«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»
Definitely inspirited by the work we were doing, and, true say, needing to do so financially because contract work was like that. You never know from month to month what you’ll get However, as indicated in chapter three, organizational sustainability is influenced not only by issues of finance and labor but also by the tenor of interpersonal relationships within grassroots initiatives. In 2011, Kim and Naty ended their romantic relationship up which led to drastic changes in the organization. In her interview with me, Kim shared, When Naty and I started it [The People Project] we were partnered and we were together for three years. We talked about ourselves as married. When we broke up, it shifted everything in our organization. It shifted everything in the way we worked. It changed all our personal relationships. Our break up was hard and surrounding a whole bunch of other things happening in community at the same time. At that time our house was set on fire The very small grassroots and often informal nature of QTPOC community initiatives means that the nature of the relationships between the leaders of community institutions is closely tied to the wellbeing of the institutions themselves. Naty explained that the People Project was “not just an investment of time and resources but also [of] heart and spirit and that was our [my and Kim’s] baby”.
I outline the birth and evolution of the People Project for two reasons. The first is that the nature of its trajectory is very similar to that of other queer and trans of color community arts initiatives in Toronto and the character of this organization, its triumphs and challenges, are clearly reflected in the analyses offered in this dissertation. Like many other QTPOC community initiatives, the People Project is centrally concerned with the politics of inclusion through the practice of community building. In seeking to build stronger relationships among queer and trans youth of color and their allies, this initiative counters the workings of racism, colonialism, transphobia, sexism, classism and homophobia that operate to exclude these populations from majoritarian spheres. While these questions of inclusion and belonging are most clearly seen in chapter five which documents how QTPOC organizers attempt to make their initiatives accessible to those who typically do not participate, they can also be evinced in chapter one which looks at the conditions necessary for QTPOC to become involved in community art production and in chapter four which investigates how the public practice of “calling out” can excise the politically incorrect from community membership.
Like other queer and trans of color community initiatives, the capacity of the People Project to navigate these complex politics of inclusion are influenced by political economic, affective and temporal considerations. Indeed the fact that the People Project was able to come into existence at all is due not only to the architecture of municipal public arts funding policies but also to the love that Kim and Naty shared both for each other and for the work of arts-based community building. Yet the longevity of this initiative was called into question under conditions of intensive, fast-paced work, chronic inadequate financial remuneration and the severing of intimate bonds between the organization’s founders. These dynamics are quite common among QTPOC community arts organizations, as outlined in chapters two and three. Chapter two examines the infrastructure of municipal funding policies to investigate how QTPOC organizers find themselves sacrificing their personal financial wellbeing for the benefit of their communities and chapter three looks at how organizers affective orientation toward their work and to each other play a role in the longevity of their programs. In a nutshell, the People Project thus reflects the main concern of this dissertation to investigate the politics of inclusion along simultaneously racialized, gendered and sexual difference and how the workings of these politics are intimately related to questions of political economy, affect and temporality.
The second reason I discuss the People Project is because it serves as a fruitful starting point to think about the future of QTPOC community organizing and what this means for the politics of difference and inclusion. As indicated earlier, the People Project has survived two of
the major challenges to sustainability that plague grassroots minority community programs:
obtaining sufficient funding and affective volatility (both in terms of the relationship between community organizers and the relationship between these organizers and their work). Staving off these challenges has been made possible by an influx of public funding to the arts (see chapter two) and by a community practice increasingly oriented toward transformative justice approaches which emphasize conflict resolution in ways that do not cut off individuals from existing social relations (see chapter four). The fact these conditions, which have allowed the People Project (and other minority grassroots community initiatives) to come into existence are likely to change raises important questions about if and how these initiatives might persist into the future.
It was a time of great celebration in 2013, when the City of Toronto announced an increase in public funding to the arts to the tune of $17 million dollars over the next four years.
As outlined in chapter two, this boost in funding was made possible by using the taxation of Toronto billboards as a new revenue stream. It is important to note however that the City of Toronto promised to dedicate this funding stream to the arts for only a four year period. This time limited commitment should give pause as it emphasizes the fickle nature of funding priorities that tend to shift with prevailing “trends”. As Rose so insightfully asks in chapter three “What’s the contingency plan…if the money runs out and you don’t get funding?...I think grants are a good thing but I think we also have to take a step back and ask, ‘how do we create sustainable models that aren’t grant funded?’” In that chapter, I followed the logic of Rose’s question to think through what it might take for grassroots QTPOC initiatives to attain sustainability. In this section however, I want to look more closely at sustainability and question what it is that QTPOC might be sustaining.
