Profile: Stephanie Guthrie, WITOPOLI founder

WP_002202

The recent spate of sexual assaults in Toronto left many women nervous, and Stephanie Guthrie wasn’t immune to the fear. The 28-year-old founder of Women in Toronto Politics admits that she even had trouble convincing herself to leave her house.

To her dismay, when she did peel herself off the bed and go outside on a warm evening in early September, she encountered just the type of situation she’d worried about. On the way to her favourite local bar, she and her boyfriend passed a group of eight men in their early twenties. Over the din of their collective conversation, Guthrie heard two of them joking with each other, one suggesting that the other needed to “stop raping women.” The comment, delivered like a punchline, prompted uproarious laughter.

“I said to them, ‘You know, guys, there are a lot of women being sexually assaulted in the city right now, I don’t know if you’ve seen it in the paper,’” Guthrie recalls. Their response was outright misogyny, yelling back at her “shut up, bitch!” and “suck my dick!” For Guthrie, that was the last straw.

“I lost it,” she says, “and I screamed ‘fuck you!’ at the absolute top of my lungs.”

When she recounts the incident months later, Guthrie wells up. “It was an expression of the frustration I was feeling with the fact that there are people who not only never have to think about that and worry about those things,” she explains, with a shaky voice, “but people who have no compassion for the people who do.”

This wasn’t the first time Guthrie unabashedly called someone out on his beliefs, and it probably won’t be the last. In the last year Guthrie has made a name for herself as an outspoken feminist who is determined to promote awareness of injustices.  She attracted media interest last July when she drew attention to a “beat up Anita Sarkeesian” video game, which involved punching Sarkeesian in the face until she was bruised and bloodied.

“It was a really eye-opening experience,” Guthrie says of having “sic’d the internet” on Bendilin Spurr, a 25-year-old man from Sault St. Marie, Ontario. Guthrie questioned Spurr’s actions over Twitter, and contacted his hometown newspaper to make sure they picked up the story. “In having those conversations I learned a lot about misogyny, and I learned a lot about the Internet. How, unfortunately, they seem to go hand-in-hand.”

The Internet misogyny she’s referring to is often recognized as “trolling,” but is definitely not harmless: it’s vicious, and the focus of its vitriol is women. Women who speak out on the Internet, usually about sexism and gaming, see a flood of hateful comments and tweets, and the not-so-occasional death threat.

Guthrie’s friend Karen Ho, an organizer of the Eaton Centre shooting vigil, admired Guthrie’s strength during the period when she was receiving hordes of hate-tweets from Internet gamers. “Steph made the issue hard to ignore,” Ho says. “She just pushed until she thought that people were paying significant enough attention to understand that this is not acceptable.”

During the Sarkeesian controversy, Guthrie was bombarded with hate tweets —and even a death threat— but she kept her responses measured, cool, and smartly written: instead of blowing off the messages, she systematically shut down the arguments of her “trolls.” She carries these characteristics into her life outside of the Internet. Everything she says during media interviews seems to have gone through a rigorous filter. Her words are slow to come, but deliberately chosen and delivered with authority and tact. Her goal is to change perceptions, and she does it by hearing people out — “feeding the trolls.”

“If you want to get people onside with something that you’re doing, beating the drum is not the best way to go about it,” says Guthrie, who grew up in (generally quite conservative) Peterborough, Ontario. “Engaging people in discussions about issues that matter is essential if you want to change the way that people think about things.”

Though she’s best known for holding Bendilin Spurr accountable for his game, which was taken down a day after he posted it to newsground.com, Guthrie’s determination and drive has other outlets, namely Women in Toronto Politics (WITOPOLI).

WITOPOLI grew out of a discussion with Neville Park, a regular #TOPOLI tweeter who goes by an online pseudonym, about how few women are considered influential in the discussion about Toronto politics. “The ones who get retweeted the most, who have the most followers, and who tend to have the greatest influence over the discussion are mostly men,” Guthrie says. In the course of their conversation, the idea of staging a panel on women and their role in the political discussion came up. Guthrie decided to organize it, and include Park as one of the speakers.

