A Reflection on the HLTD21 Symposium by OPF Member Alec Wills

OPF member Alec Wills wrote a summary of the “Cultivating Change: Pathways to Food Justice and Food Sovereignty” symposium and reflected on some of the key topics discussed by students in their projects, like targeted marketing, supermarketization, and community gardens.

When analyzing the political economy of food there are three key concepts which address hunger and issues with food distribution: food security, food justice, and food sovereignty. Food security attempts to reform the neoliberal food system through the implementation of both government and self-regulations, ameliorating the harmful effects of the corporate food regime while, nevertheless, maintaining its existence. Food justice is a progressive movement aimed at addressing systemic inequalities in food consumption and distribution, with an emphasis on racial disparities (Holt Giménez & Shattuck, 2011). Food sovereignty is a more radical movement, defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems (What is Food Sovereignty, n.d.). On August 10, 2021, the HLTD21 class, together with the Open Praxis Forum, presented a symposium on these concepts, emphasizing the health inequities BIPOC people face in North America.

Exploring the roles of colonialism and slavery in creating modern agroindustry, the presentation provided a critical analysis of the corporate food regime. In the first video essay, the presenter discusses how targeted marketing and advertising of unhealthy food has deleterious effects on health in Black and Hispanic communities, such as higher obesity rates. The government has not taken meaningful steps to address this issue, and no policies have been enacted to mitigate the damage being done. The problem is that it is difficult to restrict advertisements due to their protection by the First Amendment. Sugar taxes are used in some places as an attempt to curb the sale of unhealthy products, but the policy does not address the root causes of the problem: systemic racism manifesting as racialised health disparities.[1] Although there are a lack of solutions coming from the government, local communities have undertaken bottom-up initiatives through food justice movements, one of which is discussed below.

The next presentation discussed the creation of community gardens for Indigenous people in the northern regions of Canada, showcasing community-based agroecological initiatives that reflect the concept of food sovereignty. Colonial legacies have shaped the modern corporate food regime, whose values clash with traditional Indigenous knowledge and agricultural practices such as Buen Vivir.[2]  The community gardens are an effort to give autonomy to Indigenous communities, allowing them to decide which foods are grown and how, and to return to sustainable and agroecological and Indigenous methods. Community-led initiatives like these are promising developments for food justice and sovereignty, and there are more institutionalized projects underway attempting to temper current disparities.

Aiming to mitigate the health risks associated with malnutrition – including obesity, cancer, and cardiovascular disease – Canadian schools have begun implementing meal and snack programs. With the importance of nutrition and its implications for academic performance, these programs deliver healthy and nutritious food to students in order to ensure that all children have access to the diet they need to flourish. The key takeaway for these kinds of programs is that they are capable of improving academic achievement, attendance, and the behaviour of young children belonging to marginalised communities. Combining these kinds of institutional approaches with community-based movements is the optimal way to ensure food systems are analyzed and developed through a holistic understanding.

The symposium concluded with a discussion on rooftop agriculture as a potential solution for the often-high prices of food. The presenter  argues that supermarketization has influenced rising prices in grocery stores, as a consequence of the neoliberal necessity for higher profits. Supermarketization is defined as “the proliferation and dominance of supermarkets” (Anand, 2009, pp. 66-67), in which smaller businesses are unable to compete and are subsequently phased out. A potential solution for urban areas is the creation of rooftop gardens, cultivating fresh and healthy produce at a much lower cost than purchasing from the grocery store. Appolloni, et al. (2021) find that rooftop agriculture is growing in popularity around the world and that it “can ensure multifunctional benefits (in the social, environmental and economic dimensions) while avoiding land use conflicts and additional pressure on urban land” (p. 11). Therefore, promoting rooftop agriculture is another promising way of circumventing the corporate food regime, as well as mitigating its negative effects.

In summary, the policies and movements discussed in the symposium are some of the ways in which people are fighting against what can sometimes be an oppressive and unjust food system. By actively seeking alternative solutions based on agroecological practices and promoting them through movements like food justice and food sovereignty, there is hope in reforming, or perhaps even revolutionizing, the way food is produced and consumed. Doing so actively deconstructs the colonial legacies determining these systems. As the symposium demonstrated, maintaining current practices does not bode well for the state of global health, and further action must be taken to ensure healthy and nutritious food is widely available. Whether through incremental reforms or a paradigmatic shift, the food justice and food sovereignty movements are paramount to changing how we think about food.

Works Cited

Akram-Lodhi, A. H. (2013). Hungry for change: farmers, food justice and the agrarian question. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing

Anand, J. (2009). Supermarketization, consumer choices, and the changing food retail market structure: the case of Citlalicalli, Mexico. Economic Development, Integration, and Morality in Asia and the Americas, 29, 63-88.

Appolloni, E., Orsini, F., Kathrin, S., Thomaier, S., Sanyé-Mengual, E., Pennisi, G., & Gianquinto, G. (2021). The global rise of urban rooftop agriculture: A review of worldwide cases. Journal of Cleaner Production, 296, 126556.

Bernstein, H. (2015). Food Regimes and Food Regime Analysis: A Selective Survey. BRICS Initiative for Critical Agrarian Studies.

