Social justice, inclusivity and urban planning at the heart of Lashae Watson's U of T experience

November 9, 2022 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

Lashae Watson spent much of her time at U of T creating spaces and opportunities for current and future students to feel seen, heard and understood.

“I come from a family of community leaders and helpers, and I've seen the power of education,” she says.

As a member of Victoria College, Watson is graduating with an honours bachelor of arts degree in equity studies and human geography, with a focus in urban geography.

When Watson first started at U of T, she was convinced she was going to study criminology enroute to becoming a criminal lawyer. However, during this pursuit, she found that there were not enough opportunities to explore her passions.

In hopes of finding courses that better aligned with her passions, she visited Victoria College’s registrar, and went through many potential areas of study including business.

Lashae Watson on the U of T campus standing under an Alumni banner
New U of T alumna Lashae Watson.

After expressing the importance of pursuing a degree that would better enable her to be a part of social change rooted in equity, diversity, inclusion and access, the registrar guided her towards equity studies and human geography — courses that aligned with her commitment to social justice.

When she began taking these courses, she says, “I thought, ‘Yeah, this is me’… I knew instantly that I was going to be happy, I knew this was my place. It became apparent that human geography was going to play a critical role in my life because it instantly enabled me to better articulate many of the social injustices I was both witnessing and experiencing, but didn't have the terminology to explain.”

She was also at a loss for words on the impact of having Black and racialized professors and instructors.

 I come from a family of community leaders and helpers, and I've seen the power of education.

“For the first time, I heard a professor say there was slavery in Canada,” she says. “That was a pivotal moment for me because I knew that, but these open and honest conversations are not often had in institutional spaces. I was grateful.”

That contentment and feeling of purpose extended from Watson’s studies to multiple efforts outside the classroom, joining groups and events to make the university experience more equitable and inclusive. 

As part of the Victoria College student administration, she served on its Equity Commission. “We discussed creating more equitable opportunities for the college’s students,” says Watson.

Near Halloween, the same group hosted a cultural appropriation event, discussing what was appropriate and inappropriate for costumes.

“That was really important for me because I have been in spaces where people were mimicking my culture and that of my loved ones,” says Watson. “So it was important to know that I was around like-minded folks who cared about those experiences.”

She was also involved in campus events such as Arts at the Intersection, hosted by the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) equity commission.

“This was an amazing opportunity for racialized artists to debut their work,” says Watson, noting she too had shared her poems. “It was the first time that I had ever let someone else read my poetry. That was big for me.”

I love bringing people together. And that became my prerogative in my role at Vic Blvck: creating opportunities for Black students to come together to talk about our experiences including our struggles, and also our triumphs.

Lashae also worked as the events director for Vic Blvck (Victoria College’s Black Student Network) — fostering inclusivity by creating and holding space for Black students and other students to come together and feel welcomed and supported.

“I love bringing people together,” she says. “And that became my prerogative in my role at Vic Blvck: creating opportunities for Black students to come together to talk about our experiences including our struggles, and also our triumphs.

“Very often, when we talk about the experiences of Black, Indigenous and racialized groups, we're so focused on trauma and while it’s incredibly important that we hold space to have those conversations, there's so much more to us than that! There's celebration, there's love, there's activism, there's care in our spaces, and I wanted to reiterate that every time we came together.”

One especially rewarding memory of her time with Vic Blvck was when a student said to her, ‘I feel good, I feel like I've spoken about things that I had never spoken about before’ after a healing circle session that Watson had organized.

She also took part in several conferences, including Victoria College's Racism and Anti-Racism in Higher Ed Conference, where she was one of three student panelists.

What drives Watson’s commitment to fostering a culture of inclusivity?

My mother was a single mom. She went back to school when I was young. She did it all. She got her college diploma then her bachelors of social work, and then her master of social work. Coming from a family of such strong and perseverant women, there's no way for me not to be strong.

“Everything I do is for my younger family members and loved ones, because I want them to be in spaces where they feel safe, and heard,” she says. “If I'm making changes now, when they get to these same spaces, it’s my hope that that will be the case.”

Watson is now considering completing a master of social work and her long-term goal is to become a school trustee within the next four years.

“I’m committed to fostering social change rooted in equity, diversity and inclusion,” she says. “And my goal is to support people in the same way I've been supported. And I believe social work will give me the ability to do that.”

In completing a master of social work, she would also be following in her mom's footsteps.

“My mother was a single mom. She went back to school when I was young. She did it all. She got her college diploma then her bachelors of social work, and then her master of social work. Coming from a family of such strong and perseverant women, there's no way for me not to be strong.”

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