How a University of Toronto Fellowship Program is Equipping Diverse Leaders with the Tools for Social Change.

Applications are open for the 2022 Leading Social Justice Fellowship until April 11. Apply here >>

To ensure that the health and environmental benefits of active transportation are accessible to all, the cycling advocacy group CycleTO, research hub Clean Air Partnership, and local health services organization Access Alliance joined forces to build buy-in among local residents. These civic leaders found a space to check their assumptions and hone their engagement strategies at the University of Toronto's School of Cities' (SofC) Leading Social Justice Fellowship program. Since its launch in 2018, the SofC has sought to remove the barriers between the university and its surrounding environment. Its network of urban-focused researchers, educators, and students regularly collaborate with leaders outside of academia to strengthen their collective capacity to address urban challenges.

"There's an aura that surrounds the expertise of university faculty," says Karen Chapple, Director of the University of Toronto's School of Cities, "but a lot of learning happens when you listen to local insights. We're interested in dismantling the ivory tower, building reciprocal relationships, and ultimately, making knowledge more accessible to communities."

Communities have been sounding the alarm on systemic racism and rising inequality in Toronto for decades. However, the issues received widespread attention in 2020 when COVID-19 and its resulting crises clearly and disproportionately impacted racialized Torontonians. "The pandemic, and the acts of violence against Black and Indigenous people in North America, really increased the urgency of our work," says Matti Siemiatycki, former Interim Director at the SofC.

In response, the SofC and their partners at the United Way of Greater Toronto (UWGT) redesigned their civic leadership development program with a focus on equity. The new Leading Social Justice Fellowship would be a space where aspiring changemakers from the public, private, and community sectors could strengthen their leadership capacity, address a core social justice challenge within their areas of focus, and dismantle systemic racism within their respective organizations and fields.

headshots of nation and nouman
Nation Cheong (left) & Nouman Ashraf (right)

The curriculum was co-created by Nouman Ashraf, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Nation Cheong, Vice President, Community Opportunities and Mobilization at UWGT, along with a network of community advisors from public health, urban planning, corporate social responsibility, social services, and other relevant fields. The response to this new opportunity was hugely positive, with dozens of organizations from the private, public, and nonprofit sectors registering for the pilot project. “People are hungry for spaces where they can call out privilege and inequality, and be meaningfully involved in addressing it," says Ashraf.

From January to June 2021, 51 mid-career leaders from 17 organizations attended online classes and asynchronous learning sessions on topics like leadership development, social justice, and anti-racism. To begin their learning journey, participants were directed to turn inward and toward their personal histories and experiences as leaders. "It's critical to start with the individual when you're situating yourself within the landscape of social change," says Cheong. "How do you stand in the truth of who you are as a leader? How do you engage in self-care? How do you ensure you're supporting leadership development for those that you lead?"

Many learned to embrace the discomfort that accompanies anti-racist work. Others discovered that their organizations' previous diversity, inclusion, and social responsibility initiatives hadn't meaningfully addressed inequity in their fields, nor had their public solidarity statements or awareness campaigns moved the dial on public opinion. 1 observed people moving from a strong advocacy stance, you know, we need to get out there and shake the system, 'to a more nuanced, sophisticated approach," says Cheong. "The march and the protest are very important, and you balance that by creating alliances and understanding the leverage points."

Participants entered the fellowship seeking to address a social justice challenge within their own organizations or communities. Their topics were varied: creating racial equity and trans inclusion within recreational sports, advocating for decent work conditions for Personal Support Workers, and addressing the transportation poverty that impacts racialized youth. All teams emerged from the program with a deeper understanding of how to drive systems change, how to engage in allyship through proactive community engagement and ongoing accountability, and what it truly means to be a leader in this tumultuous time.

Supporting Cheong and Ashraf during lessons were guest experts like Nana Aba Duncan, Garvia Bailey and Hannah Sung (Media Girlfriends), Peter Dinsdale (YMCA Canada), Paul Taylor (FoodShare Toronto), David Hulchanski (University of Toronto), and Sarah Jama (Disability Justice Network of Ontario), who shared their unique experiences of spurring systemic change within diverse fields. For an audience that ranged from small theatre companies to multi-million dollar companies, these perspectives proved transformative. "When we come together across differences, we can escape cognitive entrenchment, diversify our thinking, and find successful solutions," explains Ashraf.

The Fellowship also offered an opportunity to the SofC to engage in its own reflexive learning about how it can continually improve in its ability to support positive change. For its next incarnation in 2022, Chapple aims to engage the new alumni network in ongoing collaboration, expand the curriculum's roster of community experts, grow faculty engagement, and build upon its core philosophy of "nothing about us, without us," so that equity and anti-racism remain embedded within the Fellowship's DNA.

"Academia has to be open to the transformation—so it's both a purveyor of knowledge and a recipient," says Cheong. "This will make it a more inclusive, more relevant institution to an increasingly diverse population, and support the social change that we need to see."


Written by Kate Fane.

The Leading Social Justice Fellowship is a cross-sectoral leadership development program for individuals engaged in social justice transformation in the GTA, co-hosted by U of T's School of Cities, United Way of Greater Toronto and Rotman Executive Programs. If you’re passionate about social justice, form a team and join us in 2022.


APPLY NOW by Monday, April 11, 2022, 10 pm EDT.
WATCH the virtual information session on YouTube (1 hour).