Guthrie’s pet project is off to a slow but steady start. It has received a lot of support from prominent Toronto tweeters, as well as a couple of big-name panelists like ward 27 councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam. In 2012, the organization hosted two panel discussions and a workshop focused on how to get women talking about ways to make the city better. They turned those recommendations into deputations at their November deputation party, and in December four women from the workshops presented their recommendations during the budget deliberations.

“I want to empower women to join the discussion about politics,” she says. “I want them to be aware that even if they don’t know the whole history of politics in the City of Toronto, and even if they find the language of the motions difficult to decipher, I want them to know that it doesn’t mean they don’t have something to contribute.”-KR

(Exciting news! The Spring 2013 issue of McClung’s Magazine is out, which I wrote this profile for. You can find copies on newsstands around Ryerson.)

Advertisements

Feature: BBAW Interview with myself


Photo courtesy of the Ryersonian. Yes, this is me. Yes, I am this glamorous.

Hey all! It’s Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and so I thought I’d sign myself up and do a little interview. (I know what you’re all thinking: is it really fair to call me a book blogger right now? And the answer is yes. I’m offended that you would even question it!)

Anyway, here’s everything you (n)ever wanted to know about me!

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack?
Sometimes, but not if the book I’m reading is a real page turner (need my paws free for reading). If I’m snacking, it’s usually an iced chai tea latte from Starbucks and some chocolate, or sometimes I just want to have cheesies. Varies day-to-day.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
I don’t write in them, but if something strikes me I do mark it with a post-it note, or dog-ear the page to the point where the quote/scene occurs.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?
Dog-ears all the way, man. Sometimes I use bookmarks to mark my place, but only if I leave off at the beginning of a new chapter. Otherwise it would be too confusing. If I take a temporary break (like 5-10 minutes), I’ll lay the book flat open.

Fiction, non-fiction, or both?
Mostly fiction, but I’ve read some really compelling non-fiction. It’s just not typically my genre of choice unless it’s an (auto)biography or memoir.

Hard copy or audiobooks?
Hard copy all the way! I can’t listen to my books. It’d just be too weird, and wouldn’t feel as rewarding to finish.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you able to put a book down at any point?
I need to finish the chapter before I put it down. The only time I can stray from that is if I have to get up mid-read — i.e. on transit.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away?
I put it in the context of the sentence to guide me for meaning, and if the word is confusing/interesting enough I’ll look it up later.

What are you currently reading?
The Last Coyote by Michael Connelly. It’s really good…when I get to actually sit down and read it!

What is the last book you bought?
The Last Coyote, The Closers, and 9 Dragons, all by Michael Connelly. I was in the bookstore with my sister and happened to see them, and since I’m trying to finish the Harry Bosch series I just had to buy them all.

Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time?
I used to be able to do more than one at a time (not that it was a preference), but now I just can’t do it. I can’t keep the plots straight, and with all the stuff outside of reading that I have going on, it’s tough enough to remember where I am in the first book I’m reading. Forget about trying to read two!

Do you have a favorite time of day and/or place to read?
Not really, but I find that my job at the call centre is pretty conducive to good reading; often it’s sitting for long periods of time with only a dial tone to keep you company. Otherwise, I can read pretty much anywhere/time.

Do you prefer series books or stand alone books?
I have no preference really. I like stand-alone books probably just as much as series fiction. But there’s something great about a series, either waiting for the next book to come out or seeing set of characters progress over the years.

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over?
I often recommend Daniel Kalla’s The Far Side of the Sky, Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, and Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I’ll also recommend the Stieg Larsson trilogy, and almost anything by Michael Connelly.

How do you organize your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc.?)
I organize them kind of peculiarly: by size. I line them up and then order them based on height and spine width, because I have to see what I will be able to easily get through in a short period of time. If I have a shorter, smaller book waiting for me beside a taller, fatter one, I’ll choose the tinier one every time to shave off some reading time on this challenge.

