Renee Jagdeo loves her city — and it shows. As the 19-year-old urban planning student — and candidate in Friday’s Toronto city council byelection — talked me through her ideas for the future of public transit, community safety, and economic development in her Scarborough-Agincourt ward, I was inspired by her sense of pride in the city she grew up in and the community she’s hoping to represent in office. (Did I mention she would be the youngest councillor in the city’s history, all while pursuing her undergraduate degree? A multihyphenate queen in the making!)
Jagdeo’s campaign is inspired by the idea that every person has a “right to the city” (a term coined by human geographer David Harvey); she believes we should be able to build the spaces around us in ways that serve us best. “The structures of our surroundings impact us personally, whether that is our identity, mental health, well-being, personality,” she said during our Zoom call.
After she uttered these words, I couldn’t help but notice her surroundings. Her room has the eclectic charm of any other teen: walls adorned with photos and postcards, a poster entitled "Les Champignons’" hanging next to a vintage street sign from her brother’s trip to Istanbul. She even showed me her most recent quarantine creation, a colourful rug she is sewing. “I’ve only got half of it done,” she says humbly as she holds up what can only be described as the DIY of my dreams. “But I doodle in my spare time and I figured I could make a doodle into a rug.”
More impressive than her artistry, however, is Jagdeo’s readiness to make change. Whether it’s through politics, volunteer work, or academics, she’s ready to make a meaningful impact. Here’s what she had to say about protest, politics, and her plans for the city she loves.
What inspired you to get into politics?
It started from having a community of friends and family who love to talk about politics. I didn’t grow up thinking I would become a politician at any point, let alone at 19. But in the last couple of years, I’ve been involved a lot more in protesting and developing community intervention programs through school, like organizing conferences for Black youth, or designing layouts for EV charging stations. These are all based on issues that affect people in a political way. When the byelection came up, I figured this would be a cool opportunity.
A lot of things lined up so that it was the right place, right time. I’m doing school at home and I have considerably more time than I would have had, so with the support of my friends and my family, I said, “Yeah, let’s do this, let’s see what happens.” It’s been a very exciting process and I’ve been encouraging other people like me to do the same.
I’m realizing that the city has so many people that are willing to be mobilized and are doing things at a much more local level than the way that say, policies operate. It’s both heartwarming and reassuring that it doesn’t necessarily take specific leaders to advocate for things. That has influenced how I think about the potential role I want to play in my community. I think it would better serve the population if political leaders connected directly with community leaders because those ideas and plans often already exist locally. At school, I'm surrounded by incredible students that are my age and younger and it’s mind-boggling to think that we keep these ideas in our notepads and they're not being implemented.
What are the biggest issues facing Gen Z in Toronto right now?
Toronto’s in a housing crisis — it’s not feasible to own a house, much less rent a house. The issue is supply and having dedicated affordable housing units. I don’t know if I’d ever be able to rent a place downtown and justify it because I feel a lot more comfortable paying my student loan instead of having an apartment. So that’s definitely an aspect of my campaign, making sure that there is housing, for newcomers, for students, for people that are in precarious living situations. I believe that housing is a right and it needs a dedicated effort.
Representation is very important — someone might think to themselves, hey, she’s out here doing it, I can too.
Public transit is also on your platform. Why is this a need for your ward?
Scarborough-Agincourt is not served by the subway. It’s a luxury to be able to hop on one line, get to where you want to go, and then be able to get home. It shouldn’t be a luxury. It puts people in a position where you have to own a car in order to be able to get a job in the city or to visit a doctor. That just doesn't seem like where we should be in this stage of the game, where our city has so much incredible innovation, but then some people don’t have access to a subway.
Of the 25 wards in Toronto, only eight are represented by women, and even fewer by people of colour. What are your thoughts about this lack of diversity?
It’s an unfortunate reality of politics and the idea of career politicians. There isn't a sustainable turnaround of representatives to reflect the diversity of the city — but I do look forward to this changing in the future.
What would you say to people who think you're too young to be running for council?
I’ve heard, “we’re in a pandemic,” “you're still in school,” and “shouldn’t you be at least 30 to do this?” Even my boyfriend asked me, “Are you old enough?” Then there’s the Facebook trolls, who say, "Oh, you should run a household first! You should have children! You don’t pay taxes!” I mean, I do pay taxes! It’s strange because there’s a whole generation of people in Toronto who might never own houses, or might never have families, because either we don’t want to or it’s simply not affordable. And it’s even more strange that people don’t realize that is a reality for a lot of people in this city and it isn’t being advocated for.
As much as I don’t have the experience of, say, a 40-year-old politician, my lack of experience owning a house or having children is what put me in a position to be able to advocate for a whole other community of people. There’s about 1 million of us that are under the age of 25 in Toronto. That’s a third of the population! That’s a lot of people that are not being represented. We shame young people for wanting to involve themselves in this process because “we lack experience,” but our experience is the reality that we’re living and that shouldn’t be discredited.
How has being a woman of colour affected your campaign?
There has been a lot of negativity based on my gender and race, but I was not raised to use my gender or race as a reason to feel poorly about myself. I want to represent myself in the best way I can regardless of the negativity. In doing so, it helps me to be a strong representative of women of colour, especially young women of colour, who can accomplish things in spite of what is working against us. I’ve been able to engage with young women of colour, and ask how they’ve been navigating similar realms and what they hope to accomplish. It’s been very rewarding for me because I get a lot of feedback and I also can help support and encourage them. Representation is very important — someone might think to themselves, Hey, she’s out here doing it, I can too.
What do you want to do when you're finished school? Is this just the start of your political career?
I want to continue learning, but also be able to put my learnings into action. I'm not sure what that would look like as of right now, and don't want to box myself into anything either, so I'm not holding myself to any particular involvement. As long as I feel I would be able to contribute in a meaningful way, I will involve myself in politics -— but my interests can change!
So you’re a student, a potential city councillor, and you make cool rugs. What else do you like to do for fun?
I really love painting, and because of lockdown I’ve been watching a lot of movies. Recently though, I’ve been trying to remake all my clothes into something new. I don’t feel the need to shop, but I also want the excitement of having new clothing, so I’ve been tearing apart old things, putting them together and seeing what happens.