Photo of Adam Zivo

“It is my strong belief that social change occurs when you engage people who are outside of your core audience. 

Adam Zivo is a student in the Master of Public Policy Program at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, with a collaborative specialization in Contemporary East and Southeast Asian Studies (CESEAS). He is a recent award recipient for the 2019 Richard Charles Lee Insights through Asia Challenge (ITAC), in which he and his research partner Tony Yin produced a documentary on the LGBTQ+ movement in Taiwan titled The Referendum.

Adam brings a uniquely diverse skillset to his work, combining social activism, foreign policy analysis, and content production. In addition to being a student, Adam is an experienced content producer with over 10 years of experience in the field. He has worked on projects across the world, including in New York, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Rome, and Mumbai. He is also a regular contributor to the NATO Association of Canada, where he provides analysis on topics pertaining to international affairs, with a special focus on cyber and tech. As an activist, Adam founded and directs LoveisLoveisLove, an LGBTQ+ arts campaign. To date, LLL has engaged half a million people through producing several large-scale arts and educational installations across Ontario.

Why did you choose this academic program?

Although I enjoyed, and still enjoy, working in content production, I wanted to expand my intellectual horizons. I’ve been an engaged and relatively effective activist for several years now, but gaps in my knowledge prevented me from achieving as much as I’d liked. This led me to the Master of Public Policy Program, where I could fill those gaps by learning about the mechanics behind the policy-making process. I care about getting results, and, feeling an ethical obligation to look at outcomes and not intentions, tend to value pragmatism over idealism. This in turn requires knowledge of institutional processes and constraints, which MPP has been good at teaching. My ultimate goal, which this program has brought me closer to, is to advocate for political and social change that is realistic and sustainable.

I chose the Collaborative Specialization because I completed East Asian Studies in my undergraduate degree, where I had become passionate about post-reform China and North Korean grassroots capitalism. Since my undergrad, and partially because of my work with NATO, I’ve become preoccupied with Pacific Security and the related geopolitics of tech and trade. This collaborative specialization has equipped me with more knowledge to meaningfully comment on those subjects.

Photo of crowd in Taiwan taken while filming The Referendum. People hold rainbow flags.

Tell us about your research with the Insights through Asia Challenge

The documentary covered the referendum that happened in Taiwan in late 2018, within which Taiwanese were asked about their opinions on same-sex marriage. Previously, the law imposed restrictive conditions on triggering referendums, such that they became known as “birdcage referendums” because of their inaccessibility. When these laws were loosened, anti-LGBTQ+ activists successfully petitioned for a referendum on marriage equality. LGBTQ+ activists responded by petitioning to add their own questions to the referendum, to balance the questions put forth by anti-LGBTQ+ activists. The referendum was supposed to be scheduled slightly later than an impending national election, but, due to a quirk in Taiwanese law, the election and the referendum were forced to happen at the same time. This compressed timeline was problematic because the referendum’s questions could not be adequately debated or discussed in the media. The public was often confused on key details that they were expected to vote on. This, in turn, created an opportunity for misinformation, both deliberate and accidental, which became a major point of contention throughout the process. This is a good case study of how when policymakers try to make engagement mechanisms more accessible to the public, they also need a thorough plan for executing that change. Good intentions can yield bad results. While the intent behind the loosened referendum laws was to empower Taiwan’s democratic voice, in practice it was too rushed to truly achieve that.

On a personal level, participating in ITAC was a life-changing opportunity. Shooting a documentary in Taiwan let me conduct comparative analysis between Taiwan and the West with respect to LGBTQ+ activist methods. Being able to do that kind of comparative analysis meant a lot to me, as an academic and as an activist. It also gave me faith in my ability to leverage my filmmaking skills to make academia more accessible to a broader audience, and it felt good to re-engage with filmmaking through a policy lens. A particular highlight of the trip was our somewhat accidental, sometimes surreal, experience with anti-LGBTQ+ activists. We had heard that sometimes anti-LGBTQ+ activists would assault foreign journalists at rallies. To avoid violence and maintain our personal safety, we were ambiguous about our personal views on LGBTQ+ rights, which led some anti-LGBTQ+ activists to assume that we were against gay rights. They gave us credentials that allowed us to have special access within an anti-LGBTQ+ rally. As a gay man, it was profoundly bizarre to stand in front of a sea of thousands of people shouting slogans that vilified my community.

How did your program of study at the Asian Institute help you conduct this project?

The MPP provides excellent education on the political aspect of policymaking. For example, how policymaking, while it aspires to be rational, is always subject to the special interests of competing stakeholders.

The collaborative specialization with CESEAS enables me to critically examine the politics of policymaking within the specific context of Taiwan. This preparation allows me to understand the nuances within the intersection of politics and activism in the case of Taiwan’s LGBTQ+ activism.

Furthermore, staff and faculty members from the Asian Institute provided tremendous support throughout the project development process. They were able to offer advice and training workshops on how to budget and how to draft a strong proposal.

How do you build on or expand this experience?

I am returning to Taiwan to collect additional footage for the documentary. The original intent was to produce a 20-minute video, but it quickly became obvious that we had a strong enough story to expand the project to a feature-length film. In light of that, we’re investing our own finances to deliver a product that can educate the public in the thorough and thoughtful way this story deserves.

The ideal distribution channel is to have the film online on major streaming platforms such as Netflix or CBC Documentaries. The preference is for non-LGBTQ+ platforms because I believe that social change best occurs when you engage people who are outside of your core audience.

People hold red flags with blue rectangle and white sun and the text "The Referendum" appears in the centre.

What advice would you give to a university student who wishes to pursue similar opportunities?

Many students are unaware of the opportunities available through their school. If they are aware of the opportunities, they imagine these opportunities are remote, inaccessible or overly competitive. However, I would strongly encourage any student at U of T to seek opportunities and just do it! While it may seem insurmountable at first, the level of support offered by the school to craft your application is fantastic. If you don’t succeed, then the act of completing the application alone builds so many useful skills for future projects.

Find the link to the trailer for The Referendum here.