Holt Giménez, E., & Shattuck, A. (2011). Food crises, food regimes and food movements: rumblings of reform or tides of transformation? The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(1), 109-144.

What is Food Sovereignty . (n.d.). Retrieved October 2021, from Food Secure Canada: https://foodsecurecanada.org/who-we-are/what-food-sovereignty

[1] See Akram-Lodhi (2013) for more on how the structural aspects of political economy significantly influence both the supply of and demand for food, and how they cause malnutrition in contradicting ways: hunger in poorer countries, and obesity in richer.

[2] See Bernstein (2015) for a description of food regimes historically.

Essentializing Indigenous Epistemologies: An African Vantage Point

Written by a WSTB05 student from the University of Toronto

This text was submitted as part of OPF's partnership with the WSTB05 class (Understanding Power and Knowledge in Research). More information about our partnership can be found here.     

The process of colonialism and imperialism forever brought change to the world in countless ways. One of these changes was in knowledge production. As a postcolonial feminist, I am interested in the ways that the process of decolonization can occur in post colonized societies by utilizing Indigenous ways of knowing. Unlike hegemonic and colonial epistemologies, the sources used in this project showcase the importance of considering multiple ways of knowing instead of marginalizing certain voices to create societal change. To ensure specific and credible sources were used, the University of Toronto’s online library and research tools were used.

Abdi, Ali A. “Eurocentric Discourse and African Philosophies and Epistemologies of Education: Counter-Hegemonic Analyses and Responses.” International Education, vol. 36, no. 1, 2006, pp. 15–31.

In summary, Abdi engages in a conversation surrounding the history of Indigenous African epistemologies prior and post colonialism. This leads to a further discussion about how Indigenous epistemologies became marginalized considering how Western philosophers regarded Africans as uncivilized and their epistemologies as useless. To combat these notions, Abdi discusses the ways in which the education system in postcolonial African nations should counter hegemonic understandings of education by being “culture inclusive”. Moreover, Abdi argues that this approach should not exclusive but inclusive of all ways of knowing that are beneficial to the population. This source is extremely valuable as it contributes to the discussion regarding the decolonization through Indigenous Epistemologies in academia. The education system is one of the most vital chambers of knowledge production in a society. Therefore, this article proves that for social change to occur, the current education system must be tackled and reformed to be inclusive of Indigenous epistemologies and other advantageous epistemologies. 

Buntu, Baba A. “Claiming Self; the Role of Afrikology in Social Transformation.” Scriptura, vol. 112, no. 1, University of Stellenbosch, 2013, pp. 1–12, doi:10.7833/112-0-62.

In this article, Buntu is concerned about Africa’s self-determination as its image is usually explained and determined by outsiders. This ends up creating predominant ideas of Africa as a continent with numerous struggles (economic, political, etc.) Buntu discusses that to encounter these images of Africa, certain institutions such as academia need to be countered through African epistemologies like African theology. Ultimately, he argues that this process of decolonialization can be socially beneficial to the continent when African epistemologies are authentically included in academia, innovation, and politics. Buntu’s article is one the most notable works that must be included when discussing decolonization. Decolonization cannot occur if Africa is constantly told what it is. It must determine its image for itself first. Most importantly, Buntu gives evidence that for this process to occur, Africa needs to dig down at its roots and discover and utilize Indigenous Epistemologies. This realization will be essential for Africa’s innovative and political future and will thus direct the continent to greater social change.

Iloka, Nnamdi G. “Indigenous Knowledge for Disaster Risk Reduction: An African Perspective.” Jamba, vol. 8, no. 1, African Online Scientific Information Systems (Pty) Ltd t/a AOSIS, 2016, pp. 272–272, doi:10.4102/jamba.v8i1.272.

In this article, Iloka documents the importance of Indigenous epistemologies in Africa on the basis of climate change and risk reduction. Iloka discusses the ways in which this knowledge became marginalized due to colonialism and the use of scientific methods for mitigating climate change. Iloka argues that mitigation strategies used by governments and experts are not adequate because they can exclude the cultural voices of communities. For these projects to work African cultural and Indigenous epistemologies must be used as well to increase participation. Thus, Iloka notes that the government shouldn’t solely invest in Western knowledge when it comes to risk reduction. Although this source is more specific, it is entirely salient to the topic of decolonization. The environmental perspective aids one to notice the ways in which postcolonial societies are still held by western power through western knowledge. Furthermore, this article showcases the importance of various ways of knowing to counter issues that pose risk to society as Indigenous Epistemologies can be just as adequately used to fight against climate change.

Mashingaidze, Sivave. “Cosmovision and African Conservation Philosophy: Indigenous Knowledge System Perspective.” Environmental Economics, vol. 7, no. 4, Business Perspectives Ltd, 2016, pp. 25–33, doi:10.21511/ee.07(4).2016.03.

To summarize, Mashingaidze discusses the importance of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) in postcolonial African societies. Mashingaidze discusses how these epistemologies were used to bring “peace, harmony, and order”. However, colonialism disrupted IKSs and marginalized and villainized them. Moreover, the article essentializes the importance of IKSs in resource conservation as it relates to the physical and environmental wellbeing of society. Ultimately, Mashingaidze argues that the current physical and social crises in Africa are a result of the marginalization of African epistemologies. This source is important to the topic of decolonization and social change because it discusses the importance of Indigenous Epistemologies to both the people and our environment. Using this type of knowledge would be productive in decolonizing the way people interact with their environment. Moreover, this article counters Western epistemologies and adds a fresh perspective on the way we see the world. IKSs promotes the simultaneous wellbeing of the people and the environment which Western Knowledge sometimes overlooks.

