One year ago, I walked into Wild Rice on unsteady legs, wearing a tutu skirt and a t-shirt that said “nevertheless she purrsisted”. Despite working for over 5 months towards that day, I felt unprepared and shaky.
“Throughout the entire campaign, you’ve talked about doing this together–standing not in front, but alongside the community. You need to be there with all the volunteers to receive the results together.” This was what my co-campaign manager/friend told me as I stood on the side of the road a couple days earlier, crying into the phone about my fear of letting people down.
For me, the municipal election results were about more than whether or not I would serve the community of New Westminster as a city councillor. It was more than whether or not I had run a strong campaign, whether my ideas were interesting and resonated with residents. More than whether I had worked hard enough, whether I had knocked on enough doors. The results felt part of a bigger narrative – the question was whether New West was ready to elect a young(ish), opinionated, woman of colour.
Throughout my five-month campaign, young women had pulled me aside to tell me how much it meant to them to see me running for council. How if I could do it, they believed that they too could run for public office and take leadership positions. I’ve said it before – representation is heady. If you’ve never been underrepresented by politicians, public figures, celebrities, performers, community and global leaders then it may be difficult to understand how powerful and exciting it feels to see someone who looks just a bit like you step into a leadership position.
I wore these women’s words and confidence in me like another piece of clothing as I walked into our election night party. And I was shaky with the fear that if I failed and didn’t win a seat, that they would take this lesson to heart: Women like us aren’t meant to hold public office. If I lost, I didn’t know if I would be able to hold both their disappointment and my own.
Of course, the rest is a matter of public record – I did win, as did Chinu Das, Anita Ansari, and Gurveen Dhaliwal. Diversity was the story of the night. And we’ve been serving the community as members of City Council and School Board for nearly a year.
I am writing this now because there are stories within stories. And the election results have perhaps glossed over the insecurity I felt throughout the election. Over the past year, people have told me repeatedly that I am fearless for running for office, for taking on difficult issues, for speaking my truth. But unfortunately, the people who tell me that are wrong. I’m definitely not fearless–what I think they’re responding to is my feeling of responsibility. This responsibility includes amplifying less often heard voices and perspectives, listening deeply especially when I’m uncomfortable, and fighting as hard as I can for social and environmental justice (and for the record, people are correct when they call me a social justice warrior, although I do prefer the term social justice fairy). I have immense privilege and I am committed to using every ounce of it to try to bring about change.
In the past year, I’ve also been told repeatedly that I am divisive and abrasive. But for people on the margins, the world is full of sharp edges. And if I rub against those edges with my abrasive self often enough, hopefully by the time I vacate this position, some of that sharpness will be polished smooth for the next person who takes my seat. Because I won’t be here forever and some of my work is being a good ancestor.
When I launched my campaign in May of 2018, my friend Raymond said that I had “the audacity of courage”. For me, this courage is rooted in a sense of duty to serve the community and create a more equitable world. And every single day, I’m inspired by the courage of those around me.
I’ve now had a year to reflect and these four things have been rattling around in my mind:
- Representation and diversity matter
And intersectionality is important. Not counting the Mayor, we have gender balance on city council and 6 out of 7 of the school trustees are women. There’s still a way to go to fully represent the community, but I have first-hand seen how having different perspectives at the table changes the dialogue. Examples:
2. These spaces are not built for me or people like me
One of my council colleagues commented that he can barely see me over the council table. This is because these spaces were built for a very specific type of person. Our city hall has significant accessibility challenges – clearly we have an expectation that councillors and staff will have a certain type of physical mobility. Councillors are given three days to read what usually amounts to around 1000 pages in our council packages – this would be a barrier for a lot of people for many reasons including cognitive or learning disabilities, caregiving responsibilities, and shift work. These defaults are difficult to identify until someone comes in who doesn’t fit.
3. The defenders of the status quo are a curious bunch
It’s a given that people don’t like change. This change-aversion pops up in curious places.
4. We need to interrogate all our systems
What often seems normal or given is in fact part of a system built by people. There aren’t many parts of our system that are not changeable. We need to examine what serves us, and most especially serves those who are struggling in our communities, and commit to changing what no longer serves us.
Photo credit: Lisa King, New West Record