As can be seen throughout this study, QTPOC grassroots initiatives exist in a kind of limbo where they are able to secure public funding that allows them to do their community work but in ways that are nevertheless constantly threatened by impermanence. But while many of the people in this study emphasized the importance of finding ways to continue these initiatives, it is important to consider how this sustainability is secured and whether sustainability is necessarily desirable at all. For instance, Desh Pardesh represents an important lesson for QTPOC organizers as they struggled to sustain their work over time. This initiative was established in 1998 and began as cultural event designed primarily to raise awareness about the South Asian gay and lesbian community in Toronto’s wider gay community. By the time of its demise in 2001, it had transformed itself into a non-profit organization and had broadened its mandate to challenge stereotypes around traditional South Asian cultures in general through workshops and panels, but more specifically through art forms like film, music and visual arts. From a one day event to a five day festival, Desh Pardesh reached almost mainstream status, with an operating budget of $150,000 and audiences reaching over 5,000 people. Perhaps the most telling sign of this transformation was the organization’s ability to attract corporations to sponsor festival programs.
Ultimately, Fernandez writes, “the graduate mainstreaming of the festival over time also meant that it became progressively less radical – a pattern that, if ironic, is also characteristic of what happens when marginalized groups start moving toward the centre” (S. Fernandez, 2006, p. 5).
For queer and trans of color organizers committed to political transgression and subversion, this movement toward political conservativism would certainly be an unwelcome outcome of securing sustainability.
But while Desh Pardesh exists as one (of several potential) model of sustainability for QTPOC community initiatives, a small minority of organizers question the desirability of sustainability at all. For instance, in her interview with me, Farrah, who is renowned for her artsbased work with young Muslim women shared, “It’s okay if collectives end. How about we start understanding that there will be an ending?... I'm always saying, “think of your end date” because if it goes on forever you're going to be exhausted. If you think of your end date you allow yourself to know you can do other things, you allow yourself to know -- this is how much my energy can go. It’s like a video game, knowing how much energy cubes you're going to have”. Farrah’s views on the acceptability of the ending of queer and trans of color community groups resonates with the existing scholarship on the temporally limited nature of these activities. For instance, in her analysis of LGBT people of color initiatives in the United States in the 1980s, Christina Hanhardt characterizes them as “a hard to pin down agglomeration of small fleeting and local collectives” (2013, p. 153). Thus, in contrast to organizers who struggle to ensure the longevity of their programs, Farrah’s matter of fact views on the ending of these initiatives are a pragmatic acknowledgement of the reality of what happens to queer and trans of color initiatives over time.
In attempting to think about a future for queer and trans of color community initiatives, is it possible to move beyond the poles of sustainability through mainstream assimilation (and increasing political conservatism) and an ephemeral existence that can nevertheless support a more subversive political agenda? As discussed earlier, Elizabeth Freeman “suggests that temporal misalignments can be the means of opening up other possible worlds” (Freeman, 2010, p. 16). In this particular case, what other possible worlds come into view when the idealization of sustainability meets the reality of ephemerality? Or to put it a different way, what comes out of this tension between the transience of many queer and trans of color initiatives and the desire (of some) for longevity? What does this tension produce and in what ways is this production significant? As QTPOC organizers are currently navigating these temporal dynamics within their working lives, I hesitate to play soothsayer, but I would venture to say that this tension is at the core of their political practice as they move forward in their collective efforts. These questions are salient not only for simultaneously racialized, gendered and sexual minorities but also for all of those who struggle against the workings of injustice writ large. Indeed as QTPOC continue to pursue community organizing, they attempt to address the much broader the question, “is it possible for community initiatives that are committed to a radical politics of subversion to sustain their work over time without having to assimilate into more conservative political contexts?”
The findings from this study are based on three main sources of data: 1) participant observation in community arts initiatives within the city of Toronto; 2) 63 semi-structured interviews with arts administrators as well as community organizers and event participants; 3) grey literature and
4) two community feedback sessions. In the section below, I outline the processes through which these data were collected.
Between September 2012 and August 2014, I took notes on my experiences, observations and conversations in 1) participating in the organizing activities of three QTPOC community initiatives, 2) attending and participating in the community arts programs, events and shows of nine other QTPOC initiatives and 3) attending community consultation sessions hosted by the City of Toronto, the Toronto Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Foundation.