McMaster's first black woman student president opens up about Hamilton

Meet Shiobhan Stewart, McMaster's first black women to become student union president in 132 years.
Siobhan Stewart, 22, is the president of the McMaster Student Union. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Siobhan Stewart is a veteran of community work in Hamilton.

She has tutored young kids at the Globe in downtown Hamilton, helped new immigrants improve their English, and is writing a review on the Good Shepherd Notre Dame House Meal Program for a social research project — all the while spending quality time with the organization’s street-involved youth.

The fifth-year McMaster anthropology student is also the first Black female president of the university's Students Union (MSU). The first since it was established in 1890. She turned 22 in late July.

During a two-and-a-half hour interview, her brown eyes twinkled behind her glasses as she discussed her hopes, her fears, her reflections, her passions, her failures, her successes, and her inspirations. She reflected on the importance of having mentors such as Dr. Gary Warner (formerly the Director of the Arts and Sciences Program at McMaster) who helped her find her way in Hamilton in both her capacity as a student and as a citizen, and why she ultimately deems the Steel City to be a "good place to lay down roots".

In her soothing, low voice, she talked about what her volunteer experience in Hamilton has taught her, how her connections have prepared her, and what she believes McMaster and Hamilton can accomplish together.

Q: Tell me about yourself. Where were you born and what was it like growing up?

A: I was born in Toronto, but when I was four, I moved to Pickering with my family. I grew up in Pickering and honestly, I had a great childhood. I remember a lot of barbeques and seeing friends and extended family members. It’s been hard to do that the past couple of years because I have invested so much of my time here.

But you can’t have it all — when you put all of you energy into one thing. I think a lot of the people and students can identify with that. For example, Hamilton’s known for a lot of family-owned and family-started businesses. When somebody starts something, you put a lot of energy into that; for me, being involved has always been a part of who I am. I don’t want to say I am establishing myself here, but finding my way is a better way to say it.

Q: Do you consider "finding your way" as an influence?

A: Yeah. Finding my way was a huge influence for me. There aren’t a lot of women in leadership positions, and there aren’t a lot of women of colour [in those positions]. When I was in high school, there was a Black female president on student council. I looked to her as a big sister and she really inspired me and we still keep in touch. 

Stewart was the MC for a fire safety event at McMaster campus Wednesday. (Adam Carter/CBC)

When I was in grade nine, I saw her and decided I want to be like her, and eventually in grade 12, I ran for student council president. I didn’t win — I lost by 40 votes. Part of the reason why I am successful is because for every success [I] have, there were two failures. You know what I mean?

I want to share that because people need to have realistic expectations of themselves and a part of being successful is also failing, and not being successful — because you appreciate it more when you are. You approach things differently, you don’t approach things with a sense of entitlement but with a sense of being appreciative.

Q:  Can you tell me about the community work you did?

A: Yes. I volunteered with SISO for about a year and a half on MacNab Street. I used to volunteer at the Globe (SISO’s community centre) and work with new immigrants to help improve their ESL. We would meet once a week and just talk in English.

I remember a particular young woman from Sudan … I think it was helpful for her because it’s hard to come to a new place and not… I guess I identify strongly with coming to a new place and not knowing where your place is. I loved meeting and talking with [them] and not making [them] feel self-conscious for not speaking English perfectly. And I really loved that, SISO exposed me to downtown Hamilton in that way.

Q: Do you look at McMaster as being the first step, that link for students to become integrated in Hamilton? What do you think of the relationship between McMaster and Hamilton?

A: There are a lot of opportunities in Hamilton and you have to be open to them. I looked for a place that would take me or that I would feel included in because they needed a hand. I loved it because I felt needed there and that my contribution was doing something. And that’s the thing, my experiences are different in that they’re my experiences.

I don’t think there’s a shortage of attempts to try to get students to go into the city (and volunteer) because there are a lot of volunteer fairs, MACServe learning trips and experiential education. But I do think that to truly have the full McMaster experience, you have to get involved or participate in the Hamilton community as well.

I think you’re missing something if you’re not — even if it just means going out there to find your favourite coffee shop, or visiting a waterfall, or going to Bayfront to watch a dragon boat race. There are so many things to do, to experience and to explore. I did the MACServe Hamilton trip in my third year which was focused on youth poverty.