To conclude, the research taken during the production of this assignment entails something remarkable: Indigenous Epistemologies can be applicable to many structures within society. Through this short paper, I was able to discuss a few (education, environment, & social). However, as I have learned, it goes beyond that. It is applicable to technology, medicine, agriculture, spirituality, art, communication, community organization, and more. The action of dismissing and marginalizing these epistemologies is counter-productive to the well being of our world. Indigenous Epistemologies are not at all “uncivilized” or “barbaric” and the scope of the knowledge they hold is evidence. Thus, including these forms of knowing in the decolonization process is productive and salient to the future of society.

Women in the Online Gaming Community

“Beaten by a Little Girl!”: The Experiences of Women in the Online Gaming Community

Written by Robin Leung, a WSTB05 student from the University of Toronto

This essay was submitted as part of OPF's partnership with the WSTB05 class (Understanding Power and Knowledge in Research). More information about our partnership can be found here.    

For my creative response, I will discuss the experiences of women in the male-dominated online video gaming community. Existing research on the experiences of women in the gaming community says that they often experience marginalization, sexual harassment, and gender-based harassment. Furthermore, female gamers are often stereotyped as desiring male attention or being unskilled at video games. The goal of my creative piece is to satirize the stereotypes of female gamers and to critique the notion of what it means to be a “real” gamer.

The online video game community is a site of cultural production, where women must negotiate their identity as ‘gamers’ within a space that is defined by hegemonic masculinity. Female gamers are perceived as a minority in the gaming community and often experience sexual harassment and gender-based harassment. Furthermore, representations of female gamers are limited and are often constructed in relation to male gamers. Because video games are seen as a masculine hobby, women’s desire to play video games is often treated with skepticism. Although women’s desire to play video games is as simple as wanting to have fun, there is an assumption that the underlying motive for women’s participation in gaming is to receive male attention or to differentiate themselves from women who do not play video games (Nic Giolla Easpaig and Humphrey 556). As a result, there exists the stereotype that women are unskilled at video games, and there exists the gendered stereotype of the “fake gamer girl.” According to research on Stereotype Threat Theory, the gender gap in the gaming community “may result more from cultural perceptions of gender and gaming, rather than actual differences in ability or performance” (Ratan et al. 456). This gender gap refers to the lack of female players in competitive gaming communities, such as the game League of Legends. Research says that the stereotype that women play mostly supportive roles in competitive video games is perpetuated when women are pressured to conform to gender expectations and when they believe that they are not skilled enough to play more aggressive roles (Ratan et al. 457). Women often face harassment regardless of whether or not they perform gender in the way that is expected. As a result, many women cope with harassment in games by masking their gender, which is done by choosing masculine or gender-neutral usernames and avatars. A consequence of gender masking, however, is that it contributes to “perceptions that women are rare or nonexistent in certain gaming environments” (Fox and Tang 1298).

For my creative piece, I created a “tag yourself” meme that illustrates the various stereotypes of female gamers that are described in the research articles. I chose to create a “tag yourself” meme because this type of meme embodies the reductionist representations of female gamers. My creative piece explores the concepts of othering, gender performativity, and heteronormativity. To illustrate these concepts, I incorporated various stereotypes described in the research that characterize women as being unskilled at games or desiring male attention. The “healslut” and the “filthy casual” are examples of the stereotype that women are unskilled at video games. The “uwu girl,” the “pick me girl,” and the “titty streamer” are variations of the stereotype that women play video games for male attention. The “uwu girl,” the “pick me girl,” and the “titty streamer” are often assumed to be unskilled at video games as well. The “one of the boys” stereotype is interesting because her skill in video games is acknowledged, so long as
she does not outperform male gamers, and so long as her performance of gender is not considered threatening to masculinity. The women who are “better than the boys,” however, are often met with disbelief and hostility. Women who are skilled at games are sometimes assumed to be hacking. Furthermore, they are often assumed to be “fat,” “ugly,” or “slutty.” The research on the “fat, ugly, or slutty phenomenon” is consistent with my experiences as a female gamer (Nic Giolla Easpaig and Humphrey 556). There have been many times that I have been called “fat” and “ugly” after beating an opponent in a game, although the only signifiers of my gender are my username, my avatar, my role, and perhaps my style of communication. This harassment is often paired with sexist remarks, such as “make me a sandwich,” or “get back in the kitchen.” I believe that it is the explicit performance of femininity, along with gaming skills, that threatens the masculinity of many male gamers. The women who are “secretly a girl,” however, avoid performing femininity to avoid being stereotyped and harassed. I included the “real gamer girl” as a way to critique and subvert the stereotypes of “gamer girls” and what it means to be a “real” gamer. A woman’s motive for playing video games and gaming skills does not matter. Being a “real gamer girl” is as simple as identifying as a girl and enjoying video games, whether they be casual games or competitive games.

