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Last fall, I interviewed The PEARS Project co-direc- tors about their advocacy work and the ways in which PEARS fosters hope and resilience in the student community. Emma Biaminte (she/her) is an under- graduate double-major in diaspora and transnation- al studies and environmental ethics, with a minor in critical equity and solidarity. Jay Prentice (they/them) is an undergraduate student pursuing critical studies in criminology, queer solidarity, and sexual diversity.

Q: How would you introduce PEARS?
Emma: PEARS stands for Prevention Empow-

erment Advocacy Response for Survivors.

Jay: My elevator pitch for PEARS is that we’re an anti gender violence and anti sexual violence project on cam- pus. We are survivor-led and student-run, and I work from a grassroots, anti-colonial feminist framework to support survivors and folks on campus who need sup- port with the goal of ending gender-based violence. We do everything from peer support to policy advocacy, we run events regularly and do community outreach.

Q: Can you tell me about your roles in the PEARS project, and how PEARS is organized?

Emma: [Jay and I are co-directors, and we have differ- ent areas of expertise.] We decided to add a co-director position this year because [it is quite a big role and a lot of work]. We oversee a branch at every college within the Faculty of Arts and Science, an engineering branch, a graduate student branch, which we initiated this year, and branches on the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses. These [little branches] create a more accessi- ble community for people to become involved in. It can be a lot less intimidating when it’s someone from your college. As the executive branch we aren’t in charge of thesebranches;wehelp[them],buttheyhavetheirown

government. We focus on wider U of T administrative issues, providing support to anyone who looks for it, and we work with other student unions. We are also the go-to for conflict resolution between the branches.

Jay: We also started a board of directors this year, which has a representative from each of our branches and over- sees the executive branch. So it is a collaborative instead of top-down approach. We use an anti-colonial framework where we don’t prioritize hierarchies or power structures.

Q: What motivated you to start a chapter of PEARS for graduate students? Have you noticed any unique chal- lenges we face compared to undergrads?

Emma: From [the time when] PEARS became a thing, we have [always] been moving on to different branch- es and colleges. [W]e had some graduate students reaching out to us, and we realized they have very different needs compared to the undergraduate pop- ulation on campus, so we wanted to create a branch for anyone in the School of Graduate Studies, profes- sional programs, etc. For example, there is a very dif- ferent relationship between students and professors in graduate school, a different nature of academics which is more career-focused, and we wanted to pro- vide more specific resources, rather than having blan- ket support that doesn’t fit the needs of specific people.

Jay: One of the downsides of a more informal rela- tionship is that professors and researchers hold the ability to basically destroy a student’s career. Stu- dents need professional references and recommen- dations, so if they were to come forward about those things, their life’s work could all be taken away just because of these people having so much power.

Emma: And while the university policy is supposed to prevent that through anti-retribution clauses, we know from survivors’ experiences that is not the case. It can be really difficult to get that kind of sup- port... Giving these people consequences is necessary and important, but the university is reluctant to do so because it is difficult to replace people function- ing at this high academic level, and they use exper- tise in niche topics as an excuse for bad behaviour.

Jay: Last year, a major focus was the Robert Reisz cam- paign. He is a professor at U of T who has been found guilty of multiple things by the administration, in- cluding academic bullying, sexual harassment, and racial harassment. The survivors came forward with a record of everything that he put them through. Al- though U of T agreed that this constitutes harass- ment and inappropriate behaviour from a professor, he was not fired. He continues to run his lab, which has many graduate students. After running that cam- paign, we knew that there were certain experiences that we as undergraduates didn’t have, so we want- ed to include a grad branch to speak to that. We were helped a lot by people who already know these systems.

Q: Last year, PEARS released a statement responding to the University of Toronto’s sexual violence policy. Have you noticed any changes based on your rec- ommendations? Is there anything that we as students can do to mitigate issues, includ- ing fighting against institutional delays in investigations?

Emma: Last year we released a document called “Too Little, Too Late” in response to the university’s legally mandated three year review of the sexual violence poli- cy. [...] The review was [done internally,] which was one of our issues: [...] there is a risk of bias involved. [...] The final document] removed a recommendation about creating more clearly defined pro- cesses and timelines for cases. [...] PEARS and other groups spoke numerous times during consultation meetings. While a number of recommendations improved the university’s policy, they did not [pro- vide sufficient support] to the students who needed them, and some were in fact harmful. For example, a new change to the policy states that survivors have to report

their case to the Sexual Violence centre and then again to the Office of High Safety and Risk, so now the survi- vor is forced to repeat their story multiple times, which can be re-traumatizing. (...) We have continued to de- mand a new review of the policy, but those in charge are polite but extremely dismissive, and no changes are being made. On January 1st 2023, the new sexual vio- lence policy came into effect but it just isn’t enough. It is a weak document from a strong institution, and we face a lot of academic red tape in attempting to improve it.

