Vancouver seems like an ideal community in which to explore issues of equality. And that is exactly what Minelle Mahtani does five days a week, 10 a.m. to noon, on her Roundhouse Radio show Sense of Place. That’s a lot of exploring, but Mahtani does it with dedication. This is, after all, what she firmly believes in: sharing stories, experiences, and insights in a safe, transparent environment in order to cultivate mutual understanding on issues where that is not always easily done. At a time when our prime minister notes on the record (to The New York Times Magazine) that Canada could become the world’s first “postnational state”, part of a wide-ranging discussion about immigration and nationalism, it seems Mahtani and her various guests are tapping into something deep.
She has long been a fan of radio shows, “where smart people would have good discussions,” she says. Her broadcast career began thanks to a serendipitous moment, during a doctoral study semester in London, England, when she was walking to the local market and spotted a man wearing a Toronto Blue Jays sweatshirt. She was a bit homesick, so went right up to him and said hello. He explained he was in London for the CBC, to which she said, “Oh, how I would love to work for the CBC.” Through a string of connections, Mahtani wound up back in her hometown of Toronto (though she was in fact born in London), working eventually as a producer on The National. She loved the job, but ultimately the siren call of academia beckoned, and she completed her doctorate, and then joined the faculty at the University of Toronto-Scarborough. She remains an associate professor in both the university’s human geography department and journalism program, but the happily, and relatively newly, married Mahtani took a leave from her academic job and moved to Vancouver a year-and-a-half ago “for love”.
Then Roundhouse founder and co-owner Don Shafer came knocking. “Don called, me tapped me on the shoulder for this show,” she recalls. “He saw something there, about community, about voices in the big city, and he believed I could host a program that would be unafraid to explore, be intelligent, and be respectful. So that’s what we try to do, every show, every guest.” In the pipeline is the Sense of Place School. Once a month, an article will be posted on the Roundhouse website, and listeners will be encouraged to attend a seminar, in person. Mahtani and a hand-selected co-host, someone with knowledge of the topic of the article, perhaps even the author of the article, will lead an open discussion in the main boardroom at the station. “Think of it as a book club for radio,” says Mahtani. “Usually, these conversations take place behind closed doors, in the academy. But we want to bring it right to Railtown.”
Through all the machinations and moves of her career, a constant has been Mahtani’s interest in multiculturalism, and the ways humans can be so different, yet somehow similar. In a sense, she was born right into it. “I am the daughter of an Iranian, Muslim mother and an Indian, Hindu father, so I have always been exposed to different cultures, different world views,” she says. “And in my family, at least, I was exposed to the ways in which people can come together.”
Her show is fully dedicated to this, and she seems ideally suited to her role: she is direct, thoughtful, articulate, and radiates a keen interest in both the person she is speaking with, and the topic at hand. She is a prodigious blend of warmth and intelligence.
Recent guests have included novelists Kyo Maclear and Anne Michaels, journalist Kamal Al-Solaylee, and author Ann Patchett. “All I want to do is create a respectful space to hear people’s voices,” says Mahtani. It is “about how strangers become friends, but also a place where we try to break beyond the epistemic foundations of knowledge, and be a conduit for systemically disadvantaged voices.” That may seem like a large hill to climb, and really, it is. But, she says, “I grew up in an environment where taking two disparate ideas—disparate realities—and bringing them wonderfully together was the reality, not just a concept.”
Mahtani does not brush lightly over what Sense of Place is. “It is unapologetically anti-racist,” she says. She wants the discussions with her on-air guests to be open and frank, to go as deep as they need to go, but all in the context of safe ground upon which to walk. “All our guests should feel respected and cared for in the moment,” she says. “I teach a course on anti-colonial journalism. Part of that is indigenous storytelling. But with Sense of Place we can bring the same research, the same attention to detail, and make it available really to anyone who chooses to tune in. It’s a great opportunity to push forward the discussions of race, gender, equality.” It is an opportunity Mahtani is taking by the horns.
Get stories delivered right to your inbox every Thursday.