An Exercise in Privilege and Civic Engagement: Voter Pop-Up at the Regent Park Community Food Centre
Author: Emily Bellicoso, University of Toronto Medical Student
As a member of the Toronto Political Advocacy Committee, I am committed to learning more about municipal politics and how we as medical students can lend our voice to help create a better Toronto. A key part of a democratic engagement strategy at the municipal level is voting, which can often be taken for granted. Voting is a privilege that is not accessible to everyone for many reasons, which is evident in the lower voting rates for individuals with disability and health conditions. As a part of the recent municipal election last year, a voter pop-up was run by healthcare practitioners at various community sites as a strategy to improve voter engagement. This outreach was run by Dr. Danyaal Raza in partnership with St. Mike’s Family Health Team and Health Providers Against Poverty, an organization of healthcare professionals devoted to addressing poverty in the city of Toronto. I was fortunate to be able to participate in a voter pop-up at the Regent Park Community Food Centre in mid-October with Dr. Raza and Chloe Brown, a fellow medical student and co-coordinator of the Toronto Political Advocacy Committee.
Participating in this form of community outreach was an opportunity to learn more about municipal politics and the role it plays in the lives of many people in the city. It was also an opportunity to learn about people’s perspective on politics, and how it is often so different from my own. After this experience, I spent a lot of time thinking about my own privilege and how building relationships with community partners is essential in advocacy work. Participating in this event helped me learn more about what community engagement is truly about.
Reflecting on this day, there are 5 key lessons about community advocacy that I learned:
1) Be kind and compassionate – Being polite and courteous is never a bad thing. Our partnership with the folks at the community centre was strengthened by our commitment to respect the space and the people in it.
2) Don’t take things too personally – Many people bypassed our booth completely, not bothering to take a backwards glance. At first, I felt like we were doing something wrong and didn’t know why we were being ignored. Eventually, I realized that it was lunchtime and we were standing in between people and a hot meal. Discussion about voting might not be a top priority to someone who is worried about their next meal. I recognized my own privilege in this moment. After lunch had been served, our booth became much more well trafficked.
3) Sometimes, all you can do is listen – Over the course of the morning, there was one gentleman who became very distressed and upset when talking about the government. He had experiences which had led him to take a very negative view of elections, politics and voting. In one conversation, I was not going to be able to convince him otherwise, nor did I want to invalidate his experiences, but it was clear he wanted to talk. So, I listened and when he was done, he thanked me for my time. There is a lot of power in listening. Giving an ear (and a voice) to those who don’t always have someone to listen is a key part of advocacy, as advocacy’s goal should be empowerment and community-building.
4) Reflect on your own perspective – During the pop-up, when people would bypass us or tell us that they did not vote, it triggered an internal reaction of confusion and concern. “How could people not want to vote?”, I thought. “How could they not think this was important?” Having such opposing views prompted me to think more about why I think voting is so important, and in turn, reflect on why others may not feel the same way. Perhaps my gut reaction to hearing about a decision not to vote is rooted in my own privilege to vote freely, using the supports that enable me to do so. How lucky am I to have the freedom, power and privilege to feel as though my voice is heard through casting a ballot; how unjust it is that others have been robbed of that same security. In community outreach, it is crucial to reflect on your own perspective and the lens through which you see the world because often, this view may be very different than those of community members. It’s important not to let your own perspective cloud your judgement or influence the interactions you have with folks in the community. Some of the most interesting conversations I had that day, and since, have been with people who have a completely opposing view to my own; something I would have missed out on had I let my own biases get in the way.
5) Debrief with a friend or a mentor – Community outreach and advocacy can bring up many emotions and can be draining. It is always important to take care of yourself so that you are better able to lend your voice to advocate for others.
Overall, my experience at this pop-up taught me more about community engagement than politics, and I’m incredibly grateful for it. I’m still learning how to leverage my power and privilege as a medical student, and future physician, to advocate for others, trying my best to be mindful that I am not speaking for others, but rather trying to provide a space for those whose voices are often not heard. This experience helped drive home the indispensable nature of stopping to listen, leaving ego at the door and personal reflection. I’d also like to reinforce that these were the lessons I learned and what I took away from this experience in my own unique way. I hope that my experiences can be helpful to others interested in this work.