Meme by Robin Leung

Because the experiences of female gamers are often doubted—sometimes to the point where women speaking about their experiences are met with threats of violence—the research on women in online gaming communities is important because it validates their struggles and experiences. It does not take a formal research study for female gamers to recognize the types of stereotypes and harassment that they face regularly. It is reassuring, however, to know that their experiences are recognized by “respectable” producers of knowledge. I chose to create a subversive meme about “gamer girls” because memes can be a form of knowledge production, and I wanted to create a meme that satirizes the countless misogynistic memes about “gamer girls.” Memes, however, are also a form of cultural production, and it is frustrating to see that misogynistic stereotypes about “gamer girls” are constantly being reproduced and are sometimes taken more seriously than the firsthand experiences of female gamers.

Sexualization Against Girls of Color

The Sexy and Sweet Paradox

Written by Sheherzade Khan, a WSTB05 student from the University of Toronto

This poem was submitted as part of OPF's partnership with the WSTB05 class (Understanding Power and Knowledge in Research). More information about our partnership can be found here.   

Why am I a vulture when I can be a dove?

Do I not deserve tender, care, and love?

Am I nothing but your personal sex toy, a pawn in your ploy?

“Quit complaining, if you weren’t wearing that dress, I wouldn’t call you a whore!”

And it goes on and on, forevermore 

If I’m black, I’m fast

If I’m a Muslim woman, I come last

If that’s the case, how can we move past? 

If I’m Oriental, I’m exotic

If I’m Latina, I’m spicy and hypnotic 

All the pretty girls are enticing 

But if I tell you no, you’ll go psychotic 

Very well, not surprising 

Very well, I’m the modern Jezebel 

Got the tricks up my sleeve, no wonder Adam ate from the tree 

Sang out like the siren, strayed them away from the yellow brick road

Just like the succubus, all the foolish men are soon to get in trouble 

Putting me on an operating table, just for you to poke and prod

Highlight my insecurities like a blinding light 

Every curve, crack, and cut is flawed

Nothing is equal and I can hear the snickers 

Yet at the same time, it just feels right 

If anyone says otherwise, I promise you I’ll bite 

Poem on Body Image

Thorns and Thoughts

Written by Simran Suri, a WSTB05 student from the University of Toronto

This poem was submitted as part of OPF's partnership with the WSTB05 class (Understanding Power and Knowledge in Research). More information about our partnership can be found here.  

Thorns and Thoughts



Found myself in a patch.

Didn’t know if I could match. 

A plethora of them.

But I was just a stem. 

I noticed, was I:


Who looked like me? 

Maybe Unique?

It felt… 

As bright as a rainbow.

I didn’t know if it could show.

I felt low. 

I gave it a thought.

It felt like a knot. 

Look at my thorns.

It pricks. 

It sticks.

I can’t get rid of it.

I paused.

But there were no flaws?

I was as soft as silk.

It’s just the way I was built.

Why should I feel guilt? 

When it’s the way I’m traced. 

And it’s what I’ll embrace.

Feminism and Social Media

In Inability for Teenage Girls to Express Interests Online

Written by Ireland Fidale, a WSTB05 student from the University of Toronto

This essay was submitted as part of OPF's partnership with the WSTB05 class (Understanding Power and Knowledge in Research). More information about our partnership can be found here.   

In the digital age, we have been given the opportunity to connect with people all around the world. Discover new things, meet people with similar interests, and expand our knowledge on anything we can imagine. Despite the advancement society has made with social media, there has been a continuation of deep rooted misogyny that has come along with it. I chose to focus on the issue of teenage girls being unable to express their interests on social media. According to an Online Harassment report from Pew Research Center, women have an 11% higher rate of being a target of harassment due to gender online, while men have a 5% chance. (Pamungkas et al. 2) As someone who is involved in specific interest communities on social media, I have seen time and time again the way teenage girls are targeted just simply for enjoying something. “Jane (2018) believes that gendered abuse and threats online cause “embodied” rather than “virtual” harm and that the behaviors present in virtual interactions can map onto more familiar forms of offline violence against women and girls.” (Kavanagh et al. 552) Research shows that there is a clear issue with the way women are treated on social media, and it can then fester into something larger, putting women in dangerous situations that can harm them and those around them. My goal with my creative piece was to visually portray how it feels to be targeted by misogyny on the basis that I have expressed my interest in something that many other people like as well.

It was not difficult to find research discussing the issue of how women are treated on social media. Misogyny is a long withstanding issue that social media has given a platform to accentuate the reality of the issue.

Respectability politics is grounded in a set of standards that prescribe piousness, temperance, decorum and self-restraint, sexual restraint, propriety and morality, neat appearance and self-protection. It requires public display of these standards by the person and is used to determine those worthy or unworthy of respect, as Rowe (2013) discusses, respectable status is precarious and requires constant policing of self. (Barratt 17)

I used this assignment as an opportunity to express my own feelings through the creative piece. I have personally experienced issues with portraying what I enjoy online as a woman, and wanted to showcase what it feels like. I depicted myself in this piece, using interests I have, and have been judged for on the internet. To have someone harass you for something that brings you joy can affect the way you feel about the things that make you happy, and expressing that happiness to others. Explaining the feelings that go along with being ridiculed by people you do not know because you enjoy something can be hard for those who do not experience it to understand, so I wanted to create something for people to see how it feels. My piece engages with the sources I have used as I took the ideas of verbal harassment and aggressive language used towards women online, and incorporated it into my piece. The course concepts being applied are ideology and the critical paradigm. In terms of my creative piece, both concepts relate to each other, in that it is showcasing an inequality in the way women are treated, and the misogynist ideologies behind it. My creative method says something about my topic that is otherwise hard to communicate by showcasing the defeat that comes along with it. There is not anything women can do to change how they are treated online, because there is no helping to protect us.

