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The People’s Lawyer Saron Gebresellassi is a human rights lawyer with a flare for real, meaningful action while giving a voice to the marginalized.
As if law wasn’t enough of a challenge, in 2018 Gebresellassi took on a different challenge. She made a bid to run for mayor of Toronto, going toe-to-toe with the city’s current John Tory. It was a daunting challenge, but one that Gebresellassi had the tenacity and passion to carry her through.
Brandi Leifso: Saron, tell me a little more about yourself and how you ended up where you are now.
Saron Gebresellassi: I’m a human rights lawyer with a flare for winning high profile cases against institutional giants ranging from Starbucks Coffee Company to the Toronto Police Service. I grew up in Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s high rise apartment building dubbed “York Square” located in the Keele and Eglinton corridor. I went to an arts school in my neighbourhood and then nine years of university education on full private scholarships. This enabled me to graduate without debt, [which allowed me] to launch a successful private business right after graduation. I love being a lawyer. It comes with tremendous power and privilege, and I always want to ensure I use it to amplify the voices of those who go unheard.
BL: You’ve made an impression on this city, going toe-to-toe with John Tory and Jennifer Keesmaat. What made you want to run for mayor in such a competitive city?
SG: I decided to take my fight from the courtroom to City Hall because I didn’t want to see another four years of status quo representation. Working class people and marginalized communities always go underserved when the political representatives acting for them have no relatability. I am running for mayor to permanently close the gap between the “haves and the have-nots” in Toronto.
BL: Would you consider running for mayor a courageous act? I ask because being in front of the public and arguing your case would make most people feel a little vulnerable.
SG: I’ve taken significant risks before this. I attended the highly militarized Canada-US Border zone to provide legal relief to asylum seekers. I’ve taken on high stakes, high-risk cases against large corporations – and won! Nothing compares to declaring my run [for this position.] It is a completely different arena and requires a complete annihilation of any and all apprehensions.
BL: What is Toronto doing well and where do we fall short?
SG: Our city does well when it comes to serving as a platform for cross-sector and cross-cultural collaboration. Despite the city’s financial support for the arts we have still managed to become home to some of the most successful entrepreneurs and cultural producers in the world. I point to Scarborough’s The Weeknd, creative director La Mar Taylor, and Juno nominee Clairmont the Second as examples of the explosive creativity residing in our city. The business case for arts investment is well established. We are falling seriously short when it comes to understanding the arts as integral to the economic wellbeing of the city of Toronto.