Hope you enjoyed the interview! And hopefully I’ll be able to post a new review relatively soonish. I might be coming into some reading time in the next couple of days!

– Kelsey

Interview: Tony Burman


Tony Burman, Ryerson University’s new Velma Rogers Graham Research Chair

Against the suitable backdrop of the bustling Starbucks on Church and Gerrard, Tony Burman can’t sit still. For the duration of a 45-minute interview he remains, remarkably, in motion — gesturing wildly, as if to assist him with his point and, to drive something home, smacking the table with the side of his palm. And for someone who has spent the majority of his life in an “intense, 24-7 pace,” that isn’t the least bit out of character.

But the king of speed himself is planning to slow down. As Ryerson’s newly-appointed Velma Rogers Graham Research Chair, Burman said he’s looking forward to “us[ing] my brain as much as I’m using my legs” come September, when he joins the school.

It certainly will be a change of pace.

Burman, 63, got his start in journalism working as the editor of Loyola College’s newspaper, Loyola News, for two years, though his subjects of study were actually political science and history. After he graduated he moved onto the Montreal Star, where his father worked as an editor. Burman remained there for “about 4 or 5 years.”

Montreal in the late 60s and 70s was the perfect place to be for an up-and-coming journalist. With the political tension, FLQ crisis, and talk of separation, the country was in constant distress. Because of his position as an education reporter, Burman said he was required to cover a lot of the main events, as it was “really the schooling sector in Quebec that was most in turmoil.”

“For somebody in my early twenties, it was a fascinating period,” he said. “I had a sense that I was in the middle of a historic period in Quebec, which turned out to be the case. And the fact that I was able to write and try to interpret that for a wider audience in Montreal was really quite exciting.”

After his stint at the Star, and a year and a half traveling through South America, Burman moved to Toronto and took a job at the CBC. He worked his way up through the corporate ladder, as a writer, editor, executive producer of The National, and by the 1980s was the CBC News European producer. In that position he was able to report on the Lebanon Civil War, the fall of the Soviet Empire, and the imprisonment and release of Nelson Mandela.

The latter, he said, was a story that has a special meaning to him. Prior to Mandela’s 1991 release, Burman produced a documentary on the man, which included a reenactment of the trial that unjustly put him in prison. Winnie Mandela had seen the footage, and gotten it into the prison so her husband could view it as well. Because of that documentary, the CBC was chosen as one of the three networks to interview Mandela on the day of his release.

“I have a photograph of Barbara Frum, Nelson Mandela, and myself [from that day], and it’s one that I totally cherish,” he shared.

Burman continued his rise through the CBC, doing current affairs and international documentaries for The Journal, and then entered management, spending seven and a half years as Editor-in-Chief. When he left, he said, it was “getting repetitive, so it was really time to leave, and it was a very natural thing.”

Though his plan at that point was to do consulting work for international networks, that wasn’t what fate had in mind. Around a year after leaving the CBC, Burman was invited by Al Jazeera to come to Qatar. Thinking he would be involved in the network in a “part-time, consultative way,” Burman hopped on a plane, only to be presented with a job offer: the Managing Director position.

“I fell backwards,” Burman said, “And said ‘obviously I can do that from Toronto, can’t I?’ They said ‘no, you can’t.’ So the issue of moving to Qatar became very serious for me, but it was an opportunity that I was given.”

Burman spent the next two and a half years in Qatar, flying back and forth to Toronto to see his family. Around the time he planned to return to North America, western interest in Al Jazeera piqued so the move to Washington, to take over as Chief Strategic Advisor, seemed only natural. During his time in that role, Burman brought Al Jazeera to Washington and all of Canada.

In September Burman’s role will change drastically. At the university he’ll be teaching Journalism and Politics in the winter semester, as well as doing research into privacy and censorship issues, and the role of emerging technologies on the practice of journalism.

