The Engineer and the Activist

This piece was originally published in The Cannon newspaper.

A GPA in endless jeopardy and slogging through yet another eight-hour lab may encompass the bulk of engineering students’ primary grievances, but there is a great deal more to the undergraduate experience than what’s comprised in late night study sessions and past-due problem sets. Ultimately, the most poignant existential crises you’ll face will not stem from failed midterms, but the eternal and primal things writers and poets obsess about: fear, love, death, hope, desire and – of course – sex; in short, the pillars of your identity and experience.

For many, arriving at university represents the first true exposure to a broad and challenging set of values, beliefs and backgrounds different from their own. This can be like a rumspringa of sorts – albeit, an extensive one spanning four or more years. It is an expedition nonetheless that calls for the sort of company and entertainment that can lift one’s spirits during the many tempestuous, possibly compass-less nights on the high seas of student life, and thus, finding a tribe whose values corresponded to one’s own is fundamental to surviving the experience.

While I may have been subconsciously aware of how gender roles and behaviors are codified through systems specific to societies, before coming to university I had never formally encountered the term ‘heteronormative’. The idea became tangible to me in particular a few weeks after F!rosh week when my best friend told me to tone down my enthusiasm for the riot grrrls movement because it made me “seem gay”. I will be honest; I had not expected this level of behavior policing amongst my peers at the university level. It wasn’t long after this that I began to think that maybe those far-off, crazy, man-hating feminists may be on to something while at the same time trying not to get too intimidated by their arsenal of Judith Butler quotes.

In my last year at U of T, I founded LGBTQase (formerly LGBTQAE) with mechanical engineering student Marc Pilon. This stemmed not only from a desire to create a much needed social space, but as well to challenge the established social status quo in an engineering community that seemingly thrived on archaic gender roles and expectations, with often ridiculous and obtuse standards of what constituted masculinity or femininity and ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ behaviors. Personally, I was interested in making engineering a more egalitarian space for people with a variety of gender identities and sexualities, in particular through the involvement of allies.

As an ally myself, I found it necessary to be constantly vigilant about educating myself and challenging a lot of my own fundamental social programming on gender, sex, and relationships. This edification did not stop once I left university and the sphere of queer clubs on campus, but it did a great deal to prepare me for a lifetime of battling the established norms and preconceived notions about sexual minorities, especially in the relatively conservative world of engineering.

The idea of calling oneself any sort of an “activist” is still something to be contended with, if simply because the hegemonic image of a traditional activist looks or acts so little like me and because of my erroneous belief, that as a relatively junior individual cog in the corporate machinery, my personal ideas and beliefs about how the world should be, within and after my lifetime, have little impact on the reality. I am a relatively reserved person; I’ve partaken in few protests, and I don a stiff and stodgy suit every day for work. Yet since entering the workforce full time, I have found myself frequently in conversations about LGBTQ issues with my colleagues and peers. The educational opportunities that arise from these conversations are abundant. I’ve come to realize that it’s not necessary to put my beliefs about how fellow human beings are perceived and treated on the backburner while I work on brownfield mine expansions.

Every time at work or in our communities when we are faced with sexism and homophobia- sometimes subtle, sometimes egregious – we are presented with the opportunity to become effective agents in creating new narratives and deconstructing and ridding ourselves and others of old and outmoded ones. Who else but we engineers are better equipped to tear down the obsolescent systems passed down to us by our progenitors and replace them with newer, more efficient and user-friendly ones?

An engineers, our lives may be replete with formulas and calculations, textbooks and lectures, but there are a myriad number of lessons we learn every day that can’t be found in the standard course syllabus. It would be a shame for these not to travel with us into our professional lives and beyond.

Part of the responsibility of professional engineers is to safeguard the public welfare. As students in engineering, you may find yourself feeling passionate about a number of issues, but not knowing how that relates to your career as an engineer. Finding intersectionality in your experiences is what will create tangible manifestations of your activist spirit, and in effect make your activism part of your set of values as an engineer and beyond.

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