During the Waterloo Region Women’s March this past weekend, you may have recognized a familiar face leading the crowd onstage as MC. Today, we interviewed Sarah Wiley about her experience at the Women’s March, her career as an active feminist, and where she is going in the future.
Sarah Wiley, an Arts student in her final term with the University of Waterloo, has been an active student on campus; her previous positions include being co-coordinator of the Women’s Centre, volunteering with HeForShe, and working as the Vice President Education with the Federation of Students (Feds).
She also served as a board member on the student-run provincial lobby organization, Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), where she co-wrote the 2016 Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Policy Paper and through her lobbying efforts moved the Government of Ontario to adopt the suggested changes in a new bill. As a result of this, in 2017 Sarah was the inaugural recipient of the provincial Draw-The-Line Post-Secondary Sexual Violence Prevention Award from the Ministry of the Status of Women and White Ribbon.
When asked about the recognition she received for her work she instead spotlighted the movement she is a part of, “It’s amazing, but I think the most important thing is focusing on is the movement. It’s great to see social justice movements getting so much attention in the media.”
“It’s amazing to see the momentum,” her passion is evident as she continues, “I think we are at a pivotal moment in herstory. Sexual violence, misogyny and consent are topics that no one was talking about but now they’ve gone mainstream, which is incredible.
"I also think though that it is important to look at who is part of those headlines and who is not. White, powerful, cisgender women aren’t the only ones who deserve justice. There are millions of stories that will never make the news. It is important that we remember that women with disabilities, Indigenous women, transgender women, black women and poor women are all at an even higher risk of violence. So why aren’t we talking about their experiences more?"
I hope the next step is for the mainstream movement is to become more intersectional and to highlight these experiences, rather than the experiences of the most privileged.
Sarah’s powerful words are befitting of an MC. The role itself was an opportunity that arose from her presence in the community as a local activist.
“I was very moved by the sense of unity and empowerment at the march. There is such an incredible community of feminists in KW and seeing everyone coming together to make the event happen was amazing. There were people from all different backgrounds, of all different ages and with different stories.”
When asked if there was a particular moment of the Women’s March that stood out for her, she says, “There were a few times when I was on-stage leading chants and it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen to have 500 people chanting ’this is what a feminist looks like.’ It was so powerful to know that we were all there participating in something so much larger than any one of us as individuals.”
In spite of her numerous leadership roles within the community, Sarah explains that it was a learned skill, “It is definitely not something that came naturally to me at first. I have struggled with self-esteem and mental illness and like many young girls, I also didn't see myself as a leader. It has taken me a lot of work to gain confidence in leadership roles.”
Sarah credits her experience at the Women’s Centre with helping her develop those leadership skills, as well as “growing in my feminism and finding my voice as an activist.”
While she was always aware of inequality, it was with the Women’s Centre that she was inspired to become an activist, “I remember as a small child being really confused and frustrated by the fact that my male cousins were allowed to do things that I wasn’t as a girl. I didn’t really get into social justice activism until university though. After experiencing sexual assault I found a community of feminists at UWaterloo who supported me and validated me at the Women’s Centre. That was when I really became interested in structures of privilege and oppression and realized that there was still so much work left to do.”
So what work is next for Sarah Wiley after she leaves the University? “I am applying to graduate programs related to social justice. I hope to have a career in social justice advocacy, like doing lobbying and policy work for anti-oppression organizations.”
Her parting message reflects her path; of her work she had this to say: “It is critical to not only do this work when it is trending, but we must do it every day.
In this movement for equality, we can’t leave anyone behind. We need to center our activism around those who are most marginalized like racialized women, Indigenous women, trans women, and women with disabilities. If it’s not intersectional, it’s not feminism.”