Burman cited the Arab Spring as an example of that growing trend. “When Tunisia [and] Egypt started exploding, there was a real inability for journalists to be able to do their work publicly,” he said. “There had to be a reliance on people, collectively, to contribute. There’s a serious dimension to emerging technologies, [and] social media…that’s well beyond whether Charlie Sheen should be hired by CBS.”

“[Emerging technologies are] the way the next ten years will be defined,” he said. “The fact that the journalists who are students now will eventually replace people like me in the wider world, it’s important that they understand as much as possible what’s coming around the corner.”

(This article was published in the Sept. 2011 issue of the Ryerson Free Press.)

Interview: DiDi LeMay


Photo from DiDi LeMay

For former ESL teacher and superintendent DiDi LeMay, writing has long been a passion, and only recently became a profession. Instead of taking a crack at the great Canadian novel, LeMay has dedicated her talent to writing for children — a challenging and rewarding task.

LeMay was born in Orillia, Ont., and spent her formative years in Peterborough, Ont. Tragedy struck at the tender age of six, when her mother was the victim of a drunk driving accident. Fortunately, she said, her father met another woman who “became my second mother; she was a wonderful, wonderful woman.” She credits her step-mother as being the one who “helped me with my creativity.”

In her mid-teens, LeMay moved to Holland with her family, knowing approximately four words of Dutch: “yes, no, grandma and grandpa.” But when faced with a challenge, she stepped up to the plate and taught herself to speak the language using a Doctor Dolittle book as a guide. “I’d read [it] so many times in English [that] I could memorize it. So when I read it in Dutch, I knew exactly what was said in English, and at the end of this I could understand and speak Dutch properly.”

Though LeMay had been writing small stories and creating characters for years, she didn’t decide to be a writer until learning that Canadian legend Stephen Leacock had lived in the town where she’d been born. “Of course for me that was a sign!” she exclaimed, and later added that from that point on, “I designated myself as ‘the writer’ in the family.”

LeMay, who returned to Canada in her late twenties, said she started thinking about writing a book when she was in her late teens, but, “I couldn’t think of anything…to write about. I had this idea [for] a short story, and it was…about a girl in the forest meeting the animals, [but] that was as far as I got.”

When she started to consider the impact of humans on the earth, and became actively involved with helping the environment (a cause that is still incredibly close to her heart), LeMay was able to find the real focus of that story.

“That same story that I wanted to write turned out to be very important,” she said, “Because I wanted to then start [talking] about the environment.”

It wasn’t until four or five years ago that LeMay began considering herself a writer. Though life had gotten in the way, as it often does, of her pursuing her dreams, she said, “I decided ‘That’s it! It’s time for me to be a writer!’”

LeMay self-published her first children’s book, A Winter Solstice Celebration, in 2008, and it was the same story that she’d spent years dreaming up — a little girl who goes into the woods to meet the animals — but with an underlying message about taking care of the planet we live on, and not abusing the finite resources we have available. Her second book, Freddy’s French Fries Fiasco, which takes a look at the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, was published in 2009.

“I like to stay with environmental issues [and] social issues, because I feel that…we have to be reminded of some things that are in our society. We have to question things, and not just coast along.”

Focusing on big issues such as the environmental crisis and childhood obesity naturally calls into question why LeMay chooses to write for children, instead of a more mature audience. “It just happened!” she said, with a hearty, good-natured laugh.

After a moment for thought, she added, “It’s such a cliche, but they are the future, and if they’re able to see and question [big issues] now, they’ll actually see the value of certain things [later in life.]”

For someone so dedicated to affecting change, that kind of spark is a step in the right direction.

For more information on DiDi LeMay, check out her website.

(This article was originally written for Women’s Post.)

– Kelsey

Interview: Terry Fallis


Image stolen from Inside PR

Though only into its fourth month, 2011 has been good to The Best Laid Plans author Terry Fallis, recent winner of this year’s Canada Reads. Fallis learned on the first of April that his follow-up novel, The High Road, was short-listed for the 2011 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. This is his second time on the shortlist, as his first novel was the 2008 winner.

