"Students in the Spotlight" is a conversation series with members of the SofC Student Academy and Urban Leadership Fellowship program.
- What are you currently working on? What are your research and engagement interests?
I’m currently working on a mix of research and community projects. I always aim to center my work around the needs of marginalized community members, especially low-income racialized folks, so I hope for my projects to reflect that. This year I’m a fellow with the Tamil Archive Project, a collective of racialized women and non-binary folks, where we create community programming highlighting communal care and social justice issues in Toronto. I’m also a member of the student and alumni-led Infectious Disease Working Group at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health where I’ve been creating resources to help community members access accurate information regarding COVID-19. This summer I’m also working as a research assistant focusing on knowledge translation in the non-profit sector.
- What has motivated your interests and journey? How do you hope to make difference?
At a young age I was exposed to the many barriers that low-income, racialized folks experience in Toronto. Like many, my parents sought refuge in Canada after fleeing the Salvadoran Civil War. The war really affected their overall health, so social assistance was our main source of income for most of my life.
Being on social assistance impacts most aspects of your daily life including access to safe housing, fresh food, and transportation. Many residents in my north-west Toronto neighbourhood share similar life experiences but our concerns are not often prioritized. I hope my work will ultimately amplify the lived experiences of low-income Black, Indigenous, and racialized residents to create policies that reflect our needs.
What’s the latest project you have been working on and would like to share with the SofC audiences?
I’ve been working with the Infectious Disease Working Group to create ReConnect, an interactive tool that allows Torontonians to find community and social resources during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a Community Engagement team member, I developed the geospatial map and filters using data from a partnership with 211 Ontario.
ReConnect allows users to filter resources based on service type and priority population. This work has captured the attention of Parliament and was discussed at a recent House of Commons Standing Committee on Health meeting. Our team wrote a policy brief for this meeting highlighting how neighbourhoods with high populations of Black and racialized residents live in more resource scarce areas and are more likely to be disproportionally affected by COVID-19.
As a student, researcher and or activist, what have you learned from the pandemic and its global impact?
The COVID-19 pandemic reminded me of the importance of adapting my community work to fit the current and changing needs of the community. The pandemic has magnified societal inequities worldwide and it was important for me that my project reflected our new reality. As someone who values the lived experiences of community members, I understood that the pandemic was affecting the community’s current way of living and that my project should highlight the inequities presented by the pandemic.
Please share with us your experiences at the SofC. How do you think being a member of the SofC Urban Leadership Fellowship and Academy Program has contributed to your scholarship and added to your experience as a student?
Creating my School of Cities project has been an ideal way to end off my time at the University of Toronto as it allows me to put all of the lessons that I attained in the classroom into action while focusing on the interests I developed in my community. I came into my Master’s program with the hope of helping my community and being able to carry out a project that is community-based is completely in line with my goals and the lessons I learned at the University of Toronto. I really look forward to using the lessons and skills that I gained throughout this project on future community projects that address disparities in Toronto neighbourhoods.
Any final words/ message?
I hope that as researchers and activists, we can continue using our platforms to amplify the voices of marginalized community members, namely Black, Indigenous and racialized folks, and the ongoing work that these communities do. As we have seen, the pandemic has really magnified societal inequities worldwide. For marginalized communities living these realities daily, it isn’t a surprise that their communities are the first to be impacted in the event of an emergency. Many marginalized folks are regularly advocating for their communities and it’s important to listen and acknowledge the grassroots community work that propels long-term change.
Growing up as the daughter of Salvadoran refugees in a predominately low-income and immigrant neighbourhood in Toronto, Evelyn Ascencio witnessed the daily effects of health inequities on her family and friends. These lived experiences motivated her to work directly with the community to educate them about societal factors that lead to health disparities. This has led her to work as a Youth Health Action Network member with Toronto Public Health. She has also facilitated peer support groups and supported community advocacy efforts for Fred Victor Centre. At Planned Parenthood Toronto, she has analyzed teen pregnancy and STI rates to identify high risk neighborhoods in Toronto. Evelyn ultimately aims to raise awareness of the experiences that marginalized communities face in Toronto in her work as a researcher and educator. Most recently, to contribute her skills to the Covid-19 pandemic response initiatives Evelyn worked with ReConnect, an interactive web-based tool that allows users to locate available services and supports in their respective communities. Watch her interview on CTV's "Your Morning" as she puts job-searching as a new grad during a pandemic, into perspective.