The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) held a series of events over the past two weeks to raise awareness of marginalized voices on campus. The semi-annual Expression Against Oppression (XAO) was hosted by the Social Justice and Equity commission — one of five divisions within the UTSU — which is responsible for the planning and execution of six anti-oppression events spanning from October 21 to 30.
Yolen Bollo-Kamara, vice-president, equity of the UTSU, discussed XAO’s significance to the university. “The main idea for XAO is to try and cover as many different issues as we can,” she said. “Although the kinds of events vary each year, we are usually always able to do a Night of Expression, which is the one that really brings all of the events together.”
This year’s Night of Expression took place on Thursday October 24. According to Bollo-Kamara, it attracted spoken word and rap sets, along with a drag performance. “Everybody was very supportive, and it was definitely our largest crowd — although different events draw different people. We do look at the popularity of each event in determining what issues to cover, and we also encourage multiple student organizations to get involved with our events.”
This year’s XAO was held in conjunction with many different student groups that worked to not only enable a variety of perspectives, but to draw additional interest beyond social justice and equity. Each event collaborated with one other organization, including the African Students’ Association (ASA), Health and Wellness, LGBTOUT, Brazilian Culture in Canada (BRAZUCA), and the Community Safety Office.
The first week started with a women’s self-defence workshop, followed by VisibiliTEA, an evening of tea and crafts, along with a discussion surrounding the implications of queer women’s visibility on campus. The second week included a Brazilian martial arts workshop, a film screening, and a five-dollar lunch.
The film screening of Venus Noire told the story of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman infamously exhibited in a 19th century freak show in Europe because of her “exotic and unique” sexual features, such as her large buttocks and elongated labia. The film chronicled Baartman’s life as she struggled for independence in a newly abolitionist society. The screening was coordinated by Bollo-Kamara and ASA president Vanessa Jev, who was inspired to share the matter after seeing the film in her French culture studies class.
“I immediately thought the film was very controversial, yet representative of black culture in the media these days,” said Jev, “When you think about it, Sarah Baartman was the first video vixen. You really get to see the inner struggle from her perspective and how everything seems to defeat her. The film asks you to ask tough questions of yourself: is she really complicit? She is being exploited but is being given money at the same time for exposing her body. The movie really speaks to modern day issues.”
Third-year life sciences student Olayinka Sanusi, a member of the ASA, agreed that the film encouraged a critical reflection of racial inequity: “Looking at her body in a sexual manner is oppression, and it’s important that this was a real event in history. I like the fact that I can come to these kinds of events on campus and learn to further express myself by talking about the common problems my community faces.”
Another highlight of this semester’s events was the five dollar lunch at Hart House, which focused on raising mental health awareness on campus. The UTSU partnered with U of T’s Health and Wellness Centre, as well as other related student groups, for a resource fair that aimed to provide support and information on mental health issues. In the hall outside the lunch, many students had the opportunity to engage with representatives from student associations such as Peers are Here, Powerful Minds at U of T, Active Minds at U of T, and Let’s Talk Health.
The lunch itself attracted many students who hadn’t heard of the XAO event itself, but showed interest in the presentations at the front of the Great Hall. “The lunch is a great price and it will definitely attract lots of people to find out about new activities and groups on campus,” said Tracey Zhao, a third-year economics student.
The main goal of this semester’s XAO events was to eliminate the stigma surrounding various social issues, and to foster a more inclusive environment both on and off campus.