Interview by Maria Toquero
Dani Magsumbol is Kapisanan's resident Capacity Builder, and a graduate student at the University of Toronto. She moved to Canada from the Philippines in 2010 and still considers herself a recent immigrant. At Kapisanan, her work is directed by her mission to work with and give back to the Filipino community. On campus, her research focuses on the ways in which female temporary foreign workers, specifically Filipino live-in caregivers, define and experience safety within urban environments.
Is there a location in the city that reminds you of your 13 year old self/pre-teen years? Do you often go there?
What I associate the most with my 13 year old self is not exactly a location: it’s church. I am no longer religious, but at the time, church was the most constant thing in my life. The closest experience I had that most closely reminds me of the atmosphere of being in church was the book launch for Diasporic Intimacies: Queer Filipinos and Canadian Imaginaries. The book centres around the experience of queer Filipinos in Canada. During the launch, the space felt like it was filled with so much love, support, and positivity. Basking in that cloud of joy felt like church to me. It’s such an experience. So, for me, what I think about when I look back to being 13 is not so much a place as an experience, and I often find that in Filipino gatherings.
Why this location?
For me, the idea of church is so significant because it was when I would see people I loved. It was a place of worship, a place of safety. Safety, for me in this instance, is a psychological experience and I felt very safe in that space. There was so much love.
If your 13 year old/pre-teen self was here with you at this location right now, how do you think this conversation would play out?
13 year old me would be very surprised. This is not at all what I envisioned my life would be. At 13, you don’t really have an idea of the freedom of choice that comes with being an adult. I did not think I would be able to pursue academia and being involved with a non-profit was not something I had ever considered. I was 13. What did I know?
At that age, had you envisioned yourself to be where you are at right now?
Not at all! I knew in a very vague sense that I was going to move to Canada. My Mom had been processing our papers since I was around 13, so I knew it was going to happen when I was 19, almost 20. I was totally unaware that it would eventually lead to this conversation with you, here at Kapisanan!
What was that journey like?
The journey was so… strange. When I arrived in this city, it was such a traumatic experience to (a) be deskilled and be deprofessionalized--I have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the Philippines and that didn’t count, and (b) to have my fluency in English be discounted until I had TOEFL, I started living with my mom who didn’t know how to be a parent to me. I didn’t know how to be a daughter, either. It was a startling realization. Initially, I was so resentful about the difficulty in that relationship! You don’t learn how to be a daughter when you don’t have parents. So, for the first few years it was traumatic--all of this trauma and depressive cycles that I didn’t know what to make of. I didn’t even know I was depressed until much later, looking back. I was crying myself to sleep for a year. I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t know what help to ask for.
Fast forward to now, I think that my first step towards trying to find myself was when I cut my hair at 23. In 2014, I found Kapisanan. I was in my third year of undergrad and I was like, I can’t leave without having had any internships. So, I Googled “Filipino internships” and found Kapisanan and the Philippine Consulate General -Toronto. I interned at both places, with the PCG for four months, and with Kapisanan for longer. At the time, I double majored in English and Diaspora/Transnational Studies. I started losing interest in English because I realised that there were more important things to me as a student. I was in this class called The Globalization of Urbanization, and after taking that class I decided to drop my English major to a minor and apply to Urban Studies as a major. I loved studying the way that immigrants shape cities, and the way that cities shape immigrants. I was at Kapisanan--I didn’t want to leave. It felt like Kapisanan was in so many ways a safe space for me to explore what I could do. I felt like I was allowed to make mistakes, but I was encouraged to succeed, especially when I was the Lead Event Coordinator for Kultura. The day of the finale at Yonge-Dundas, I was like, “I can do this.” It was such an empowering experience, and one that I don’t think I would have had at other places that aren’t for youth. So, in many respects, I owe a lot of the confidence I have today to Kapisanan.
At 13, what did you see yourself becoming?
I was going to be a nurse. I was going to be a nurse because that was the thing to do--everybody went to Nursing school in the Philippines during my time. I asked to be something else--I wanted to take Education instead because I wanted to be an English teacher. My aunt, who was my guardian, told me that “If you do that, your mom’s not paying for school.” I found out years later that my mom didn’t care what I was taking in school. I did well, I was a good nurse.
But I didn’t see what I have now happening. I am so intensely grateful being at graduate school. I’m grateful not for a seat at the table, but I’m grateful for the experience of my mom supporting my choice to pursue grad school. She’s a single parent and she can really use the help, but I’m at school pursuing something that by all accounts, I shouldn’t have been able to do. And this is something I didn’t see happening for myself. But I’m here. There are days that when I wake up, I’m just so thankful I was given this opportunity to do something I am so passionate about; to think about immigrants in cities, to sit in class and talk about theory--and my mom will never have the luxury of graduate school but she’s fully supporting me in this experience.
It’s so weird you bring that up because I had this conversation with my friend and he sent me this picture and its caption was regarding the survival aspect of our parents coming here to do what they had to do while we have the luxury to do what we want--and that connected me with your story. It’s something I never think of, something I take for granted because I don’t reflect on it. It’s interesting to hear you say how grateful you are every single day.
