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Action LGBTQ avec les immigrantEs et réfugiéEs / Action LGBTQ with Immigrants and Refugees (AGIR)

November 4, 2013

“As critical race theorist Kimberle Crenshaw has noted, it is not enough to be
sensitive to difference; we must ask what difference the difference makes.
Instead of saying, how can we include women of color, women with disabilities,
etc., we must ask what our analysis and organizing practice would look like if we
centered them in it. By following a politics of re-centering rather than inclusion,
we often find that we see the issue differently, not just for the group in question,
but everyone.”

-Andrea Smith, “Without Bureaucracy, Beyond Inclusion: Re-centering Feminism.” Left Turn. January 2006

If intersectionality is the framework through which we can picture each individual and each community at the convergence point of overlapping systems of power, then re-centering is the tool we use, at each foci of marginalization and exploitation, to cut loose that web, one strand, one node at a time. No longer will the middle-class or bourgeoisie set the tone of discussion but rather those with the least power in society.
agir-logo There are few groups that embody this ethos better than AGIR. Working closely with queer and trans migrants, they seem to effortlessly balance both direct service for those most in need with campaign work that aims at long-term solutions to the problems facing their peers. Working directly with immigrants and refugees facing homophobic and/or cissexist policies back home, they do more than connect people to survival resources, more than bring the battle to parliament; they prioritize that most crucial of all tasks, empowering participants with the tools and space to become leaders and agents of change in their own lives.
While many groups might voice this priority, it can be a difficult and time-consuming promise to fulfill. It can be easier and even more sustainable to support only those keen young organizers who demand such attention, who make it clear that they want the tools of activism. But what about those who don’t feel that confident, that driven, or who don’t even know that leadership could be an option? Try following AGIR’s lead and institutionalize that process.

The core decision making body of AGIR is its board of directors. There are six board members and three coordinators, all of which make decisions together, horizontally and through consensus. One of the three coordinators must be trans and one must be female with the third spot being open. On top of that, board member Valeria Tovar explained that they “don’t want it to be run in the future by someone who hasn’t immigrated” and went on to emphasize the refugee experience. This should be an easy enough proposition to fulfill, given that many of their current board members originally came to AGIR as participants themselves looking for assistance in a new city.
The first step in realizing this goal is prioritizing for leadership positions the kind of people that would otherwise be talked over or ignored. When I spoke with Edward Lee, a long-time board member, he emphasized that their “main priority [was] to centre experiences of queer and trans migrants.” These are their peers, people who come to AGIR for assistance. By actively working with and seeking out the very people they hope to preen for leadership positions, they are taking that initiative. Political engagement becomes one more essential service that AGIR offers.
When someone is somehow connected to AGIR, be it through friends or professional alliances, they are paired with somebody already involved. Their 1-on-1 support system, like a mentor or a friend, provides that very first line of engagement: emotional support. This is someone to talk to, someone to confide in and someone to ask for help. It’s difficult work for both parties but essential. From there, the newer member is connected to whatever resources they might need. Mostly at this point, a person might just have questions to ask or anxieties to talk out. Nobody is more qualified at this stage than someone who has gone through immigration themselves. Afterwards, should they need something more advanced, AGIR has amassed an impressive network of sympathetic doctors, social workers, therapists and legal advisers. AGIR’s 2013 Annual Report reads:
“The various kinds of accompaniment and support work activities includes: active listening, peer support, referrals related to legal services, housing, education, healthcare, social services and employment, providing accurate information about immigration and refugee processes, providing letters of support for the refugee hearing, Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) appeals, sponsorship applications, Pre-Removal Risk Assessment (PRAA) and Humanitarian and Compassionate Grounds Permit (H & C), employment rights advocacy.”

With the immigration system being what it is, there is only so much any person or any group of people can do. If someone’s application to stay in “Canada” is accepted or if they are forced to live in hiding, then they are able to contribute back to AGIR. They might volunteer as a facilitator in the peer support program, join the board or join one of the new committees that AGIR is developing for specific projects and programs. If, however, they are part of the thousands that are annually refused residency, then they have the option of asking for campaign support. This has taken the shape of fundraising, public awareness campaigns and even advocating before bureaucratic bodies. Please do read their Annual Report for more details.
Beyond individual cases, AGIR has also waged high-profile battles against immigration reform bills C-11 and C-31. As mentioned earlier, AGIR has significant connections to service providers and various professionals involved with immigration reform, queer activism and trans liberation. Having already established their credibility and effectiveness in these realms, they were then able to tap into those connections to get out their message. Movement building at its finest, we saw LGBTQ/Spectrum organizations coming out in support of refugees and immigration activists making space for their trans and queer sisters and brothers.
Upcoming collaborations include a deep training on leadership and collectivism with Organization Unbound and a collaboration with the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. While the Centre originally got in touch with AGIR to comment on the oft-sidelined genocide of queers and gender non-conforming communities by Nazi Germany, AGIR countered with an offer to discuss the on-going structural violence people face at the hands of homophobic and cissexist immigration systems. If you think your organization could benefit from AGIR’s extensive expertise, they are always looking for new alliances like this one with the Holocaust Centre.

Ways to get involved
1-on-1 support – They are in the process of re-structuting this system, expanding the pool of volunteers who can provide support and providing practical training for everyone involved. This will probably involve a serious time commitment and long-term involvement. Anyone interested in more information can contact Christina Olivieri at christina [AT] agirmontreal.org

research – Are you studying migration studies or queer studies? AGIR has some research suggestions for you. They need documentation to prove that queer and trans immigrants and refugees exist, to discuss the issues surrounding that existence and to argue policy reform.

translation and interpretation – French, English and Spanish are most needed, but if you speak or read another language, consider letting them add you to their database of potential allies.

donations – AGIR has an emergency fund that is regularly tapped into for food, housing, legal needs, etc. Please consider holding a fundraiser for them, considering them for institutional support or pitching in when an emergency callout for funds gets circulated.

get in touch – If you are in urgent need of support, email AGIR at info [AT] agirmontreal.org with the word “URGENT” in the subject heading. If you are just looking to get in touch, offer support or get more info, you can still email them at that address or else visit their website at http://www.agirmontreal.org

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