Category Archives: Community Building Initiatives

Page that discusses my community initiatives and work

‘I Don’t Get to Call Myself An Ally’ – But I Can Aim Towards Becoming One

Tomorrow, for the first time I am speaking on the topics of decolonization and intersectionality. I don’t think I have ever been as nervous for a talk. It is a topic I have been engaged in for the past several months, but it still feels to me a new term. However, there is some value into speaking to the newness and humility. That is why I eventually put my name forward and agreed to speak.

It has been a long time coming. A year ago, I don’t think I could have spoke on this topic let along would I have put my hands up to even volunteer. The pathway to learning about colonialism, decolonization, intersectionality, racism, and discrimination in our society has been a difficult one. It has forced me to confront my own current role (and definitely my past roles) in perpetuating my privilege and my power in not only my ‘colonial work’ but in the way I may have approached community service. I lose sleep now in ways that I did not before – because I am exposing myself to my own shortcomings and the painful truths I conveniently avoided in years past.

I am glad that it is slowly stripping away an ego that I think the process of being a lawyer almost inherently instills. I feel more humbled and I thank the learning I am doing and the social activists I am meeting for transforming me.

This process has highlighted mistakes I have made in the past in this regard.

For example, I donated money to a local organization on behalf of my law firm thinking I was doing good while simultaneously shirking a previous responsibility I had to that organization, as a volunteer. I realize that I was donating to cover up my own guilt and that goes against the very principles of decolonization that I am now learning about.

A second mistake I made was for a long time this law blog had an Indigenous logo that a non-Indigenous friend designed over. That appropriation of culture was entirely inappropriate. Even now, I am aware my logo is Indigenous and I am not – something I need to be extremely careful about as I consider the direction my blog goes and the societal/policy issues we engage with. I think that by engaging an Indigenous artist Diamond Point, we’ve made a step in the right direction but Indigenous recognition – much like, can very easily turn into lip service with no corresponding action.

All this to say – I don’t get to become an ally – just by reading a few pieces and attending a few workshops, giving a few talks, writing a few tweets, and making a few donations. Becoming an ally requires an investment in time, but more importantly a humility that this is a fight I care about but a fight that ultimately I need to support my Indigenous brothers and sisters in. I need to advocate but more importantly listen and be present when listening.

I had a colleague tweet in reply, not so long ago to a post of mine, that I also needed to show sensitivity when talking about things such as the residential school experience or the experiences of Indigenous women, as the very bringing up of these themes could be triggering to them.

As lawyers, we love to talk, to write, to share. It almost seems like the test for good advocacy is whether you have been to Court recently, what level of Court,  what policy issues, and what media opportunities. The first two months of this year gave me some incredible platforms but frankly I did not do enough to use those platforms to shift conversation or give light to underrepresented and more deserving voices, especially Indigenous voices. Indigenous issues are still so peripheralized and othered in mainstream media – through a lens that more often than not dehumanizes.

We seem more engaged with global events that have little effect on us, but that generate clicks and false outrage, than we do with local suffering that we are all collectively responsible for as settlers on stolen land – which should generate real outrage. It is as if those problems are our Government’s and that ‘reconciliation’ has solved all problems. From what I am seen and heard, it hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface.

When it comes to tomorrow’s talk on decolonization and intersectionality – I plan to share with these young impressionable minds of the amazing RADIUS program I am speaking to – my journey and my stumbles.

I also very much aspire to this idea that decolonization cannot be a metaphor for general social change, social justice, and anti-colonialism/oppression. If we water down decolonization, or worse yet, forget decolonization needs to come hand-in hand with indigenization (and not just of mind and rhetoric) – we may do more harm than good. I am also aware that this process will involve ceding of power, privilege, and land. Anything else, and it turns again into rhetoric and feel good excuses for our continued settler privilege and justifications for modified colonal appetites. We also need to come to global understandings of indigenizing that also doesn’t allow for the term to become homogenization.

Canadian indigenization – and where it comes from is historically grounded by systemic and full-scale wrongdoing that sought to wipe out Indigenous culture. Indigenization in another context, for example a country that believes in protecting and preserving one’s indigenous roots at the expense of newcomers or racial intermixing, can become problematic and the basis of racial/ethnic supremacy.

I think the position we come from and the model we develop in Canada will be very unique and we have to be careful to reconcile that with other world views and with the world view of newcomers. Introducing Indigenous issues and history to newcomers will become a major priority of mine, once I go through my own learning process.

