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Wednesday February 13, 2013

An activist who fought racism and sexism

Toronto-based educator waged a long battle for women's equality in the workplace and the academy

Special to the Globe and Mail

Twentieth-century Italian writer and revolutionary intellectual Antonio Gramsci once wrote that a person could simultaneously exhibit both "pessimism of the spirit" and "optimism of the will."

Dr. Roxana Ng was one such person.

As director of the Centre for Women's Studies in Education at OISE, University of Toronto, and a professor of adult education and community Development, Dr. Ng's academic work went hand and hand with her fight for human rights and economic justice.

As the first woman of colour hired for a tenure-track position at OISE, Dr. Ng was on the leading edge of scholarship. Her work on the garment sector in Canada and immigrants' experiences of exclusion in the labour market established OISE's strength in the areas of work, learning and immigration.

She moved easily between her OISE classroom and the broader Toronto community, making frequent stops in the homes of garment workers, women who are paid poverty wages under exploitative working conditions.

"The major problem of homeworking is that it blurs the division between paid work and family life," Dr. Ng wrote. "Women tend to organize their sewing around the schedules of children and other family members, thus frequently sewing late into the night..."

Dr. Ng co-authored Anti-Racism, Feminism, and Critical Approaches to Education, a work she came to naturally; she was a former president of the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women and a board member of Inter Pares, an organization dedicated to promoting international social justice.

She co-founded the Vancouver Women's Research Centre in the 1970s and helped to establish immigrant women's organizations in several other provinces.

"Roxana's contributions to her ethnic community, to her students, and to academia," said her friend and colleague Marie Campbell, "attest to her courage, strength of character and terrifically well-honed analytic skills."

Dr. Ng died in Toronto on Jan. 12 of cancer. She was 61.

She was born in 1951 in what had been a large urban slum called Diamond Hill, in Hong Kong. Contrary to its name, the area has never contained diamond deposits.

Her parents, Evan and Katherine Wu, raised Roxana and her two brothers in a city on the cusp of fantastic change.

Their former neighbourhood now hosts a massive shopping complex called Plaza Hollywood, and a five-block private housing estate that reaches for the sky.

Always eager to stretch herself, Roxana left Hong Kong in 1968 to attend a Quaker boarding school in the United Kingdom. Two years later, after graduation, she moved to Vancouver with her family.

While a student at The Mount School, in York, she waged one of her first anti-racist battles when the headmistress insisted she change her name from Ng to Wu, facilitating an easier pronunciation among Westerners.

Roxana refused and Ng it remained, even though the rest of her family took on the Mandarin translation, Wu, once they immigrated to Canada.

Her academic studies didn't skip a beat. Soon after arriving in Vancouver, she completed her BA at the University of British Columbia, majoring in sociology.

Around this time, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and Roxana dedicated a large portion of her time to caring for her and the rest of the clan.

After her mother's recovery, Dr. Ng stretched again - this time marrying fellow graduate student Jake Muller, a choice that caused a rift in her family.

The marriage ended after 10 years.

Finding her own way forward in Canada might have been one reason why Dr. Ng dove headfirst into an examination of immigrant women's experiences.

In 1977, she sharpened her activist and scholarly teeth as co-founder of the Vancouver Women's Research Centre, focusing on immigrant women, particularly in the areas of economic development, domestic violence and sexual harassment.

"Immigrant women occupy a particular and different location in Canadian society than men," she wrote.

"Until recently their unique experience has been overlooked and unaccounted for. This omission has depended, to a large extent, on their silence. ... It is our responsibility as academics to put immigrant women back into the previously one-sided account of the immigrant experience."

After receiving her masters in sociology from UBC, Ms. Ng moved to Toronto in 1978 to begin her PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).

She completed her degree in 1984 and spent a handful of years teaching at the University of New Brunswick and Queen's University before she was hired at OISE in 1988, first in sociology and later in adult education.

In addition to her seminal research on the garment industry in Canada and its relation to immigration and race, Dr. Ng was at the forefront of what became known as critical pedagogy.

"Roxana became really noted for how to teach to address historical exclusions around women and race, which was a very important contribution," said Dr. Jamie Magnusson of OISE.

Dr. Ng wrote a pivotal paper on her own experiences teaching at OISE. It was titled, "A Woman out of Control: Deconstructing Sexism and Racism in the University".

The article addressed the political resistance people typically experience when they challenge the academy on these issues, sometimes even being labeled "out of control" simply for highlighting concerns.

"I argue that sexism and racism are systemic: They are power relations that have become normalized courses of action within the university," Dr. Ng wrote.

"I recommend that we try to think and act 'against the grain' in handling various kinds of pedagogical situations ... we need to rupture ways university business and interactions are 'normally' conducted."

After several years of going at this clip and navigating difficult and controversial terrain, Dr. Ng grew increasingly interested in and committed to the question of self-care and healthy-living choices. She constantly warned colleagues: "This is killing us! We can't work this hard!"

Her grandmother had been a doctor in China, and was trained in Western medicine; it wasn't until Dr. Ng grew up, as an adult living in North America, that she became interested in Eastern medicine.

She frequently rounded up colleagues and students in the Peace Lounge at OISE and spontaneously led a class in Tai Chi.

"She loved to stretch mid-sentence," said Dr. Kiran Mirchandani, an OISE colleague.

She said that Dr. Ng arrived at meetings laden with a teapot, Chinese takeout, a notebook in which she took meticulous notes, and sometimes two fluffy white dogs in tow, smuggled into the building and loved to death.

"Even as her body weakened she made new friends," Dr. Mirchandani said.

During her illness, Dr. Ng would return from hospital visits with institutional maps of the relations of ruling.

"She shared findings from her years of research with foreign-trained professionals with her caregivers, many of whom were immigrant nurses, encouraging them to study for their certifications while she napped," Dr. Mirchandani added.

Back to Antonio Gramsci for a moment: Pessimism of the spirit? On second thought, no, this wasn't a quality Roxana Ng shared.

Roxana Ng leaves her father, Evan Wu, her mother, Katherine Wu, and brothers David and Calvin Wu.

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