For far too long, the ways we build, govern, and talk about our cities have failed people of colour. It is undeniable that the urban planning profession has an ugly past that few people are willing to talk about. From racial zoning to redlining, from urban renewal and highway projects to decades of public transit disinvestment, these practices have perpetuated racial exclusion and injustice in both American and Canadian cities.
Today, our profession is still far from immune from systemic racism, and we need to talk about it.
In the days after George Floyd’s death and the beginning of protests in cities across North America, I admit that I struggled initially with how we as an organization should respond. Rather than putting out a generic statement, I knew we needed to do more than that. We needed to have a conversation, albeit a difficult, uncomfortable one. To do that, I reached out to two members of the Urban Minds team, Santessa Henriques and Matthew James.
Santessa is our Program Manager, an Urban Planning Research Analyst at Ratio.City and a Master of Planning graduate from Ryerson University. Matthew is our new Director of Engagement at 1UP Toronto and graduating from Ajax High School this year.
I asked if they could graciously spare the time and their already-depleting energy to share with me their thoughts. They agreed and the responses I received were both heartbreaking and enlightening. With Santessa and Matthew’s permission, I have lightly edited their responses below.
Ryan: What are your thoughts on the protests in Canada and the US, and the larger systemic issues of racism and racial injustice?
Santessa: It breaks my heart. I worry about my family, my friends, and my future children. But as we witness these events in the US, we need to remember that Canada also suffers from racial inequalities including discrimination faced by Indigenous people. It is not enough to say that we are a multicultural nation and embrace diversity but ignore how privilege and systemic racism contribute to injustice and inequality. However, I only learned about the history of Canadian racism at the age of 20 during a university class. The lack of education and exposure on these issues is frustrating. It is only then that I realized that I need to take education in my own hands by conducting my own research. The black community and allies are angry, traumatized, and disappointed in our system and the lack of positive action. The recent protests which have been demonstrated in various ways (e.g. social media posts, donations, marches) are a demonstration of solidarity and a public request for change. I hope all those who are supporting this cause remain safe and for officials to ensure the well-being of protesters.
Matthew: In all honesty, I don’t have the words to appropriately express how I feel. While the images of the protests we see in the US and here in Canada are of great concern, I believe it is crucial for all of us to realize the opportunity we have to help heal the many layers of pain and trauma that have devastated our community. As a young black man born into this system, it is quite overwhelming to realize the barriers and complexity of racism and racial injustice. Far too long have we been subjected to the effects of unjust, illogical, and divisive dogmas created by an archaic patriarchal system. As minorities we must speak out, we must educate ourselves and seek to be the change we wish to see in society. I believe this conversation starts with ourselves through introspection. Some of the most challenging conversations can only be expressed through understanding emotion, empathy, and vulnerability. It is important to hold those in authority accountable, but, we must first start with ourselves. We must be the change we wish to see, we must free ourselves of the mentality of consuming the images which oppress us. Realize our efforts will not come without sacrifice and endurance. To destroy the cycle and system that has oppressed our families we must first be freed of the ideology which controls our minds.
R: What are your own experiences as a black person growing up in Toronto/GTA?
S: I’ve been honoured and truly grateful for all the cultures and ethnicities I’ve been exposed to in this city. However, it is easy to be blind to the inequalities that black people face in this city unless you are living it. In this city, I’ve been singled out way too many times due to my skin colour — from customers declining my service when I worked in retail, to hairstylists refusing to do my hair, to authorities asking inappropriate questions while travelling, to a makeup line discontinuing my foundation colour. I’ve always been known to be the “token black girl” in many of my friend groups at school. I always had to act as a representative for the entire black community, which at times is a lot to handle. I am often the only black female when I attend city-building conferences or events in Toronto.
I know Toronto has the potential to be great, but we are just not there yet. The lack of education and support for the black culture is disappointing. The lack of genuine representation in our political parties, senior positions, or any position the city-building industry that I am currently in is disheartening. The black culture and black bodies deserve the utmost respect and acknowledgment.
M: Whenever I ask myself, ‘what does it mean to be black’ I often find myself at a crossroads. One being, I am a proud representation of my ancestors, who have laboured and sacrificed for me to have a voice and the privileges I do today. On the other hand, I am saddened by the reminder that I will be judged by the colour of my skin before I am able to speak my truth.
With this said, growing up in the GTA has been a blessing. I’ve grown to recognize that the opportunity and access I have today is not the same fortune for many other minorities around the world. Oftentimes, racism is perceived as the blatant use of derogatory language, but many fail to recognize the subtlety of covert discrimination. I have never personally felt attacked but, again, covert discrimination is real. Whether it be through stereotyping or tokenism, I am reminded that I navigate society as a black male through a black gaze.
In order to correct this, I believe society and, specifically, individuals in authority must be willing to have meaningful dialogues and be radical in their policies. We must seek to understand each other and be willing to get uncomfortable as it is clear that comfort has been the root of many of our issues.
R: What do allyship and real action look like for non-back people in the city building context?
