Arezoo Najibzadeh was only 23 when she was asked to share her insights before a Status of Women Committee investigating why women continue to be under-represented at all levels of government, despite increased participation. Even at that young age, the co-founder of the Young Women’s Leadership Network (YWLN) had been involved in politics for nearly a decade, and she kept hearing the same question, “Why aren’t women getting involved in politics?” But during that meeting, she realized the question should be, “Why aren’t women staying in politics?”
The committee’s final report offered a few answers: bullying, harassment, discrimination, biased media treatment, and lower rates of campaign funding.
“I’ve always been one to stand up and ask a question that makes everybody gasp,” says Najibzadeh, who says she experienced everything from sexist comments to sexual assault while working with various political parties. Now 24, she says YWLN offers the kind of help she wished she had then. “It would’ve made a huge impact on my life if I had it when I was 18 or 19, what I’m now providing for other people.”
The non-profit helps women and non-binary folks learn how to effectively engage as civic leaders in their communities and develop the political skills and support they need to compete—as well as reverse these grim statistics: The 2019 Canadian federal election saw more women elected to Parliament than ever before (98 in total), yet women still make up only 29 percent of federal members of Parliament. There are no women premiers in Canada and only one-fifth of Canadian mayors are women.
Ultimately, YWLN tries to help find answers to this question: what does it really take for us to put our names forward on a ballot or lead within our community? Its approach to doing so is anti-oppressive, intersectional, trans-inclusive, and feminist. Programs are free and open to everyone, while facilitators and speakers are paid for their time.
YWLN’s programming includes Framing Our Future workshops and events, which have included high-profile speakers such as former MPs Olivia Chow and Celina Caesar-Chavannes; and Chai Chats, which are more intimate conversations designed to provide community care for Black, Indigenous, and racialized women, and non-binary leaders.
In one Chai Chat session, climate-justice activist and community organizer Diana Yoon, who is Korean, queer, and a renter in Toronto, addressed questions like this: What does it look like when folks have to make difficult choices like quitting your job or taking unpaid leave to run for office when you don’t have a financial safety net? How do these different aspects of identity influence how you are treated when you become a candidate?
Riham Abu Affan discovered YWLN when she wanted to learn about policy-making and the Canadian political system but in a community group she could relate to. After seeing photos of YWLN’s events and reading the mission statement, Abu Affan says it felt like a space for her. In other professional and social settings, she says she unconsciously “dilutes” aspects of her identity—she is Sudanese and Moroccan, grew up in the United Arab Emirates before immigrating to Canada—but YWLN workshops and events became places she could go “as I am and still be able to follow a mission and work toward the cause.”
The first event Abu Affan attended didn’t have an immediately obvious connection to the political system—digital security—but it’s a pressing concern for women in leadership. Former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne faced virulent sexist and homophobic online comments while former Alberta premier Rachel Notley was the target of insulting tweets and even death threats. Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen said in the Status of Women Report, “Any woman who has political aspirations that spends 10 minutes on Twitter following their female mentors may be simply afraid to run.”
YWLN wanted to address that fear by arming participants with the tools they need to protect themselves online. At the Digital Security 101 workshop, Digital Justice Lab director, Nasma Ahmed, taught Abu Affan how to protect her IP address while using a proxy server, how to turn off location settings, and how to keep passwords secure. “It’s nice to have an organization that caters to the things that we’re shy of saying we need,” says Abu Affan who, a year after joining, at the age of 22, found herself leading marketing and social media for a digital health startup in Toronto. She says YWLN played a significant role in helping her develop the confidence and leadership skills to take on that role.
To support intersectional women and non-binary individuals, YWLN developed an advisory council comprised of 11 active members who bring insight from diverse identities, experiences, and communities that YWLN is trying to engage in its work. Najibzadeh says it also enables different communities to “share ownership of the organization.”
At YWLN events, Abu Affan says she meets and hears perspectives from people of different backgrounds and gender orientations, a degree of diversity she hasn’t experienced in her other professional and academic spaces. “When we see the impact we [young women leaders] can make when we show up as we are, a ‘default mode’ I guess, you feel unstoppable,” says Abu Affan.
Through this group, Najibzadeh discovered the importance of developing relationships and trust with existing community leaders. “It’s a lot of learning and unlearning as we move forward,” she says.
Research is also a critical component of YWLN’s work. One study in 2018—“It’s Time: Addressing Sexual Violence in Civic Institutions”—surveyed 60 women politicians in Ontario and found that 80 percent of them either decreased their involvement or left politics altogether because of sexual violence they experienced.
YWLN provides a “direct line” survivors can call to speak to someone who understands the political spaces individuals need to navigate, whether as a campaign volunteer, staffer, or politician. To date, YWLN has offered around 120 survivors more than 250 hours of active listening and support. Najibzadeh says when she speaks to these women, sometimes their situation is so familiar that she’s able to complete their sentences.
It’s the importance of that work that keeps Najibzadeh going. She co-founded YWLN in 2017 (with Yasmin Rajabi who has since left the organization) and, after leaving Ryerson University in 2018, moved in with her parents so she could work on it full-time without pay. “It’s hard,” she says, but, “This is my livelihood, it’s something that is crucial.”
Initially, YWLN was funded by a two-year grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and, in 2018, received additional support from the Laidlaw Foundation, as well as in-kind resources from other organizations. With that funding now ending, YWLN, which is based out of Toronto’s Make Lemonade women’s co-working space, is looking for funding to support current programming as well as new programming with a greater focus on promoting community and supporting BIPOC leaders through Chai Chats in Toronto and Ottawa as well as addressing other under-reported barriers to political inclusion. Figuring out how to make the organization financially sustainable is key. “It’s hard to find people that want to put their money behind missions or movements that are challenging the status quo in a very big and very daring way,” says Abu Affan.
But Najibzadeh says it’s that work that makes them press on. “When you know you’re in the right, and you know you’re asking the right questions, there is no doubt that you should continue doing the work,” she says. “No one can stop you.”
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