Arabic language classes at 8:30 am, reading Noam Chomsky voraciously in the McLennan Library, and endless nights studying at the Schulich Engineering Library. Mayumi Sato, who has been awarded a prestigious Gates Scholarship to Cambridge University, said that those, and many other, experiences at McGill “fundamentally shaped who I am today.”
Sato, who graduated from McGill with an honours BA in geography in 2017, will begin her PhD in sociology as a Gates Cambridge Scholar this fall. The international graduate scholarship was launched in 2000 with a $210-million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
After finishing her undergrad at McGill, Sato won a Princeton in Asia (PiA) fellowship, working in Thailand for two and a half years, first with Indigenous hill tribes and stateless people and later in Bangkok on gender equity and social inclusion.
“I ended up travelling for work, conferences or for leisure to 13 countries, which was an incredible opportunity, and given current COVID restrictions, I am particularly grateful in retrospect,” said Sato.
Working at the grassroots level in Asia during her PiA fellowship made it possible to observe first-hand how policies decided at top levels affect “smallholders” on the ground.
The Yokohama-born Sato has lived in Japan, “in a few cities on both coasts” in the U.S. and in several Canadian cities. She’s no stranger to Cambridge, either; she completed her Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in sociology there last year, and will resume her studies for her PhD in October.
She also works remotely as a researcher for Montreal’s non-profit Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, a non-profit centre for research and advocacy dedicated to overcoming social isolation, founded in 2017 by Kim Samuel, then a Professor of Practice at McGill.
Not your high school geography
“McGill was a great choice for me,” said Sato, who also did a double minor in Arabic and East Asian literature and language. “It radically altered my ideological views and my academic and personal passions. I remember the student activism. I also loved the… huge Arab diaspora and community [in Montreal]. I fondly remember studying on the metro on my way to work or at a coffee shop, and frequently being approached by strangers, who were surprised I was studying their language.”
The geography that she studied has little to do with the misconceptions regarding the discipline – studying place names and locations.
“It’s one of the most interdisciplinary fields,” she noted, centering “around understanding ‘space,’ whether that’s physical, cultural, human, virtual, postcolonial, etc. The field of critical geographies deals with questions of anti-racism and carceral studies quite [extensively].”
In fact, she switched to sociology for her graduate studies in order to pursue her abiding interest in “understanding intersecting inequalities. I do firmly believe that all oppression is interlinked and can’t be examined in isolation, so I wanted an academic environment that will help me unpack these intersections in understanding the prison industry and carceral oppression.”
At Cambridge, her PhD research will focus on the intersection between environmental, health and racial injustice in the prison industry amidst the climate crisis.
“I’m not only interested in underscoring the intersecting structural forms of oppression that dispossess incarcerated communities from their rights, but I’m also curious in understanding how communities resist, particularly in the digital age.”
Sato said that inequalities stem primarily from race, class, gender and environmental considerations. Those inequalities result in injustices that are in turn reflected in prison populations – affecting racialized communities particularly hard.
Decarceration activists are gaining momentum, thanks to digital technologies that are supranational and not easily controlled.
“I will examine how (digital) technology use in decarceration movements pushes for new anti-racist and equitable environmental protection, land governance and public health,” added Sato.
Importance of good mentorship
She expressed gratitude to McGill geography professor Sarah Moser and professor Michelle Cho in the Department of East Asian Studies.
Moser supervised her thesis on the “spatialities of Black-Palestinian solidarity movements in the post-Ferguson era.” In 2014, an unarmed young Black man, Michael Brown, was shot by police officers in that Missouri town, triggering a wave of protests that expanded into demands for reform, including of incarceration rates that affect people of colour disproportionately.
“It was the first time I was able to explore the possibilities of pursuing a research study on anti-racism and global solidarities, so I definitely thank [Moser for her] mentorship,” said Sato. “It underscores the importance of good mentorship, and how it has impacted my ability to get a Gates Scholarship.”
She also thanked Cho for being a strong role model for a “young Asian woman looking to enter the academy.”
Sato paid tribute to the McGill faculties, professors and other students “who cultivated me into a strong scholar, which positioned me to get the Gates Scholarship.”
Moser said she is “really proud of Mayumi and all the work she has done to develop her skills as a scholar…. She is an extremely hard worker and critical thinker. She is deeply curious and her social activism and scholarship are motivated by a desire to shine a light on and address social inequities.”
“I’m happy that her work is being recognized and rewarded and believe that she will make important contributions in her doctoral research.”