S: True allyship to me is genuine support through the good and bad — celebrating our successes and supporting us during our losses. Weeks leading up to the death of George Floyd, I’ve seen many webinars or online conversations that lacked black representation or discussions on inequity and racism. But now, these same organizations are issuing statements of solidarity with the black community. This is not the way to do it. Support goes beyond public social media posts; it is opening doors, providing opportunities, seeking justice, and continuous engagement. This is not to be fooled with tokenism. True allyship comes from the heart. From our homes to our friendships to our daily interactions. Our city building industry lacks diversity in so many different ways. The black community is significantly underrepresented, yet it is our communities that are vulnerable to gentrification, shortage of affordable housing, or access to ethnic foods.
To my fellow planners, we have one responsibility and that is to serve the interest of the public. But really ask yourself, who is part of this public you envision? Is it those who come to public consultations held in the evening? Is it those that are English-speaking? Is it those that have access to the Internet or fresh drinking water? Many black communities cannot be involved in our city-building decisions due to these predetermined ideas of what the public is. We all, including those in the black community, have a role to learn and grow.
M: As allies or non-black people, I thank you and encourage you to never stop supporting the causes which you believe in! It is important for us all to hold each other accountable. By supporting our friends and families in having transparent conversations we will create better environments. I would encourage all people to embrace the idea of humanity and to realize that unity and patience are necessary stepping stones in rebuilding physical and social infrastructure. As people, we share common spaces, and it is imperative that public spaces and those in authority reflect the diversity of individuals within our communities.
Real action can only be achieved through acting upon our knowledge and education of the faults within our systems. Real action takes endurance, persistence, and communication. We are one team, one family, and we all hold the power in creating our future cities and environments. We must stand together, and recognize the struggles of our neighbours as a collective struggle in our humanity. My greatest advice to allies or non-black people is to use your privilege and access in contexts that benefit and help individuals outside of your immediate circle. To those in authority, give us seats at the table, give us platforms, and the support needed to make our world a better place. Diversity is not just a talking point, it is a word used to describe spaces filled with beautiful individuals from all walks of life.
R: What can youth do to support the fight against racism?
S: The best way for youth to support the fight against racism, is to look after their own safety. Our youth minds and bodies need to be protected and valued, as they become our next wave of leaders and change-makers. This is not just physical safety, but mental and emotional safety. Being aware of situations and issues that may be traumatizing to your health and well-being. Knowing that your support is not a competition among your friends or followers on social media.
Second, do not depend on the school system to teach you everything. Education comes in many shapes and forms. From documentaries to books, to travelling, to conversations you have with your Uber driver. Do not limit yourself to what is taught in school. Take every opportunity to learn something new about a culture or a person. Fighting racism begins with education. Even as an adult I continue to learn something new about racism every day.
Teach others. Be the change you want to see. Share your learnings with others, including your family at home or your friends at school. Fighting racism needs all the support and it is everyone’s part to continue these conversations whenever necessary.
M: I’d say the greatest blessing my generation has is our ability to access information, stories and to connect with people from all walks of life. As youth, I believe we can combat systemic oppression and racial injustice through education. Oftentimes, we are taught to understand things through the bias of those in control. This creates a cycle that perpetuates the racist and discriminatory ideologies so many people fight to eradicate. Through a unified approach, I know my generation will dismantle the walls that have long stood as safeguards for institutional oppression. As with all things in life, change takes time.
I encourage all people and specifically those who identify as youth to remain creative, passionate, and determined to see through with our potential. As youth we have the opportunity to explore, we can be fearless and intelligent by learning and building from the mistakes of past generations. In order to fight racism, we must seek to understand and remain responsible in our actions, as we have learned our choices will be the reality for the generations to come.
Now it’s time to act.
While there are encouraging signs and glimpses of hope because of the amazing work done by countless leaders from different communities, the city building scene in Toronto is still dominated by older, white people. This is the uncomfortable truth. This is especially evident in community engagement settings where decision-makers rely on the input of those who are able to show up.
When Angela and I co-founded Urban Minds, our goal was to change that picture — to bring people who weren’t at the table before to the table. We decided to focus on working with youth as our mission in order to close the age gap, but we were aware, from the beginning, that bridging the gaps between race, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. was also going to be part of the work. For us, supporting this fight for racial justice is only the right thing to do. For that reason, we are committed to doing the following:
- We are committed to not having tokenistic diversity but actually amplifying the voices that have been marginalized, and that includes black voices, through our youth engagement projects and events.
- We have actively recruited members of the racialized community to our Urban Minds/1UP Toronto team and Advisory Board in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
- We will branch out to reach youth in racialized and other equity-seeking communities that we have not worked in or with before. Please invite us and we will make it work!
- We will donate 100% of our sponsorship fees for our upcoming 1UP Leaders Lab to organizations that support black youth in Ontario. The organizations will be selected by youth members of our 1UP Toronto executive team.
We are listing these actions in order to keep ourselves accountable. It is my hope that when we look back to this next year, I can confidently say we have made progress as an organization.
2020 has been a terrifying year, but it is a wake-up call for many of us about an ongoing struggle that goes back centuries. Now is the time to talk about it. Now is the time to act.
Ryan Lo is the co-founder of Urban Minds.