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“To build cities for people as opposed to profit”: Renee Jagdeo’s campaign to be Toronto’s youngest city councillor

Reflections from the 19-year-old U of T student who ran on a platform of green initiatives, accessible housing
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Renee Jagdeo knows how it feels to be counted out. As a racialized young woman with progressive ideals who ran to be Toronto’s youngest city councillor, she has faced countless doubts regarding her power and ability to hold office.

A second-year student at U of T studying human geography and urban planning, she ran in the Scarborough-Agincourt ward by-election to replace Jim Karygiannis in the Toronto City Council in 2020. Her platform included expanding greenspace in Toronto; supporting businesses, renters, and workers during the COVID-19 pandemic; and developing more accessible housing and public transportation. 

On January 18, the race was called for Nick Mantas, and he was declared elected to the Scarborough-Agincourt ward. Even so, Jagdeo and her campaign have left an imprint, encouraging us to think differently about who we think is ‘deserving’ or ‘qualified’ for public office. Jagdeo’s run reflects a newfound energy — of people typically locked out of power taking it upon themselves to make change happen. 

Why she wanted to run

Like most communications done in pandemic-life, I had my conversation with Jagdeo over Zoom. She was confident, warm, and eager to discuss her run to represent the neighbourhood of Scarborough-Agincourt. 

“I don’t currently live in that ward,” she said. “I’ve grown up and currently do live in a ward that just faces… similar issues and… physical constructs that lead to those types of issues.”

When asked about why she ran, she explained, “I wanted to be able to kind of encourage young people like myself to be able to develop the confidence — or at least give them a platform — to voice their ideas and concerns in a more established way.” 

Jagdeo mentioned that she ran specifically for the Toronto City Council because the term length would have allowed her to hold that role for two years during a very turbulent time in her life, rather than potentially committing herself for four years. 

At first, hearing a university student describe a city council seat the way one would describe an internship or a work-study program surprised me. Still, upon further discussion, I realized that Jagdeo wasn’t being funny or even curt about the possibility of having this position. 

Her tone indicated that it wasn’t the power or attention that attracted her to this role, but rather the possibility of building on work she was already doing. As an urban planning student, she has long learned about the history of cities’ and governments’ influence on their operations today. Being in politics would be a more tangible foray into the realities of changing a city from the inside. 

Policy matters quite a bit to Jagdeo, who started her first year at U of T in the Munk One program. Their group project was geared toward infrastructure and the environment. “We had been working on a green wall initiative,” Jagdeo said. The idea had been to use living architecture like green walls, which has plants installed in them, in underground spaces in Toronto, such as within TTC subways or even the PATH, Toronto’s underground pedestrian walkway. 

“Your mental health and well-being [are] impacted from being in underground spaces, and putting plants there could very much so impact that in a [very] positive way,” she said. “In terms of finding ways to mobilize it, I guess being a city councillor would definitely help with that.” 

Of course, people run for office intending to win, yet Jagdeo speaks of her loss with just as much enthusiasm. “I guess the dream goal would have been to get the role, but you kind of just put things into context and realize that might not be what you get.” 

Regardless of the outcome, the tenets of Jagdeo’s platform remain crucial to her. “The housing market in Toronto is ridiculous,” she said. “That’s not new. But we are seeing people experiencing homelessness for the first time because of the pandemic, but also in extreme ways where it is concerning — to not only their own health, but public health.” 

Building her team

As she was 19 years old when she ran, her campaign brought on many criticisms, mainly stemming from doubt of her capability because of her age. “A lot of people were like, ‘oh, why don’t you join student council instead?’ And it’s like, that’s cool, but do city councillors then go to student councils to ask them how they feel about the city, and then ask them to solve problems?” Jagdeo said.

Her campaign for city council was managed by Zoë Johnson, a U of T student pursuing a double major in public policy and contemporary Asian studies and a minor in economics. Jagdeo met Johnson in the Munk One program. “She kept me accountable, but also kept making sure that it was a positive experience,” Jagdeo said. 

When I called Johnson, she was eager to discuss the race and explain why she signed on. Johnson had the same earnest tone as Jagdeo when talking about the campaign, and she spoke in a confident manner that made it clear why she was asked to manage the campaign. 

“It was quite simple,” she told me. “I had worked with Renee. I knew we believed in a lot of the same things.” She cited a mutual passion for local politics and grassroots movements as an example of an interest they shared. 

Johnson’s understanding of politics is shaped by her experience working in Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland’s constituency office as a high school student. Upon leaving high school, she took a step back from politics. 

“After the 2019 federal election, I kind of had this moment of reckoning where I didn’t actually know if the amount of work that I was putting into it was for something that I truly believed in,” she said.

However, she felt that Jagdeo’s campaign would be a good opportunity to invest herself into something she believed in. “I definitely felt, over the pandemic, kind of a search for meaning, to put it lightly,” Johnson explained. 

