As the vast majority of classes moved online during the fall — and will remain online during the winter semester — a plethora of on-campus activities followed the transition to abide by safety measures in the pandemic. For many enthused first-years, and all students looking to make new connections this year, this transition was disappointing. 

Many particularly looked forward to the annual University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Clubs Carnival and Street Festival that was meant to take place in early September. It would have been the prime chance for students to make friends, get involved in clubs, and grow their interests beyond the academic paradigm at U of T. While the UTSU initially meant to move the carnival online under the new title of Clubs Crawl, it was subsequently cancelled.

This year was especially crucial for social justice clubs, as tumultuous events and grassroots movements unfolded across the world. These clubs invite student participation in educating, taking action, and raising awareness — all necessary for creating a better tomorrow. With the UTSU’s cancellation, advocacy clubs, among others, lost the opportunity to invite student engagement into social justice clubs with a casual, relaxed approach. They had to take alternative measures. 

Mini Clubs Crawl: Advocacy 

Even though the Clubs Crawl was cancelled, there was a silver lining, as students continued to show interest in joining clubs amidst an overwhelming feeling of loneliness during online classes. 

In discussion with the relatively new club RefugeAid U of T, which aims to provide aid to refugees and asylum seekers, The Varsity learned that the cancellation of UTSU’s clubs crawl, although disappointing, did not stop social justice clubs from putting together their own ‘mini clubs crawl’ based on the theme of advocacy. The event took place on Zoom — despite setbacks pushing back the timing to November — with attendees actively taking part and showing interest in joining amnesty-oriented clubs. 

The event was a collaboration between RefugeAid U of T and nine other clubs, including Amnesty International U of T, UN Women UofT, Love146 at U of T, BORDERLESS, Friends of MSF, POWERS U of T, PEACE, Han Voice UToronto, and WUSC at Trinity College. 

While many students in attendance came because they recognized one club, they had the chance to get familiarized with other clubs and learned more about social justice initiatives by students at U of T. The event focused on raising awareness for the refugee community, which was impacted by COVID-19, and the LGBTQ+ individuals in those refugee communities whose mental health was affected. This sparked much interest and helped create passionate, fruitful conversations amongst attendees. 

Student engagement and activities online 

Although shifting all operations and activities online may have been a setback, it has also become beneficial for amnesty clubs. Online forums can facilitate more engaging events, allowing clubs to invite speakers from all over the world and creating more opportunities for relaxed entertainment. 

Even before the mini clubs crawl, RefugeAid U of T held a movie night over Zoom, screening Promises, a critically acclaimed documentary about experience of children caught in the midst of the Isreali-Palestinian conflict. The documentary was followed by a Q&A on Instagram Live, an instrument that is becoming increasingly popular in this pandemic. This helped to establish an online presence for RefugeAid U of T, as many clubs this year seek to build a stronger online community and take advantage of the diversified nature of internet platforms for student engagement. 

The shift online has also helped clubs more actively engage other students in social justice issues, including educating students on the Black Lives Matter movement and advertising refugee-owned small businesses in communities. Emphasizing a strong online presence has also allowed clubs to offer more active roles to students looking to take charge of initiatives. RefugeAid U of T, for example, has launched a volunteer program of 15–20 students to help with the organization and advertising of online events. 

Upcoming events and improvements 

Students looking to take part in amnesty clubs and join social justice movements can still do so. 

RefugeAid U of T is launching a fundraiser for Yemen in collaboration with the International Development and Relief Fund. You can also look into joining various mentorship programs across different clubs. These are useful for both first- and upper-year students who want to get involved in future executive positions, gain more insight, or pursue passing their own initiatives. 

As online student engagement in social justice comes with hurdles, clubs need to create more opportunities to come together in one place, discuss movements, educate students on issues, and advertise social justice initiatives that are already taking place.