TORONTO THE GOOD WITH KAVITA DOGRA (We Talk Women)
Certified B Corporations @GladstoneHotel and @RampAgencyTO launch an inspiring bi-weekly blog series #TorontoTheGood. The series sparks thoughtful conversations through interviews with influencers, social entrepreneurs, and innovators who are shining a light on the city’s toughest issues and championing change to make Toronto, and the world a better place.
Kavita Dogra is a local feminist, social justice activist, and the founder of We Talk Women. She is also a co-chair of the committee that founded #WomensMarchTO.
Have you always lived in Toronto?
I was born in New Brunswick and I lived in India for eight years. I also lived in the suburbs of the greater Toronto area before moving to the city. I’ve been living in the city of Toronto for the past four years.
How has Toronto changed since you’ve been here?
I’ve noticed a heightened sense of urgency and a shift in the public consciousness around social justice issues. More people want change and they’re marching, rallying, and signing petitions to get it. There’s a movement towards learning, attending events, and taking action to make the city a safer and more inclusive place. People want a Toronto where everyone feels like they belong.
What excites you the most about this city?
What excites me is the work that’s being done. At the events I attend, host, and support, I’m constantly reminded that there are people who dedicate countless hours of difficult emotional labour to make Toronto a better place. In our current provincial political climate, the lack of support and cuts affecting already marginalized groups can create a sense of hopelessness. The harsh realities of poverty, inequality, and injustice are disheartening. Attending events and engaging with community organizers instills me with a sense of hope that there is a path forward. There are people who won’t go silently back in time and together we will resist any deviations to the progress we’ve made towards social justice.
You mention difficult emotional labour.
What do you mean by that?
People on the frontlines who are working with survivors and advocating to end gender-based violence are putting their hearts and souls into their work. When they get pushback, comments by online ‘trolls,’ and threats it can be exhausting. Overall, the issues we’re facing are serious and rallies, vigils, marches, and events can be a source of hope. The content can be difficult to engage with and showing up is half the battle because it takes time and emotional resources to do so. What I want people to know, is that it’s OK to feel upset and tired. It’s not OK to become complacent about the status quo. We need to keep finding sources of inspiration without letting the emotional labour burn us out.
What advice do you have for dealing with emotionally difficult social justice work?
It’s OK to stop and feel all the feelings. Find something that rejuvenates you and brings back your sense of hope. Activists can easily fall into the trap of thinking if we don’t do something, no one else will. Have you ever heard the saying, “you can’t pour from an empty cup?” Organizers and activists really try to. Be kind to yourself and practice self-care.
What do you think needs to change in this city?
My activism is intersectional but if I had to pick one area of focus, it would be to end gender-based violence. We’re seeing an uptick in femicide in our own country. Just last year, women and girls were killed on an average of every 2.5 days. That is unacceptable! The numbers are atrocious and they represent real people, some of them, children. Just recently there was an amber alert and an 11-year old girl named Riya was murdered by her father. That’s femicide. Don’t wait until it’s someone you know to pick up the fight. If you have two daughters, that’s not why you should care. The safety of women and girls is everyone’s fight, their lives depend on us.
It shouldn’t matter if you personally know someone who has been impacted by gender-based violence or not. The alarming number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls should be of concern to all people, not just Indigenous peoples. In the end, I feel like we’re not making progress fast enough and part of the issue is a lack of government investment. We know what the solutions are but we’re not investing in them.
Tell me about your role.
I’m the manager of social media and communications Plan International Canada, a non-profit that advances children’s rights and equality for girls. In my spare time, I also run We Talk Women, which hosts and supports events that create dialogue surrounding women’s rights with the aim of eradicating gender-based violence.
What inspired you to launch We Talk Women?
When I was in University, I volunteered for Human Rights Watch and at their film festival, I watched a documentary called The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo. The film explores the use of rape as a weapon of war. Watching the film was truly a defining moment in my life. The filmmaker was a survivor of gang rape in Washington. She traveled to The Democratic Republic of Congo which was considered the rape capital of the world to interview survivors who had experienced sexual violence during conflict.
There’s a moment in the film where a survivor sees the camera and she breaks down in tears. She says she’s so grateful to share her story because now that people know, someone can do something. That really struck me because all I could think was, ‘no they won’t.’ People might cry in the theater, have a sad night, and then they will move on with their lives. Most people will see the film and have no idea what they can actually do. I couldn’t shake that thought. It was so painful to think that this woman’s pleas would fall on deaf ears. That’s when I decided I didn’t want to be another person who didn’t do anything.
Did that lead to the first We Talk Women event?
There was an organization mentioned in the film called Women for Women International. I researched how I could get involved and I saw that they were planning an event for the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. ‘Join me on the bridge’ was a global, female-led protest where women got together to stand on bridges and demand that they be included in peace negotiations in war-torn countries. War disproportionately affects women and they are not included at the table for peace talks. I was disappointed to see that there were no events planned in Toronto, so I was like, let’s do this!
How did it go?
Women’s Day is in March and we managed to get 60 people together to stand on the Beltline bridge in the freezing cold. The Toronto Star picked it up and that drove a lot of awareness. After the event, my friend and co-organizer Leigh and I realized that we didn’t have people in our lives who were talking about women’s rights. Remember that this is predating the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. The topic of feminism wasn’t yet prevalent in mainstream culture. We felt that a dialogue on global and local issues was missing from our social network and that having consistent conversations could ignite change.
