PHOTOGRAPHY BY GENEVIÈVE CARON / ILLUSTRATIONS BY ALANNA CAVANAGH
Meet 8 of Toronto’s most inspiring changemakers
These women are working hard to make the city a better place, one motivational speech (and awesome app and tech tutoring program) at a time
By Diana Duong
Social justice, gender equality, inclusion and accessibility — these are just a few of the things these eight unstoppable women are fighting for. Best of all, they’re living proof that you can make positive change at any age. Prepare to be inspired!
Occupation: CEO and founder of Access Now, an app that maps the accessibility (or lack thereof) of locations like bars, clubs, stores, coffee shops and train stations.
How she makes change: What started as her Master’s thesis project at Ryerson University has grown into an internationally crowd-sourced app that maps more than 16,000 locations spanning 32 countries, telling users whether they’re accessible—or not. Access Now isn’t just for people with disabilities. “Whether you sprain your ankle and are on crutches for a couple weeks, or you want to go somewhere with a grandparent who uses a walker, we all have a relationship with accessibility,” says Maayan, who lives with muscular dystrophy. “Maybe you’re a new parent with a stroller—you’ll suddenly see the subway system differently because you realize only half the stations are accessible.”
Why she loves living in TO: “I’ve had the chance to travel to different cities and every time I come home, I see how special Toronto is. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s something about the diversity of different perspectives and backgrounds, and people coming together.”
What inspires her: “When people reach out to me and share their stories about how the app helped them—it’s those moments that tell me this is working and people are benefiting from it.”
Favourite hobby: Finding the best ramen in Toronto.
Pet peeve: People making assumptions about the accessibility community.
In her past life: She worked in the fashion industry as a photographer.
Occupation: Retired civil servant, active volunteer
How she makes change: As a 19-year-old undergrad in 1970, Ceta became a driving force behind the creation of a Women’s Studies program at the University of Toronto. From there, the immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago devoted her career to fighting for social justice and human rights at City Hall, where she worked for 30 years championing causes like breastfeeding on city grounds, zero tolerance for racial profiling in policing and better access to social housing.
As a councillor for Ward 20 in 2014, she put forward a motion to change the words of “O Canada” to be more inclusive, and in 2015 she co-founded the Campaign for Gender Equality in the Senate, urging the PM to fill 22 vacant seats with women. Today, when she’s not spearheading efforts to revitalize Grange Park, she’s serving as National Chair for The Word On The Street Canada, and volunteering at Toronto Foundation and U of T where she is an honorary member of the Women and Gender Studies Institute.
Why she loves living in TO: “While there are still many obstacles to achieving full inclusion for all residents in civic life, the policy goals of governments and the advocacy undertaken by civil society and individual residents makes me happy to live in this city.”
In her downtime: She enjoys yoga, gardening, reading (Brother by Canadian writer David Chariandy is currently on her bedside table) and chatting with her mother.
Little known fact: She enjoys a good rock concert (Feist is a favourite).
Occupation: Commerce student at Queen’s University
How she makes change: Remember what you were doing in high school? Liat founded two start-ups: Compass, a non-profit that got companies such as Deloitte and Blackberry to sponsor care packages for Syrian families arriving to Canada, and SeniorIT, a provincially funded program that matched youth with seniors for tech tutoring. “Knowing that there are so many people in the world willing to drop what they’re doing to help inspires me. Whether it’s a [school] alumnus, friend of a friend, or complete stranger, numerous people have taken the time to coach and mentor me—all it takes is reaching out. That’s why I try to pay it forward whenever possible.”
Why she loves living in TO: “At any given moment, I’m surrounded by a myriad of people with different backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. To grow up in such a culturally enriching environment has been a huge privilege.”
Greatest passion: Disruption. “Unlike innovation, disruption includes new ideas, products or services that are so powerful they can cause an actual change in the status quo—there are still so many inefficiencies in everyday life that need disruption. Whether its financial services, manufacturing, health care, there is always room for better processes.”
Favourite hobbies: Pinterest, graphic design and illustration.
Someday…: She hopes to live in a small house on the West Coast with an open backyard where she can build a greenhouse.
Occupation: Acting executive director at Ecosource, a non-profit that offers interactive environmental education programs throughout Mississauga and Brampton.
How she makes change: For the past decade, Andrea has led reforestation initiatives across the GTA, increasing local tree density by 30 per cent. At Ecosource, she leads a community-based organic gardening program and delivers waste education workshops to students in Peel region schools. Thanks to her efforts, many of the schools have reduced their waste by half. “I have always felt a connection to the natural environment. It’s that connection to land that inspires me to enhance it and see what’s possible.”