On the topic of intersectionality, we need to also develop a Canadian model that takes into account Indigenous women, as a foundation for our BIPOC perspective. Indigenous and two-spirited women have had their identities marginalized and it is routed in the aforementioned colonial policies. Decolonizing will help highlight and tackle intersection issues.

Parallel, and simultaneously, we need (and I am grateful we are starting to see) the rise of powerful women entering newsrooms, media, politics, law, and other area of influence to highlight the structural, political, and representative intersectionality that marginalized and minority women find themselves in as a result of the narrowed patriarchal lens which creates male-dominated viewpoints or allows on some women in on our major conversations.

Our Canadian understanding and study of this concept is so behind, that on major issues – such as Karen Wang and recently, Jody Wilson-Raybould, – no one even brings it up. This gap in analysis (coupled with the consistent racelessness and neoliberal ‘multiculturalism’ espoused by those in positions of power) wipes out the experience of women of colour. This is unacceptable and as a man of colour, I bare my share of the blame for not tackling our own community stereotypes here.

To conclude, where I started, I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues, but I am not an ally (yet). I don’t get that label easily. I may never get it. I need to be listener, a repenter, and learner, a more humbled down human being. I need to use my voice and rather than sit silently while I watch the narrative be shifted, use my voice and privileges to shift the narrative to places where we need it to go.

Some of you will be sick and tired of me writing about race, taking as comedian Aamer Rahman wrote about “white person this, white person that.” On this point, I want to share the recent writing of Sandra Inutiq in her piece Dear Qallunaat. The headline says it best.

‘Recognize and admit your power and privilege and the fact you are benefiting from racist systems’

Even as a non-White settler, I have benefit from it too and I need to be more aware of this. Similar and parallel systems that made my ancestors Han Chinese and scholars in China from (my late father’s side) relative affluence and education made me benefit there too.

It’s time to strip away ego, recognize and admit privilege, and cede power and land back to our Indigenous brothers and sisters. In the process, I trust that the empowerment and deconstruction of barriers for BIPOCs will naturally occur. Canada will be a more equitable, equal, and truly diverse place.

With peace and love.

Will

My Welcoming Remarks from City of Vancouver’s Islamic History Month – 27 October 2018

Islamic History Month Agenda

Thank you, Councilor Carr

For those that don’t know Councilor Carr was our Council liaison for the past year and almost a half. and we are very grateful for her work with us

Before we introduce ourselves, I would also like to thank Ms. T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss for her traditional welcome and all the work she does educating Vancouverites through her art and storytelling. It is a humble reminder that we as settlers have much to learn, listen and gain from the First Nations/Indigenous communities that we are all settlers on.

My name is Will Tao (pronouns: he/him) and this is my colleague and one of the lead event organizers Fatimah Yasin, and we are privileged and humbled to be Outgoing Members of the City of Vancouver’s Cultural Communities Advisory Committee. Our Committee, which served for a year and a half just immediately prior to the election was given a mandate to advise Council on enhancing access and inclusion for Vancouver’s diverse cultural communities to fully participate in City services and civic life.

Today marks the second of our Voices of Vancouver initiatives and our Final event of our term, and fittingly so. The very inspiration for us to turn our strategy from inward meetings at City Hall to outreach into diverse communities was because of Islamophobic protests and the powerful counter-protests that took place in August 2017. We recognized that while we were proud of those who stood up to combat racism and Islamophobia, we couldn’t help but recognize that some voices were missing even from those protests. Speaking to individuals after, they were afraid as newcomers, as Muslim-Canadians, as hijab-wearing Muslim-Canadian women, to go into a public space to stand up and speak out.

Our first Voices of Vancouver event, taking place on March 23rd, with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – where we had speaker and our good friend, Noor Fadel, speak to youth, many of whom were Muslim-Canadian, about her experiences as a victim of a hate crime. We provided bystander training that really brought to light how our conscious and unconscious biases affect our interactions and make some of us more vulnerable and susceptible to discrimination.

Around the same time, Councilor Andrea Reimer, reached out and asked us if we could take the lead on organizing a first public celebration for Islamic History Month on behalf of the City. So here we are today. With a little bit of hard work and a lot of sleepless nights. Although I will let Aslam, the lead organizer speak to that shortly.

