All posts by Alex McKeen

Editor-in-Chief 2016–2017 Features Editor 2015–2016 Associate News Editor 2014–2015

Up in the air.

Amy Hosotsuji might be the paragon of millennial cosmopolitanism in Toronto. I met the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U) master’s student at the new Jimmy’s coffee shop on McCaul Street, where individual-sized tables line a long bench to form single-person stations. The setup parallels the social paradigm of the coffee shop goers themselves: adamant individualism is the common thread that unites them with their fellows.

When she walks into the shop to meet me, Hosotsuji is lugging a large plastic bag full of bedsheets. This meeting is transitory for her; she is coming from class at OCAD U and on her way to her Airbnb listing nearby, before heading home.

Despite what some might perceive as a hectic schedule, Hosotsuji is completely at ease ­— one might even say in her element. She exudes warmth and energy and seems genuinely engaged at the prospect of our discussion. I take this to mean that she is accustomed to a lack of routine. Like many others in her generation, she is far from tethered to the nine-to-five slog and this seems to suit her just fine.

I reached out to her through my own Airbnb profile, as part of a search for other students who were tapped into this ill-defined but expanding trend known as ‘home sharing.’ Sunny as the term sounds, it is currently the subject of debate in cities like Toronto, where the rise of platforms such as Airbnb has precipitated debates about residential zoning and the appropriateness of homeowners profiting off short-term rentals. This is due to the scarcity and high cost of rental apartments.

Airbnb works by connecting people with extra space in their homes, or ‘hosts,’  with travellers looking for short-term accommodation. Some decry that the availability of this short-term rental option for prospective hosts may sap the supply of long-term rentals in cities where Airbnb is very popular, which would drive the cost of housing up.

Concerns about the cost of housing are not new, especially to students in Toronto who face some of the highest rental rates in the country.

To some students, home sharing acts more as a solution to rental rates rather than an exacerbating factor. I would place myself among that camp. Faced with a seemingly impossible search for a room in September of 2015 — my 25 pound furry cat hardly made me an enviable roommate — I signed a lease for a small one-bedroom apartment above a shop. Renting out the daybed in my den through Airbnb part-time helps offset the cost of living on my own. It’s the most cost-effective living arrangement I’ve had in the four years I’ve lived in the city.

Satisfied as I may be with my own home sharing experience, the growing trend warrants careful attention. Airbnb listings and hosts vary tremendously, from students offering glorified air mattresses to casual business owners operating multiple listings at once, the so-called ‘professional hosts.’ In Toronto, Airbnb is not regulated and has received far less attention from regulators than other ‘sharing economy’ giants like Uber, despite the fact that Airbnb itself welcomes the prospect of regulation as it marches steadily into the mainstream.

Regardless of where individuals stand on home sharing, it seems certain that the pressures brought on by Airbnb and similar platforms are symptomatic of a mentality shift about what constitutes a commodity in 2016.

For better or worse, our private lives and our work lives are increasingly blended: a hobby for calligraphy can serve as currency on Benz, a bartering platform, and owning a bicycle can qualify you as courier for a plethora of delivery services like Hurrier, Foodora, and Uber Eats. Airbnb shows that spare space within our homes can also be a commodity. Students who will be entering the workforce in the coming years will undoubtedly find themselves in the midst of this changing ethos.

A portal to the world and a paycheque

After having completed her undergraduate degree in New York City, Hosotsuji worked in the not-for-profit sector for five years before deciding to return to school. She is pursuing a Master of Design degree, with a focus on strategic foresight and innovation.

“I’m really interested in designing for social causes, particularly for social services or like community development,” Hosotsuji explained. Her degree program was founded in 2009, and OCAD U’s website describes it as answering a need for “a new kind of designer: A strategist who sees the world from a human perspective and re-thinks what is possible; An innovator who can imagine, plan and develop a better world.”

Taken simply, Hosotsuji is studying how to prepare and strategize for an unpredictable future — a tall order in this constantly evolving world. Nevertheless, she seems not only to have accepted the old saying ‘change is the only constant’ but also to have embraced it; she has made it her mission to master this reality.

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Hosotsuji’s program of study seems like an appropriate path for a person who is more sure of her leadership abilities than where they will take her.

“I’m particularly interested in being my own boss and starting a company once I graduate. So I’m not exactly sure what yet, but I know that I’m passionate about designing and community service particularly around, how [to] amplify marginalized voices,” she explained.

It seems fitting then, that in order to pay for her education, Hosotsuji is making use of Airbnb, a platform that affords hosts near complete control over the design of their space and how it is offered, while connecting them to guests with various needs from all over the world.

Hosotsuji’s entrance into Airbnb was near serendipitous. Her father had owned a townhouse close to both OCAD U and U of T, which he saw as a potential revenue stream that could go towards Hosotsuji’s higher education.

“It became my dad’s suggestion to basically finance my education, because I said I wanted to go back to school to get my master’s. He was like, ‘Yeah, why don’t you do it, so that you can basically finance your own education by running this Airbnb, and I’ll give you the building.’”

It took the two of them a couple of months to renovate and furnish the place. When they were done, Hosotsuji listed the building’s three bedrooms separately on Airbnb. She received her first booking five minutes later, and it has kept her busy ever since.

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“Just yesterday I had to go in between classes to run, make a bed, check someone in, and then go back to class,” she told me. “So yeah, it’s really crazy sometimes with scheduling.”

She also recently received ‘Super Host’ status on the platform, which means that she receives consistently high ratings from guests, never cancels a booking, and responds to requests within 24 hours on average. “I try to always respond as quickly as possible, even if I get one at midnight and I’m half asleep, I still respond,” she told me.