Why she loves living in Toronto: “I love my neighborhood because of the people. Our community is like a village and our local park is the central square where everyone has the opportunity to meet one another.”
Favourite pastimes: Hiking with her family, working in the garden, being messy.
Pet peeve: When dog owners leave bags of dog poop hanging from park fences.
5Nancy Smith Lea
Occupation: Director of the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT)
How she makes change: Nancy has been taking to the streets for years with clipboards (or, more recently, iPads), studying how people move in the city. This year, she helped build TCAT’s report on the evidence of the economic impact of Bloor Street’s pilot bike lane, which led city council to agree to make the bike lane permanent (the mayor said it was TCAT’s data that convinced him). In 2016, TCAT helped establish two community bicycle hubs in priority neighbourhoods in Scarborough.
Why she loves living in TO: “Whenever I leave Toronto and come back, I’m so happy to return. It’s home. There are lots of deep reasons for that, including social and community connections, tolerance, diversity—and that it’s one of the best places to live and work as a woman of anywhere I’ve been.”
Greatest passion: Cycling. “Before I moved to Toronto, I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was a kid. But in Toronto, there are so many good options for getting around other than driving. It’s usually the fastest, it keeps me active, it’s affordable and it’s fun! I feel pretty lucky that I get to jump on my bike every day and get to where I need to go.”
Favourite hobbies (not on two wheels): Cooking, yoga
Pet peeve: When people say “vehicles” to refer to cars, ignoring the fact that a bicycle is legally a vehicle too.
Why she loves living in TO: “I love Toronto because of its diversity. It’s truly an international multicultural city.”
Greatest passion: “Preserving and protecting Canada’s water and assisting our Indigenous communities to thrive and be sustainable. We need to work with our own communities to establish self-governance.”
Favourite hobby: “I love being by the water and thanking it for everything it does to sustain us.”
Pet peeve: Society’s continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels and slow move to sustainable and solar energy.
In her downtime: She enjoys riding her motorcycle.
Occupation: Human rights lawyer
How she makes change: Saron’s mission is to protect people. She’s been at the forefront of several well-known human rights cases, including the time she served Starbucks a $1-million lawsuit for forcing a barista to work with her alleged assaulter. Recently she travelled to the LaColle border crossing in Quebec to meet the thousands of Haitian migrants trying to cross there—many of whom are arrested as soon as they enter Canada. “This is the largest mass arrest of black people in Canadian history since the abolition. These people have travelled far and I don’t want their first interaction with Canada to be negative, so I went to provide legal counsel, tell them they have the right to claim asylum and help them with the process. They deserve their chance.”
Why she loves living in TO: “I love Toronto for its resilient and tenacious spirit, but especially because this is a city that truly roots for the underdog. I will forever have deep-seated admiration for its ability to inspire political action and social change.”
Greatest passion: Using her position of power to help others. “My family came to Canada as Eritrean refugees. We were a working-class family who struggled. As a lawyer, sometimes I can’t believe how much access to power I have. People who are marginalized don’t realize they have a voice—they don’t come to meetings. I want to use my power to benefit others.”
Favourite hobby: Playing the flute. (She’s also a classically trained pianist and often performs onstage.)
Occupation: Grade 12 student at North Toronto Collegiate Institute
How she makes change: When she was 12, Kehkashan started Green Hope, an organization that runs activities like tree planting and beach and mangrove cleanups. “When I first moved here from the United Arab Emirates, I went to the lakeshore and was taken aback by the amount of litter that had washed ashore. Since then I’ve conducted quite a few clean-ups.” Green Hope started with just five of Kehkashan’s friends in 2012. Since then, the organization has engaged more than a thousand young people across 10 countries—a feat for which she won the 2016 International Children’s Peace Prize.
Why she loves living in TO: “I really love the diversity the city has to offer. It’s amazing to see people from all parts of the world coming here to make it their home.”
Greatest passion: “Engaging, educating and empowering youth—especially girls—so that we can create a world that is equitable and sustainable. Our generation is the last one that can combat climate change before it’s too late. We’re the largest stakeholders of civil society, yet we continue to be the least represented.”
Favourite hobby: Jamming with her friends (she likes singing, playing the piano and guitar).
Pet peeve: When adults underestimate youth and doubt their capabilities.