What approach do you take to addressing both global and local issues?
People tend to think that women’s and girl’s rights violations don’t happen in Canada. While these violations may seem worse in other countries, we have a lot of work to do here at home. If we lose one life to violence, that’s one life too many. Women and girls are being hurt and dying because of sexual violence and we need to take action. Even if that action is small, if we all do our part, the whole world will look a lot different. My approach to hosting events is to address global issues while bringing in local speakers. I once organized an event about human trafficking in Eastern Europe. I brought in a local survivor who spoke about her experience. Even though the group of attendees was small, they were all very engaged. Some were in tears and many were in shock about the realities of human trafficking in Toronto and Canada.
Are there any people in Toronto that truly inspire you?
Inspiration is everywhere if you look for it. We have so many changemakers who are committed to social justice in its various forms in this city that my inspiration list is endless. It’s not always about advocating for policy change, it can be activism through art, hosting events, speaking out, or inspiring children to think differently. If you’re making a difference in your own way, that’s inspiring. We’ve had incredible speakers at #WomensMarchTO and we’ve given them a platform to share their knowledge whether they’ve carved out a name for themselves in the activist community or not. At every march or rally I attend, I meet someone new who inspires me. I’ve met people who have been doing social justice work longer than I’ve been alive. They have so many valuable things to teach us. I know I’m not an expert so I want to learn from others. Some of the most inspiring people I’ve met are youth. I might be speaking at a school but the young people there are the ones who are teaching and inspiring me.
Not a lot of people think about how art tackles social justice issues.
I may not be an artist but I value people who are putting out powerful messages and using art as a tool for activism. It doesn’t matter what their medium is, poetry, video, visual art, they could be an Indigenous artist, trans artist, or an artist who addresses climate change. There are so many ways to share a message and seeing activism expressed as art is inspiring. I’m always on a quest to get inspired on different issues and learn more because it helps me be a better social justice advocate. If I can see how everything is interconnected than I can bring those ideas to We Talk Women. I want people to see how different issues fall under the massive umbrella that is feminism. I want them to see that supporting and investing in our trans sisters is just as important as providing aid in crises, making healthcare more accessible to newcomer women, and fighting climate change which also disproportionately affects women and girls.
What did you learn when you started developing your brand?
The topic of gender-based violence is hard for people to engage with and it can be challenging to build a community that will willingly do so. When you first launch a brand, you go to who you know. Friends and family would come to my events and follow my social media channels because they wanted to support me but they weren’t really engaged with the subject. When people support you as a person and not your cause, the outcome isn’t there. It took a long time to build an audience that is enthusiastic about learning more and taking action.
My goal isn’t to have more support for myself, it’s to make a difference and end violence in its various forms. That’s not going to happen if people are attending We Talk Women events because they’re there to support me instead of wanting to do something about the information I’m sharing. That realization was really alienating in my first few years. Friends would delete me on social media and I felt like I was screaming into a dark hole. I would share content about the cause I’m passionate about and it didn’t get the response I was hoping for which was discouraging. Yet, when I posted a picture of my chickpea salad, it got 30 likes.
What other challenges have you encountered?
People would label me as their ‘feminist friend’ and make assumptions that it’s the most important thing about me. I am more than just my activism. That label used to make me feel isolated and the misrepresentation used to fill me with a lot of doubt but I’ve learned to let that go. What other people think of me is their business and it is irrelevant because I value what I do.
What have been your marketing successes?
Because this is a passion project and I have a full-time job, I haven’t had the funds to invest in marketing. Instead, I take a more grassroots approach and rely heavily on my network to spread the word. Knowing this, my impact goals have always been low. If I can make a difference in one person’s life, if I can influence one person to take action and take up the cause, I’m happy. With the bar set really low, I always manage to meet it, haha.
I’ve also had success with media pickups. Our first event was picked up by The Toronto Star which was a huge win and Carolyn Bennett, who was the MP in the area, also attended. Being part of the committee that organized #WomensMarchTO also helped raise the profile of We Talk Women. Another area of success is collaborating with other groups like Human Rights Watch, the Toronto Black Film Festival, and other community events. I try to support them by sharing their initiatives on the We Talk Women channels. My purpose is not to make money, but to use We Talk Women as a platform to raise awareness about all of the powerful social justice events happening in the city.
What tips do you have for those who want to follow their purpose?
If you’re using social media to raise awareness and people aren’t liking, commenting, or retweeting your content, know that you’re still making an impact by putting the information out there. When I took a step back from sharing activist content on Facebook, I started getting messages from people who noticed. Even though they were not engaging with the content when I was posting it, they still valued it.
You never know the impact that you’re having. Sometimes there are no clear, tangible signs that you’re making a difference, but you are. Set realistic goals and stay committed to them. Make your end goal more tangible than setting out to change the world. Find a good support system to help you overcome obstacles and keep going. Eventually, there will be a breakthrough, It could be in the form of a media hit or an event that everyone attends. Even if you don’t get there, at least you’ll know that you’ve tried. Don’t be discouraged by the initial lack of support that you might feel. Know that it’s worth it to try and make a difference. Don’t give up and keep at it!
Thanks for continuing to inspire us, Kavita! Keep up the GOOD work.