A mentorship program for young women run by the City of Toronto is offering two U of T Scarborough students an inside look at the inner workings of city government.
Yasmin Rajabi and Hazelmae Valenzuela are among ten young women taking part in the City of Toronto’s Protégé Program – a mentorship that pairs women between the ages of 18 and 24 with female councillors and staff.
The program aims to encourage protégés to share their experiences with others and hopefully consider one day running for political office.
The Protégé Program was created after a 2005 nation-wide call by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) to address unequal representation of women in municipal government. Since then, the City of Toronto has offered the program six times.
For six months the mentees – or protégés – shadow an elected official, attend council sessions, network with peers and city staff and take part in constituency work.
Rajabi’s mentors are Ward 32 Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, and Director of Service System Planning & Integrity Mary-Ann Bedard. What she finds most exciting is familiarizing herself with constituency work through answering phone calls and conducting research. It’s all important work for a municipal government, which is the level of representation that has always interested Rajabi the most.
“In municipal politics you actually see more immediate change happen, and because it’s local it has a much larger impact on the people around you,” she says.
Before Rajabi started the Protégé Program, she was mainly interested in transit, having done a lot of transit advocacy around the Eglinton East LRT. Since starting at City Hall, her interests have only expanded.
“Since I’ve been paired with Director Mary-Ann, I’ve been learning a lot more about the current city shelter crisis, homelessness issues, and the Toronto Community Housing Corporation(TCHC),” says Rajabi, who grew up in TCHC and is interested in the city’s perspectives on the issues.
Valenzuela, a fourth-year public policy and city studies student, works with Ward 27 Councillor Wong-Tam and Chief Corporate Officer Josie Scioli. Valenzuela is interested in accessibility and awareness around disabilities, so she was especially excited to learn that she was working with Councillor Wong-Tam and Scioli.
“Councillor Wong-Tam embodies a lot of the things that I value and want to do in the future – being herself, a visible minority, speaking about LGBTQ issues, including more women in politics and her strong beliefs in accessibility and creating real awareness around disability,” she says.
A requirement for applying to the extremely competitive protégé program is leadership and extracurricular work, two traits that are abundant in Valenzuela and Rajabi.
Valenzuela first interacted with her future councillor mentor through volunteer work with CivicSpark, an organization dedicated to empowering city builders through annual public policy case competitions.
For Rajabi, starting in 2015 she was part of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union – first as Vice-President External, and then as Vice-President Operation and Chief Financial Officer. She also founded a non-profit in 2017 called Young Women’s Leadership Network – an organization that’s aim is to build the leadership capacity of young women and girls to engage in politics and civic engagement. Making sure young women are equipped with the right skills and networks is “definitely my bread and butter,” she says.
What stands out for McMahon about working with Rajabi is her energy and professionalism.
“It’s always great to have youth in our office – they bring a different perspective and insight,” she says.
Wong-Tam says Valenzuela is a remarkable young woman who also brings incredible passion to the issues that matter in downtown neighbourhoods. “Myself and my staff are excited to be working together and happy to have her on our team,” she says.
Regardless of whether they run for municipal office in the future, the program has already made a lasting impact in the lives of these young women.
“This mentorship was a door for someone like me, who was a really shy kid in high school and wasn’t especially vocal about issues,” says Valenzuela. “This kind of opportunity made me more vocal about taking action.”
For Rajabi, who will graduate this spring, working full-time at City Hall isn’t in her immediate future, but the Protégé Program is helping her determine how she wants to go about changing the city.
“To receive mentorship from two amazing women who are so accomplished in their careers is definitely a learning opportunity that will help make that path clearer,” she says.