Animated illustration of woman and Rube Goldberg machine showing her thought process

Illustrations by Jenn Kitagawa

How to embrace—and unleash—your inner activist

Three unstoppable women share why you sometimes need to shake things up to get things done

Bianca Spence had her “oh hell no” moment while riding downtown on an un-air-conditioned—and sweltering—eastbound subway car. For weeks during an early summer heat wave in 2016, she had arrived at work a hot, sweaty mess, while colleagues who hopped off the Yonge line were cool and fresh—all for the same fare, of course.

“I was pretty much at my wit’s end,” Spence says. “I didn’t know what to do.” So she tweeted her complaint at Mayor John Tory in the form of a challenge: Have him ride from Kennedy to Kipling and share her sweaty experience. She re-tweeted herself again, and again, until one day someone in the media noticed and Tory’s office got in touch. Challenge: accepted.

“I’m no huge transit advocate, just a regular passenger tired of sweating all the way to work and not being able to breathe on those trains,” she says. “That was one of the first times I publicly said, ‘I deserve better than this.’”

In other words, it was the first time in her life Spence became a bit of a “shit disturber,” refusing to stay quiet when she saw an injustice and poking the proverbial bear until she got a reaction. And it paid off. Spence got face-time with the mayor and a chance to help him understand the pains and inequities of TTC ridership—all of which lead to a commitment from then TTC chair Andy Byford to make sure that cars with broken air conditioning (that couldn’t be taken out of service) were spread out across trains until they could roll out a full slate of AC-equipped subway cars.

Creating a commotion was scary at first, but Spence doesn’t regret speaking out about an issue that was affecting her—and she says anyone can be a button-pushing, change-making activist, too, no matter the issue. We asked her, along with two other GTA-based activists, for insider tips on how raising your voice can lead to positive change. Here’s what they told us.

Illustration of hands holding protest signs that read Embrace Your Anger, Create Solutions and Don't Wait

First, embrace your frustration

Being an effective activist requires deep passion—enough to make you feel it’s worth sticking your neck out. But it can also mean confronting some deeply held instincts not to rock the boat, says Spence. “I feel like women are socialized to diffuse situations, to try to smooth things over, let things slide and make sure people are comfortable,” she says. “Sometimes even at their own expense.”

Spence went on to be a co-organizer of the Toronto Women’s March in 2017, another very public display of women’s power and action. “If there’s an injustice you’re living with that brings you dissatisfaction, you’re living with it anyway,” she says. “Why not try to at least make it a little bit better?”

Put forward solutions

Zoë Dodd also decided to speak out about an issue that had been bothering her for a while. Her job as a harm reduction worker in downtown Toronto has meant she’s lost many friends to drug overdoses. She feels they might still be alive if there were better policies to protect drug users, who are often also dealing with poverty and homelessness. “It’s important for us to be angry, but in that anger have solutions for moving forward,” she says.

Dodd’s most public display of frustration came during a 2017 Vice town hall on cannabis legalization with Justin Trudeau, in which she passionately called out the prime minister for not giving frontline harm reduction workers the resources to do proper prevention work to stem the opioid crisis. (“You are not doing enough,” she told him during the live event. “The bodies keep mounting.”) While taking her chance to confront the prime minister, she also put forward ideas for how to make things better, challenging his government to invest considerably more into those resources and suggesting they look to Portugal, which managed to stop its overdose epidemic by decriminalizing all drugs a decade ago.

Don’t wait for permission

Sometimes, stirring the pot means acting without permission. In Dodd’s case, refusing to wait for approval led to making a real difference. Last July, Toronto Police issued a rare warning following a string of seven drug overdoses, two of them fatal. They were connected to fentanyl, a dangerous drug that had been cut into other drugs sold on the street. Dodd and her colleagues had just been to a mayor’s meeting on the subject and left it feeling defeated. But instead of sitting back and waiting for the next move, they set up an unsanctioned safe injection site in Moss Park where people could come and safely inject their drugs.

“It ended up being there for 11 months,” Dodd says. “Before then, there were zero safe injection sites in Toronto.” Now, she adds, there are nine sites that specifically carry out on-the-ground harm reduction work for drug users in Toronto. Their unsanctioned site also helped speed up approval from the federal government for three other sites in the city that had been waiting to move forward amidst bureaucratic red tape, she says. By the time the Moss Park site shut down, more than 170 people had volunteered to help. “Some of the best things have come from people creating direct action and organizing themselves.”

Abstract illustration of blue hand tipping orange ball into a cup

Define what activism means for you

Jael Richardson was taken aback when, in 2016, a headline in literary magazine Quill & Quire identified her as an activist. Tired of attending literary festivals as the only Black writer in a sea of white peers, Richardson had just launched FOLD, a literary festival highlighting under-represented voices in the world of poetry and books. “Activism felt like a really strong and loud word,” she says. “At the time I wasn’t sure that my motivation was to be loud. I’m not sure I felt like putting on a festival was activism.”

Now she’s more comfortable wearing the word because she has set her own terms for how she wants it to look. “I’ve definitely become far more of a shit disturber, and I take on the term ‘activist’ because I see how powerful it is.” That said, adding “activist” to her identity has also led to more self-reflection.

“As an activist, you have to understand your personality and what you’re capable of doing with your personality,” she says. “Emotionally, I’m sensitive—I like to take calculated risks and am thoughtful about each one.” That’s helped her pick her moments. And while she’s not afraid to air her opinions on social media (most controversially about the lack of cultural diversity in the literature offered to high-school students), she says “a passive form of activism is to follow people doing important work, even things you might disagree with.” If you don’t feel you’re able to be vocal about an issue, support those who are—and maybe you’ll gain a deeper understanding of someone else’s perspective on an issue while you’re at it.

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