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Third-year social work student Rae Paul is the second recipient of the Sumaya Dalmar Award. Photo credit: Alyssa Katherine Faoro.
In their first class, social work student Rae Paul* (who uses they/them pronouns) knew they had made the right choice in coming to Ryerson.
“I just knew I was at the right place at the right time,” Paul said. “I have had the pleasure of being mentored by insightful peers and professors. They care about you and want you to succeed.”
Paul’s path to Ryerson came at a time in their life when they didn’t know what was next for them. They pursued global development studies at another Ontario university and after realizing how the course reduced human suffering to numbers, Paul took some time off to decide what they really wanted.
Three years later, Paul is thriving in Ryerson’s School of Social Work and has recently been named this year’s recipient of the Sumaya Dalmar Award, a $1,000 award named after a trans activist to help support racialized trans students. Dalmar was an active member of Black Queer Youth (BQY) — a support group for LGBTQ Black youth in Toronto — who championed the rights of transgender persons of colour. She died in 2015 at 26-years-old, the night before she was to take a role in the education department of The 519, Canada’s largest LGBTQ community centre.
“I looked her up when I was applying for the scholarship and she seemed like a really strong pillar for a lot of people,” Paul said. “The communities that I work with and in my social work placement, I see a lot of people who remind me of her situation and we need to be better for the people in our community. She was one of those people who was very out and proud about who she was and what she stood for, and it cost her. And I think that's something our allies need to be reminded of – your existence doesn't cost you your life.”
Similar to Dalmar, Paul is heavily involved in community work. In addition to their social work studies, Paul co-facilitates a drop-in program, with co-founder Jodi Asphall, for queer people of colour (QPOC) in Ajax called QTBIPOC Durham. Paul is also a goalie coach for a girl’s hockey league in Scarborough.
“I've always had an affinity for the way that sport can bring people together, the way that recreation can be a really healing space,” Paul said. “I'm really big on community building and finding a way to do things that are not traditional so folks can heal and be together.
“I definitely had my fair share of negative experiences around hegemonic, masculine comments. But I’ve been able to carve out a space of my own.”
Community is at the heart of Paul’s personal and professional networks. They came out as queer in high school and as non-binary transgender in November 2018, and while it was a slow acceptance for some family members, their siblings, partner and friends embraced their trans identity.
“I've been really blessed honestly. I'm really lucky that I get to be out and proud and to actually assert myself in general,” Paul said. “I'm constantly reminded of that every time I come into contact with other trans people who don't necessarily have that privilege.”
While trans visibility and understanding has grown, hardships continue to challenge transgender communities as well. For Paul, that has meant moving from a survivor mentality to engaging more in community care.
“When I was younger, there was no self care. I was not super kind for a time; I wasn’t really true to myself,” they said. “Now, I really try to be around people who bring me up and share a lot of the same feelings. And boundaries! I discovered boundaries — they’re difficult but so valuable. Those two things in tandem — that community care aspect and honouring my boundaries — those have been really amazing things.”
Studying social work has also helped Paul acknowledge what is and isn’t in their control.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is the structural impact of everything that I feel as a queer and trans person of colour,” they said. “It’s not my fault the world is binary segregated or uses pronouns that are not normative. These things are structural; they are ways to keep people in boxes, and I’ve just never really fit in that box.
“And to be fair, there are lots of things in social work that we don’t do well enough. There’s a line between making yourself feel good and then being oppressive towards other people. I’m constantly trying to skirt that line — a lot of my peers are — because it’s so easy to fall into thinking ‘it is what it is.’ When in fact, it is what it is but it needs to be better because people rely on us to be better. The world needs good social workers.”
Learn more about supporting the Sumaya Dalmar Award.
By Antoinette Mercurio.
This story first appeared in Ryerson Today on April 24, 2020.