Jay: U of T talks about how it is one of the best academ- ic institutions in the world, and we frequently see folks reaching out to us in disbelief about how weak it is. How is U of T not going to have those avenues in place in or- der to keep their students safe if they are so important to them? (...) In terms of how students can advocate, it is often by having conversations and making noise. U of T is a [prestigious] institution; the last thing the admin- istration wants is noise. When these discussions come up, it can be as simple as sending an email about your concerns. Email institutions, your student unions[...] just generally get in touch with the people who make these decisions, and do so many times. When they get a flood of emails, when we go to the press, when everyone is talking about issues, they can’t ignore them. It can be really difficult to start these conversations, because peo- ple’s research can be on the line, but if everybody is talking, it makes it harder for any one person to face repercussions.

Emma: It is difficult because it’s a lot of labor on the stu- dents, but the only tool in our arsenal is using our voice.

Q: Your Instagram account states that students who participate in peer support programs, while not certified or psychiatric professionals, receive “trauma-informed training”. What does this training entail, and is it possi- ble for people outside PEARS to access it?

Jay: [...] None of us are mental health professionals, we are peer supporters. Many of us are also survivors and have gone through the experiences that people tell us about, so we come with a lens of understanding and being able to empathetically support people. The trau- ma-informed training comes from Viktória Bell, the founder of the Dandelion Initiative, an gender-based violence prevention organization that closed down last year due to lack of funding. We had Viktória and our founder Micah Kalisch [...] come and do train- ings in the past. We do a two hour session, where we go through the principles of trauma-informed work, how to support survivors at U of T, [and discuss some things folks have learned from doing this kind of work. Micah themselves have been supporting survivors at U of T for four or five years.] We also make it clear that no one has to provide peer support at PEARS, it is something that folks choose to engage with.

Emma: We also have additional trainings. For example, identify/assist/refer is a module about how to identify a mental health crisis and, as a non-mental health pro- fessional, refer students to the proper ways to get help. This resource is free for all students, and I highly rec- ommend it. Another part of peer support is knowing the university systems. It can be confusing, and you might need someone to walk you through the steps of making a report, or tell you how to use your health insurance to access mental health resources. We re- fer people to other resources as required; we definite- ly don’t want to overstep, and we want people to get access to whatever resource will support them best.

Jay: Also, we are not long-term counselors. We are just a listening ear, someone to help val- idate experiences, empathize with them, and refer students to professional resources.Q: The theme of Elemental’s issue this year is hope and resilience. What does resilience mean to you and how does PEARS foster it?

Emma: This work can be difficult. It’s very slow, and hard to advocate for changes. But knowing there are people whose lives have been impacted by what we do is incredible. We face a lot of barriers but we also get a lot of beautiful messages about how something we’ve done changed someone’s experience or helped them access a resource. [Having these conversations over and over with new people makes me hopeful that change is going to occur.] Change isn’t just a dream in the future, it’s something that will happen every day.

Jay: I would add that one of the letters in our acronym stands for empowerment. We want not only to support survivors, but make them feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. A lot of us are survivors who know what it’s like to go through these things and also feel the long-term effects of trauma. It can be really difficult and isolating, and to continue work and school while trying to navigate trauma can be incredibly difficult. [...] We try to empower survivors to be able to handle all this and make sure they have other people to lean on. There’s a particular graphic I like to post on the PEARS account sometimes of someone curled up on the floor with the caption “this is what resilience looks like,” because that is what resilience looks like. It looks like crying your eyes out and ranting to a friend, and that’s okay. It can be messy and it can be whatever you need from it.

Q: How do you personally take care of yourselves and your mental health amidst all of the challenges, difficult conversations and support that PEARS gives to other people?

Emma: [It] is something we prioritize in our organiza- tion, even in our training. You cannot support someone if you are not supported. While this work is difficult, be- ing in PEARS helps me. It’s a beautiful community, and we do fun events that are nice and relaxing, like crafting nights. We also recognize and accommodate peoples’ needs. Sometimes we won’t make a deadline and that’s okay. Sometimes you need to sit in bed all day and not an- swer emails. PEARS has become a big community, where there is often someone willing to do the work instead.

Jay: One of the questions we ask in interviews is how people plan to care for themselves. Being a part of PEARS is helpful for me because I intend to go down this path as a career. [I am passionate about it,] and connecting with other people who are also passionate helps fulfill me and inspires me. Sometimes I sit in bed and think “wow, all of this sucks.” [Sometimes it’s a lot to deal with and talking with friends, family, and going to therapy is necessary.] The key is just leaning on ev- eryone around you while trying to also support them.


After speaking to Jay and Emma, I have become even more convinced of the necessity of organizations like PEARS at the University of Toronto. While PEARS does important work in connecting those who have recent- ly experienced assault to resources to help them, the community building they engage in is essential to foster hope in a group of people who struggle with it more than most. Jay and Emma’s words are a testament to the resil- ience not only of its members, but of the students who come to them for support, and PEARS’ graduate student branch is a valuable resource for anyone who is in need.

Edited by Rameez Khera