«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»
Warner (2002) highlights the significance of the creation of counter publics in relation to the workings of dominant public spheres. He argues that in contrast to dominant publics which take their life-worlds for granted and misrecognize the scope of their address as universal, counter publics engage in scene making as a means of transformation and not merely replication of the status quo. He contends that the claim to be oppositional is not what makes a public a counter public, but rather "counter publics are 'counter' to the extent that they try to supply different ways of imagining stranger sociability and its reflexivity; as publics they remain oriented to stranger circulation in a way that is not just strategic but also constitutive of membership" (2002, p. 88). For those involved in Toronto’s QTPOC community arts scene, the significance of Unapologetic Burlesque’s accessibility work lies in the way in which certain groups may be prioritized over others in the attempt to foster the involvement of those who normally do not take part in this event. However, if queer and trans of color accessibility organizing is taken as a practice of counter public making, we can understand the significance of this organizing not only in negative terms (through mechanisms of exclusion) but also productively, the way in which it configures relationships among imagined strangers.
This study has examined the role of the arts in the relationship between urban government institutions and queer and trans of color community organizations in Toronto, Canada. In so doing, it has focused on a series of challenges that these organizations face in their self-conscious attempts to construct social relations that center on racialized, gendered and sexualized difference. In drawing this project to a close, I narrate the story of one of these initiatives, The People Project, as a way to ethnographically illustrate how these challenges cohere and to gesture to what the future might hold for these and other kinds of grassroots minority community efforts. While I am not in the business of predicting the future, I draw attention to a set of questions that The People Project and other Toronto-based QTPOC community arts organizations are beginning to ask themselves as they think about what comes next. Is sustainability necessarily a desirable goal? For those seeking to secure longevity, how can this be obtained given the limited nature of government funding as the primary source of financial support? What kind of continued existence is possible for organizations committed to subversive political agendas as they navigating subordinate fiscal relationships with government institutions? While these questions are derived from the particular dilemmas that Toronto-based queer and trans of color organizers face, they speak to much broader concerns about the ongoing nature of politically subversive minority social forms under the pressure of state assimilation.
---The People Project was founded in 2008 and grew out of the romantic relationship between Naty Tremblay and Kim Crosby (now Kim Milan). In many ways, the fact that these two very different individuals could come together at all is a testament to Toronto’s multicultural character. While Kim was raised by her single mother in a predominantly lower income neighborhood in the northwest part of Toronto, Naty was born into a rural Metis community in Southwestern Ontario and grew up performing intensive agricultural labor. The differences between them are apparent even in their appearances. While Kim’s dark skin only hints at her mixed Venezuelan, Arawak, Indian, Scottish and Afro Dominican heritage, there is no mistaking her curvy figure and well cultivated feminine gender presentation. Seeing them together only highlights Naty’s very pale skin tone, and their lean frame, angular facial features and off beat fashion choices (including the sparse mustache that they sometimes wear) very much flags their understanding of themselves as gender queer.
Despite these differences they both came to love art from a young age. Though she complained about the long bus ride that she had to take from the shabby one-bedroom apartment that she shared with her mother, Kim also spoke fondly of the high school for gifted children that she attended and the creative activities that she was involved with: creating video documentaries, making feminist art installation pieces with period blood and performing as part of the cheerleading team. Coming from an expressive family and a long line of story tellers as well as a community that was invested in everyday artistic practices like harvest festivals, the arts were also a pervasive part of Naty’s life. However, it wasn’t until they took a road trip after high school with their twin and saw how the arts were being used in the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle that they came to understand the power of the arts to bring about social change. Indeed it was the arts that brought Naty to Toronto because they wanted to find critical, radical, queer arts communities.