Throughout the frenzy, Hosotsuji notes a sense of community brought on by the Airbnb network.

“I’m in a global network now where I’m connected; it’s open, it’s a portal to the world. Which was really freaky for a second, but I’ve definitely gotten used to it a bit, just meeting people from all over the world and being like, ‘Okay, this is just the Airbnb network and community.’”

Exposure to perspectives from all over the world is not just a novelty to Hosotsuji. She explained that part of what she has learned in her master’s program is an appreciation for the various ‘truths’ that individuals bring to the table depending on their background and experiences.

“I think that by meeting people from all over the world, being able to be exposed to their truths… this is my… portal to the whole world and being able to understand people from wherever they’re from, whatever life journey they’re from, it certainly helps me better understand things and also just get a bigger lens of the world,” she said.

When I asked her how her listing relates to her program, Hosotsuji said, “I think that directly translates, in terms of hosting and Airbnb, because you’re hosting a physical space now, as well as the ambiance, as well as the environment, right? As well as the conversations with your guests, so I think it directly translated into something that became essentially a profitable form of [strategic design].”

Airbnb also enables Hosotsuji to attend her program full-time. “I think with this particular program there’s no way — they say you cannot do full-time with this program and do full-time work,” she said. Without her listing as a source of income, Hosotsuji would have had to take on her program part-time and look for consulting work on the side

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Instead, she is hosting individuals from around the world and applying lessons from the experience to her studies.

The end of the nine-to-five? 

The origin story of Airbnb is close to a modern legend; it epitomizes the nature of entrepreneurship in the digital age and, particularly, the apparent triumph of hard work and good ideas in the face of growing inequality.

About a decade ago, two roommates in their 20s, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, were living in the infamously expensive San Francisco on tight budgets. Both designers with a flair for business, they wanted to create something new but held disdain for the seemingly endless cycle of waste that stemmed from developing ‘better’ stuff.

They also wanted to have enough money to pay rent.

So they made use of one of the most valuable commodities available to them: their apartment. The friends rented out three air mattresses on their living room floor when demand for short-term stays were high — during conferences in San Francisco, for instance. True to the ‘bed and breakfast’ meme, they also cooked morning meals for their first guests.

Then, of course, they scaled the idea, bringing in a third partner who was a skilled web developer and making their platform available to connect hosts and guests around the world. As of press time, Airbnb is active in over 34,000 cities, with over two million listings available; the company is worth over $30 billion.

There is no doubt that Gebbia and Chesky have enjoyed enormous success for their invention, but the circumstances which

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precipitated their idea weren’t exactly hopeful. Innovation in the San Francisco Bay Area has brought tremendous wealth to the region, which has pushed the cost of living up. This has posed a major problem because, though there is ample wealth in the city, it is far from evenly distributed. Individuals who have not shared in the most profitable aspects of the Bay Area find themselves relegated to the margins. Presumably, this is how educated people like Gebbia and Chesky found themselves in a bind to make rent.

The San Francisco-based news source SFGate reported in 2014 that the city’s Gini coefficient —  a number between zero and one that measures wealth distribution, with zero being completely even distribution and one indicating all wealth vested in one person — was very high at 0.523. This figure, which at the time was roughly equivalent to that of Rwanda, is just one piece of evidence out of many that indicate the spoils of wealth are not enjoyed evenly.

For all the success it has brought its founders, it is important to recognize that Airbnb was born out of a prohibitive cost of living in a city where wealth is highly concentrated. Gebbia and Chesky popularized the idea that a solution to this problem may be to commodify space that was previously thought to be private. Opinions undoubtedly differ as to whether this approach to our homes is a gain, a loss, or neither.

In Toronto, income inequality is not as high as it is in San Francisco, but it is still greater than the national average; Toronto’s Gini coefficient is around 0.4, according to Toronto Vital Signs’ 2016 report. Canada’s Gini coefficient is around 0.34, according to statistics from the World Bank. The Conference Board of Canada, a think tank, indicates that the Gini coefficient has been rising in Canada since the early 1990s, while the Fraser Institute, another think tank, published a report by U of T student Matthew Lau that says income inequality has been steady in Canada since the turn of the century.

Meanwhile, the price of housing is soaring in Toronto. On average, a one-bedroom apartment in the city costs $1,100 per month, while the average cost to purchase a home is $641,617.

It’s not stretch to suggest that the conditions in Toronto mimic those that gave rise to Airbnb in the first place: housing costs are high, as are rates of income inequality. Another factor at play may be the rate of unemployment among youth, which was recently reported to be over 20 per cent in early 2016.

In a setting where young people consistently find themselves without jobs in an expensive city, it would be unsurprising for them to turn to alternative revenue sources found in the sharing economy.

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Hosotsuji, however, thinks that there are other reasons that may compel young people to use Airbnb.

“This whole conversation around there’s no jobs, I don’t actually know if that’s true,” she says. “It could be that there’s a lesser amount of jobs available, so we’re resorting to these sorts of things like Uber and Airbnb, but I certainly think that the mentality is a big thing of why we resort to or why we choose these types of jobs.”

For Hosotsuji, the rise of Airbnb in cities like Toronto is not necessarily the result of a shortage of jobs; in her view, young people choose to work for themselves through platforms like Airbnb because they have a greater standard for job satisfaction than previous generations have had, and they seek to break away from the monotony of nine-to-five labour.

“So I think 10 or 15 years ago, people would just take the random jobs that they really [didn’t] like but they would deal with it; they would live with that job and they would go in day in and day out still hating their job, but that was just what the world was and people accepted that,” Hosotsuji posits.