For the event, firefighters lit a makeshift room on the campus grounds ablaze to show just how quickly a dorm room can be engulfed in flames. (Adam Carter/CBC)

So I visited a lot of non-profit organizations within Hamilton and I just really have a heart for social services. I think it’s great that Hamilton provides the social support network that it does to members of the community. There are always ways things can improve, but we do a better job than some cities.

Hundreds of students have been on these trips over the past couple of years. They have MAC Day of Service where students volunteer for a day in the city during September doing what the city asks them to do — this is stuff that the average Hamiltonian doesn’t know is going on but I do think that students care about Hamilton.

Sometimes, they don’t know enough about it but it’s also a unique population to work with because there are so many demands for our time. And I’m not saying that the average Hamiltonian doesn’t have demands on their time, but people are here for four years and some students are able to break free of that but some do not. If given the right opportunity, the right venue, and the right supports, there is something for everyone in Hamilton to love and explore.

McMaster is not separate from Hamilton. McMaster is in Hamilton. And that’s a key thing to think about. We really shouldn’t look of ourselves as just a bubble, when there are so many amazing connections to be made. For example, the United Nations University, Institute for Water is here and there is a lot of cross-research that happens between places like that and places within the city such as the Social Research Council of Hamilton or the YWCA. There are so many times Mac is in the community and the community is on campus.

Q: It kind of just skips over doesn’t it?

A: Yeah! People don’t think of it that way and they think of it as separate. But I don’t look at it as separate. When you think about the student clubs established on campus such as Kids Help Phone, Community Volunteer Action, Big Brothers and Big Sisters that recruit students to volunteer, we are there.

I should say this though because he is another huge influence for me, my mentor’s name is Gary Warner and he’s a huge person in Hamilton. He’s involved with the Hamilton Community Foundation, an award recipient for the Order of Canada and the Queen’s Jubilee medal.

He would take me to award ceremonies, not for him but for youth within the community every year for the three out of the four years I have been at Mac. I went to the John C. Holland Awards, a very Hamilton-focused thing for Black youth and youth of colour to apply for scholarships and go to school. And it’s awesome to see stuff like this that happens in Hamilton.

Q: What do you think makes students want to be part of the community?

A: When they know all the things that make it awesome, and also when they’re able to see themselves there. I found something that I was interested in that kept drawing me back — like my volunteering at SISO. It was unintentional, I found something that I liked and I just wanted to be there.

At the same time, there is still the overarching thing we have to think about: McMaster isn’t separate from Hamilton! It’s easy to get that mentality if you never leave campus and never go that far. It takes people different times to feel connected to a community.

And I think everybody, including students of their own individual volition can do more. I think the city can do more and the average Hamiltonian can do more. It’s everyone’s responsibility, not just students, to make everyone feel a part of the community they’re in.

Q: You emphasized how Mac isn’t separate from Hamilton but it’s hard to get past that mentality. How should the McMaster-Hamilton relationship change?

A: There are a lot of great outreach things that we already do and do a good job at. I think where things can be improved … everybody who’s in Hamilton needs to do their part to learn about the city, to learn about each other, and to learn about people. I don’t like it when people make assumptions about students, what students do, who they are and what they want. Don’t stereotype and homogenize students as a body, there are a lot of people with a lot of interests.

Q: Can you tell me about your other engagements in the city, outside of the Mac bubble?

A: I volunteer with a number of different of organizations at different capacities. I’ve been to Living Rock and Good Shepherd Notre Dame House — that was one of my research projects for class.

Q: What was your research project about?

A: It’s not finished but it’s about the Good Shepherd Notre Dame House, on the meal program. About reviewing the meal program and engaging with the youth. I go mostly for the dinners because I can’t make it there for lunches.

Q: Can you tell me about your time there?

A: I’m getting a credit for doing this. But it’s awesome. They’ve done a review with the staff and now I’m asking the youth about what they think of the program. And it will be submitted in a report.

One thing just led to another — I got involved with that volunteering opportunity at SISO, and with the Ronald McDonald House, and then one year I got a summer internship with the Social Planning Research Council with the city (and that’s how I know about a lot of the cool things at SPRC) — I mean, there are a lot of students who don’t necessarily get involved with as much on campus and get involved a lot with the city. It’s very hard to be involved with both.

Q: Would you say your experiences in the community helped you become more confident in stepping into the MSU?

A: I think I was always confident to explore. It was just what opportunities worked out when. I ran for First-Year Council and didn’t get it — but I didn’t put up posters or make speeches, I couldn’t really focus on it because my first year was hard. I ran for Student Board of Governors and came in second.