Art by Ireland Fidale

In the current society where social media has made it easy for people to connect and comment, women have had to face more harassment and hate due to the misogynistic mindset many still live in, and now have a platform to express. Teenage girls are not able to enjoy anything without facing backlash just for simply expressing their interests. From something as simple as makeup or music, women cannot express happiness or interest, because men have the ability to veto it all with the simple click of a button. Forms of harassment and abuse to women online can even then transfer into violent situations against them in real life, due to this expression against what they like. Using a creative method to display an ideological issue can be a powerful way to showcase the deeper feelings and emotions people feel when being faced with an issue like this. It creates an opportunity for people to express themselves without using words, and still being able to display an issue that needs to be acknowledged.

Works Cited

Barratt, Sue Ann. “Reinforcing Sexism and Misogyny: Social Media, Symbolic Violence and the
Construction of Femininity-as-Fail.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 19,
no. 3, Bridgewater State College, 2018, pp. 16–31.

Kavanagh, Emma, et al. “Sporting Women and Social Media: Sexualization, Misogyny, and
Gender-Based Violence in Online Spaces.” International Journal of Sport
Communication, vol. 12, no. 4, 2019, pp. 552–75, https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsc.2019-0079.

Pamungkas, Endang Wahyu, et al. “Misogyny Detection in Twitter: a Multilingual and
Cross-Domain Study.” Information Processing & Management, vol. 57, no. 6, Elsevier
Ltd, 2020, p. 102360–, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ipm.2020.102360.

Experiences of LGBTQ+ Youth on Social Media

Hidden Warriors in the Hidden World

The Safe Cave

Written by Christy Lee, a WSTB05 student from the University of Toronto

This poem was submitted as part of OPF's partnership with the WSTB05 class (Understanding Power and Knowledge in Research). More information about our partnership can be found here.  


My research topic is to explore the experiences of LGBTQ+ youths on social media. Social media has a huge impact on our daily lives. Youths are especially active in using social media. In particular, LGBTQ+ youths have high connectivity with social media. I have created a poetry regarding how LGBTQ+ youths use social media as a way to fight back one of the dominant systems of power – heteronormativity and speak for themselves using photos, videos or simply captions of words. They can have relatively higher autonomy in the social media environment when compared to having face-to-face interactions with people in real life (Lucero 125). They get to choose what to post, who to talk to and customize the kinds of information they want to know, under a less stressful and pressurized atmosphere. To them, the existence of social media is just like a safe cave that gives them the strength to find meanings and values in their lives.

The Safe Cave 

There’s one cave 

Unlike any caves in the world 

Invisible companions feel free that 

Words on the keyboard flow freely 

There’s one cave 

Colorful than any palette in the world 

Small pixels of colors form a rainbow that

Light up invisible companions’ day 

There’s one cave 

Warmer than any place in the world 

Even though they are all strangers 

Invisible companions understand 

There’s one cave 

Safer than any place in the world 

Even though there is a war out there 

Invisible companions protect 

This one cave will be replaced 

Only when the time come 

Only when there is true unity 

Within the human race

Experiences of a Trans POC

Written by a WSTB05 student from the University of Toronto

This piece was submitted as part of OPF's partnership with the WSTB05 class (Understanding Power and Knowledge in Research). More information about our partnership can be found here. 

TW: I talk about some pretty personal stuff, including a failed coming-out to my parents and suicidal ideation. Please read with caution.

“I’m Cindy,” she says. She’s 3, maybe 4 years old. She picked up the name from a Jimmy Neutron character; a cute, white girl with her long blonde hair tied in a ponytail. (Her current self is pretty embarrassed to admit that, but he needs a grade, so he’ll push past it.)

Her mom looks at her, does that smile grown-ups do when they’re about to correct you, and tells her her name is “Sydnee.” The little girl insists. She’s Cindy. She likes that name better, and likes the girl on the screen better. She doesn’t get why she doesn’t look like her. Why her skin’s tanned, not white, and why she’s got long, black hair instead of pretty blonde locks. She kind of wants to look like her. Her mom doesn’t press it, but keeps calling her Sydnee. Sydnee gives up, loses interest since it doesn’t seem she’ll be getting her way. Sometimes, she tries to change her name again, but her parents always go “you’re Sydnee, not Cindy.” Eventually, it sticks. Sydnee keeps calling herself Sydnee, but a part of her still wishes she was Cindy.

