From “why?” to “why not?”: Faculty of Education grad becomes MPP and activist for social change

NDP MPP Jill Andrew at Queen's Park.

Growing up, Jill Andrew’s favourite word was “why?” Today, as a York University Faculty of Education PhD graduate and newly elected Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) for the riding of Toronto-St. Paul’s – the first openly queer and Black person to be elected in her riding, her life experience is more like “why not?”

Andrew’s story began when she was a curious and enthusiastic grade 10 student. “Throughout elementary school, I’d always been highly inspired and motivated by education and enjoyed the thrill of learning,” she says. “Luckily, this passion for learning followed me into high school.” That thrill first crystallized for her when she visited the Toronto Reference Library. “We had gone on a school trip and I was in awe by the size of this building and the sheer number of books. This building was there to help us learn and sift through new ideas. It was very cool and I felt like an adult that day,” she says.

At her mother’s encouragement, Andrew pursued education which was partially a means to overcome the everyday and systemic barriers she faced as a black child and later adult. However, in a theme she has continuously returned to, Andrew says while education empowers, it is not a silver bullet. “We need to be aware of the type of education, the narratives to which we are being exposed and who is doing the educating,” she says. “Narratives need to be inclusive, diverse and critical, and representation matters. Otherwise, education can reinforce the barriers we see in our lives.”

As it happened, Andrew encountered the very type of education she was looking for at York University. Several of her professors emphasized the voices of scholars, researchers and historical figures who were traditionally shunted in favour of dominant societal narratives. “My experience at York was not perfect and I did have to navigate through some discriminatory learning experiences especially while I managed my chronic health challenges alongside my education,” she says. “However, I also had a chance to learn from many professors who were hell-bent on teaching us through an anti-oppressive lens with a focus on equity. At York, I learned not only about oppressions faced by others, but also about the ways in which people resist these oppressions through a critical feminist, anti-racist praxis.”

In 1998, after Andrew became a child and youth worker, she started her journey at York. As an undergrad, Andrew was further inspired by one of her instructors, a fellow black woman pursuing her PhD, who served as a role model for Andrew’s aspirations. “Even though she wasn’t a professor [yet], seeing her so passionate about our learning while pursuing her own doctoral education gave me permission to dream that such a reality could be mine,” she says.

Through her education at York, Andrew became a high school teacher, a student equity program advisor with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and later a lecturer herself at colleges and universities. Also, as a community advocate, and someone who had personally experienced the sting of being bullied in school, she boldly took her activism outside the classroom and co-founded Body Confidence Canada (BCC), an organization combating body-based discrimination while celebrating body diversity. One of BCC’s biggest successes to date was the creation of Body Confidence Awareness Week, the second week of October, which is currently recognized across the TDSB and the Winnipeg School Division. “This week could not have happened without the critical support and leadership of school trustees at both boards who recognized the deep impact this week could have for kids and educators in the classroom and championed our vision,” Andrew says.

In her newest role as an Ontario New Democrat MPP for the riding of Toronto-St. Paul’s and the Official Opposition’s Culture Critic on December 6 last year, Andrew debated the second reading of her first ever bill, Bill 61, a private member’s bill she introduced in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario (Queen’s Park). Bill 61 is intended to formally recognize Eating Disorders Awareness Week across Ontario.

“This bill attempts to address some of the concerns of parents, guardians, educators, service providers and young people within my communities living in a looks and image saturated society,” she says. “Bill 61 also relates to many body-related issues my York thesis reflects upon in regards to size, race, gender and weight-based body discrimination. Bill 61 can play a role at both the community and institutional level.” She noted her bill received unanimous support across party lines and is now heading into the committee stage of its journey towards becoming an official law. Andrew continues her advocacy, appearing on Citytv’s Breakfast Television to discuss racism and body shaming.

“As a new MPP, I leveraged my York education to make real-world change,” Andrew says. “Research, writing and synthesizing large amounts of information come in very handy as an MPP. The ability to distill multiple briefs, community casework and key stakeholder needs helps. I am not as intimidated as I might have been had I not had a York education first.”

But Andrew quickly re-emphasizes the importance of “non-traditional” education. “University is only one pathway,” she says. “University should not be privileged over other forms of education such as lived experience(s), skilled trades and apprenticeships, but sadly society still does. We need to continue to advocate for diverse educational pathways. Some of us are not able to or do not chose the university route. This should never take away from a person’s brilliance, access to opportunity or their ability to navigate society.”

For those who do pursue university, Andrew encourages students to network with professors early on. “If you’re a high school student, check the prof’s research and drop them a note if you’re interested,” she says. “Just call or email them and ask to meet.”

Once they are at university, students should become involved on campus, Andrew urges. “Be a part of an organization,” she says. “Find a community. Uplift voices and get involved in student clubs. Reach out to youth organizations so you might inspire the next person coming behind you.”

NDP MPP Jill Andrew poses for a selfie.

For its part, York University welcomes students to become involved in one or more of the 449 student clubs and associations on campus. These associations specialize in academics, advocacy, charity, faith, politics, professional development and sports. Faculty of Education students are encouraged to engage with the Faculty of Education Students’ Association.

Follow Jill Andrew @JillsLastWord.