The entire theme of my academic career has been telling stories about the Filipino community. So, for me, academic life has been therapy in some way. My final project is about live-in caregivers and exploring how they are (un)safe in urban environments. It’s so close to my heart because my mom was a live-in caregiver--she’s still a nanny. For me, academic life is not an ivory tower, it’s a very visceral experience. I empathize so deeply with the women I interview, and I feel their pain. For many of them, it’s a form of success that they’re here. But knowing the other side of that coin very intimately, there are people like me who grew up without their mothers, as they perform the work of mothering other kids. It’s so traumatic, but I’m so thankful I got to write about it.
I’m so grateful that we’re finally shedding light to it in a current context because not a lot of people know... Well, a lot of people do know but don’t know the in-depth stories.
It’s so entrenched in Filipino-Canadian culture. Filipino nannies are considered so “normal” that they’re invisible. There’s something there--the ubiquity of a person, how they embody that work, how it’s becoming normalized--that makes it invisible to society.
They don’t understand. Period. The steps it takes to even come to this country. Or how much they have to negotiate and give up just to come to this country.
The wave of feminism we’re on right now is very intersectional because of scholars of colour, because of feminist scholars. Sometimes we forget that what how the rise of the middle class in Canada has meant the need to hire a woman of colour from a migrant country to support you in domestic work. What does that mean? What is success if you don’t talk about this?
When did you know that this career path is the one for you?
Around 2013/2014, when I switched my majors. I continued the path I’m on, and now I’m doing a Masters in Urban Planning and a collaborative Masters in Transnational Studies because I’m intent on studying the relationship between immigrants and the city. That’s what I want to do and Kapisanan is part of that. We work with youth--it’s very much a for-youth-by-youth thing.
Struggles are inevitable. I am curious to know if you had faced any struggles that made you want to quit what you were doing. If so, what were they? How did you push through these adversities?
I went into academia initially for me, but it’s not just for me. It’s for me, and it’s for the next generation--everything I finish will pave the way for the next generation. They’re already here, they’re already coming, they’re already on the rise and coming in. Grad school is me leaning on other scholars of colour who have gone ahead of me. So now, my definition of success isn’t just me succeeding--it’s all of us linking together and getting to where we want to be. It’s going to be hard. I was very lonely at times in grad school. But knowing that people are coming behind me and I’m following people ahead of me, I feel so much more energized.
What are your favourite accomplishments thus far and why?
Kultura! That is my favourite accomplishment because it felt concrete, and I could see it happening throughout the planning process up to the finale and to the debriefs.
Grad school too! I feel like I’m bringing a perspective of trauma, immigration, and poverty to the table that may not usually be discussed. I am an immigrant, I’m a woman of colour, I’m the child of a labour migrant. I grew up from an impoverished background. So, when we theorize and discuss issues such as poverty, it’s real to me because I have experienced it firsthand.
What have the ups and downs of your career path taught you about yourself?
My path so far has taught me that I am able. I have won awards, I graduated with honours, but it was never the winning of them that was most satisfying. The most satisfying thing was bringing my mom with me to award ceremonies as my plus one and seeing her there; and seeing in her face that she’s proud of me and knowing that this moment is a very concrete way that she is a successful mom. That to me is the best moment - I can bring my mom to spaces within the university and she can see what’s happening behind this - that she has a space in it too, that without her this wouldn’t have been possible. Anything I can do, she has led me to it. Everything I do is for her to feel like she matters in the world, and that her experiences matter.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned about yourself?
That the emotion I feel in my research isn’t something I should shy away from. There’s so much happening in the Filipino community that academia doesn’t really see, and it’s such a privilege that the titas I interviewed told me their stories and that they trusted me because I am still culturally fluent. This cultural fluency allows me to bring them into the conversation. It’s not just me anymore. At this point, it’s their stories too and I have to make sure that their voices are heard. Last year, I was questioning myself and all my emotions, especially in my research… But the subject is me, the subject is my family--I can’t take myself out of the equation. It’s gonna be uncomfortable. But the stories will be told, and I will tell it to everyone who wants to listen.
What do you think it takes to be a champion?
A whole lot of love. Love manifests in different things. Even if we have different ways of approaching problems, it’s all for the love of the community and the love of the next generation.
What makes YOU a champion?
Support! I have been supported by my friends, by my family, by my partner, by the communities that I am a part of. No way I would have been able to accomplish anything without this kind of support behind me.
What advice would you give to youth that want to be champions of their craft?
I feel like you have to understand that it’s going to be painful at times, but it will be worth it. You have to trust yourself, and you have to trust your work.
I have so much faith in the youth. I am so excited to see what happens next!
What projects can we look forward to in the upcoming year?
I am finishing my capstone, it’s called A Room of Her Own: Racialised and Gendered Violence Experienced by Filipino Live-In Caregivers Working in Private Homes. It’s referencing that live-in caregivers should have their own rooms with locks. Most of them don’t. But also referencing Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of Her Own,” about the importance of women having their own spaces. A lot of the abuse that happens to live-in caregivers is linked to their live-in status, and within that, the lack of privacy that comes with sharing space.
Any last words?
It’s so important to believe that you are able because it gives you that little bit of push for yourself. “I can make this happen, I believe that I can make this happen.”
Dani will be a panelist at the University of Toronto Student Union event "Women in Leadership: A Thriving Community" on March 8, 2018! Catch her in action next week!
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