She continues, “I think our generation is learning [that] we don’t want to repeat those mistakes, so then, we’re finding as a generation these new opportunities for us to be able to pay the bills and have a healthy lifestyle and make money but in a healthy way, in a fun way, which I think is kind of the emergence of Airbnb.”

A disruption in the housing sector

Not everyone is as optimistic about Airbnb and its opportunities as Hosotsuji. Most of the opposition to Airbnb in the city has come from those who see it as a threat to the fragile state of affordable housing and long-term rental availability in the city.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) released a report in September 2016 called Nobody’s Business: Airbnb in Toronto, which shows that rental vacancy rates are low in the areas of the city where Airbnb listings are the most common. “The increased usage of unregulated, short-term rentals could very well impact the supply of long-term rentals and increase the cost of the rest of the housing stock that is available,” a portion of the report reads.

The authors of the CCPA report caution that the term home sharing may not accurately describe some of the economic activity that takes place on the platform. According to the report, “13 per cent of listings are posted by a host who is listing more than one unit for rent, and those hosts who offer multiple listings account for 46 per cent of all revenue — making them more akin to commercial hosts rather than ‘home sharing’ hosts.”

The report also echoes statistics from the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association, saying that 82,414 households were on the waitlist for affordable housing in the city of Toronto — a harrowing figure by any standard.

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One of the people to speak most publicly about the need to reign in the platform has been Toronto City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who serves Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale. She has called for regulation of the platform.

“It can literally destabilize an entire housing sector,” she claimed of the volume of Airbnb listings in Toronto, “and in the City of Toronto where people are already struggling with the rising cost of housing and accommodation, it could marginalize vulnerable people and often times this includes students who are tied to fixed incomes or they’re working precarious jobs to make ends meet.”

As councillor for the ward that includes Ryerson and part of U of T, Wong-Tam said that she regularly hears concerns from students about housing costs. In her view, housing and transit are the two primary municipal issues facing students today.

“Now I’m hearing that some of them are being asked to leave and they suspect that their landlord is not taking the unit back for their own personal use but rather, they suspect that they’re converting them to Airbnb,” Wong-Tam said. “There’s no document to prove [this], but I can tell you that it’s creating a lot of anxiety and fear amongst the students.”

The Residential Tenancies Act in Ontario affords landlords the right not to renew leases if they wish to retain their property for personal use. Converting a unit to a short-term rental would likely not constitute personal use and therefore, already be considered illegal. However, there is little clarity on this issue, since the provincial legislation does not refer directly to home sharing.

Hosotsuji agrees that the scarcity of rental apartments in Toronto is concerning. “We made the decision to go to Airbnb because we would make more money doing it,” she said. “Hearing that it’s actually become so explosive, that long-term rentals are going up, that does concern me, it does.”

She hopes that the city will be able to have dialogue that will help negotiate the valid concerns of short-term hosts, property owners, and long-term renters in the city. “It’s not about my problem versus your problem. It is a city problem, they’re all of our problems.”

As far as Wong-Tam sees it, casual hosts who are renting out spare rooms are not the cause of what she sees as a disruption in the stock of rental housing available. “So for the property owner that is simply renting out their rooms to supplement their incomes, whether it’s a student or a retiree, they’re usually not the ones that we have a problem with. Where I think we do run into a challenge is entire apartments, and I think it’s important to say that it’s entire apartments that seem to be the predominant choice out there,” she explained.

For these types of units, there needs to be “a set of rules and a set of operating conditions that are clear and transparent and that are fair,” she said. “I think we’re hearing loud and clearly from residents, as well as tenants who have lost their homes, as well as the hotel sector that they want clarity.”

Alex Dagg, Public Policy Manager for Airbnb Canada, has spoken to the topic of regulating the platform a number of times, saying that the company is open to discussions with cities. In her view, the core of the Airbnb community in Toronto is comprised of people who share their own homes fewer than 90 days each year.

“I’m in a global network now where I’m connected; it’s open, it’s a portal to the world. Which was really freaky for a second, but I’ve definitely gotten used to it a bit, just meeting people from all over the world and being like, ‘Okay, this is just the Airbnb network and community.’”

Dagg told Metro News, “That’s really an affordable housing strategy for the families that are using this platform,” pointing out that the typical host makes about $4,000 each year off of their listing.

It may be the case that some families are more easily able to afford their homes because of supplementary income through Airbnb, but I doubt that those advocating for affordable housing in Toronto will be touting home sharing as a broad solution to soaring home prices any time soon.

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Another reason Airbnb may welcome regulation of their platform is to glean clarity about which entity is responsible for the safety concerns of guests and hosts.

Hosotsuji has borne the brunt of tense encounters between guests. She told me about a time when she had a particularly rowdy male guest staying next to a young woman who was travelling to Toronto for a meditation retreat. The latter was deeply uncomfortable with the former’s behaviour and even came close to calling the police. To say that their personalities did not mix would be an understatement — both guests ended up leaving their stay early.

In Hosotsuji’s view, issues of trust are not uncommon on platforms like Airbnb. “I think sometimes I get challenged with trust, and I think they do too as guests… I might get a weird vibe on the first impression and then I realize, ‘Oh they’re cool, I can totally trust them,’ but there are sometimes… especially… as a woman host, sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I, as a host, feel safe with this guest.’”

In our discussion about regulation, Wong-Tam touched on a point about the standard to which hotels are held. “Hotels are largely regulated and they’re regulated because you have to keep people safe, so any client walking into a hotel is guaranteed a certain level of service. They know that the rooms are going to be properly maintained, the health and safety and building inspectors combing through, fire plans that are registered in case there’s an emergency evacuation procedures. All of that happens in a hotel.”

