Oral History Collection on Student Activism
The University of Toronto Archives & Record Management Services (UTARMS) Oral History Collection on Student Activism is a collection of oral history interviews focused on illuminating the impact of student action and initiatives across UofT’s three campuses. The project, established in 2019, received funding from the University of Toronto Libraries’ Chief Librarian Innovation Grant for its initial one-year phase in which Ruth Belay, GSLA Project Coordinator, and Daniela Ansovini, Archivist, worked to complete the 17 interviews included here.
The goal of the project aimed to respond to the under-representation of student voice within the Archives’ collections and was an opportunity for the Archives to gain deeper understanding of the barriers in documenting this critical aspect of the University’s history. In developing the project’s scope, we identified the importance of also ensuring that participants’ voices reflect diverse communities on campus and experiences that have guided struggles for representation, equity, and systemic change.
Oral history is a generative, exploratory methodology oriented to capture the perspectives of participants in a format that is self-directed and that allows for the sharing of desired elements of personal stories and experiences. For this project, oral history was specifically used as an inclusive approach in addressing archival gaps and diversifying our collections. We designed a semi-structured interview guide to spark discussion while encouraging participants to guide the conversation. In acknowledging the personal nature of student experience and activism, it was essential to the project that participants be given a high-level of autonomy and control in how they narrated their experiences and that these records be preserved in the Archives without editing or adaptation.
Careful consideration was given to the development of our consent form in order to ensure that risks were clearly identified and could incorporate participants’ expressed protections. To minimize unintended risks to third parties, we also advised participants to anonymize those individuals mentioned when potentially private information might be disclosed.
We adopted varying tactics in our approach to research and recruitment given the complexity of identifying individuals and movements over a fifty-year span. The project design recognized the importance of consulting a wide range of sources. Ruth began by scanning The Varsity, UTSG’s undergraduate newspaper, to track broad social movements from 1967 onwards, gain broader context about the student action and the University’s response, and to start to identify key groups and individuals. While The Varsity had been identified as one of our principle resources, it was challenging for several reasons: varying editorial approach and personal biases affecting the coverage of student groups, as well as difficulties in specifically identifying BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) actors.
This emphasized the importance of consulting additional archival and print sources as well as gathering background from individuals and student groups themselves. We spoke to individuals with insight into some of the groups and actions on campus and sought their recommendations on who to approach for interviews. We also reached out to student groups to learn about aspects of their history that they would like to see documented, receive their feedback about the project in general, and gather their suggestions of potential participants. Many of the individuals who did participate in turn provided the names of others who had been actively involved.
In looking at activism and its impact on UofT’s campuses, we have adopted a definition of the term that accepts a broad spectrum of activities, approaches, and actors. Activism includes efforts to support social, political, economic, and environmental change, though can also be shaped by commitments to systemic reform through decolonization, liberation, and equity. It is inclusive of grassroots activists, those involved in radical forms of disruption and protest, advocates, facilitators, organizers, insurgent civil servants, and those whose presence is an active form of resistance. It is a subjective term that individuals define through their lived experience and for this reason, we also understand activism as fluid and evolving.
This project seeks to honour, preserve, and celebrate a rich history of activism that is representative of this breadth of approach and identification. We also recognize how larger movements, solidarity networks, and communities outside of UofT have helped to push forward change within the institution. While this is a retrospective project looking at the history of activism at UofT, we also acknowledge the continued resistance and calls for institutional change that are being pushed forward by students today.
Through the work of researching, designing, and completing this oral history project, UTARMS has had the opportunity to gain feedback from alumni, key informants, and in particular, student groups. This input has asked us to take critical views of the project design, interrogate our role as an archive, and ensure our connection to current student groups. We are incredibly grateful as these conversations have positively shaped the project, deepened our understanding of the institution, and given us insight into how we might further support rich documentary heritage through reflection, enhanced inclusion, and strengthened relationships. As a department, we are committed to actively engaging with community members and continuing our own learning about the institution, ourselves, and the diverse communities who have shaped UofT.
If you have any feedback or questions regarding the project, please feel free to email Daniela Ansovini at email@example.com
The University of Toronto is composed of three separate campuses – the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) and the University of Toronto at St. George Campus (UTSG). Each of the campuses carry distinct histories and are shaped by local communities and the formation of unique campus cultures. As it was important that this project reflect the actions and interests of students across the three campuses, we aimed to both include participants who attended each of the institutions, as well as build connections to oral history projects currently taking place at UTM and UTSC.
Stories of UTSC is a project run by Prof. Christine Berkowitz which captures and preserves oral histories of the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus.
The Queer Peel Oral History Project is a student-driven oral history initiative that documents LGBTQ2+ organizing in Peel region, and includes interviews with UTM alumni, members of OUT＠UTM, and the UTM's Positive Space Committee. The project grew out of a third-year history course taught by Prof. Elspeth Brown.
We would like to thank Prof. Brown, Prof. Berkowitz, and their research teams as they also offered invaluable input, feedback and guidance.
Researchers who are looking for archival material and resources on student activism, both at UofT and beyond, are encouraged to also consult material in the following collections:
The intimate nature of the conversations that generate an oral history interview require a level of trust between the interviewer, the participant, archivists, and researchers. Please listen to these interviews with an acknowledgment of the generous spirit with which participants offer their memories, opinions, and views. This project was guided by the Oral History Association’s Core Principles for Oral History with the aim of ensuring that participants’ perspectives, privacy, and safety are respected. Interviews that are part of the Oral History Collection on Student Activism are made available for research purposes only.
The audio recordings are intended to be the original source within this collection and have not been altered with the exception of removing identifying information of third parties who did not agree to be named in the interview and where their involvement was not already publicly known. Transcripts are available for each of the interviews and while they are near verbatim, they have had varying degrees of editing to remove word repetitions and some non-words, in addition to the same identifying information removed from the recordings. They also include added notes or corrections by the participant in square brackets. Transcripts are noted when they have been more heavily edited by the interviewee in a way that adapts the content, and verbatim transcripts of these interviews are available upon request. As oral history interviews rely on individual perspectives and opinions, they represent a broad range of viewpoints and serve as entry points in building our understanding of rich and intricate histories.