Sydnee’s had to move again. This time, the change seems long-term. She’s 8, going into the 3rd grade (she thought this was very grown-up; the 3rd graders she’s met seemed way more mature than her). She’s attending a Catholic school, St. Timothy. She’s small and at that stage in life where she’s gaining more awareness of herself – she used to never shut up in class. She even got in trouble for it. (She was also kinda dense; she didn’t get that the teacher wanted her to leave the classroom until she was told like, what? 5 times? Sorry, Sydnee’s 1st grade teacher number 2.) Now, she doesn’t really volunteer. Doesn’t want to speak if it means she’ll get put in timeout or something, or god forbid, get a note sent home. Abandon all hope, ye whose teacher tells you they need to talk to your parents.

The not-speaking thing isn’t much of an issue. Except it is. Now, instead of her teachers saying “your kid literally never shuts up” (but, you know, nicely), they’re all going “she needs to participate more in class.” In other words, “your kid never speaks and it’s kind of concerning.” Sydnee hates parent-teacher interviews because of that. She also hates report cards, because they say the same thing. Every time, her parents go “you’ll talk more in class, okay?” 


But she never actually does.

Sydnee’s made a new best friend. Her name’s Anna Flora (Anna, I know you probably won’t see this, but hi. It’s me. A lot has happened and I miss you, hope we can meet up sometime; we’ve got a lot to catch up on). She’s tall, pale, and pretty, with paleish, greenish-blue eyes and long blonde hair. She’s also very smart, and pretty well-liked. Sydnee’s fond of her. An ugly, subconscious part of her wishes she were her; or at least looked like her (even her parents seem to like her better; she thinks they wish she were more like Anna). Sydnee still doesn’t understand why she thinks that. She puts it off. Anna Flora’s cool, and being her friend is cool too. She hopes they stay friends forever.

Sydnee’s grown up a bit now. She’s about 11, 12, maybe? She’s a bit taller, but Anna Flora still towers over her. She doesn’t mind. She kind of likes being short; means she’s easier to hug, and gets to make short jokes (her favourite one is joking that she’s closer to hell, but she’s not gutsy enough to say that out loud, since she is attending a Catholic school). 

What Sydnee doesn’t like is how awkward she’s become. She’s struggling to click with her classmates now; they’re nice people, but she always feels a bit on the outside. She’s still not participating in class all that much. She’s also been a really shitty friend recently; some days she’s super nice to Anna Flora, other days she completely ignores her. As her older self types this, he still doesn’t know why he did that. Maybe for some form of control, to feel a sense of superiority because he felt so low compared to everyone else. Anna, I’m so sorry I did that to you, and looking back now, it was super screwed up. You don’t have to forgive me (again, you probably won’t see this), but if I can’t apologize to you directly, then writing it out is fine.

Sydnee is following her class inside when she tells Anna Flora something like, “hey, I think I wanna be called he or they.” She’s been spending more and more time online; she didn’t know people didn’t have to identify with their birth genders. She likes the sound of non-binary, but the word transgender seems scary to her. Anna listens and tells her “then that means you’re not a girl.” Sydnee isn’t sure how to feel about that. She doesn’t like it. If she’s not a girl, then what is she? A feeling of disgust worms its way into her head. She drops the topic. She doesn’t bring it up again.

Sydnee thinks she’s bisexual. She doesn’t realize it at the time, but she has a bit of a crush on one of her older friends, a girl a year older than her named Nicole. God, was she ever dense. She’s about 12 or so at this time; she’s trying to figure herself out. Her older self wants to smack her upside the head for how dumb she’s being, but he knows she needs to get her stupidity out now, otherwise he’ll be stupid too. He also needs to stop bullying his past self. You went to therapy for this, you jerk. (To conclude this story, I actually realized I liked Nicole in the 9th grade, and I told her as such when we reconnected. It’s an inside joke between us now, and I call her Nico. We became very good friends.)

Sydnee is 14 now. She’s in grade 8, and graduates in June. She’ll be a bottom feeder again, as her substitute French teacher so kindly put it. She’s sure she’s queer somehow, but doesn’t know how. But she can’t worry about that right now; she has two speeches to finish for class, and she has no idea what she’s going to write about.

Sydnee is 15 now. It’s the summer before her grade 10 year. She’s come home after buying a new stylus for her iPad (she draws now, wow), and is currently having a breakdown over how she is apparently a he. He doesn’t like this conclusion. In fact, he hates it. He realized it during the car ride home from Staples, and really wishes he hadn’t gone out to buy that stylus. He pushes his feelings down and decides to draw. Test out his new toy. He makes some ugly vent pieces, deletes them, then goes down for dinner, pretending he’s alright. He writes a coming-out letter. He decides he’ll give it to his parents, just get it over with. He hopes they’ll accept him; believes they’ll accept him. They’ve got gay friends, right? They’d be okay if their daughter turned out to be a son.

Cat’s come out to his parents. They just came home from eating at a really nice pizza place, and he wishes he hadn’t tainted the memory like this. They insist that the name he likes isn’t his name: “you’re this, not this,” his dad goes, pointedly underlining the name he’s given himself. Sydnee. Not Cat. He’s beginning to hate Sydnee. He hates her a lot. As he storms upstairs, face hot in embarrassment and stained with tears, he wishes Sydnee were never born.

His parents keep the letter. It’s been 3 years since then, and he still doesn’t know where they’ve put it. He still wants to see it again. Maybe even burn it. He regrets telling them the truth.

