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Documenting spaces for us, created by us!

Documenting spaces for us, created by us!

As a person who identifies as a homosexual Afro-Asian cis-man, Jc Elijah (Eli) ​M. Bawuah has experienced complex intersectional facets of oppression and isolation that dissociates him from several urban spaces. Drawing on such experiences for his MES project, he delves into creating an exploratory documentary that looks at the socio-spatial impacts of exclusionary planning and design on queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (QTBIPOC).

Aptly titled “Resisting Erasure: Documenting Spaces for Us, Created by Us!,” the film takes the form of a documentary and paper exploring the spatial accounts of queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (QTBIPOC) who are living, working, playing or doing activism in Toronto’s Church-Wellesley area, also known as “The Village.” His film includes discussions that look at the impact of planning and urban design on how QTBIPOC experience space — putting forth a perspective that is currently missing from even the most progressive of planning accounts. 

“The purpose of my project is to create an exploratory documentary that looks at the socio-spatial impacts of exclusionary planning and design on queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (QTBIPOC),” Eli explains. “I will also be looking at our experience of space, how it is linked to the multi-layered, intersectional facets tied to our identities,” he adds.  

For the film, Eli compiles detailed accounts of QTBIPOC with homonormative queer spaces within the Toronto Church-Wellesley Village, and outlines the relationship between urban development and the racialized queer identity. The project entails storytelling depicting the experiences of discrimination, racial prejudice and racism within Toronto’s queer spaces, and how these situations of imposed vulnerability and harm were navigated by QTBIPOC.  Recently, he co-wrote with fellow MES student, Benjamin Bongolan, an article on “Queerness and queer space in the time of COVID-19” (Spacing Toronto, June 2020).  

“I feel a disconnect from the people who feel more welcomed and privileged within the same shared spaces. These experiences of oppression are often caused by unnecessary surveillance and policing by law enforcement, as well as by White queer individuals who consider my overt presence (dark skin and 6’2 height) as a threat, and me as “out of place,” he expounds.  

Eli uniquely integrates his knowledge of art, city-building, and social-justice into his planning and research practices, by creating educational pieces exploring ways contemporary planners can re-center the voices missing at the decision-making table. These voices include those from many diverse groups he seeks to uplift and represent. His ability along with openness to effectively create spatial environments that account for the lived experiences of queer, trans, racially and culturally diverse urbanites, as well as folks with disabilities, has been an asset to his research and work in planning. As a city-builder and advocate for marginalized voices, Eli feels accountable to acknowledge and to provide a seat for those who are often left out of critical conversations. 

With invaluable guidance from his supervisor, Professor Jin Haritaworn, Eli has curated (through the personal accounts of his participants) an accurate depiction of how many QTBIPOC experience queer space within the City, and how the multi-layered, intersectional, facets of people’s identity influence their engagement with them. The film is intended to fill some important gaps in queer representation, which is often imagined as a white, single-issue area. It draws-up new possibilities for making space and occupying space, and thus promises to introduce alternative perceptions of spatial engagement and building practices within communities. The documentary is expected to contribute to and inform a growing current of proposals aiming to establish equitable and more inclusive planning and design processes, that prioritize the inclusion of more marginalized groups such as QTBIPOC people. Furthermore, the success of the project will help better understand the lives of Toronto’s diverse urban stakeholders. 

Jc Elijah (Eli) M. Bawuah is a second year MES student and an Afro-Asian queer urban planner whose work explores the intersections of socio-spatial dynamics, policy, and equity. A recent recipient of the Robert J. Tiffin Student Leadership Award that recognizes students’ contributions to the growth, development and vitality of the YorkU community, Eli has served as the Graduate Environmental Studies Students Association (GESSA) Chair and is currently a co-founder of the Mentorship Initiative for Indigenous and Planners of Colour (MIIPOC), coordinating events​ ​that create space ​which enables voices from racialized, low-income, and other vulnerable groups to be valued and empowered. As ​student liaison for the Ontario Professional Planner​s Institute (OPPI), he started the first student-led newsletter, connecting over 500 planning students from various universities across Ontario. He has advocated for more affordable housing ​and accessible public space for women, trans folks, and low-income communities through his collaboration​s working for award-nominated author and placemaker, Jay Pitter.