“All of that,” in Hosotsuji’s view, is unnecessary — or at least not as important as other factors when it comes to what motivates guests today. In her view, individuals are drowned in options for customized consumption. Within families, she notes, corporations try to sell every individual a different product, and the notion of sharing is consequently reduced. The nuclear family, she notes, is less prevalent than it once was. People seem to rely less fervently on social networks forged through local communities.

In this setting, Hosotsuji posits, people are starving for authentic connections and are no longer enticed by the offerings of hotels. “Before it was because they wanted a clean sheet every day and they wanted… luxury and now it’s like, ‘I don’t even care about that anymore.’ Our priorities… are changing because we want connection. Connection’s becoming more important than the luxury of towels and bed sheets.”

It is without a doubt that Airbnb has disrupted the long-standing assumption that hotels must dominate the travel industry. Wide use of the platform may also disrupt the housing situation of Torontonians and urban residents worldwide. While cities reckon how to construct a regulatory climate around the platform, Hosotsuji and others like her are using it as a portal to a global community — and to make some cash.

Revolution making

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s the seasons change, people walking through St. James Park in Old Toronto are likely to witness charming springtime weddings with couples posing under the picturesque archway marking its entrance.

Occupy Toronto began on October 15, 2011, just one month after protesters under the same banner set up camp at Zuccotti Park in New York City’s financial district. The thousands of protesters who arrived at the scene after marching down Bay street were an eclectic mix, ranging  from concerned parents to spirited students. Neither their purposes nor their messages were cohesive, but together the group called for change. Within a short period of time Occupy had spread to 82 countries.

As another month passed, however, the movement came to an abrupt end. In Toronto, the police had struck a deal with the protesters to clear out of St. James’ Park; a quintessentially Canadian end to the peaceful, month-long demonstration.

In the aftermath, the Occupy movement continues to captivate the minds of activists and those interested in social change. Its scope and its capacity to draw support seem indicative of a raw, widespread appetite for social change around the world. And yet, despite its size and tenacity the occupations are over, and the world continues to go on, in much the same way that it did before.

For Micah White, one of the people responsible for the generation of the ‘Occupy’ concept, this impotence indicates that activism is currently at a critical juncture. At U of T, activist movements have taken on a unique ethos. After a call for social change that dissolved into history, it seems that activism is finally on the brink of transformation.

Micah White. Photo courtesy of Scott Sellers.
Micah White. Photo courtesy of Scott Sellers.

Beyond protest

Micah White describes himself as having been born in between two worlds: his father is black and his mother is white, which left him struggling to identify with either race. “I think that always put me at a skew, seeing society at some kind of slightly different angle,” he says.

This was the beginning of my conversation with the activist, author, and co-creator of the idea that sparked Occupy Wall Street. White’s new book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution was released in March. 

White describes his liminal identity in response to my question about the origin of his activist leanings. He hastens to add that activism is not an easily traceable interest of his but an integral part of his identity. “It’s kind of asking like why did a painter become a painter? Why did an artist become an artist? It’s just some sort of internal passion that I’ve always had and always followed,” he tells me.

The future of social activism is at the core of White’s new book. As an editor at the Canadian magazine Adbusters, White, with the magazine’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, Kalle Lasn, sent an e-mail to subscribers in July 2011 in the hopes of motivating an occupation of Wall Street beginning in mid-September. The purpose of their occupation was to protest the presence of corporate money in the American elections.

Reflecting on what became of that movement, White concludes that it was a “constructive failure.”

“[W]hat a success would have meant for Occupy Wall Street would have been a fundamental change in… the way that power functions in our democracies,” White says. Instead, those in power were able to suppress the Occupy movement without responding to its demands; this can be interpreted as a call for activists to reevaluate their tactics.

“[M]ost activism is premised on the idea that what creates social change are material forces,” White explains. He points to his involvement with the movement against war in Iraq, in the early 2000s, and the current Black Lives Matter movement as examples of knowledge-spreading platforms for creating social change that no longer seem effective.

“But of course people [knew] that the war [was] wrong. People know that racism exists,” he says. “Spreading a message is merely a byproduct of making noise… If you bang a pot, people will hear it, but it doesn’t mean that they will change their behaviour.”

Aware that this perspective sounds less than optimistic, White adds that he supports movements like Black Lives Matter, but that “we’re in a time when it seems that protest does not work.”

There is still hope in White’s ideas. He says activists should move beyond the assumption that material forces dominate social change. To him, intangible factors like perspectives on reality and even divine intervention may play a role in defining revolutionary moments. It is the role of the activist, he says, to explore all sides of social change and to gauge the onset of revolutionary moments.

In this context, the lessons of Occupy might still carry significant weight. “Occupy in 100 years might not be considered a failure or considered defeated, because we might see it as integral to the long process of revolutionary awakening,” says White.

“Occupy in 100 years might not be considered a failure or considered defeated, because we might see it as integral to the long process of revolutionary awakening.”

The changing nature of activism

White’s book, seeks to motivate tactical change among activists and arrives at a time when organizers at this university are already plugging into new ways to incite change. Ellie Adekur-Carlson, a geography PhD student, is a veteran student activist.

In one of her undergraduate classes, Adekur-Carlson remembers feeling isolated and scrutinized when she was the only black student present, and a white peer proceeded to make a racist comment. “So I want to say that my activism started, at least on campus, just because I was so angry at some of the things that were happening to me and to my friends,” she says.

Adekur-Carlson is a the former executive communications internal liaison officer at CUPE 3902, the co-founder of the Black Liberation Collective at U of T, Silence is Violence, and a TA. For her, the key to resistance has very little to do with traditional protest methods; the essence of building strategies for social change requires coming together with like-minded people.