Cat doesn’t talk to his parents about personal things anymore. Not like he used to.

They come to a compromise. The night he came out, Cat begged to get his hair cut. Anything to look less like a her, and more like a him. His parents agree, and the next day, they drive to the mall. Before they get out, his mom sternly tells him “just because you’re getting this haircut, doesn’t mean you’re a boy.” He gives the usual “okay.” He’s too tired to argue. He cried himself out already.

He gets his haircut. It’s a bob cut; not super short like he’d wanted, but his parents insisted he transition from longer hair to short hair over a gradual process. He thinks it’s ironic; his hair’s doing more transitioning than him. He still looks like a she, but it’s a start. Soon, I’ll get out of here, he keeps telling himself. Soon I can cut my hair however I want. Soon I can feel like me.

Cat begins using his new name at school. He came out to his friends before the fall-out with his parents; they supported him, and loved him all the same, and he’s glad for it. His first class of the year is an English class with his friend Kyle. He tells the teacher his preferred name during attendance. 

Some of his classmates went to his old school; they knew him as someone else. There are some amused whispers of “Cat? What?” that make his skin prickle with shame and irritation, but his teacher takes it in stride and makes note of his preferred name. He sits down and looks over at Kyle, who beams at him. It’s been 3 years since then, and he still hasn’t forgotten it, nor has he forgotten the feeling of giddiness and “yeah, I’ll be okay” once he and Kyle grinned at each other. It’s one of his favourite high school memories.

He’s really embracing his identity now. He’s out at school, since he figures if he can’t be himself around family, he’ll be himself around friends. He…kind of prefers his friends, anyways. Thinks they’re a much better support system. He admits to himself, with a little shame, that they’re the ones he’d rather call family.

There’s a minor setback; he finds out from a friend that a girl in their French class insisted on dead-naming him while he was away. “It’s not Cat,” she’d said, “It’s Sydnee.” He’s glad to know that his teacher and classmates were quick to deny this, but it still makes him feel a little sick. His friend asks if he’s alright with the news, and he says he is; he can’t help it if that’s how she sees him. Besides, it’s not like he’s friends with her. He won’t have to deal with her on a regular basis. 

He waves his friend off and goes to class. The girl is still friendly with him, but he feels like she’s looking down on him somehow. He shrugs; it’s fine (even if it doesn’t feel like it is). Not like his identity is any of her business. 

(His present self looks back on the situation and laughs. As he’s writing this, he’s thinking to himself, it’s pretty flattering that she cared enough about his identity to try and invalidate it in front of their class. It’s funny, really, though it didn’t seem that way before. I wonder what she’s up to now?)

It’s winter now. He doesn’t know what’s wrong, but something is wrong, and he just can’t seem to place his finger on it. Everything is fine. He’s got great friends, he’s doing well in school, and things are fairly okay with his parents, if not a little tense with what happened over the summer. So he doesn’t understand why he wants to die. Why he thinks everything sucks when it clearly doesn’t, and there are other people who have it so much worse than him, and they’re doing alright, so why isn’t he? He keeps joking about needing therapy. He’s beginning to think he actually does. But he doesn’t think his parents will let him, so he copes like this, until one day, it gets to be too much.

He’s riding the bus home one day, staring out the window as his music plays in his headphones. It’s cold; he can tell from how everyone he sees is bundled up, wearing long winter coats and hats. He himself is wearing gloves and scarf, and a thick, grey coat that covers almost his entire body. The world outside is tinted bluish-grey, and when he reaches out to wipe fog off the window, he winces at how chilly it is.

His bus passes over a bridge, like usual. He doesn’t remember what song he was listening to. All he remembers was that all his thoughts of “what if I jumped off of here?” were replaced with “I should jump off here.” He’s scared of it, and especially of himself; he hadn’t felt anything when he thought that. Hadn’t tried to combat it with thoughts of “no, you have homework to do” or “your friends would miss you” or “you haven’t even written a will yet,” like he usually would. Instead, all he felt was a numb sort of acceptance: the apathy you feel in the face of the inevitable. He continues staring out the window. He imagines himself stopping at the next stop, trudging back to the bridge, leaving his school bag behind and leaping down onto the highway below. One last nagging thought of “if you jumped there, you’d be hurting others” calls out to him, but he silences it in favour of imagining selfish nonsense.

Cat is 15 when he first decides he wants to die.

Sometime in January or February, he has a breakdown in the car as his dad drops him off at school. He tells him what happened, his thoughts of jumping, and begs to go to therapy. His dad says they’ll talk more about it later, and he’ll bring it up to his mom (Cat doesn’t want this, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers). He wipes his face off and goes into the school. He makes his way into the cafeteria, and his friends are there as usual. They see him coming and greet him happily, just like always. He remembers Kimmy, Arielle, and Izzy being there; they noticed almost immediately that something was off. Kimmy asked (thanks, by the way. I think you seriously saved me back there), and as he opens his mouth, all that comes out are sobs. 

She takes him to the corner of the cafeteria, away from prying eyes, and they talk. He pours his whole heart out to her, tells her everything that’s been on his mind, the deal with the bridge, everything. She doesn’t judge; she just listens. She listens until he’s done and listens some more, she gives him words of comfort and hugs him close, and he feels warm and safe and realizes “wow, I am seriously touch-starved.” He hasn’t been hugged like that since he was little. 

