Sam Nabi Kirby Sun, 01 Mar 2015 20:07:48 +0000 Sam Nabi's latest blog posts Solidarity is not a numbers game Thu, 07 May 2015 00:00:00 +0000 Apparently, the University of Waterloo doesn’t know what it means to be an ally — but will gladly accept accolades and prestige for kind of thinking about it. Over the last few days, the UW administration has been trumpeting its partnership with HeForShe. It’s a worthy cause and a necessary approach to address systemic sexism, but I can’t find anything to suggest my alma mater is taking the campaign’s purpose seriously.

Launched last year, HeForShe is a great initiative run by UN Women. It recognizes that we need to change the conversation around feminism to engage men and boys, to recognize privilege and male-centredness in our societies, and for males to act in solidarity to dismantle the sexist norms embedded in our culture. It aims to get one billion pledges from men and boys around the world.

HeForShe is gaining steam, and UW has jumped on board as the only Canadian institution to take part in its IMPACT 10x10x10 pilot initiative — a fact it will repeat ad nauseum for the next little while. Good on UW for signal-boosting the excellent work of HeForShe, but I feel like it has missed the point.

In the section of the HeForShe website geared to universities, a helpful framework document is available, complete with action items that are tailored specifically to post-secondary institutions. There’s lots of good, succinct discussion about the problem HeForShe is trying to solve:

The achievement of gender equality requires an inclusive approach that recognizes the crucial role of men and boys as partners for women’s rights, and as having needs of their own in the formulation of that balance.


These principles build upon the agreed conclusions of the 48th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women held in 2004, which urged that men and boys have a greater role and accountability in the achievement of gender equality. Despite this recognition, the enlisting of men and boys as equal partners in the crafting and implementing of a shared vision of gender equality is yet to be fully realized.

And the document also outlines what role universities should play:

Under the HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10, UN Women will partner with at least 10 universities to mobilize university campuses to reshape the global discourse on gender equality. HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10 will engage with universities at the administration and student level on gender sensitization and gender-based violence.

The suggested action items in HeForShe’s framework document touch on a bunch of great ways to bring the campaign to life on campus, including inspiring men on campus to join the campaign, addressing assault and misconduct, and training faculty and staff to build gender equality into their day-to-day roles.

However, when I look at UW’s commitments for the HeForShe campaign, It’s like reading another language. Despite the clear intent of HeForShe as a solidarity movement — one where men use their privilege to build upon and move with women’s struggle — UW’s commitments don’t engage men at all:

  1. Attract more female students in STEM programs
  2. Attract more female faculty members
  3. Attract more female leaders in senior academic and administrative positions

Do you notice a pattern? UW has clearly framed the fight against sexism as a pipeline problem — there aren’t enough women in the university, so let’s try to add more. Then we’ll eventually have gender parity and sexism will go away.

But structural sexism is more than just a numbers game. It’s also dangerous to conflate solidarity with numerical parity. And what surprises me most is how UW has erased all mention of social and cultural reform from its commitments. This puts the onus on women to fill the pipeline, and neatly avoids confronting men in positions of privilege.

So what happens when women are encouraged to fill the pipeline in an environment that remains hostile to them? Consider this observation from a UW student on what it’s like to be a woman in the Computer Science program:

There can only be one of us in a group of men, and we need to be exceptional. This is an incredibly limiting and unfulfilling role for women to play in CS. Many of us can’t or don’t want to handle the attendant social and academic pressures, so we end up switching programs or dropping out of school.

From Exclusion and Exceptionality in the Pipeline, by Julia Nguyen

So, yes. I’m disappointed and cynical about UW’s approach to the HeForShe campaign. That said, there is some work being done to foster male allies in the broader university community.

The Sigma Chi fraternity released a video last fall urging men to "Break the Silence" around sexual violence and rape culture. It was in the local news cycle for a few days, and laid down a much-needed challenge:

We are shifting our culture by changing ourselves, so we can influence our communities. And through this video, we want you to do the same.

A little further afield, McMaster University recently announced that it would increase the salaries of female faculty to correct a systemic pay gap. This is a great example of a university recognizing injustice and moving swiftly to rectify a structural bias.

Through HeForShe, UW could show some real leadership as an institution and engage men to act in solidarity against deeply-rooted sexism. Instead, it plans to just increase the number of women coming through its doors. Without more robust commitments, the university’s intentions fall flat.

This isn’t to say HeForShe can’t succeed at UW; if you’re a student there, sign the pledge on your own. Join the movement and make your own commitments. The university’s engagement has been lukewarm so far, but don’t let that stop you from doing better.

Twenty-first century brutalism Sat, 14 Mar 2015 00:00:00 +0000 Brutalist architecture is having a bit of a moment in the public consciousness. A surprisingly favourable one. I’ve long heard buildings like UW’s Math & Computer building or U of T’s Robarts Library described as oppressive, faceless, and institutional. I’ve always associated the style with a big brother-esque presence in the urban streetscape. They were built to stand as monoliths, and people have always harboured a desire to see them torn down. Right?

A few years ago I started hearing whispers about the heritage value of brutalist buildings. Heritage? Really? I thought they were universally reviled. Who would ever want to keep these hulking concrete blocks around and make it difficult for them to be replaced with something sleek and modern? (Heh, modern — now there’s an interesting word for this discussion.)

The University of Waterloo’s Math and Computer Building. Photo by parudox.

Public opinion is varied and changeable — over time, we may grow to appreciate a style of architecture for the cultural importance it carries, or simply because it’s become part of our urban fabric. But I’m still surprised at the number of brutalism apologists I’ve come across lately. There’s a weird semi-ironic nostalgia for brutalism that is becoming less ironic and more compelling the longer I think about it.

On Twitter, This Brutal House posts a steady stream of austere art and concrete architecture to 15,000 followers (including myself). Shawn Micallef, who I admire for his writing on urbanism, tweets things like "Windows are tyranny," and I can’t tell if he’s half-joking or not.

I got into a surprisingly long Twitter conversation when I casually retweeted a photo of a brutalist housing project near a town that my Dad and I had visited on our last trip to England:

Several of my followers, most of whom I don’t interact with on a regular basis, came out of the woodwork to retweet, favourite, and post their own photos of brutalist buildings. I was taken by surprise at this groundswell of — what? Appreciation? Love? Nostalgia? — for the brutalist era.

So why, I wonder, does brutalism seems to ignite these passions nowadays? Is it just another throwback aesthetic whose time has come? Or is there something more meaningful behind it all? I have a few ideas about what brutalism means to us in 2015.

The Immaculate Conception Church, Orsova, Romania. Photo by fusion-of-horizons.

Faux nostalgia

One explanation of brutalism’s newfound popularity is the lazy argument that everything old is new again. But I’ll include it here because it’s partially true. There’s a nostalgic aesthetic around brutalist buildings that stirs up the same feelings as when I see an old typewriter in a thrift store and think, ‘I want that.’

Old Stuff, especially Old Stuff made with strong, heavy materials, has a certain attractiveness that also imparts a sense of reliability and stability. That aesthetic flies in the face of planned obsolescence and our magpie-like obsession with the 6-month tech cycle. And it’s actually quite refreshing.