I ran for University Planning Council and was successful. It’s a try, try, try again mentality. I was always willing to run in things and put myself out there. I did get involved with a club on a campus and the Inter-Residence Council, but initially where I really felt needed and I was actually making a contribution, was definitely in the community. And those are the places that said "we want you" and that’s what made me jump because I was that type of person who was hungry to be part of something.

Q: It almost sounds as though you’re not just here for something to do, but that you want to do something.

A: I just wanted to get involved, and who will take me? You know what I mean? Who wants to teach me? I heard about this opportunity, and said "sure", and ran with it. SISO and Ronald McDonald House happened in my first and second year at Mac and it made me really happy.

I remember getting that email from Ronald McDonald House saying yes. And I went, "really"? Sometimes it’s tough to get into something on campus — resident reps or a Maroon [spirit] rep. Some of the things in the community were the first to say "yes", and gave me a shot. And that’s what made me really go out for it.

Q: And that’s obviously a very big part of why you think the McMaster-Hamilton relationship should change — the community engagement. 

A: I think things are changing and I’m really confident in the direction the university is going. There should be an emphasis on the community piece and there are a lot of people thinking about that in a more intimate and mindful way. It’s tough in first year and I’m a weird anomaly — that’s not the average person. 

 It’s honestly on a per-person basis. You’re never going to catch all the fish in the ocean in the net, but it’s about catching something and that’s really important for students. You’re never going to get every student interested because everybody is really different. But I think within the community, just making sure to promote the things about being involved because students don’t feel comfortable until their third or fourth year because they’re so overwhelmed in first and second.

You can’t just tell new students, "Oh by the way, you should also check out East Hamilton and this and that" when they don’t even know where their classes are or know how to ride the bus.

Q: Do you think it would be helpful to have community organizations to come onto campus during days like these — summer orientation days and let them know to "check us out" when they’re living here full-time in September?

A: I will say this. There’s going to be an Open Streets concept here on campus, where a lot of community organizations will be here happening on September 23. This is an example of creating more space for Hamilton to be on campus. You don’t want to overwhelm people but this is that perfect balance of reaching out to them and plugging them in.

Q: Can you tell me something you hope to see in the future, maybe not necessarily in your year, but later on?

A: It’s not something I hope to see; I know I will see more things happening at the grassroots level. It would even be cool to have the [course] material to have a Hamilton focus, as well as the world focus. That will help people connect.

Hundreds of McMaster students turned out for the event. (Adam Carter/CBC)

If you’re doing something science-related, and I know this because I learned about this in an ecology course and it made me care: the harbour and Randle Reef, a Hamilton example, a live example that I can go to. I’m glad my prof[essor] included that. I love seeing Hamilton being incorporated in my education, being given a local example.

I took an Anthropology class on special topics on local food and local farming, and the challenges surrounding Hamilton eating local. And it is stuff like that, that should be part of our education to learn about the city and this shouldn’t be just the university’s responsibility. It should also be the city’s.

We can use examples from the city to [enrich our education]. I’ve seen it Peace Studies, Anthropology, Indigenous Studies, Science courses, I’ve taken a lot of courses, but I see room for more of it.

Q: That’s a thought, because why shouldn’t we be able to learn from where we live? Especially at this age. You talked about how running for president is something precious at this time in your life. You’ll probably have tons to say about this, but does youth have a leadership role in the world?

A: Definitely. I think it would be interesting to see how 5-year-olds would run the country. I don’t mean that they are going to draft a budget. Children are able to see people as people and as a young person, you still have some of that. You can see what’s wrong in the world and have the passion to change it.

There’s so much need to listen to that voice, the voice of young people. I think of young kids because my mom’s in early childhood education. I’m talking about how children are taught in daycare — how they share, how they express good values.

They would explore and have that curiosity and want to learn about everything and not feel constrained. I’m not saying that university students are like 5-year-olds, I’m saying youth and young adults have a very fresh perspective. Young adults have a place, because they have a voice. There are some amazing youth who have done amazing things within the city.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: Well, there are so many people volunteering and doing cool things on youth council. Youth are very visible, they’re everywhere! They have something to say, they want to contribute.

Q: You’ve worked with a lot of people your age, at least under the age of 30. How do you feel about helping foster a leadership role with people you have worked with at SISO and the Globe?