The rest of the day is better, and he feels a lot better too, but he knows that relying on his friends for support isn’t going to be what helps him. His mental health isn’t their responsibility; it’s his. He’s determined to get better.

Cat goes to therapy for about half a year. His therapist, Phyllis, is very supportive of him, and a great listener. He still remembers what she taught him, and tries to practice what she’s preached to the best of his abilities. He’s no longer at odds with his emotions; he lets them course through him, lets himself feel them, because he knows they’re neither good nor bad. They just are, and that’s okay. They don’t define him, and they never will. 

He still has intrusive thoughts, but never to the magnitude of the day he decided to jump. He knows how to quell them; let his brain think them, then reminds it that he has a lot to live for, and he’ll never get to experience it all if he chooses to cut it there. Some days are still bad. Some days he wishes he had jumped back then, because he’s so tired of enduring, enduring, enduring (he’s still living at home, under his dead name and identity). But giving in is the easy way out, and he refuses to let himself take it. He’s far too prideful to let the world go “I told you so.” He’s also too prideful to let his parents think his mind’s changed. 

Things are better between them now; they know that he still feels the same way about his gender, and he knows they probably won’t change their own stance on it either (which is still pretty annoying, but I’ll take what I can get). He knows it won’t be forever, because he’s in university now, and if he’s in university, that means he’s grown up a little. By the time he graduates, he’ll hopefully be looking for jobs and moving out. He’ll be on his own, then. He’ll be able to do what he wants with his life.

Cat is 18 now. The year is 2021, the month is November. He’s a first year at University of Toronto Scarborough, thinking of majoring in Population Health come second year. He’ll worry about that later. Right now, he’s finishing an assignment for his Women’s and Gender Studies class. He’s typing out the ending, and soon, he’ll be done. 

He looks back on what he’s written, how far he’s come. He’s at home with his identity, and is patiently waiting for the day he can truly express himself. He doesn’t think about Sydnee or Cindy anymore; there’s just him, and he likes being him. He likes the way he looks, likes his hair and doesn’t wish to be a little paler. Not anymore. He’s starting to recognize himself in the mirror. He’s grown, he thinks, typing out the last few words of his story. He’s become a little cooler, hasn’t he? …yeah. I think I have.


A Summary of “IMF, World Bank and COVID-19 Relief – A Modern-Day Trojan Horse?”

by Alec Wills

          The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the world into a state of extreme uncertainty and grave socioeconomic instability. The damage has been twofold: a severe public health crisis combined with a massive contraction of the global economy. As a result, many countries have been put into a severely stressed economic position¹. Large amounts of resources are needed to craft and enforce appropriate policies, such as providing additional funding for the healthcare sector, financial relief for the unemployed and/or struggling, and vaccination procurement. The lack of wealth and resources in lower income countries might make these tasks immensely challenging. Enter the International Financial Institutions (IFIs)–specifically, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank–whose roles are to provide loans to countries in crises and/or precarious economic positions, loans with conditionalities which the receiving government must comply with. What are the benefits and drawbacks of these transactions? Are the IFIs the saviour of the Global South? Or are their actions a Trojan Horse: a tactical maneuver designed to undermine and conquer disguised as a gift. This was the topic discussed in the “IMF/World Bank: A Modern Day Trojan Horse?” seminar for UTSC’s Global and International Health Week. Below, I offer a reflection on this presentation.

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A Summary of “Fact or Fiction? Myth-busting COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories”

by Alec Wills 

          Conspiratorial thought is a recurring phenomenon in Western society. From the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, conspiracy theories seem to inevitably find large and receptive audiences¹. In the recent past, their relegation to niche recesses of YouTube and/or obscure documentary films made them a somewhat benign occurrence, but the narratives emerging around the COVID-19 pandemic have significant implications for public health and the future of the world².  This comes at a time when social media makes it easier to spread misinformation³, while conspiracy theorists are elevated to the highest echelons of institutional power, notably the former president of the United States Donald Trump. These elements, combined with a society that has seemingly no shortage of cynical and distrustful people, provide an ideal petri dish for outlandish claims regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. UTSC’s Global & International Health Week’s “Fact or Fiction? Myth-Busting COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories” seminar analyzed and critiqued these theories and challenged their presuppositions. Below, I offer a reflection on this presentation and the topics discussed.

           The presentation began by differentiating misinformation from disinformation. The former refers to incorrect or misleading information not necessarily disseminated for deceptive purposes. The latter uses misinformation in the forms of hoaxes and propaganda for the specific purpose of misleading and instilling fear in part of the population. Following these introductory definitions, five COVID-19 conspiracy theories were presented:

  1. Personal protective masks are unnecessary, harmful, a violation of human rights, and/or emasculating. 
  2. COVID-19 is being used for population control by killing off the elderly. 
  3. Bill Gates is microchipping the population through vaccinations.
  4. COVID-19 is an orchestrated pandemic by some nefarious organizations (i.e. The New World Order, the Illuminati, etc.).
  5. COVID-19 was created in a laboratory and is being used as a biological weapon.

Continue reading A Summary of “Fact or Fiction? Myth-busting COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories”