Day 3 | July 26th
Today is the first day of the conference! We’re at the University of Toronto’s Chestnut centre. On my way out, I was stopped by the hotel receptionist who noticed the Places + Faces bag I was wearing, it was then that I really took heed of how much of a significant cultural role streetwear plays internationally. Places + Faces is a brand known for the rare pictures photographer Ceisay, takes of renowned musicians, as well as the parties they throw all over the world.
By wearing their merch, I broke the ice with this receptionist and instantly had insight into his interests, the last album he listened to, the line of conversation we could start on and where he goes to party on a Saturday night. It just goes to show; your appearance often speaks before you do, fashion is most definitely a form of self-expression and like music, it has the power to connect people.
When we arrived at the conference centre, we were registered and given tote bags which contained a lanyard and a booklet with all the necessary details for the next three days.
I was positively surprised to first meet 6 men and women who had travelled from South Africa for this conference! I am Zimbabwean born, however, I have South African ancestry and four uncles (with families) who live in South Africa. When I said that “people are a direct reflection of the soul of a place”, I meant it. Two of these women were perfect examples; I’ll explain with an anecdote.
One of the women responded to me with a welcoming “oh so we’re neighbours!”, whilst the other condescendingly replied, “you don’t look like a Zimbabwean.”
I asked her “what does a Zimbabwean look like?” and she replied, “you know, your parents must really be beautiful if you’re Zimbabwean, and is this all your hair?” To this, I didn’t reply, because your prejudice or your own inferiority complex tells you that Zimbabwean women cannot be physically attractive.
These two women were a reflection of South Africa’s conflicted soul. Conflictions between the rich and the poor, between xenophobic South Africans and migrant Zimbabweans, or post-apartheid confliction and confliction between love and hate. I connected with two of the South Africans as relatives who understand where I come from and why we were here at this conference today, funnily enough, they were both men who had this mutual respect for me. I ignored the second woman’s comment because I had come for a purpose, and that wasn’t to argue insignificant ignorance.
My presentation was changed from Wednesday (today) to tomorrow. It was unexpected, but I took it as a day to get a feel for the conference and to learn from attending the sessions of others (what do I like and what do I want to do better?), before delivering my own. I will talk about the title and basis of my presentation tomorrow.
I quickly realised that I was the only undergraduate in the whole space (everyone else was at least doing their PhD), in hindsight I can acknowledge that it took me a few hours to shake that off and not allow it to become a limitation. For a conference that focuses on Diversity, there was a lot of racial diversity, yes, but other factors such as age and educational history were definitely ignored.
For the first half of the day, my voice, unfortunately went into hiding. I became slightly shy, spoke only to select people and I navigated the space a bit like a fly on a wall that comes to soak up information and pretty much goes by unnoticed. I felt isolated at times, and had to pep talk myself into remembering that I came here for a purpose!
My favourite presentations were the ones that incorporated a creative element and/or were applicable to real life outside of academia. For example, Dr. Michael Van Wyk of UNISIA’s presentation on “Stokvels as a Community-based Savings Club for Eradicating Poverty: A Case of South African Rural Women.”
One thing I have noticed about a number of academics is that they can be very narcissistic and/or disconnected from the realities of lived experience. Presenting research on what they have found that “students need”, without speaking to the actual students themselves. Presenting research on an African country they lack personal cultural insight of, leaving me wondering “now that you’ve given us, what is essentially a report of your findings, with the qualitative data to accompany it, what happens next?”
I’m wondering “when you’ve received your applause and the cyclical debate you’ve sparked has come to an end, who will this help and what purpose will this serve in the grand scheme of things?”
Nobody else seems to be asking these questions??? I notice there is either silent applause or unmoved facial expressions. Academia doesn’t have to be so dull, especially if we’re speaking about diversity, this is exactly where the vibrancy should be found.
I realised at this point that my role is to be a bridge. To bridge the gap between academia and real life, between students and professors and lastly between what I share at this conference, and the conversations I have with my friends at home. I came back to the hotel and made sure my presentation would “be the difference I wanted to see” in this space tomorrow.
Today was a transitional day for me, it left me feeling equipped and ready to take on day two with a recharged mind-set. A mind-set that said, “you’re the only one in this space who is of your generation and the only one who can represent your peers. You have a unique perspective and a flair that nobody else here has. What you have here is a platform and an opportunity to plant seeds for the future, by way of networking. What you have here is, an opportunity to speak your truth as the student subject, that these professors are speaking about. Seize it, you know you have everything you need within you. Seize the opportunity.
After the conference, Melodie and I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario and went on a guided art tour. For me, it was my first time going on a gallery art tour and I loved it! Up until university, I studied creative subjects (fine art, textiles, and photography) and so for a long time I have known that there is a language to “understanding” or “interpreting” art. A language that can be quite elitist, but through my education, I have been privy to.
This art tour, with Richard (our tour guide), opened my eyes even further. He went through the gallery, decade by decade, explaining the history of art and providing contextual insight into each era’s societal structure. Richard was an amazing teacher/guide, he used modern cultural references and had incredible wit. He kept us engaged throughout the whole of the tour, and left me inspired to get back into practicing and learning art again. My future gallery visits will never be the same again!