Now to some more salient content and context for today’s event. The word “History.” I believe that we cannot celebrate Islamic History Month without recognizing the roots of all Muslim-Canadians as part of the history of the Canadian Confederation. As you will soon learn from Imaad Ali in his interactive display, we know as a historical fact that there were Muslims in Canada prior to Confederation in 1867, that by 1911 BC had the most Muslims in the country, and that by 1912, when the Komagata Maru arrived there was a local Muslim on the shore committee who managed to get permanent residence in Canada. We know that in 1965, Vancouver’s first Mosque, the Jamia Mosque was established on West 8th and operates to this date, still serving as a homeless shelter when temperatures drops. As you can see from just these few snippets, this is a continuing, and evolving historical narrative that we must continue to tell and share to remind all those who come that there was a foundation – paved by Muslim Canadians. Islam is not a newcomer religion or a Middle Eastern religion. It is a Canadian religion.

Indeed, by 2036, Statistics Canada estimates that between 5.6% and 7.2% of the total population of Canada will be Muslim. With increased numbers, we hope will become increased focus, study, and a deeper look at how we can integrate Muslim ideas and culture into our Canadian social fabric – work I know the Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies at SFU has already been doing and continues to do as lead organizers of this event.

In boldly stating that Muslim ideas have a place in Canada’s future, I challenge anybody who argues that the recognition that the way we spend our substance – however much of that we cherish, upon family, orphans, the needy, newcomers, the homeless, and freeing those from the bonds of misfortune, be it drug addiction or trafficking, is not fundamentally Canadian. Our Charter values aim to protect the rights of those very groups facing historical subjugation that this Quran passage just highlighted. We can keeping enunciating differences between us or we can find those unique synergies and strengthen them. I pitch today for the latter.

This leads to my next point, before I pass it on to Fatimah to share her experiences organizing this event, – we need to also accept our shortcomings as we move forward. As a City (writ large), we haven’t heard your voices, Muslim voices. We haven’t given you space to celebrate, engage, and share your perspectives. To lead. To be empowered. Case in point, not a single Muslim-Canadian has ever served as a City Councilor in Vancouver. The last South Asian City Councilor elected was in 1972. Intersectionally, we have never had a South Asian (let alone Muslim) woman City Councillor. This also isn’t just a Vancouver phenomenon. Recently in Toronto not a single Muslim-Canadian was elected to Council on 24 wards. Only one hijab-wearing female politician has ever been elected to public office in Canada, Ms. Ausma Malik, as a School Board Trustee and when her ward was eliminated and she chose not run in the past civic election. How do they see us if we are not there?

Therefore, we cannot speak of reconciliation broadly as a City without facing every single one of our Cultural Communities, examining how they have become our neighbours and Citizens and increasing not only our own cultural humility in integrating them into our lives but allowing them opportunity to integrate us into their stories and their narratives (attending events such as today, I propose is a good start but only a start). Similarly, while we step forward to change, we also need to look behind traditional power structures and see how that might involve us stepping back and allowing others to have a share of the podium, and that power – that their success can be our success.

As Allama Iqbal, the great Pakistani poet, once wrote – words without power is mere philosophy.

Finally I hope as today as you listen to the music, laugh at the comedy, trace your brush through the calligraphy that you don’t forget your role in helping to facilitate conversation, to elevate voice and to help empower this diverse Muslim community that this City is proud to help, and along with that all our diverse ethnocultural and Indigenous communities. Thank you.

 

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20 September 2018 – CCAC x Punjabi Market Forum – Text of My Intro Speech

Full text (minus a few ad libs from the day of):

I would like to Acknowledge that we are on the unceded, traditional territories of the Coast Salish Peoples  – the Squamish, Musqueam, Tsleil-waututh.

It is the resilience of our First Peoples, in the face of adversity and historical and on-going discrimination that inspires us to continue to strive for reconciliation.

I ask that we draw on their collective wisdom, the wisdoms of the ancestors of this land, as we gather in our own circle here today.

Friends, name is Will Tao. Pronouns: he/him/his. I am the Chair of the Cultural Communities Advisory Committee. I am so grateful to be able to provide brief statements to open up today’s packed agenda of events.

For those that don’t know about our Committee we are a 15-member volunteer advisory committee. Our mandate is to enhance access and inclusion for Vancouver’s diverse cultural communities.

Over this present mandate, we have played important roles on some of the City’s major projects. We’ve been part of the Vancouver Immigration Partnership, assisted in drafting the Apology for the Historical Discrimination Against Chinese Project, been part of the Mayor’s Working Group on Immigration, The Assets Naming Committee (who I add just did a fantastic job naming several City assets)!, among others.

