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Mayworks festival combats the common underrepresentation, exploitation and xenophobia of the working world

Catriona Spaven-DonnBy Catriona Spaven-Donn

The imposing Toronto skyline of skyscrapers and cranes frames Mayworks Festival Director Nahed Mansour at her office desk. Here, she discusses Mayworks’ goal of celebrating community and collective. The looming cityscape mirrors her assertion that, “macro structures are disempowering and alienating for the people.” For Mansour, working from the ground up is what creates an engaged and mobilized society.

The Mayworks Festival aims to give a voice back to people who are often marginalized and oppressed, countering the dominant narratives of the political realm. Rather than staring up at the buildings which crowd the skyline, Mayworks aims to find and fill the city’s forgotten, overlooked spaces. Mansour says that the stories we hear in mainstream media are not told in the voices or from the perspectives of the community; Mayworks, however, “allows people to tell their own stories.”

This year, those stories range from Chinese immigrants’ tales of labour in a new land in the ‘Before and After’ visual media event, to Jane and Finch community residents and activists’ campaigns for a $14 minimum wage in ‘Struggle for Economic Justice.’ The festival of working people and the arts addresses these labour issues using art as a tool for social change. Mansour explains that “politics needs art as much as art needs politics: visual media, spoken word, theatre and other art forms are all important strategies to talk about political structures.”

In the ‘Food, Land and Colonialism’ event, documentary filmmaker Cass Gardiner’s The Edible Indian explores three First Nations chefs’ favourite traditional dishes and their connections to the land. This will be screened alongside a poetry reading by Palestinian feminist activist and spoken word poet Ghadeer Malek, whose new collection, I Exist, links the struggles of indigenous peoples, women and workers. Malek embodies the festival’s double focus with her statement, “my activism is my art.” She says, “I have learned that political poetry is not preaching political ideals but exposing realities and complexities of individual experiences.”

The programming of the festival includes unique and diverse voices which echo each other across communities and generations. Mansour says that the festival hopes to combat the common underrepresentation, exploitation and xenophobia of the contemporary working world. By accepting submissions from artists, workers and social justice groups or campaigns, the festival “broadens the definition of the worker through representation, not semantics.”

Temporary or migrant workers, young people and women are all recognised as groups which have traditionally been marginalized from labour movements. Events such as the ‘Women’s Labour History Walking Tour’ rewrite this narrative by celebrating female union leaders from the 19th Century up to the present day. The one-and-a-half-hour tour highlights sites of feminist labour protest and struggle, such as the University of Toronto campus, Spadina Avenue and the Eaton Centre.

These events offer accessible spaces in the heart of local communities for activism and solidarity struggles. In this way artists, activists and workers can question and redefine the political and social reality of the working world. Malek says that the festival provides a conversation on art and labour issues which is “very much needed and yet lacking” elsewhere in society.

For her, Mayworks establishes that “struggles are not isolated, and that the world is interconnected, and interwoven, that we are influenced by each other… that the resistances that we each wage individually cannot be in isolation, but sprout from an understanding that we are all impacted by injustices, that oppression and exploitation are not moments in time but embedded in histories, processes, systems, institutions, and so-called democracies.” 

Mayworks runs from May 1st-May 15th in various locations around Toronto. For more information, visit mayworks.ca. 

Catriona Spaven-Donn is a Scottish undergraduate student of Spanish, English and French at the University of Toronto, where she holds the position of News Editor for Victoria College’s newspaper, The Strand.  Catriona is a CWA Canada Associate Member and her mentor on this project was Aparita Bhandari, a guild member at CBC Toronto.  


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