Good evening Chair Redman, Professor James, Regional Councillors, and those watching this town hall,
My name is Samantha Estoesta. I live in the Mount Hope – Breithaupt Park neighbourhood in Kitchener. I live with my partner, Justin, and 20 month child, Morgan Glory.
Registered delegates have been asked to talk about three things:
- How has racism impacted you personally within the Region of Waterloo?
- What sectors do you believe need to be represented on the advisory committee?
- What areas should the Region address immediately?
I will begin by talking about
How has racism impacted me personally within the Region of Waterloo
Both my partner and I attended the University of Waterloo, both of us were involved deeply in student advocacy, and both ended up working for educational institutions. As a student, I was one of a handful of students of colour in a predominately white program. I had fellow students attempt to gaslight me when I pointed out colonization via religious conversion practices of a well known religious-based organization. In the first of my two graduating theses seminars, a fellow student dismissed the thesis of another student, who studied the experiences of a hijab-wearing Muslim in the airport versus a non-Hijab wearing Muslim, saying that he is a border guard and he doesn’t see race so she must be lying.
After I graduated, I was proud to work at Wilfrid Laurier University. During my time at Laurier, there were multiple racist incidents, including posters that attacked the recently murdered Treyvon Martin by calling him a “lost dawg,” and a group of students who wanted to target the “inhumane” hunting practices of Indigenous people by throwing fake blood on the Indigenous Students Centre. Thankfully, we were able to mitigate any potential attacks on the Indigenous Student Centre by that group.
I would often hold office hours where students of colour could come into the space, share their traumas, and we could figure out if there was a campaign or workshop that could be done to address the situation. The days were long, they were full of trauma, and I was burning out quickly.
So when the opportunity to leave the Region came in 2014, I took it. I called it a detox. And I looked forward to a new life in Alberta. I kept a contract to do part time work remotely. Two white women were hired to replace me and the other staff. Systematically, they turned an entire organization against me; slandering me, portraying me as the hysteric Brown woman when I defended myself. I was suicidal within six months. And while I had more than enough evidence to sue for damages, I walked away and vowed to never return. Of these two white women, the one who no longer lives in the Region has apologized. The other one, who is still in the Region and holds a position of power, has not been in contact since we worked together.
I should make this very clear: I experienced racism in Edmonton every day that I lived there. However, when my partner started to think about graduate studies, I knew Waterloo was one of his top choices. We came up with boundary plans. We told only family and the most trusted of friends. There was tactical planning to ensure that only people who wouldn’t retraumatize me would know.
In the five years since we returned to Waterloo Region, the racists are more emboldened, the acts of violence more apparent, and people in positions of power are even more silent than in 2008 when the largest exodus of neo-nazis from the Region took place.
You see, I’m a racially ambiguous person. People know I’m not white but can’t always figure out “what” I am. So, people read me as the race that they hate the most.
In Waterloo Region, people have shouted, “Build the Wall!” at me when out on the street. I am regularly asked what my baby sitting rate is when out with my own child, as they assume I am a nanny. LCBO employees have treated me like I’m an alcoholic when purchasing drinks. I am consistently followed in stores, so much in fact that I’ve made relationships with staff at certain stores so that I feel safe enough to not be followed.
I have had white people tell me it’s my fault that COVID19 is here. I actively wear a Canadian flag mask when I have to go into a store just so that I have the tiniest bit of protection against racist comments – and that doesn’t stop people. While wearing my Canadian flag mask, I’ve had white people laugh and say, “okay, sure…” I’ve had white people look at me entering a store and remind their kids extra loud that they need to be more than 6 feet away from people like me.
I am sure many of you have words to describe citizens like me: engaged, passionate, frustrating, annoying, unrelenting. I am this way because creating an anti-racist Region of Waterloo is a matter of life or death. It is a regular occurrence for hate mail to reach me; there are people on social media who target me. My partner is listed as a “race traitor” by StormFront Cambridge, a neonazi group that continues to track interracial relationships. I have a routine where I check to see if there’s chatter that I’ll be doxxed. I scrub for my identity. I know that, because I ran for public office, my address is online. I worry constantly about the safety of my child.
That is the life of BIPOC people who point out:
- That there are neo nazis in the Region
- That racism is pervasive and constant in the Region
- That for us to be an anti-racist Region, as echoed by so many of you, there needs to be actions done that may not be the best for our elected officials’ political interests but actually will make the Region safer for racialized folks
Your next questions was:
What sectors do you believe need to be represented on the advisory committee?
Now, forgive me, but as someone who used anti-oppression frameworks in both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I need clarification on what you mean by sectors. Do you mean demographics? Do you mean non-profit versus governmental organizations?
If you are asking for demographics or the type of people who should sit on the advisory committee, I would behove you to choose people who are unrelenting, who make you feel uncomfortable, who actively challenge you. If you want actual change, you cannot surround yourself with individuals who make you feel comfortable, who applaud you for doing the bare minimum. Find the voices that force a “hey wait I’m not a racist, how dare you” reaction from you and reflect on why you react that way.
And, above all, pay these people for their labour. I have sat now, on both the City of Cambridge and the City of Kitchener’s equity task forces. Mayor McGarry, you may recall that I spoke as a delegation regarding the rainbow crosswalk and how, after two excruciating years since the recommendations from the Task Force was approved, a rainbow crosswalk was at significant risk of being voted down. I have created self care routines to prepare myself for the trauma that comes from the constant educating, attempting to create actionable items, and placating responses. I have done all of this unpaid. Why? Because I want, so desperately, the Region that I live in to be safe for me. But no more – it is violent to expect those who experience trauma, racism, and oppression to constantly educate without any payment for their labour. If you are committed to addressing racism, begin by paying those on the advisory committee.
Finally, you ask us:
What areas should the Region address immediately?
I believe the areas under the Regional Council purview that need immediate focus are: Public Health, Community Services, Public Transit, Cultural Services, Community Housing, Provincial Offenses Court, and Administrations. But before you deep dive into those areas of focus, immediately involve organizations run by Black, Indigenous and racialized folks to help understand the historical and current practice of spatially organized institutional oppression.
Spatially organized institutional oppression is the practice of placing necessary services, supports, and institutions far away from the communities that need them most, forcing them to utilize predatory solutions instead. Councillors, I implore you to look at the areas you represent. Where are your deserts? How long does it take someone in a low income, BIPOC community to get to the food bank? Mental health services? Immigration services? Employment services? How safe are the active transportation routes in those neighbourhoods? And when you assess the budgets of organizations like WRPS, ask them for the data on how often those neighbourhoods are canvassed, driven by. Do the math; what’s the higher: the number of interactions with police or services located within their community?
I do not want to speak for all of these communities; many of them have already given you clear guidance on how you can address racism in each of the areas under Regional Council’s purview, such as ACB Network and the LandBack organizers. I completely and wholehearted support each of their calls to actions.
I will, in addition, give you a few suggestions that should be easily promised and implemented.
Under Public Transit
- In all future planning, ensure that low income, BIPOC communities have access (via safe sidewalks and less than a 5 minute walk) to regular transportation that connects to a hub
- Complete a comprehensive staff census and assess your demographic weak points
- Create a hiring plan that would lead to proportional representation across the enterprise
Under Cultural Services
- Create a permanent installation at the Waterloo Region Museum highlighting the history of racism in Waterloo Region and the groups who have fought and continue to fight against racism
Anti-racism work is not easy work. It is not politically advantageous work. But it is lifesaving work. And I, like many others who are slated to speak over the two days, are ready and eager for our Region to take on this work.