“[The campaign] was something that could get me out of bed and something that I was excited to work on and think on… I knew [Jagdeo] was never doing this for clout or publicity, but rather dedication to local causes that we kind of spent a lot of the past year talking about.”

Working on the campaign allowed Jagdeo and her team to focus on the issues that mattered most to them. Transit, in particular, resonated with Jagdeo and Johnson as both of them grew up in Toronto.

“I’ve taken the subway everyday since I was in grade four to and from school.” In an email after we spoke, Johnson reiterated how important transit was to their team, writing that the “campaign ran on creating high-speed bus lanes to bridge the gap” in infrastructure inequality.

When it came to getting the campaign started, Johnson explained, “The threshold to enter city politics is much lower if you’re an independent, or if you’re a youth.” She cited the fact that those running in a particular party needed the party’s support, whereas Jagdeo only needed the initiative. 

Facing backlash and controversy 

During the race, there were some surprises that the team came across while trying to get Jagdeo’s platform heard. Being a new face in uncharted territory can have incredible ripple effects. “I was, at first, quite surprised with the amount of press that Renee got,” said Johnson. While canvassing, she was also heartened to see the campaign receive genuine interest from those living in the community. 

“I vividly remember going canvassing, and I was next to Renee, and a person stopped, brought their husband, brought up their child, and they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we love you. We’ve seen you on the news.’ ” 

However, this enthusiasm had its limits. “Can’t get over the 19-year-old thing” is what Johnson recalls the person saying in their next breath. Johnson shook her head with a small laugh. “That disconnect between really believing in someone and… still not being able to fully accept someone that young in a position of power… it was shocking.” 

In an interview with NOW Magazine, Jagdeo said, “Outside of the uplifting spirit amongst my peers, I realized there are 40-year-olds that look down on me because I don’t have seniority. But their seniority doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve always done good things. I might be starting out, but I know that I’m doing good things.”

Take the city councillor whose seat Jagdeo was running to replace. Karygiannis might have been an established public figure, but the by-election race took place because he was removed from office after a court battle over his 2018 municipal election campaign, for which he was accused of overspending. 

On the other hand, Jagdeo’s campaign was held together by progressive ideas and led and staffed by youth. “Outside of my parents, it was people my age that [were] helping out with the campaign,” Jagdeo noted. “It kind of just became a collaborative process of young people in my community, using it as a vessel for just bringing to light things that we care about, given our reality.”

However, Jagdeo still faced drawbacks and backlash on the campaign trail. “I went through all the Facebook comments, and you do start to see a lot of comments because I am a racialized young woman,” Jagdeo said. 

“Like expected, except I ignorantly have just not subjected myself to discrimination before. So reading comments like that, I was like, ‘oh, this really exists. People really don’t want young people involved in politics. They are very much so attacking me for my skin colour, which is strange.’ ”

The politics of representation can be complicated. “I’m someone that definitely does value being able to see people like me succeed,” Jagdeo said. “Being able to see a person of colour who’s also a woman — I’m like, yeah, I can do that too.” 

Yet I was also curious about the nuances she experienced. As a young racialized woman myself, it seems like in my circles and with other marginalized youth, we are increasingly interrogating how the inclusion of groups such as youth, women, and racialized people can be tokenized for appearance’s sake. When I asked Jagdeo how she dealt with that, she nodded thoughtfully.

Her proposed solution? Just run. “The faster we do that, I think the less we will become a glamorous fetishized idea.” 

What’s next for her?

In the interview with NOW Magazine, Jagdeo also added, “Claiming spaces that we’re not supposed to be in is important. I saw this opportunity as a way to put myself somewhere I’m not supposed to be and try and justify my presence there.” 

She mentioned that after the race she held an open Zoom call with youth who were interested in politics as well. Speaking to them, she discovered that some were considering running in the next two years as well. 

So what’s next for Jagdeo? In terms of her political plans, she told NOW Magazine that she has no plans to run again in two years, but she still wants to be involved in city politics in some capacity for the people and those who support her and share her goals. 

After all, Jagdeo said with an easy smile, she is most inspired by her peers. “I am fascinated by people who don’t require leadership positions to succeed or to make an impact.” 

Jagdeo and her run are inspiring too, but in my conversations with them, both her and Johnson stressed that there is a positive change to be made outside of electoral politics and that students are more than capable of leading that change. “I think there’s so much capacity in the peers that I’ve met in my single year at U of T,” Johnson added. “So many people have bright ideas, and I don’t think they need to wait.”

Running for office has changed Jagdeo too, but it’s been for the better. “I think it’s changed me in terms of my priorities,” she said. “Those have just become a lot more defined.”

As for the future, Jagdeo seems optimistic and hopeful. She may not be a city councillor, but she’s still looking forward to graduating and rooting for Toronto as a student and a citizen along the way. 

“I hope we will continue to build cities for people as opposed to profit,” she said. “I hope that communities will continue to grow in a loving and sustainable way.”

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