We are particularly proud of our Committee-driven initiatives, from the Spaces survey studying challenges in securing ethno-cultural spaces, to hosting the City’s International Day for the Elimination for Racial Discrimination, to our Voices of Vancouver statement, and to the exciting Islamic History Month, the city’s first, coming up on October 27th.

If you have any questions about our Committee’s work, I ask that you approach our Committee members. We have seven members here today – almost quorum (joke for all of you who do advisory work).

Today, marks a continuation of our efforts to ensure that diversity is more than a check mark.

Today marks our first meeting of the 3.5 half years I have been on this committee – held outside City Hall.

This brings me to the heart of today’s conversation – the Punjabi Market Community. One member of our Committee told me a few days back that this would be nostalgia for her. As a kid, Punjabi Market (like for many of the community members in this room today) was their backyard. A place to shop, to eat, to  spend those cherished family memories that today we look back fondly on.

This is a special community that stands for resiliency over time. That stands for everything great about our City and our people. It is our past, present, and future, all rolled into to one diasporic dosa.

When community members Ajay Puri and Gulzar Nanda, whom I will introduce momentarily, asked to attend a CCAC meeting a few months back and told us they needed our help. We immediately heeded their call.  Their passion for this neighbourhood – tied into their honouring of the legacy of their forefathers is an inspiration to all of us. I see our role today not only to share our own experiences and advice but to be active listeners to what this community wants us to hear as it heads to its half-century birthday in a mere two years.
I would like to close my brief remarks on just one more point.

For those that may not know, I have been adopted into a Punjabi-Sikh family myself. Had a traditional Punjabi wedding (even though my partner is Chinese). Spent hours in prayer at the Ross Street Gurdwara reflecting on God’s good graces.

I love the expression of Chardi Khala and how it ties in to work today.

Chardi Kala teaches us that even through difficult and trying times, that some of us may be facing be-it through life, work, paying rent, affording to run a business on 49th and Main, that we are all interconnected with one another. That our work here is for more and greater than our own selves and our own ambitions.

This community’s fate and future is our fate and future. By being here you have stepped into the shoes of this community for the evening, and have left your shoes at the door. Having stepped in it, it is not simply good enough to come back once every four years. You are bonded as well all are.

Today, let’s choose to face this challenge of community building with eternal optimism and positivity – Chardi Kala. Thank you for all being here.

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Some Additional Thoughts:

Growing up on the west side, Main Street was already considered too far East. I had very few South Asian classmates in high school. In University I was blessed to meet Davinder Sethi and his family who took me. Later. I studied South Asian migration and took Dr. Oberoi’s South Asian Beyond South Asia Class.  It was also during this time I was first exposed to the Punjabi Market. Davinder and I filmed an intro video to our Asian Representation in Politics course featuring Kohli’s and what was then Guru Bazaar.

For the past ten years, I will have to admit I lost touch with the Punjabi Market. I went to Pabla’s maybe twice. Even moving to South East Vancouver in April, I stayed within the confines of Fraser St. on the West and Victoria Drive on the East.

Recently, I was very fortunate to have two special individuals enter my life – Ajay Puri and Gulzar Nanda. They took not only the initiative to meet with our Committee but both took initiatives to meet with me individually. With Ajay, earlier this summer, we walked around City Hall talking about his engagement work. In mid-summer I met with Gulzar over coffee, bringing Davinder and hearing their stories of growing up in the neighbourhood. Both Ajay and Gulzar share commonalities with me. We’re all around the same age. Both of us have lovely partners (clearly better 1/2s), all three of us have lost a parent. I am so grateful for their passion for this City and their neighbourhood and that they were willing to welcome me into their networks with open arms.

This brings me to the picture  above . The Cultural Communities Advisory Committee decided to host its first ever meeting outside of City Hall in the Punjabi Market thanks to the work of Ajay and Gulzar. The tour of the Market was incredible – I learned so much about the history of the businesses, the art work, and some of the changes in the works. The Forum was equally aspiring, particularly the participation of the neighbourhood elders who were eager to engage with youth, sharing their wisdom while appreciating the young energy. I think some of the ideas that were recommended can be implemented very soon. I cannot wait to see what the next Diwali, a possible mural festival, and Indian cooking/dance classes will look like. I will certainly be there.

Now that we have these ideas, its time to start implementation. We have a host of really talented political candidates, who (whether elected or not) appear ready to ensure this neighbourhood is not forgotten for another four years.

As I said in my speech – I definitely view these next years with a sense of chardi kala.

Keep posted with the progress – https://www.punjabixmarket.com/

With gratitude!

Will