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The People Project

May 6, 2012

Filth: How did the People Project get started?

Naty: The People Project started up almost five years ago, was definitely born out of visions, dreams and a lot of dialogue between myself, Naty Tremblay, and Kim Crosby, talking about wanting to create programs, initiatives, projects for queer and trans young people and for the LGBTQ community in a larger sense. We’re bringing together arts, radical thinking, knowledge, politics, opportunities for people to engage in community, and so we started developing shorter- and longer-term projects for LGBTQ youth.

That created a very natural segue to realize that there are not enough opportunities for queer and trans young people beyond queer-specific spaces, so we started doing more equity-based trainings and workshops within communities and spaces that were doing youth-service work in order to try and create more space that was a little bit safer and more accountable to LGBT youth.

Through that entire process, [we were] always going back to our community and the relationships that we had and have continued to build with our community: SOY, the 519 and the youths that we run programs and projects with. That’s why so many of the youth from three years ago that were in projects are still tightly connected to the work that we do.”

Filth: What is the history behind the term “Spectrum”?

Kim: Spectrum was a term that I heard first used by Andrew Abbott. He is a young person who is in the Triangle Program. He gave me the term “Spectrum” to use, because he suggested that the acronym is long and, for some people, cumbersome. It is a way of including both the terms that are listed in the acronym but also the ones that aren’t listed, recognizing that queer and trans identities look very different culturally all over the world, and also based on time and a whole bunch of other social markers that don’t often get included in the very Euro, Western framing of gender and sexuality.

In terms of advocating for more groups to use this term, I think that language is difficult. English is a colonizing language, and I think we have to be conscious of what that means. I also do fundamentally advocate for the creation of new language that better speaks to what happens in our communities and not to allow language to be something that is handled in a top-down kind of way.

I think people should use it if they resonate with it, and I also think that, you know, they shouldn’t use it. But I do think there is value in the same way that “woman of colour” was a term that was chosen for political reasons to organize behind. I think that there can be value in choosing terms, as a community, to organize behind.

Filth: What roles do art and art making play in addressing “social and political barriers affecting Spectrum youth and beyond”?

Naty: We use art in three really big ways to “address social and political barriers affecting Spectrum youth”. One, expressive arts. We integrate expressive arts in every program that we do, because it’s a space for young people to work through challenges in our lives, for us to work through hurt and trauma without necessarily always having language to describe it. Being able to visualize it, embody it, release it, deconstruct it can be super healing.

On top of that, the import of us getting our stories out there. Telling our stories and putting them out in as many places as possible: huge! It’s self-affirming to be given a venue and a space to just articulate who we are and how we self-identify. And then to reclaim space, because mainstream media isn’t doing it for us in any way, shape or form, and they’re not going to in the near future. So trying to claim more public space with diverse images of queer and trans young people is huge.

And then, third, art is a way to celebrate ourselves. Creating events and programs that showcase a bunch of different art made by young people, talking about themselves in community is so important. That kind of affirmation builds confidence and self-love as individuals and in groups, strengthens family bonds, all this stuff. So art to us is radical and fundamentally necessary in the programs that we run for young people and beyond.

Filth: As an arts group, how do you engage with ideas around cultural appropriation and self-representation?

Kim: Cultural appropriation has to do with power and privilege, and I think that we really try to seat our analysis in that. When the dominant class of people—white, male, able-bodied, wealthy—appropriate or use other types of culture, and the people who created it don’t get the money or the praise for it, that that’s really where the problem with cultural appropriation comes in. And also the ways that people of colour are often shamed for their own cultural practices, and they’re considered to be savage or backward. Then when white folks do it, it’s “new age,” “radical” or it’s “cool.”

We do a session around what it means to be inspired by other cultures and what the difference between that and cultural appropriation is. I think that, as an artist, you absolutely will be inspired by a variety of different things, but we really emphasize how important it is for our participants to be experts of their own experiences, for the to speak for themselves really loudly and take up space in those ways. We have so much of our own lived experience that we need to hear about, even before we get to the places where we’re talking about another culture.

I also think that it becomes a little more tricky when you get into communities of colour. You know, as a black woman, I identify with being of African descent, but my ability to describe where that comes from is very different, because of slavery. So when I identify with Africa or Blackness, then it’s in a very different way than someone who might know their family history is able to do. So I think we have to leave room for that, for the reconstruction of our stories, for the creation of new experiences and new identities, and for the fusion of different cultural experiences as part of the diaspora when we talk about cultural appropriation and representation.

Filth: How important is it to your work that the work be self- and community-directed?

Naty: First and foremost, we centre the work that we do in our lived experiences and the lived experiences of those who are allied with us in community and the youth who we develop programs around. We can start from our own lived experiences, and that’s the best place to start when doing political organizing, and that definitely informed our initial inclinations to run programs for queer and trans youth.