Fallis, a Toronto-based public relations consultant and vice chair of Thornley Fallis, is Canada’s latest literary success story. After writing The Best Laid Plans and attempting to publish it, he released chapters as podcasts on his blog, which garnered enough positive responses to inspire him to self-publish in 2007. Submitting his satirical novel for the Stephen Leacock Medal was the first big step that eventually led him to a publishing deal with McClelland-Stewart in 2008.

“I had ten copies of the book in my office in a box that had come with my original publishing package,” he said. When he checked the Leacock Medal’s website, in what he calls a “moment of false bravado,” Fallis saw that the contest accepted self-published novels. “It said that they needed ten copies, and seriously if they said they’d needed eleven copies, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation today.”

The Best Laid Plans and The High Road follow Daniel Addison, a former speechwriter for the Liberal Party of Canada, and Angus McLintock, the unlikely candidate for the Cumberland-Prescott riding in Ontario. The two men spend one novel attempting to keep Angus out of politics, and the next trying to get him back into it, dealing with outrageous antics along the way — like an S&M sex scandal, and a drunken FLOTUS on a snowmobile. Though the series is at the surface a comedy, Fallis maintains that he wrote them with a deeper intended meaning. “I’m shedding light on problems in our democracy and how we practice politics in this country,” he explained. And as a former member of the Liberal Party, he would know.

Fallis, a graduate of the McMaster University engineering program, entered politics during his second year at school as a representative of the engineering faculty in the Student Representative Assembly, and spent three years in the assembly, working as the vice president, speaker, and then president.

Hooked on politics, Fallis moved into the federal arena, working as a policy advisor to Jean Lapierre, the Minister of State for Youth. When the Liberal party was defeated in the 1984 election, Fallis became Lapierre’s legislative assistant.

“[Lapierre] was learning a whole new policy area, and so was I, because he was the international trade critic,” he said. “So I got to say goodbye to all my youth policy, and started learning what international trade and trade policy meant,” A year later Fallis moved from Parliament Hill to Queen’s Park, to work with the David Peterson Liberal government, as a legislative assistant to then-finance minister Bob Nixon.

Fallis said that at that point he felt he’d learned almost as much as he could, and didn’t want to be considered a “political hack.” So, with some reluctance, he left politics and moved not into a career in engineering, but consulting and public relations in January of 1988. He spent seven years as a government affairs consultant, capitalizing on his political experience by helping clients to deal with the provincial government.

Fallis stepped out of the government consultation business in 1995, when he co-founded Thornley Fallis with Joseph Thornley. The firm deals only with communications consulting, which Fallis did to avoid negatively affecting his wife’s career in the government.

Today, Fallis is juggling the often-hectic job of public relations consultant with writing on the side. Fallis admitted that pieces of himself make their way into his novels because of his limited time to write. “I think it’s inevitable,” he said, “particularly for someone writing his first novel who has no time for research.”

Having read Fallis’s novel The Best Laid Plans and its sequel, The High Road, meeting him in person is, in fact, almost comparable to meeting one of his thoroughly fleshed out characters. There are pieces of him strewn through Angus, the gruff but sentimental engineering professor with an unwavering love of the English language, and Daniel, the verbose, staunch Liberal who can’t seem to escape politics and, for the most part, sees the democratic system with tired, jaded eyes.

“I could write about all of those things from my head and from my own experiences,” Fallis said, of the content of his two books. “With the exception of S&M, which I knew nothing about. But the Internet was very helpful in that.”

Though Fallis said he does plan to do more with those characters, they won’t be in his third novel. “I’m writing something else now, another novel,” he said. “It will be a satire, it will be a funny novel, but not with these characters.”

“Another political satire?” I asked.

“No! One about the public relations industry.”

Well, you’ve heard the saying: write what you know.