Modelling true allyship with Kristyn Wong-Tam

Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who was elected to Toronto City Council in 2010 and whose advocacy efforts have spanned affordable housing, economic development, community art and urban planning, joined us recently for one of our most inspirational conversations yet on ABCDEI. 

In the past decade, Councillor Wong-Tam has brought a lot of positive change for her ward. But it’s also what she does in her time outside Council that makes her stand out. She was front-and-centre at a gathering at Nathan Phillips Square to fight the rise of anti-Asian racism in the wake of the recent shootings in Atlanta, the victims of which including six women of Asian descent. She was there to unveil a set of new benches in Toronto specially made and painted to mark #TransgenderDayofVisibility in the heart of the city. And as the only out member of Toronto city council, she has fought effectively to turn an LGBTQ lens on a range of issues.

When you think about the essence of a politician, it’s representing the diverse needs of one’s constituents. Not many can do it as authentically and passionately as Councillor Wong-Tam, especially in one of the most diverse and challenging areas of the city. Here is some of the wisdom shared by someone we feel is modelling true allyship:

Motivation is personal

What propelled Councillor Wong-Tam into politics was a deep-rooted feeling of restlessness with the imbalance in success of those around her. 

She saw people who were falling the cracks in the system, no matter how hard they worked and how qualified they were to achieve the success they deserved. Despite their best efforts, they were struggling to provide food and care for their families. That’s when she strived to do something and judge her own success by those around her.

Dismantling patriarchy

Wong-Tam talked about the need for more women, especially racialized women, in government because their voices are important and the point of views that they bring to policymaking is so critical. A woman’s perspective can shift the discourse around topics of economic recovery, health spending and education policy, among other issues. 

But in order for that to happen, we need to be able to address misogyny and patriarchy. 

We live in a world that has systemic barriers that hold women back. And it doesn’t matter what country you are, or region or town you’re from. Women always rank the lowest with respect to economic advancement, with respect to labour force representation, with respect to university and college degrees held. 

Dismantling patriarchy has to involve focused effort on the part of governments, businesses and institutions to improve conditions with an equitable and intersectional lens.

Intersectionality matters

Wong-Tam approaches her work with an intersectional feminist lens. What does this mean? It’s about working towards the upliftment and the advancement of women and girls, but especially BIPOC. If women, girls and non-binary folx feel safe traveling on transit, have economic opportunities and equitable access to employment, then everybody else will, because they’re always at the bottom of every single list.

Now, a lot of people feel more comfortable speaking about equality. But, as Gail Strachan articulately stated in episode 5: meritocracy is a myth. In fact, some of the fiercest resistance to these topics can come from BIPOC men. It is important not just to bring the historically privileged folx with us, but as Ali Kazmi shared in episode 4, allyship among the margins is critical too. But to be clear: bringing women up in the organization, creating new opportunities for BIPOC doesn’t mean eliminating roles held by white people. It’s about looking ahead with intentionality.

Since ABCDEI is all about learning and unlearning, this is how we have unpacked the concepts shared in episode 7 into simple and actionable ideas:

  1. Fight patriarchal culture. Don’t get defensive about the processes in place at your workplace. Look at them with an intersectional lens and be open to changing, replacing and retiring policies that hold back certain marginalized groups from advancement and fulfillment. Create safe channels to seek the input of those who feel held back: that’s where your change goals should be focused.
  1. Co-create change. When you’re reviewing corporate culture, make sure you have a policy to ensure the workplace is discrimination and harassment free. Co-create that document by inviting your colleagues to share their individual views on what makes a positive workspace, for BIPOC, for new parents, for transgender individuals, for those living with disabilities. Accommodating these diverse needs is step 1; step 2 is creating a guide to address conflict in a productive way.
  2. Don’t create diversity mascots. Too often, an individual in a predominantly white workplace may feel pressured to speak for all forms of diversity. This is not possible, nor is it fair to any individual. The BIPOC community is not a monolith, nor is the LGBTQ community. Their issues are not the same. Don’t put anyone in that awkward position.
  1. Listen with love. People who are from under-represented groups have embraced the need for self-care. So, for those with privilege on the flip side, we urge you to listen with love. When someone shares their struggles with you, try to hear them with your heart and resist the urge to jump in and fix the issue immediately. This is what Diversity Equity & Inclusion (DEI) expert Aiko Bethea describes as the action bias on an episode of Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast, cautioning against the instinctive rush to ‘fix’ racism fast. When we go straight to fixing, we feel good, but the other person feels unheard, unseen and disempowered. Inclusive leadership is much more about listening to learn than to react in the moment.

If you have found yourself wanting to unlearn but wondering where to even begin, or if you have a guest idea, drop us a line at hello@abcdei.ca.

Here in heeding and ignoring advice,

Rohini + Susan

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