Vanessa Wang/The Varsity
Vanessa Wang/The Varsity

“[E]ven if it’s not coming together to do something super visible like a protest or a rally, I think that there is a lot of resistance in even having a support group,” she explains. “Once you’re in a group and you sort of realize this is happening to all of us… [a}nd then you can form an organizing strategy, call those things out very publicly, very deliberately.”

“[E]ven if it’s not coming together to do something super visible like a protest or a rally, I think that there is a lot of resistance in even having a support group.”

She cites the Black Liberation Collective as an example of this kind of process: after coming together, they issued a series of demands to the university.

The kind of activism that Adekur-Carlson describes is not owed to a certain tactic or method, but it is rooted first and foremost in building shared experiences.

“Whenever we do choose to use protest or any form of direct action… It shouldn’t be the strategy, it should just be one of many particular strategies that any organization has. That must be followed up by some form of action, or community building, or something that brings people back together [for]… Skills sharing, skills development, [or] even just to plug them into a network of like-minded people,” Adekur-Carlson says.

She also promotes self-criticism in movements, especially when providing inclusive spaces within movements and for demonstrations.

Adekur-Carlson was involved in organizing the Feminist Strong Rally after anonymous threats were levelled against U of T feminists online; she says that she and the other organizers failed to provide inclusive access. “[T]he other thing that comes with dedicating yourself to building inclusive spaces is that… you’re dedicating yourself to really uncomfortable moments of failing at that… it’s something that goes beyond pride,” she says.

Inclusivity stands out to me in how Adekur-Carlson talks about her activism. Even though she knows organizers will sometimes fail to provide it, she describes it as “the foundation of our organizing and not secondary to it.” This seems to typify Adekur-Carlson’s insistence that movements embody the change they seek to create.

The spirit of change

To activists like Adekur-Carlson, the act of engaging, regardless of whether that engagement occurs in private or public settings is every bit as essential as the messages that movements espouse.

While White cautions that student activism might be particularly susceptible to repeating worn tactics, members of the U of T community are aware of the need for rejuvenation in their activism.   

“The thing with student protesting is… students lack a kind of long-term memory because they haven’t been doing it as long, and so they very easily fall into the trap of repeating the same behaviour year after year after year,” White tells me.

Adekur-Carlson echoes this sentiment and proposes a solution. “I wish that there were more solid ties between different types of students and faculty and employees at U of T, just because the turnaround for students is so fast here,” she says. When black student organizers on campus have connected with faculty, Adekur-Carlson points out that they were able to create a timeline of struggles dating as far back as the sixties, which helped to inform their organizational strategies.

“There’s a sense of… global connectivity around wanting things to be different that is new and really significant,” says Megan Boler, professor in the Department of Social Justice Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Boler, whose research has focused on digital activism, credits this sense of connectivity to our position in history. In 2003, during the protests against war in Iraq that she participated in ­— there was a “crisis of faith… regarding the media and politicians and where was one to get a trustworthy account of political events.”

This was also the dawn of Web 2.0. In Boler’s view, the combination of a collective crisis of faith, and a fundamental shift in how people communicate birthed a new form of activism. Part of this, she says, is so-called peripheral engagement, which she thinks “plays a significant role in different kinds of social change that we’re seeing around protest and activism today.”

Others refer to this kind of engagement as ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism.’ White says that the metrics generated from these online forms of engagement are not good indicators of a successful movement. “[T]he thing about clicktivism that I think activists need to avoid is that we have to always trust our intuition about what makes a good campaign over any sort of metrics and these kind of external analytical tools,” White says.

It seems inevitable, however, that technology has a role to play in activism. White imagines a scenario where the technology of chat bots is harnessed to propagandize movements. The bots, he points out, could act as a permanent fixture for promoting movements, even when the people involved and their organizing are arrested or otherwise disrupted.

For Adekur-Carlson, technology plays an essential role in the transparency of movements. “I’ve always used that as part of my activism as part of my organizing… I really believe that the best forms of organizing lean on this unapologetic transparency,” she explains, adding that she has been criticized in the past for “oversharing” online.

Striking revolution

A common thread in what White, Adekur-Carlson, and Boler tell me about the future of activism is that there seems to be a cohort of young organizers who genuinely desire social improvement.

“My research confirms that there were so many first time activists, young activists… who hadn’t done that before [Occupy]… [W]hen we asked them [about] their motivation it was not about ‘I want a better world for myself’ or even ‘I want a better world for my children…’ The answer was about… a vision [that] the world can be a better place,” Boler says.

Boler adds that educational institutions have a role to play in preparing a critical citizenry. “Critical inquiry allows us to see alternatives to how things are, to see beyond a dominant ideological perspective, to be able to see that things could be different, and to be able to question, at a very personal level even… our most cherished values, beliefs, and assumptions,” she says.

White believes that his book will reach those people who are primed to incite change, and that this will spark a “wave of social revolutions.” He says, “[T]here’s going to be someone out there who’s, you know, 25-year-olds [who] is going to read my book and is going to spark the next social movement. And they’re going to learn from Black Lives Matter, learn from Occupy Wall Street, learn from all the movements that happened before and really start something that’s going to make the world fundamentally better for the billions of people who have to live here.”

For Adekur-Carlson, the task ahead for activists is great. When I ask her about the long-term aims of her activism, she doesn’t know where to begin; she eventually lands on a vision for U of T.

“[T]he easiest way to think about what I’m out for at U of T is to create an institution that is accessible, to create an institution that is affordable — ideally tuition free — and to create an institution that is very critical of its own… colonial roots,” Adekur-Carlson says. She laments the fact that activism at U of T continues to be troubled by “internal politics,” and that students face consistent barriers of racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other forms of prejudice.

