboriginal communities, rabble.ca published this opinion piece which provides useful background for the report and suggestions for how such studies can be improved.
  • In a recent Toronto Star column, writer Heather Mallick posed the question “Why can’t Canada build a feminist?“, after attending a reading by British feminist and author Caitlin Moran. The Canadian Twitterverse was critical of Mallick’s suggestion that Canada does not have an active feminist community, while some were disappointed Moran was invited to speak at the Toronto Reference Library, given the transphobic, ableist and racist comments she’s made in the past.
  • In two separate instances, Olivia Chow was confronted by racist comments during this week’s mayoral debates. She was told to go “back to China” by one attendee and referred to as “creeping jihad” by another protestor. Chow said comments such as these “point to bigger issues the city faces, including racial profiling”.
  • After groundbreaking Black female showrunner Shonda Rhimes was called an “angry black woman” in a recent New York Times piece, activist Janet Mock responded with this essay in honour of her favourite TV feminist, Claire Huxtable.
  • In response to Emma Watson’s UN speech on gender equality, some were impressed, some were inspired, and some folks had a few suggestions.
  • Oh, and you might’ve heard we launched a new election resource called the Position Primer, which provides issue-by-issue comparisons of council candidates’ views in each of Toronto’s 44 wards. Read all about it in the Toronto Star and CityNews, and help us spread the word!

Women explaining politics to each other

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Jennie Worden holds up some ideas we generated

Last night was a perfect example of how passion, ingenuity, and a sense of humour can turn a frustrating incident into something constructive.

On Sunday, Mayor Rob Ford made some (I expect) very well-intended but clumsy comments offering to “explain how politics works” to interested women in Toronto. Many women in my Twitter feed seemed outraged in that kind of bemused, exhausted way. We needed an outlet.

On Monday, we penned an open letter to the Mayor to take him up on his offer and organize a WiTOpoli event about running for office at which the Mayor could be keynote. On the same day, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam did us one better and organized an event for the #WiTOpoli community (i.e. any woman interested in Toronto municipal politics). She cheekily called it the “Explain How Politics Works to Women” Coffee Party, and framed it as a collaborative opportunity for women to discuss the representation/inclusion of women in politics amongst themselves, with the input and support of a councillor. A portion of the proceeds from food and drink sales will go to Fife House, a supportive housing organization for people living with HIV/AIDS. Naturally, we were enthusiastic.

Last night over coffee and beer, we shared our experiences engaging with politics and politicians, our perceptions of the unique challenges women might face breaking into the field, and what kinds of changes we could effect on a micro or macro scale. I met a bunch of whip-smart people for the first time, including firebrand activist Susan Gapka (who I’ve admired from afar for some time and was thrilled to finally meet). The room was filled with other women whose names I expect will become familiar to you in the future as they shape the political landscape in Toronto.

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Siva Vijenthira and Susan Gapka – new friends!

New friend Arianne Matte circulated sheets of flipchart paper with ideas about how to break down some of the barriers for women who might otherwise run for office. Other attendees jotted down their thoughts on post-its until every sheet was covered with them. I chatted at length with one attendee about the logistics and challenges of deputing before Toronto Council committees. I chatted at length with another about her plans to run for office in the near future. Read more in Robyn Doolittle’s Toronto Star article about the evening.

It was hard not to be inspired and energized by the ideas, connections and ambition that emerged from what began for many of us as a negative experience. From mayoral lemons, a truly delicious lemonade.

Steph Guthrie is co-founder of Women in Toronto Politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @amirightfolks.