Kim and Naty first met at a Body Bliss, a spa for women in Toronto and shortly afterward, they developed an intense romantic relationship. Naty says, “we ended up hanging out, having a date and fell madly in love. She [Kim] moved into my house three weeks later and our relationship was rooted in passion and politics and big dreams”. At the time, Naty was doing environmental education work with students and Kim was working with a company that provided organic meals to children in schools. They both knew that they were doing good work but wanted to actualize their dream of working for themselves and working to support their communities. They then quit their jobs and despite having no money, committed themselves to creating what would become the People Project. As a way of sustaining themselves in the interim, Naty picked up short term arts-based social service contracts and Kim began teaching yoga. With the People Project, they wanted, as Kim states “to do functional community building in a way that is also artful” working specifically with gender and sexual minority youth with a focus on people of color and Native youth. The People Project’s website states that this organization, [I]s an every growing movement of LGBTTQQ2SIA [lesbian gay bisexual transgender transsexual queer questioning 2 spirit spectrum intersex and asexual] youth of color and our allies, committed to individual and community empowerment. We are an organization facilitating innovative arts and leadership opportunities for and by Queer & Trans young people of colour and our allies. (The People Project, n.d.) The way in which the People Project goes about doing their work is closely related to issues of “safe space” and the politics of inclusion that this study addresses in chapters two and five. Naty states that one of the main goals of the People Project is to “create the conditions for a moment of belonging for someone, a moment where you feel like you have a community, a family, where you will share something important. And it takes time and it takes a lot of trust building…and intentionally creating space to use art for critical dialogue”.
These questions of inclusion and belonging were foregrounded in one of the People Project’s initiatives that invited gender and sexual minority immigrant and refugee youth to create a mural that would be showcased at Toronto’s 2013 Pride festivities. I attended the first event in the series (of four events) which was held at a local community health center. Kim began by the session by engaging participants in an activity where we could get to know each other. We played “two truths and a lie” in which we wrote down two true statements and one false statement about ourselves. We then exchanged these statements with other participants, trying to guess which of the three was the false statement. Afterward, Kim facilitated a discussion to create a “community agreement” which served as a guideline for participants to interact with each other in a respectful way. One of the statements that went up on this agreement was about how to receive constructive criticism when you are “called out”. As discussed in chapter one, these kinds of practices are common among queer and trans of color organizers who attempt to create a “safe space” in which participants feel comfortable to talk about the difficult issues that they experience in their daily lives.
After setting the groundwork for how we would work together, Kim then explains to us that the mural will be divided into three parts: the journey to Canada, the experience of being in Canada (or what it means to be Canadian) and the feeling of being grounded in community. She then lead us on a series of journaling and drawing exercises to determine how we wanted to go about representing these three parts. These questions, which ask participants to reflect and express notions of belonging touch on the dilemmas that queer and trans of color organizers face as outlined in chapter five. As these organizers struggle to make their initiatives accessible to those who typically do not take part in their programming, they come to understand that their attempts to include sometimes also have the unintended consequence of excluding others. There is thus a recursive nature to the politics of inclusion whereby discourses of belonging operate between the nation and minority populations as well as within the community practices of minority populations themselves.
Aside from one-off projects like these, the People Project is also engaged in a range of other initiatives such as providing training around gender and sexual diversity to social service agencies. It has also worked with other QTPOC community initiatives like Color Me Drag, 88 Days and ILL NANA DiverseCity Dance Company to further enable them to pursue their work by, for instance showing them how to apply for grants and helping them to craft vision and mission statements. One of its most significant initiatives is OUTwords, an eight month intensive arts and leadership program for queer and trans youth. The program uses artistic skills building such as creative writing, storytelling, photography and video production to foster critical thinking and the skills necessary to work in community contexts such as community engagement, conflict mediation and collective decision making. While OUTwords has not taken place since 2011, it has had an important impact on Toronto’s QTPOC organizing scene as many of those who have participated in this program have gone on to take leadership roles in other community initiatives.
For instance, Jeff who is one of the coordinators of Asian Arts Freedom School, and kumari, the co-founder of Unapologetic Burlesque are two of OUTwords past participants.
In outlining this extensive array of programming, it is important to note how recently the People Project came into existence. The fact that they have been able to develop such a large body of work within such a short period of time is a testament to the intense productivity of both Kim and Naty. During that first year when they lived together in Naty’s small apartment visioning the People Project into existence, they were hard at work writing grants. Over the course of its history, the People Project has been able to procure an astonishing amount of public funding, receiving resources from the Toronto Arts Council, the Laidlaw Foundation, the Community One Foundation, ArtReach, the City of Toronto and the Trillium Foundation, among others. But as noted in chapter two, which outlines the concept of sacrificial entrepreneurship, despite the People Project’s impressive ability to secure financial resources, it is the intensive personal workload that ultimately takes a toll on the organization. In their interview with me Naty did not hesitate to let me know about the high intensity and pace of their work, We were fast. We were hustling. We were working very hard. We were not sleeping…In different ways, Kim and I are very ambitious, very driven people, workaholics for sure…we were working so hard, full throttle, very little breaks. I wouldn’t encourage folks to work that way, very little self-care practices. [We were] just going, going, going.