I am left to pause on one of the first things Adekur-Carlson told me: that anger at the injustices she observed is what motivated her to activism. It seems to me that she embodies the critical citizen that Boler describes, and people like her might just define the future of activism. 

Letter from the editor

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] store all of my documents on Google Drive. A few years ago in what I thought was a stroke of genius, I replaced my aging laptop with a cheap desktop and an even cheaper Chromebook, then I made the switch to cloud based storage. Everywhere I go, I feel assured that my work will be accessible, as though my documents exist in a real cloud constantly floating over me, waiting for me to retrieve them.

Suffice it to say, Danielle Klein and Sarah Niedoba disabused me of that comfortable notion when they told me about a topic they had been researching. They explained that cloud-based email systems, like the one that U of T recently adopted for its students, might expose users to spying by intelligence agencies in the US. Their feature, “A constitutional black hole,” reminded me that we do not always notice the presence of politics; they exist in the fine print of our day-to-day lives.

This issue of The Varsity Magazine is themed “Politics” and attempts to illustrate how struggles over influence and power are present in many aspects of our lives. Our choices about the activism we pursue, the entertainment we consume, and the drugs we smoke all have political ramifications.

Alex McKeen (L) and Margaux Parker (R).
Alex McKeen (L) and Margaux Parker (R).

The contributors to this magazine shed light on these topics. Teodora Pasca explores the implications of the impending legal regulation of marijuana. Victoria Banderob asks how the comedy scene is changing to include more diverse voices. Jaren Kerr and Emily Johnpulle interrogate the significance of philanthropic sources of revenue at U of T. Tom Yun tells the story of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

The design of this magazine was led by creative director Margaux Parker. In the fall issue of The Varsity Magazine, the creative team focused on a minimal aesthetic. In this issue, they opted for a more experimental approach, inspired by pop-art, propaganda, and collage. The theme remains present throughout and even becomes amplified by the creative team’s bold visual choices.

Most of the topics and issues explored in this magazine will already be familiar to readers. I hope the contents inspire you to pause, examine, and, above all, enjoy.

— Alex McKeen

Letter from the Editor

A little while ago, I rode the subway late at night. As I got on at College station, feeling reflective after an evening of indulging in bad wine and good conversation, I found that I was the only passenger on the train. It was simultaneously eerie and empowering to occupy a public space in such solitude. In a strange way, it felt intensely private, and my mind began to wander.

Where do our thoughts go in our most private moments — when we leave behind the baggage of our day-to-day lives and reflect honestly? Much of the time, the product of these intimate moments is not something that we would express freely to a parent, close friend, or anyone at all.

We are constrained, for a whole host of reasons, from breaching taboos.

This issue of The Varsity Magazine is themed “taboo,” but it does not attempt to make any particular judgments or assumptions. Its chief purpose is to make you, the reader, think. Taboos can form mysteriously, define political and social landscapes, and eat away at our individual psyches. Sometimes discussing them produces unease or anger, at others, immense relief or pleasure. The visual aspects of this magazine, overseen by Creative Director Margaux Parker, reference the intensity of these topics through a minimalist approach, and by using bold, contrasting colour schemes.

The contributors of this magazine tap into taboos from varying perspectives. Salvatore Basilone presents a piece on the experiences of students living with mental illnesses (page 38). Malone Mullin explores the emerging push for basic income, a movement inspired by daily hardships (page 26). Jacob Lorinc asks how we should consume art when we know its creator to be morally debased (page 52). Meanwhile, Linh Nguyen assesses the role of pornography in society, particularly among those whose sexual education has been insufficient (page 6).

Wherever you are geographically, temporally, and personally when reading this, I hope that you find yourself provoked, challenged, and inspired by the content of this magazine. For whatever it is worth, I know I have been.

— Alex McKeen
The Varsity Features Editor, 2015–2016

September checklist

✓ Survive frosh (if you choose to partake)

✓ Exchange contact info with new people — at least one residence dweller, and one commuter

✓ Eventually locate all of your classes

✓ On a nice day, find a beautiful spot on your campus to relax

✓ Try some off-campus cuisine that you’ve never had before

✓ Patronize a school dining hall

✓ Make a contribution both in class and in tutorial

✓ Read the news

✓ Specifically, read The Varsity

✓ Join a club/association/team/group on campus

✓ Take public transit

✓ Audit a friend’s class

✓ Learn ten new words, and use them in conversation

✓ Go use athletic facilities, or participate in a drop-in class that is new to you

✓ Visit one of the other two campuses

✓ Discover a neighbourhood in Mississauga, Toronto, and Scarborough

✓ Attend a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (say “ARR!” when the anti-pirating message comes on screen)

✓ Go to a U of T sporting event, having researched the name of our mascot beforehand

✓ Have at least one debate with a fellow student

✓ Become accustomed to squirrels jumping out of garbage cans (and other concealed areas)

✓ Try something new, and then call an out-of-town friend or relative to tell them about it

✓ Write your own checklist of goals, and get cracking

How to write an essay in four days

In an ideal world, you would be able to give more than four days to writing your university papers, or maybe they would only take an hour to write and you could go back to binge watching Netflix. I’m with you. Here’s a compromise: four day-long tasks broken down to help you stay focused, and on track.

Thinking and Research

Sit down in a cozy corner of a coffee shop with a tiny espresso, leather bound notebook, and an inquisitive gaze. Otherwise, plant yourself in the library with the artificial light emanating from your laptop screen.

Spill all thoughts about the essay topic onto a piece of paper. Highlight what is most interesting to you, and come up with general ideas about the problem you would like to explore in your essay.

Organize your research. Collect sources that you expect will be highly relevant. When you are reading them through, write down specific quotations from each source in a numbered list. Then, put your sources in order — you can order them by author’s last name, usefulness, hair colour, or anything else that tickles your fancy. You now have a directory of research for your planning stage. Write down citations in the appropriate style.

