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The intersection of art and trauma

Student Experience Award-winner Cassandra Myers on supporting survivors of gender-based violence
By: Will Sloan
April 13, 2018
Student Experience Award-winner Cassandra Myers with interim vice-provost John Austin

Photo: Cassandra Myers (with interim vice-provost John Austin) received the Angela Ross Award and the Women in Leadership Award at the Student Experience Awards on April 2. Photo by Clifton Li.

In her four years on campus, child and youth care student Cassandra Myers has sat on the Ryerson Board of Governors, led the university’s slam poetry club, taught workshops for community organizations, and been a passionate supporter for survivors of gender-based violence. Her extracurricular activities may seem disparate, but they’re united by a common philosophy.

“I identify as a survivor,” said Myers. “I also identify as a queer, mad, brown femme. It was important for me to support and ally myself with people who look like me, as well as people who are not serviced like myself—making sure those folks are included, and heard, and seen, and put at the centre of all the work I do.”

On April 2, Myers received two awards at Ryerson’s Student Experience Awards event: the Angela Ross Award (recognizing outstanding voluntary contribution to Ryerson’s cultural and/or athletic life) and the Women in Leadership Student Award (recognizing a female student who demonstrates good academic standing, social activism and involvement with student group life at Ryerson). Her activities are not limited to the Ryerson campus: as a member of Toronto’s spoken-word community, she has come to understand how poetry can be a medium to deal with trauma.

Outside of Ryerson, she has organized spoken-word programs about gender-based violence/consent for women and non-binary people at Sketch, external link; and teaches gender, sexuality and consent workshops to students across Ontario with CANVAS Arts Action Programs, external link. “The workshops allow participants to write narratives of violence, and have a year-end show,” she said. “That experience was so fantastic, because I’ve been in the poetry community for so long, and have been a sexual violence support worker, so having the opportunity to marry those two things really gave me a direction for my career. It showed me that there’s room for all of me.”

On campus, some of her most important work has been as co-ordinator of the RSU’s Sexual Assault Survivor Support Line, external link—a free, confidential, peer-to-peer service available to survivors of gender-based violence. “I think it’s a needed resource on campus, especially as a first touchpoint,” she said. “I remember a lot of the calls I got were from people who really wanted to remain anonymous, and were first trying to work through these experiences that they didn’t really have the language for, or weren’t sure if they counted as violence. They really wanted to find someone who would say, ‘I hear you, and that fear you have is not wrong.’”

Through the support line, she has become connected with Toronto’s community of support-line workers, and now volunteers for the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre. The RSU line has also benefitted from a recent referendum levy, allowing for the hiring of a full-time co-ordinator.

“Knowing how often violence goes unnamed and unrecognized and unsupported made it very important for me to do a campaign that was very visible and involved the whole campus so survivors could feel that not only was there me and my office and our support-line volunteers, but also that the whole campus agrees. Ryerson survivors deserve to have as much funding as they need to heal.”

She is also president of Poetic Exchange, external link, Ryerson’s slam poetry club, which returned last weekend from the College Unions Poetry Slam in Philadelphia. They became the first Canadian team to reach the semi-finals (“We’ve been going every year consecutively—every year we place a little bit higher”), and the team took home the Pushing The Art Award.

After graduating this year, Myers hopes to pursue a master’s in social work, and to pursue a career based on her ideas of the therapeutic potential of narrative therapy and spoken-word. Looking back at her time at Ryerson, she is thankful for the support of the Child and Youth Care faculty.

“The people at the faculty have looked out for me so, so much, and made it possible for me to do all of these extracurricular endeavours and community work. They’ve been so understanding with my academics—the times that I’ve struggled with my mental health, they’ve been above-and-beyond supportive of it. I will be so grateful forever.”

The Student Experience Awards is a joint event between the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students (OVPS) and the Student Awards and Scholarship Office, recognizing student leaders for their contributions to advancing the university’s mission. To learn more, visit studentlife.ryerson.ca/awards/. For a video profile of this year's winners, go to vimeo.com/262581273/11b05d6f26, external link.

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