This week on At Your Man’s House Monday we’re chatting with Edwin White Chacon, a student at the University of Toronto studying Political Science and Ethics, Society & Law. A motivated Torontonian passionate about urban issues and youth engagement, Edwin kindly took the time to speak with us about his studies, some exciting upcoming projects, and his hopes for the future of the 6ix.
So first tell us a little bit about what you’re studying.
I’m studying Political Science and Ethics, Society & Law at the University of Toronto. My last two years I’ve been focusing on Canadian politics, specifically cities and their growing role and importance in Canada and income inequality in Toronto. I come from a low-income neighbourhood, and since high school I’ve been interested in how policy can help address income inequality.
What are your immediate goals after university?
The two options I’m considering are finding an internship or getting a master’s degree in public policy. Ideally, I would like to get into a Master’s program, defer my acceptance, and work for a year.
Do you have a preference about the kind of internship you’d like to obtain?
I’d want it to be local and related to municipal politics. I realized there’s two options: Either the more traditional political route or this new socially innovative route. If I could get into something like the Ontario Internship Programme, which is a more traditional route, that’s fantastic, but there’s the other route that leads to more innovative ways of dealing with Toronto politics and issues.
You almost have to be creative about how you get your career started because a lot of these traditional routes (internships, entry-level jobs) are inaccessible if you don’t have certain connections – or money when it comes to great opportunities for experience, but that are for no pay.
Exactly. CivicAction released a report that discusses the importance of the first 1000 days of a child’s life. Those first 1000 days have a critical impact on childhood development and their adult life. So money isn’t the only advantage higher income families have. They benefit from growing up in an environment where their parents know how to navigate the system, and have additional sources of enrichment whether that’s piano lessons or a tutor or connections. Low-income families don’t have those same resources available to them.
What causes are you passionate about, and how do you go about incorporating them into your studies and volunteer work?
Sara Urbina, Joe Becker-Segal, and I started CivicSpark in early 2015. The idea was to create a chapter of CivicAction. CivicAction is a nonpartisan organization that focuses on tackling issues that affect the GTHA. They’ve been so amazing and supportive in this entire endeavour. They agree with our mission that youth have valid opinions and creative ideas to tackle these issues. Our group focuses on bringing youth together, and giving them an opportunity to share their solutions.
Our activity revolves around two main forms of engagement. Our first initiative is hosting conversations. We hold an event with a 10-15 minute panel, but then we split the panelists up with 6-7 people, and they work together to find solutions for a given problem. There are panel discussions at universities, but they often have a barrier where even though the audience can ask questions, you’re mostly listening. We wanted a collaborative event where the two sides can engage with each other and share ideas.
Our second initiative is to host an undergraduate case competition called Building Up the 6ix. Typically, case competitions are for business students. A company or organization will present a problem to them with all the challenges and details, and then students use everything they’ve learned in their studies to come up with a solution. That model is very useful for putting students in situations where they can analyze issues and contribute innovative ideas. We want to expand that model to all students. So Building Up the 6ix would hopefully include students from multiple universities and disciplines to create solutions to specific problems. The issues we’d like to focus on this year are public transportation and public spaces. So for instance, if you and I form a group and we’re tackling public transportation, we may say that we think there should be a downtown relief line. We then have to present the reasons why, how we would implement that, and so on to a panel of judges. The hope is that these judges will have diverse backgrounds, being from the private sector, public sector, and non-profit sector. Our very first case competition is going to be on March 12, so stay tuned. We are also hoping to have workshops as well so that in addition to doing presentations, delegates are learning and gaining valuable skills.
You’ve been quite proactive about seeking out real life experiences where you can apply your studies by obtaining internships with the City of Toronto, participating as a Crisis Manager at U of T’s North American Model United Nations and as a Legislative Usher at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. What are some key skills and lessons you’ve acquired from these positions?
As a Legislative Usher I get to observe Ontario Politics on the front lines, and I’m constantly aware of what’s happening in the province. I’ve had the opportunity to observe debates on healthcare and the privatization of Hydro One. In regards to NAMUN, I joined to gain an international perspective and learn about international issues. I noticed NAMUN provided a platform for all these students interested in international politics, but there wasn’t a similar platform for local matters. Why don’t we do something focused on issues right here in the GTHA? That way, students that have a passion for policy and the city have an opportunity to contribute ideas and be part of the dialogue. All of these positions have helped me improve my interpersonal skills and my ability to connect with people on a genuine level.
What do you do in order to support yourself financially, and how do you find ways to incorporate your studies and career goals into your existing jobs?
Currently I have three jobs. Like you mentioned, I have a position working at Queen’s Park as a Legislative Usher. I’m a Residence Don at U of T, and a Youth Engagement Coordinator at York University. They’re all relevant because as an usher I get to observe Ontario Politics directly and see what I’m studying in practice. At York, my job is to help a youth advisory council create a keystone action project. Right now the project that we’re working on is focused on creating a documentary on youth issues across Ontario. It’ll show the challenges youth face, so it allows me to learn about and engage with youth. And as a Residence Don I get to engage with youth on a more personal level. It’s great because it gives me an opportunity to build community and help residents with any issue they may have. I love engaging with youth, and that’s what inspired me to start CivicSpark.
If you had VIP connections, and it were simply a matter of being qualified for the job, what position would you like to hold or project would you like to work on?
I’d like to see Building Up the 6ix grow and become sustainable. If I had VIP connections I would like to see how I can work with the City of Toronto and with community members from low-income neighbourhoods in contributing to the city’s 20-year poverty reduction plan. If I had the connections, I definitely would want to be part of that project.
What is your favourite spot for getting things done in the city?
Home or the library. I just need music to do work, really. So long as I’m listening to music and can focus I’m good.
Learn more about Toronto Discursive’s new Q&A series At Your Man’s House Mondays and With Your Woman Wednesdays here.