Depending on the length of the paper, add more sources until you feel you have enough to proceed to planning. Try to make sure you have a variety of perspectives, and that most sources are very recent.

Planning

This is your most important essay-writing day. Coffee is recommended.

Go through your research materials and define your thesis.

Outline a general roadmap for your paper, including the topic of each paragraph, and how it relates to your thesis.

Create a massive planner. I use one separate page for each anticipated paragraph, and lay them out on a large surface.

Start going through each paragraph on your planner and fill in excerpts from your research that give support to that paragraph. (Use quote A–1, then D–22, etc.)

Write out your full introduction. This is pretty much just for morale boost, so that you can say you have started writing the actual essay at the end of the first day. Plus, introductions help to give you a clear idea of what the rest of the paper should look like.

Writing the bulk

Take out the pages of planning materials from the day before.

Reference them to write each paragraph of the paper.

Do not stop writing, and do not reread your work at this point. If your ideas were sound yesterday, they should come out fine today.

Relax, all you have to do today is try to make the ideas you had the day before clear and coherent. A glass of wine (or five) can help lubricate the transmission of words from brain to page.

Stop writing when you are about 70 per cent done, or when you begin to fall asleep on your keyboard, whichever comes first.

Writing the rest and editing

Finish writing in the same manner as the day before.

Take a long break.

Edit. Be very critical of your language, and make sure that your paper says what you want it to say.

Check your citations, and check to make sure you have cited in every place that you referenced someone else’s idea.

Read through and make minor changes.

Write a title that is two-parts smart and one-part sassy.

Do not forget to hand in the paper. Really though. Do not. Forget. To hand in. The paper.

Letter from the Editor

I fell asleep the first time I rode the shuttle bus between the St. George campus and UTM. Unsurprisingly, I woke up dazed and didn’t recognize my surroundings, I wondered where I was. As the vehicle pulled into the Erindale campus, and I was washed over not only by the thickets of beautiful old trees, but also by ‘Boundless’ U of T signs I felt, on some level, as though I had arrived home.

Continue reading Letter from the Editor

What’s language got to do with it?

If you spent a day on any one of the University of Toronto’s three campuses, you would hear many — maybe dozens — of languages spoken by students, professors, and staff. The people here communicate with each other every day: in the hallways, in the classroom, in our writing and presenting. But how do our varying linguistic backgrounds impact that communication?

For some of us, this question hasn’t earned much thought over time. Perhaps we are native English speakers who have lived in an English-speaking context for the majority of our lives. Or maybe we are multilingual ourselves, and are so used to being flexible in how we communicate with others that it happens subconsciously. At either extreme and anywhere in the middle, it merits a pause to think about the veritable array of languages at play around us every day.

The Varsity spoke to just a sample of students with varying experiences with language. Some have faced completely new languages from scratch; others have gradually learned English through study or submersion. What is striking are the kinds of questions that came out of this conversation: What does your ability to speak a certain language tell you and others about who you are? How do we break down barriers when we can’t understand each other? And, at the end of the day, does the language we speak matter at all?

Sonia

“I had to use Google Translate for menus to show them the translated word.”
Languages spoken: Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, English
ALEXANDRA SCANDOLO/THE VARSITY
ALEXANDRA SCANDOLO/THE VARSITY

 

Sonia is an international student from Hong Kong. During her primary and secondary educations, it was compulsory for her to learn Cantonese, Mandarin, and English at the same time. Her mother, who grew up in Japan, spoke Japanese with her at home. Mastering four languages, however, doesn’t make a person impervious to linguistic challenges. Last summer, she found herself on a five-week summer abroad trip to Argentina, with no Spanish background at all.

“Their main language is Spanish. When I got there, I thought at least Argentinians would speak English at some level, but then [it] turned out they don’t at all. Everyone speaks only Spanish. Half the students that went with us had some sort of Spanish background, either their U of T major or Spanish courses. I have no background at all,” she describes.

“I was hoping I could at least ask for a coffee in English, but people were like ‘What are you saying?’ in Spanish back to me. I had the biggest problem there. I remember I had to use Google Translate for menus and show them the translated word to order a latte,” she adds,

Over time, Sonia found that she was able to learn some Spanish.

“Google Translate was really helpful,” she says. “I probably couldn’t have survived without that. It was also near where we were living for the first two weeks, we did some classes in a local university. There were a lot of local Argentinian students. From then on, we figured that university students are actually bilingual; they were different from the locals. They tend to speak more English compared to other people that live in the area. We talked to them, tried to make friends with them; they taught us some of the words that we could use.”

This experience made Sonia think about how much language really does matter to communication.

“I remember someone robbed [one of our group mates] and I had to come meet her at the police station,” she recalls. “It was so difficult to find the direction[s]. It was out of our neighbourhood, so we had to travel an hour away to another region, and we were trying to ask for directions. Oftentimes I’ll ask is it left or right and literally show them [the directions with my hands], but they had difficulty understanding us. If we [could] speak a little bit of Spanish then those body languages would be really helpful. But [since we couldn’t] speak at all, then it was hard to even start the conversation.”

Taha 

“I am generally very conservative with language. I make a point to speak Urdu when I’m speaking Urdu, without any English adulterations.”
Languages spoken: Urdu, English, some Cantonese, Mandarin, and some regional dialects of Southeast Asia
ALEXANDRA SCANDOLO/THE VARSITY
ALEXANDRA SCANDOLO/THE VARSITY

 

Like Sonia, Taha is multilingual. He grew up in Pakistan; Urdu is his native tongue. However, he was also immersed in English from a young age, as it is the “official” language of business in Pakistan. As a result of this and of his experience at U of T, he has witnessed firsthand how globalization affects language, and what is at stake when languages are forgotten.

