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Sumu Sathi Is Spearheading Change And Breaking Glass Ceilings As A Union Leader, Anti-Racism Facilitator And Public Servant
"As a daughter of a refugee who saw her parents start their life in Canada in their 50s, I didn’t inherit generational wealth or privilege. My first language is Tamil. My life was a daily struggle challenging oppressive cultural practices, seeking identity and fighting racism."
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host
Canada
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Sumu Sathi is a union leader (Chair at CUPE905) representing 3,700 public servants, an anti-racism facilitator, and the co-founder of BIPOC Collective Human Rights Committee with CUPE905. Sumu's experience includes 15+ years in community leadership and media. She has a B.Sc from the University of Toronto and in the final year of BSW at the University of Manitoba. Her community work has been featured in publications like Toronto Star, Toronto.com, NOW Toronto and SAPNA Toronto. In 2017, she was chosen to be part of post-war socioeconomic development work in Sri Lanka as a Leadership facilitator.  She also launched Ms. Brown Plus, a body-positive movement where we promote body confidence and showcase women breaking glass ceilings.

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Congrats on being the first women & person of colour to take a chair position in the CUPE905 Union! What made you decide to take on this role?

To be honest, I didn’t plan this. It was more like my members chose me and I accepted because it was the right thing to do. Activism has always been part of my identity as an Eelam Tamil Canadian. During my days in university, I was the President of Tamil Students Association at University of Toronto and was heavily involved in advocacy for our people in 2009. After entering the social work field and decided to do my advanced degree in Social Work, I realized that social justice is very intertwined with my profession. Labour movements have become homes for many activists who are fighting for systemic change and let’s say that I found my people. Fighting for human rights was aligned with fighting for safe and fair working conditions. I feel that this was the next chapter that was meant to open as part of my purpose towards advocating for human rights. York Region Unit – CUPE905 went from being an organization with an executive group that was predominantly white men to one now that has a majority of women including 4 racialized women.  History was made and I am honoured to have witnessed it. 

What is your vision with you in this role?

I entered the union space because there was a lack of representation for racialized people and women. Then I realized that it wasn’t welcoming to everyone from equity-seeking communities. My anti-racism work which involves challenging white supremacy and dismantling colonial systems will continue as I build a strong union for my members. Part of my vision is for us to be a progressive and inclusive union where all members feel safe and protected. 

I am a leader of a team of 9 labour execs who oversee the following units – Community & Social Services, Paramedic Services, Transportation & Environment, Long-Term Care, Public Health and Corporate, Courts & Finance. Approximately 3500 public servants come under this unit and continue to provide frontline services during the pandemic.  My vision includes focusing on business continuity, building community partnerships and member engagement to build a strong union. I believe in sharing the power and identifying potential leaders to continue the fight. 

How did your past roles as a media and television host/producer play a part in the work you do now?

My past work as a television producer and host built my skills to lead and engage in meaningful discussions  with a vast spectrum of people. My skills ensure that I can create space for others to share their own narratives, giving voice to their realities many of which have not been heard. I recently moderated a panel for Women’s Month to highlight the work of female leaders in the labour movement - something that is not spoken of often enough.  As a South Asian woman in a male dominated media world, my journey was filled with horrendous barriers and obstacles that in themselves can make for an interesting movie. I learnt from each instance, grew a thick skin and learnt to assess situations critically and strategically. It also pushed me to be bold and blunt, building my confidence to call out oppression fearlessly. The same people who criticized me for being outspoken now choose to congratulate me.  This is evidence that women need to roar and support each other without fear. 

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What are some of the goals that you would like to accomplish in the next few years, would feel like a big win for you?

My heart and soul is filled with many creative projects and social justice campaigns. I have directed, produced and hosted over 100 videos and am currently working on a documentary that will highlight the resilience of Eelam Tamil women. I am hoping to complete that project in the near future. I am also completing a postgraduate degree in Social Work with University of Manitoba. I do see myself always evolving as a creative, pushing myself creatively, to tell untold stories from within marginalized communities. 

