During the height of the pandemic, Lingyin Shen felt concerned for her safety when she stepped outside her home.
With a master’s degree in East Asian studies from the University of Toronto, Shen says the alarming spike in anti-Asian racism incidents during the pandemic had her worried.
“The pandemic was not kind to the Asian community,” she says. “I felt vulnerable.”
So, when Shen learned that U of T had formed an Anti-Asian Racism Working Group to tackle anti-Asian racism across the three campuses and achieve a more welcoming and inclusive environment for Asian communities, she saw it as an opportunity to speak up and for her voice to be heard.
“I wanted to do something for my community and to make sure the equity, diversity and inclusion framework acknowledges the Asian experience,” says Shen, who works at U of T’s Centre for International Experience as an international student immigration adviser. “I also want to form solidarity among the Asian community.”
Co-chaired by Carol Chin, principal of Woodsworth College, and Vikram Chadalawada, assistant director, student information, Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration at Information Technology Services, the Anti-Asian Racism Working Group is now in the process of consulting U of T community members about their experiences with anti-Asian racism. It will develop a tri-campus inventory of existing resources, initiatives and projects, and review the university’s policies, procedures and practices to recommend specific ways to address anti-Asian racism and create an inclusive and welcoming environment for Asian members of the university community.
A final report with the group’s recommendations will be delivered to U of T President Meric Gertler, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr and Vice-President, People Strategy, Equity and Culture Kelly Hannah-Moffat by the end of this academic year.
The working group’s first meeting, held in September, generated a lot of interest, Chin says.
“We felt a real sense of engagement,” she says. “We want to bring attention to this issue, and we hope to hear from as many people as possible about their experiences of anti-Asian racism.
“Only after we have heard from a broad spectrum of the university community can we begin to formulate specific, actionable recommendations.”
Lingyin Shen works at U of T’s Centre for International Experience as an international student immigration adviser (photo courtesy of Lingyin Shen)
The working group is made up of a steering committee and three subcommittees comprising staff, faculty, instructors, librarians and students. Meetings will take place bi-weekly throughout the school year to tackle the group’s goals. An online survey was also sent out to the U of T community at the end of October.
“As co-chairs, Carol and I will be playing a very active role in the steering committee meetings,” says Chadalawada, who is chair of the University Affairs Board in U of T’s Governing Council. “We have assigned co-leads for each subcommittee to ensure information is flowing between the subcommittees and the steering committee.”
Shen – who is a co-lead of a subcommittee and on the steering committee – says members spoke at the first meeting about how the working groups might be able to achieve a positive outcome for U of T’s Asian communities.
“I want to encourage people to share their personal experience so we can hear and validate each other,” she says. “It’s a good starting point to have a foundation of mutual recognition.”
Similarly, Wan Li, a fourth-year Faculty of Arts & Science student and a co-lead alongside Shen, says they also hope to establish solidarity among Asian communities at the university.
“Coming together and addressing something that impacted us in some ways and having that space to talk about it feels powerful,” Wan says. “These people care about the issues I care about.”
Wan organized the Anti-Asian Racism Alliance Forum following two incidents of anti-Asian racism on campus last year, and then helped write the group’s recommendation report, “A Path Forward: Creating Safe & Inclusive Spaces at U of T.”
“At the forum, I connected with a lot of students,” Wan says. “[The forum] was in April and close to finals. I was thankful to the students who attended.
“It was really important for them to share their insights, which were quite painful. But I promised them I would do something.”
After Wan sent the report to the university’s administration, they were invited to join the Anti-Asian Racism Working Group and serve on its steering committee.
“I want to make sure the things we are pushing for are reflected in the final report,” Wan says.
Through meetings and consultations, Wan and Shen want to encourage people to speak up about injustices or racism they’ve experienced.
“It’s an opportunity for everyone to be heard because we have been underrepresented as a group,” says Shen. “The Asian community is very diverse. We have different backgrounds and very different lived experiences.
“I’m an immigrant and my experience is different than an Asian person who was born and raised in Canada.”
“I come from Malaysia, a place where there isn’t a lot of political freedom. It’s immensely valuable to hear different perspectives.”
Chin and Chadalawada say there are self-care resources available to students during each meeting.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to sit with the information that’s coming at them or that’s being shared,” says Chadalawada. “I want to urge every member to use the resources available. We don’t want anyone to feel alone in this important work.”
Shen and Wan say they are looking forward to forming a community they can count on.
“It gives us a sense of belonging,” says Shen. “We have a large number of Asian students, faculty and staff, and it would be great to have a community to share experiences and seek support from each other.”
The working group encourages U of T community members to provide feedback through the online survey.
Members of the Asian community at U of T in need of support can reach out to:
U of T My Student Support Program (My SSP) can be accessed 24/7 by phone or via the My SSP app.
Other mental health resources, programs and supports are available at mentalhealth.utoronto.ca.
Staff and faculty:
Employee and Family Assistance Program (1-800-663-1142)