A: I think everybody has the capacity to be a leader. I like to inspire people and a lot of people push me to want to inspire people because they inspire me. It goes both ways, and it goes around and around. A big part of why I am passionate about immigrants and refugees push me to want to do an independent study on that and learn more about the immigrant/refugee system in Canada.

I want to pursue that for my Masters degree. I really care about those issues and a lot of that is fostered by being able to work with newcomers.

Like my mom who came here when she was 6 and my dad who came here when he was 15. I was born here, so I don’t know a lot personally about coming from a different place. But I think this country sustains itself on immigration and the experiences of immigrants are powerful. Canada has a history of immigration.

Q: You identify yourself as a woman of colour. In what way does being a Jamaican mean (to you)?

A: I don’t consider myself Jamaican. I’m Canadian. I have Jamaican ancestry and I appreciate certain things about the Jamaican culture — I’ll eat ox tail just like the next person. I love Jamaican food, I love reggae, coming together and having barbeques. I identify with being Canadian because this is where I was born. I don’t like people attaching labels to me because I am a Black woman.

There are white Jamaicans too. If someone was a white woman here, whose parents were also Jamaicans, people would leave it as I’m just Canadian. Nobody would push saying I am a Jamaican Canadian. That’s tied to a more racialised issue in other places. That’s just my opinion. Some people will say I’m Jamaican Canadian — it’s not universal.

Q: But you do talk about how it is difficult to be a woman of colour and even more so to be a woman of colour in a position of power.

A: I think there are different challenges that different groups face — for women in general, for people with different abilities, for people with different sexual orientation, or for people who are transgender — where their gender identity don’t match up with the physical body.

It’s a challenge because it’s not the "norm" and I don’t like using that word because what’s normal? I got to the positions I got to regardless of being a woman or being a Black person or whatever identities you attach to me or I attach to myself.

Q: Do you think being a woman of colour plays a role in what you do?

A: I do think it means something to be the fourth female president of the MSU ever. I’m the first Black female president — I think it means something for people to physically see it has happened! It shouldn’t be a token example; I shouldn’t be the only one. It should be a normal thing because I want to be one of many.

And I don’t mean just the first Black female president, I want to see, say a queer president — it shouldn’t matter. That’s my point: it shouldn’t matter! It’s about making space for all people of all abilities. I want to see someone who says, "I have a learning disability but I’m going to do this."

And it’s not just about being the president of the student union, it’s about all capacities — president of the university, president of the country. University is a microcosm of the bigger world and it means something when these things happen.

Q: So it does mean something to be a woman of colour to come into a position power at the MSU. And your presidency —what you just explained to me, how yes, it’s important to be a woman of colour, but at the same time, this is not what it’s about — speaks volumes.

A: And I want to see it everywhere. It’s not just a racial issue. It’s everybody.

Q: Do you consider yourself as a minority? Was there shock value to you being a Black female president?

A: Not really, and I don’t think so. It means something and it matters because this wasn’t the case traditionally. I remember talking to a white male student from Engineering whom I had never met before asking me, how it feels to be a Black female to run in this race.

So people do notice, because he wouldn’t have asked if he didn’t, but I think people ask questions like that because they’re excited. This just wasn’t the case traditionally. It’s hard to measure the impact I’m going to have. I just know that even for students who are not female or Black, there will be space for them.

At the end of the day, yes I’m Black. Yes, I’m a woman. Yes, I’m Canadian. Yes, I’m able-bodied, and yes, I identify as being straight.  But even before all of that, I’m a human and a person. That’s what we need to remember and that’s the challenge because identities get attached to people. And for some reason, because the way our society is constructed, it doesn’t necessarily make space for them.

Q: You are going into fifth year here at McMaster. Do you consider yourself as a Hamiltonian?

A:  I’ll never be from Hamilton, I’ll always be from Pickering. But I feel connected to the city. I feel a part of the city, I care about the city. But that raises a bigger question of what does it mean to be a Hamiltonian? I wonder if there is space for that? For people who are "Hamiltonians", do you look at students as such?

I argue that not everybody does. It’s funny that you ask because I’d say "no", then, "well, maybe I am". (Laughs) I think the mentality should be, "We’re all Hamiltonians", but I feel like there is a separation still because I just did that.

I do feel like a Hamiltonian. Why do I feel like if someone from the community says, "students don’t care about the community", I hurt? Because I do care.