We try and create community councils, spaces where we can share curriculum with a wider audience of people who are invested in queer pedagogy, invested in queer liberation, queer arts, all of these things, and that’s how our curriculum, I would argue, is as strong as it is. Because we get ideas, perspectives, critique on every element. We also try to create spaces in programs for queer artists to facilitate, to integrate their ideas and knowledge all along the way and to develop programs that are participatory. There is some fixed curriculum and then so much more space in every single session that is just about allowing participants to guide what we’re talking about, because their interests lie there.

We believe deeply in transformative justice and community accountability and when we’re open and transparent about those things, that those are things that we value and centre in our organizing, then we’re better able to do that, better able to practice preventative measures that allow things to be accessible, healing, transformative, etc. Acknowledging that is an organic process and is shifting and changing all the time.

Filth: Are there different types of membership available, as in participant, volunteer, staff, board member, supporter, extended family member?

Naty: The work that we do in community is about building family. Definitely, in terms of programs and projects, roles that exist there are participants, young people, but we also try to, through the program, deconstruct the notion of participant. Facilitators and participants can be exchanging roles all the time, especially when you’re intentionally creating participatory learning opportunities. In those spaces we bring in communities artists as experts, as educators and as art makers. The requirements are really just that they’re doing whatever they can to express themselves artfully, and that of course can be broad. We work with staff, volunteers, contract staff, full- and part-time staff, depending on what kind of projects we are working on. We like to think that the different boards, councils and committees that we sit on in community are also a part of our community, and we draw a lot of insight and information and mentorship from the relationships that we have in those spaces.

There’s definitely tons of supporters within our network, the family of the people project from across the LGBT community. Elders are hella important to us, and that’s folks from the LGBT community but also black and brown communities, from First Nation communities, and that’s informing our curriculum, our research, the projects and advocacy campaigns that we work in. Definitely love having volunteers and interns, because that’s just another opportunity to nuance the roles of participant, facilitator, research, all of those things. I think that people can step into those different roles depending on where their skills shine, and we try really hard to create those spaces in the programs and projects and events that we throw.

Most importantly, we try to make places for people to feel like they’re welcome and they belong. I think that’s one of the most beautiful things that we hear from people who have participated in projects and events that we’ve organized, that they feel a feeling of belonging, that they feel like they’ve been loved, they’ve been held, they’ve been seen, and that they have developed familial relationships, they have a chosen family. That’s resounding in its evidence because we still have relationships with people that we met five years ago and who were in projects and programs and who are still really invested in the work, personally and professionally. So yeah, we’re working towards extending our family as much as possible.

I want to also throw in that we believe fundamentally that love as a political principal is necessary and radical within queer communities and queer communities of colour, and that is a driving force for much of the programming that we develop. Hence why you can create the trust and support for people to feel belonging and cared for.

Filth: Are there specific projects coming up for which you are looking for volunteers or participants?

Kim: We will be launching OutWords sometime next year, so that’s definitely something to look out for. Our youth are programs are always something that we really encourage really broad and wide participation in. This year we’re doing quite a few events. We’re doing an exhibition around gender, this time exploring more femmacentric gender. Last year we explored more masculinecentric gender. We also are hosting a few different community dialogues in different ways over the next little bit, and we are going to be bringing in a couple people from outside of the city, including the Revival, which is a touring, queer, black poetry group and also Nina Fillmore, who’s coming in to talk about gender, sexuality and queer porn.

We welcome volunteers anytime. People who would like to be able to support us in terms of our administration, even though that’s maybe not the most fun thing for a lot of people. Anyone who ever wants to help with grants or filling or helping us get our website up and plug-in information. We try to share as much information, so anyone who’s down to do social media stuff, that’s always awesome. Also, people who want to physically be down to support the work. We do a lot of support for the groups that we work with, including ILL NANA or Colour Me DRAGG. At all of their events, we volunteer in one capacity or another. That’s one of the ways we give back, so anytime we can have more bodies to support in that process and also to get engaged. Our communities are incredible, we’re so blessed to be a part of them.

Nat: I’m going to throw in also research. There’s infinite research that can be done about the LGBT community historically, around the world, amazing organizing that’s happening around the world, just across the border and certainly across our city. And social networking and online research is huge at connecting and learning more about what we’re doing. Also, people who have creative ideas for curriculum that’s looking at deconsctructing the roots of homophobia, the arts, all these things, we’re always excited to have more people help in that process.

Plus, check them out at their new offices above the recently collectivized Glad Day Bookshop, Canada’s oldest LGBT bookstore. The address is 598A Yonge Street, stay tuned for a move-in date!

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