June 2020 has been a historic month. With global protests for action against mistreatment and brutality toward Black, Indigenous, and people of color, the pandemic causing cancellation of Pride celebrations in cities across North America, and a virtual Convocation under lockdown, we may be looking for ways to engage in a dialogue about the future, which seems both increasingly chaotic and promising of change, in equal measure.
2020 School of Cities Undergraduate Fellow and Student Academy member, Sydney Narciso Wilson, is one of the many voices to emerge advocating for an awareness of the beginnings of Pride festivals in great moments of protest such as the stonewall riots. A former Queen Elizabeth Scholar, she has an extensive background in feminist activism.
We met with Sydney to discuss her ideas and experiences as a UofT student and researcher. She spoke about her experiences travelling to New Zealand to participate in research and how her advocacy has shaped her academic experience so far. She offered insight into Pride, community-based research, and the changes in her research due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
You are a feminist, an advocate and organizer. Could you elaborate on where your journey began and how it has been so far?
I grew up in a very politically aware family, and we lived in the Parkdale area of Toronto which was and still is a diverse, immigrant, lower-income neighbourhood (although now it’s gentrifying so much), so I think I’ve always been social-justice oriented. When I was in grade ten, I decided to do school online for the year, and that gave me the flexibility and time to really start getting involved. I began volunteering as a peer support volunteer for the LGBT Youth Line and got heavily involved in MPP Cheri DiNovo’s re-election campaign, who was and is such an inspiration for me, as a really impactful activist and politician. I learned so much and made so many connections during that year, and it’s just kind of grown from there – in university I didn’t have as much time, but now that I’ve graduated I’m really getting back into it and working on things like the Good Neighbour Project and mutual aid in my neighbourhood.
You're a U of T student but you have also conducted research in New Zealand. How has such international research opportunities contributed to your academic experience?
Going to New Zealand was one of the most transformational experiences of my undergrad, both academically and personally. Being there gave me the opportunity to learn and work alongside an incredible team of researchers doing community-led research through a specifically pro-Indigenous framework. This made me more critical, especially about how we perceive and value knowledge. In turn, this made me more passionate about research, and more aware of my own positionality, which is something I’m constantly thinking of, and reading and reflecting about in my academic work, research, and outreach/community-oriented undertakings.
With Toronto Pride being cancelled this year, would you like to take this opportunity to share a message with the LGBTQ community in the GTA?
The festival may have been cancelled, but our pride in who we are definitely has not been. We can’t forget that pride festivals evolved from the Stonewall riots against police raiding, harassment, and brutality towards LGBT people, and that Toronto specifically evolved from the Operation Soap raids by Toronto police in 1981. So, I’d encourage anyone, but, especially those of us of the white preople, and other privileges, to take this opportunity to get back to the roots of pride and fight for the most marginalized in our community, such as the disproportionate number of LGBTQ+ homeless people, especially teens, and Black, Indigenous and other People of Color queer particularly Trans and Two-Spirit folx. Happy Pride everyone!
In these uncertain and stressful times, how do you think your peers and other university students can prepare themselves better for what lies ahead?
For me, I’ve been trying to use this time to attend virtual talks, read books, listen to podcasts, etc. on subjects that interest me and are relevant to my fields. I’ve also been reaching out to people featured to learn more about their work, what’s needed in the field, and how I might contribute now or in my future career. But I’ve also been trying to slow down, spend time with my family who I’m lucky enough to live with and who are hospitality workers not working due to COVID, and think about not just what I want to do but how I want to live my life as I make the transition between my undergraduate degree and working.
At the same time, people are experiencing the pandemic very differently. So, I think it’s important to push back on the idea that now is a time to be productive or prepare for the future because, for a lot of people, it’s really just about trying to get through this time.
How has being a Student Fellow contributed to your outreach and engagement for positive change?
So many fellows are also engaged in outreach work, like opening a food bank for students, advocating for increased bike infrastructure, etc. So, I’ve found being able to get ideas, advice, and amplification for our various efforts from each other and the SofC team has been a really wonderful experience. My project also had to change pretty significantly due to COVID-19, but because of that I’m also getting the opportunity to take a specific look at how the pandemic is having gendered impacts on home spaces, which I’m really excited about, and I hope will feed into my Masters studies and further research.
Sydney has a passion for research and has been involved in political organizing, feminist advocacy and LGBT community support in Toronto since her early teens. As a School of Cities Fellow she is excited to be exploring how the experience of COVID-19’s collapsed spatiality of life into the home space has been gendered. She is also learning about food justice through her work on the outreach steering team for the Good Neighbour Project and through co-facilitating a garden for foodbanks in currently unused public space. Previously, Sydney completed a two-year research project assessing the impact of government policy on the health of Indigenous sex workers, which has recently been selected as the 2020 Kiessling Paper by the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict & Justice at the Munk School of Global Affairs. She looks forward to pursuing further study, research, and work related to issues of gender justice, community resilience and disaster mitigation, especially through the lens of the social determinants of health and urban/regional planning.