“I grew up being bilingual, so we kind of made a third language out of [Urdu and English] because it was kind of mixed together in that way,” he says. “Even now I don’t know a lot of words in English and/or Urdu and I mix the two together and get a third language. That’s what I’m used to: generally Urdu grammar with 60 per cent English words.”

“I think I am generally very conservative with language… I make it a point to try to speak Urdu when I’m speaking Urdu, without any English adulterations. And I make a point to speak English when I’m speaking English, without any Urdu adulterations. What I get from a lot of people who understand both languages is I speak like a newscaster when I’m speaking in Urdu. Because nobody speaks that way anymore, it’s this new hybrid language that people are speaking normally,” he says.

This means that something intrinsic is at risk of being lost, Taha says.

“I think there is value [in languages themselves] and the value lies largely in the historical literature of the language. The essence of a language is in its poetry and its prose. It tells you about emotions and things around you, the falling of autumn leaves and love and all these beautiful things that can’t be expressed otherwise. And all of these things, there’s a beauty, that essence, that romantic element would all be lost,” Taha describes.

He notices a similar effect on a personal level.

“My sense of humour may be fantastic in Urdu,” he explains. “I get that all the time when I talk to my brother and so on, but in English I’m just not quick-witted enough; my answers don’t flow in the same way.”

“You can have Siri in Indian English now, because you can use that hybrid language. It allows you to do that. You’ve got terms like ‘Hinglish’ that exist. It’s cool in its own way, but it’s also scary for someone like myself,” he adds.

Globalization is a real concern for Taha.

“There’s something I heard recently: South Asia was colonized after the colonizers left. That’s when our hearts and minds were actually colonized. My grandfather went to Cambridge back in the ’30s. Everyone wanted to be English and act English and start wearing English clothes and talk in a certain way,” he says.

“The definition of becoming cultured was going to Britain,” he adds.

Tom

“If I discuss in English, I tend to be a little bit more radical.”
Languages spoken: German, English

 

Tom is an international student from Germany with a long-standing connection to Canada. His family used to come to Toronto for a few weeks every summer. Tom is now fluent, but learned English fairly recently and intensively. He studied the language since grade six in Germany, and went to Cambridge for nine months before coming to the University of Toronto. Now, he says that, though he is fluent in English, for him it will never be like a native tongue.

“What’s still a little bit of a challenge is to speak in front of the class if it’s a huge lecture,” he explains. “It’s not that easy to make your point because if you hear those other students who are the good students, of course they play with the language in such a sophisticated way; they sound so professional. So because English is not your first language you can’t sound that sophisticated. It’s a lot about sounding smart. It’s not about what you say, it’s how you say it.”

Tom says that he still picks up on colloquialisms, watches movies in English, and even thinks English grammar is easier than his native language.

“I recently read a study where if people talk in a language that is a foreign language, they use their feelings less. The question of the experiment was whether people were willing to sacrifice someone for some greater good,” he describes. “In their own language, people were less likely to sacrifice that person, but in a foreign language they were more willing to do that. So I think there’s some emotional way that our native language speaks to our feelings and our emotions that apparently other languages cannot do.”

Tom has noticed this at play in his own life.

“I’ve noticed that on myself a little bit, that if I discuss in English, I tend to be a little bit more radical. Just slightly — it’s not that I completely change my point of view. In German I consider things in a different way. Same with movies. I watch a movie in English, I understand everything by now but I can’t feel them in the same way that I can feel German movies. So even if it’s an American movie I sometimes prefer to watch it in the German version,” he says.

Alice

“I remember being really embarrassed that I didn’t know what that means and at the same time feeling like I was being bullied just because I didn’t know this language.”
Languages spoken: Mandarin, English
ALEXANDRA SCANDOLO/THE VARSITY
ALEXANDRA SCANDOLO/THE VARSITY

Alice’s family came to Canada briefly in 1999 and permanently when she was in grade four. Now she says that she has been here long enough that both Mandarin and English feel like first languages to her. She still remembers what it was like to learn a brand new language, and is reminded to this day of the sorts of power dynamics language barriers can create.

“The first thing that comes to mind when I first came to Canada in grade four, is a memory of mine,” she recalls. “I was struggling with English at first. There was this kid — I can remember his face really clearly. He had a basketball in his hand. It was a pretty sunny day. We were called back in from recess. On my way back I remember him looking at me and he’s like, ‘Why do you look so dumb?’”

“At that time I was like, what does that word mean? I forced myself to remember that word, and then I went back home and I asked my dad what the word dumb meant, and I remember we were both flipping through the English to Mandarin dictionary and looking up the word dumb only to find out… it means dumb. I remember being really embarrassed that I didn’t know what that means and at the same time feeling like I was being bullied just because I didn’t know this language,” she says.

Aside from the occasional grammatical error, Alice says that she rarely thinks about English as a second language anymore. However, on a summer abroad trip to Hong Kong, she noticed again the kind of social repercussions that can result from language differences.

“When I was in [Hong Kong], for example, I didn’t speak Cantonese, and I feel like everywhere I went I was a traveller and a foreigner,” she explains. “It was certainly in the [Hong Kong] culture to act differently toward people that didn’t speak the language. Not to say that they’re deliberately being rude to you, but even so, just because I didn’t understand the culture, and I didn’t speak the language, I felt very excluded to ask anybody anything.”

“I think language certainly signifies a hierarchy of whether or not you know it,” Alice adds. “If you don’t know it, then it’s  automatically assumed that you’re a lower status, even though you might not be.”