What is a challenge you overcame these past few years that taught you something significant to help you get to where you are now?

As someone who was always ambitious, I started looking for role models at a young age and frustratingly found none. Without guidance, I often had to settle for information, resources and expertise positioned by individuals who I truly did not resonate with. I wasted several thousands of dollars on motivational books, on personal branding content, dreaming of achieving overnight success based on a skewed perspective presented to me from a place of inherent privilege. I realized that my race, gender and ethnicity played key roles in my own journey to success. As a daughter of a refugee who saw her parents start their life in Canada in their 50s, I didn’t inherit generational wealth or privilege. My first language is Tamil. My life was a daily struggle challenging oppressive cultural practices, seeking identity and fighting racism. How can I achieve success the way a white man does where he hasn’t faced racism, sexism or discrimination like I have? After facing many failures and disappointment, I had to look for role models and mentors who have walked a similar path like mine.  This was a huge eye opener for me and a very hard pill to swallow, something that required great introspection and self awareness. I am very mindful of whose content I read, watch and listen to now - my tolerance for entitled mediocrity is low. 

What do you aspire to do next and what are your interests? 

I have a deep love for theater, drama, dancing and movies. I enjoyed writing poems and stories as a youth, but my parents didn’t see a future for me in these creative industries. They arrived in this country with the hopes of their children finding stable careers so we don’t face the hardships they faced. Even though I understood their dreams, a part of me always felt sad that I couldn’t pursue a career in the creative industry. After entering social work, I see how I can tell stories that create awareness around social justice issues. I am currently working on a creative project that is extremely close to my heart and identity. This has been in the works for almost 4 years and I can’t wait to share it with the world soon.  

Who is one person from the global Tamil community and one person that isn’t Tamil that you admire and why?

Mindy Kaling for sure because I resonate with her in so many levels. I watch all her shows and movies because I share her sarcastic sense of humour.  Her love for media did not stop with just acting and she broke barriers to become a director and producer. I love the fact that she fearlessly chose Tamil Canadian talent, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan for her projects, showing that inclusive casting can be done, creating spaces for racialized women.  As someone who was involved in media work and plus size modeling, I can appreciate the battles Mindy would have fought behind the scenes to get where she is today.  And I like the fact that she doesn’t give in to societal pressure to reveal her personal life to people.  

A non-Tamil person I admire is Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, New York Congress representative.  My journey in the labour movement is very similar to hers. I decided to run against a white man who was in this position for over 20 years and my fight was born out of a solidarity movement run by marginalized groups and allies. My win was celebrated by women, racialized people, frontline workers, immigrants, refugees, South Asians and Eelam Tamils. I watched AOC’s documentary ‘Knock Down the House’, and I see the similarities that my members brought to my attention, a commonality that is universal amongst women of colour looking to create change.  

What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you? 

The books I read are social justice books and nowadays mainly text books. I must say one of the books that has had an impact on me is "Social Welfare in Canada" by Steven Hick.  This book dissects different social welfare programs and policies in Canada and allowed me to think critically about what true systemic changes are required here in our true north, strong and free. It also saddened me to read how our  current policies are deeply rooted in white supremacy and we have for years not questioned or challenged them. As an activist and advocate for racial justice, this book is a vital tool for me to draw examples from to challenge people to embrace alternatives and options free of colonial beliefs. 

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)? 

I love mutton Kothu Roti with extra gravy. Spice level – hot! 

What does Tamil culture mean to you?

What Tamil culture means to me has evolved over the past several years. There was a time where I didn’t want anything to do with Tamil culture because of the oppressive practices that impacted me as a Tamil girl.  As my confidence and fearlessness grew and as I educated myself on social issues, I embraced my culture and challenged the very practices that I had previously found discriminating. I am now more compassionate towards my community, better understanding how colonization and patriarchy plays a role in the way we interact with each other.  Tamil culture is tied to my identity and as I become more comfortable with my identity, I continue to appreciate all it’s different facets. And this has meant either speaking Tamil in a mainstream event or wearing a saree to a work or sharing the stories of my people with others as often as possible.  

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