Engaging in extracurricular activities at Hart House can lead to countless positive outcomes for U of T students.

For activist, artist and educator Kate Welsh, participating in the “Get Crafty” program tapped into a skill and passion that didn’t just enrich her life outside the classroom, but was the basis of her master’s thesis and eventually led her to launch an awareness movement that made an impact well beyond the University’s borders.

Through her involvement at Hart House’s weekly creative sessions, Kate saw the positive impact that crafting had on the diverse group that participated in the drop-in sessions, which inspired her path as a graduate student. “My master’s thesis was about crafting as a tool of social justice and how crafting provides space for playfulness and also space where it’s safe to fail,” Kate explains.

Meanwhile, she had an idea brewing that combined her academic work with her commitment to building caring and anti-oppressive spaces, specifically for those with disabilities using the city’s crowded transit system. Kate has had first-hand experience in navigating the TTC with both visible and invisible episodic disabilities and was especially motivated when a friend told her about her own challenges in getting a seat on the subway while undergoing chemo treatment. With the encouragement and support of Hart House program coordinators Day Milman and Trish Starling, Kate began creating buttons with key messages on them like, “Please Offer Me a Seat,” “My Disability is Episodic” and an ally button that says, “If You Need a Seat, Ask Me.”

“I had an idea and having members of the staff at Hart House, even the Warden, be so supportive of me was hugely beneficial,” Kate says. “I ended up sending him my master’s thesis. He was just so excited by it. I think that type of encouragement from people in power to fulfill your dreams, especially when you are a busy student, makes all the difference.”

Quickly enough, the idea evolved into a business and Kate launched equitybuttons.com, through which she’s been taking custom orders for the buttons. They’re also available through her website, various local vendors, not-for-profits and at the Hart House Hub desk.

If her story sounds familiar, it might be because her endeavor captured media attention, including coverage from CityNews and CBC Radio when the TTC launched the same type of awareness initiative, without acknowledging Kate as the trailblazer. “I have mixed feelings about it,” Kate says of the lack of collaboration and acknowledgment. “But mostly I’m excited that my activism worked so well that it became institutionalized.”

As the 2018-19 school year launches, Kate has added yet another dimension to her Hart House connection; she was recently hired on as the Creative and Community Engagement Programs Facilitator. “Creative expression and creative collaboration has the power to foster positive change,” Kate says. “Through my new position I hope to build connections, partnerships and spread the progressive work of creativity that happens at Hart House into Toronto communities and the wider community of academia.”