Muneeza Sheikh: ‘I want to have a say’: Muslim youth fellowship at Toronto City Hall aims to break down barriers
In a rare democratic exercise, 13 Muslim youth will soon get to talk directly with a political operative that used to work for Stephen Harper — the former PM who once spurred heated debate over whether Muslims should be banned from wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies during the 2015 federal election.
For the young citizens headed to Toronto City Hall next month to work as part-time interns under a brand-new fellowship, it’s a unique chance to discuss a policy many in the community called out as marginalizing at the time, with someone who was at one point close to its architects.
That would be Alykhan Velshi, who left his post as Harper’s director of issues management in 2014 and is now chief of staff to Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown.
That meeting is just one in a slew arranged with top politicos — including Michal Hay, Jagmeet Singh’s NDP leadership campaign director, Tom Allison, who steered Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne’s leadership bid, and Walied Soliman, Brown’s 2018 campaign chair — before the interns are embedded at city hall.
They’ll be paired up with a councillor and work 12 hours a week for three months starting in January as part of Toronto’s first-ever Muslim Youth Fellowship program, which was approved by council in October.
The idea is to increase democratic participation and political understanding among a community that is, relatively speaking, less engaged in certain aspects of civic life.
And in a city where just over 51 per cent of the population now identifies as a visible minority, the lack of diverse representation on council has never been more stark. Only a handful, roughly 11 per cent, of Toronto’s 45-member council are visible minorities, and it appears that none are Muslim.
Amina Mohamed, 24, said she’s excited to learn how to break down barriers between everyday folks and governing bodies.
“I don’t fully understand the function of a city councillor. I get their relationship to me and my house and my garbage pickup, but I don’t actually know the power that a city councillor actually has. I want to figure that out,” she said.
Being from Scarborough, the recent University of Toronto grad is also hoping to talk transit — in particular, the hotly contested plan to extend the subway there.
“I was looking for a position in which I could professionally complain about transit in Scarborough,” Mohamed said and laughed. “I plan to live here . . . I want to have a say in what my community looks like, what my country looks like.”
She’s also planning to launch a podcast.
“I want to educate others about your role as a citizen and the powers and privileges that come with it,” she said. “Representation is so important. Unless you are there ensuring that your voice carries weight and has a face representing your ideas and your values, it’s very difficult to kind of just hope that somebody else will achieve what you want them to achieve.”
The eight-month fellowship is the brainchild of Mohammed Hashim and Nora Hindy, board members of the United Alliance on Race Relations. UARR and DawaNet — a Mississauga-based Muslim organization — forked out $22,200 for the program, a combination of community contributions and funding from the Atkinson Foundation. (The Atkinson Foundation is the charitable branch of the Star.) The city is providing $10,000 in one-time funding.
The idea sparked back in 2015, around election time, when Hashim’s organization consulted the Muslim community on how they saw themselves fitting in Canadian democracy.
“There was a sense of disconnect,” he said. “People felt that they were Canadian, people knew that they were Canadian, but because of the way the government was speaking of them, they felt that they might not be included in the democratic process.”
For youth especially, they felt their voices were not being heard, Hindy added.
“I am hoping this will engage more youth, to give them a sense of democratic responsibility, to know that their voice and their presence will only make our country stronger,” she said.
Hashim said the rise of Islamophobia in recent years has also created a civic “chill” among some Muslim youth.
“That’s where this idea of, how do we actually build a bridge for members of the community who love government, who love public service who want to contribute — how do we create pathways to accelerate that process,” he said.
Another organization — the Canadian Muslim Vote, a non-partisan group that works to increase political participation — is preparing a youth internship program of its own at the provincial level in time for the next general election, slated for June 7, 2018.
The program is in its infancy but communications director Muneeza Sheikh said a group of Muslim university students would provide support to the parties on the campaign trail while getting familiar with the political realm.
“The objective is to really get young people inspired and excited about politics and about democracy,” Sheikh said.
Toronto’s interns will each be paired up with Mayor John Tory or councillors Neethan Shan (who introduced the motion for the fellowship), Mike Layton (who seconded it), Ana Bailao, Gord Perks, Paula Fletcher, Janet Davis, Joe Mihevc, Kristyn Wong-Tam, Josh Colle, Paul Ainslie, Joe Cressy or Anthony Peruzza.
Shan said he envisions his intern doing anything from arranging community concerts to working on employment policy.
“The way I see my intern working, is being able to give them a spectrum of experience, time to go deeper in one or two areas,” he said.
Shan, who is South Asian, said the lack of diversity on council, and among senior staffing, shows the significance of the fellowship.
“In the long term I’m hoping that many of the young people that go through these programs consider running for politics, or go into the public service at city hall, or to influence decision making from the outside,” Shan said.
Layton said he hopes the city continues to support such programs for equity-seeking groups, citing the Indigenous youth internship from earlier this year.
“If your community doesn’t have a history of interacting in the political realm, in this case the municipal political realm, it can often seem very foreign and seem like it’s not something that touches your day-to-day life, when in fact it touches all of our day-to-day lives,” Layton said.
Both Shan and Layton said they received some backlash from the public. Shan said the responses ranged from people lamenting how tax dollars are being spent to racist comments about an “infiltration” of Muslim people at city hall.
“It’s evidence that this program is needed,” he said. “We need programs such as this to encourage more diverse, young people to be part of the environment and to be exposed to city hall.”