The Big Fun music festival kicks off today, with Tansy and Hannah Epperson performing at The Ballroom on Roslyn. From the 25th to 29th, musical acts will take the stage at venues across the city. And tomorrow, January 26th, Big Fun and Manitoba Music are hosting a panel discussion at Fools & Horses about safer spaces in music. Conversation will take place between panelists Ashley Au, Jodie Layne, Leonard Sumner, Tyler Sneesby, Uzoma Chioma and Alexa Potashnik, moderated by Jen Zoratti from the Winnipeg Free Press, and will include question and response from the audience.
Panelist Uzoma Chioma is the founding member of Queer People of Colour (QPOC), an organization that works to “create safer spaces for queer and trans people of colour in the city.” In addition to throwing dance parties, hosting basketball games, artist talks and potlucks, the group also “provides support for newcomer refugee LGBTQ folks.”
QPOC produces its own clothing line as well. As Uzoma says, “Representation matters. When people see sweaters and hats with QPOC, they ask questions. ‘What does it mean? Why does it exist? What’s behind it?’ It’s important to be visible.”
Alexa Potashnik started Black Space. She affectionately calls it a baby still — the group turns one later this year. Black Space started with a Facebook group that serves as “a place to come decompress about experiences we are facing in the city regarding racism. A safe space where everybody can come and share stories.” As the Black Lives Matter movement picked up steam in the States, members began to ask when Winnipeg would start its own BLM chapter. Alexa explains that “because of certain political, social and economic factors that mean black people are not being disproportionately targeted and murdered by police in Winnipeg” some did not see the need for a Black Lives Matter movement in the city. Despite these criticisms, their first rally took place at the Legislative buildings on July 20th, 2016, and Alexa believes it was “the first time the movement was acknowledged in Winnipeg, where people from the community came together to express solidarity.”
After the first rally, which marked the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Black Space threw a second in support of Abdirahman Abdi, who was killed by police in Ottawa. Next, the group moved on to Nuit Blanche. As Alexa points out, the festival has a history of being “super white. There’s no way that since the inception of the festival, there’s no room to include people of colour. There are amazing artists, specifically in the newcomer African community here in Winnipeg.” The organizers of Nuit Blanche were receptive to their critiques, and Black Space’s event, aptly named Nuit Noire, was packed to the gills for much of the night. It featured a collection of talented painters, photographers, vocal percussionists and spoken word artists of colour.
FULL: What are your expectations for the panel?
Alexa Potashnik: I’m just hoping for the best. I want people to realize that we don’t do these things just to do them, there’s an actual need for safer spaces, not only for people of colour, but especially queer people of colour. There’s still a lot of anti-blackness racism even in the queer communities in Winnipeg.
Uzoma Chioma: There are people who own space in the city, and are working for their space to be a safer space, but have never been on the receiving end of oppression. They’ve never been in those unsafe situations they’re working to challenge.
As a person of colour, it’s interesting to fall into a demographic where you are you trying to create safer spaces, but don’t actually own a space. It’s very challenging.
FULL: There’s a certain amount of privilege tied into owning space, and a lot of business owners in the city are white males. That’s an interesting point you make about trying to create a safer space, but not actually having that same core understanding of what it’s like not to feel safe.
UC: Not an experiential understanding, and therefore there are gaps. You can learn something, you can read about it, you can get the training, but inevitably there are going to be gaps. You won’t fully grasp the intersectionality of those experiences. It’s great to see local business owners open to having these conversations with people who understand the gaps, and want to have them filled.
FULL: Are you being consulted by business owners about your experiences to help them create safer spaces?
UC: I wouldn’t say consulted. There are some people who are easier to approach about challenges and how their business operates. I think there are people in the city who have taken great steps to try and create safer spaces, who are also open to critical feedback.
There are many people who don’t understand what's at stake in approaching businesses as an event planner, somebody who wants to access a space. There’s a lot of risk in approaching someone in that position of power and calling them out or presenting an issue to them. You risk emotional well-being, financial well-being, and in some cases you risk your personal safety. People hear criticism, and can be very quick to pass judgement on those who are trying to create safer places for themselves.
AP: There’s a lot of nepotism. There are a few organizations who have reached out to Black Space, wanting to partner with us, but no restaurants or night clubs have reached out yet.
FULL: Do you feel comfortable talking about some of the experiences where you’ve felt unsafe?
AP: It can be hard for organizations to keep their spaces safe. It falls on the organization to make sure that all their attendees feel safe, but that doesn’t necessarily fall on the people who are coming. Their attitudes may not reflect the politics of the business. That’s a reality too.
Personally, I feel uncomfortable in predominantly white and male spaces. I might present as comfortable, but it’s in the attitudes, it’s in the psychology. I know I’m in a group that doesn’t share my same beliefs.
UC: I don’t think a lot of people recognize how bad racism in this city really is. It’s in every group. When I first started QPOC, there were a lot of people in the gay and queer community who questioned me. They chose to believe that because gay and queer people are on the receiving end of a type of oppression and marginalization, they couldn’t be racist. That’s completely untrue.
It can be as simple as going out to get lunch or coffee. It could just be a regular Tuesday, and someone on the other side of the counter says something racist and BOOM! there’s half your day gone. It impacts you. I don’t think people recognize what the impact of the accumulation of those micro aggressions or aggressions really are -- what the toll is on people. In creating the spaces we do, a large part of that is finding ways to minimize those experiences, to create a space where someone can walk in and feel comfortable, and that they’re represented here. To know, “I’m safe here as a black person, as a queer person, as a person of colour.”
People don’t understand the risk in standing up to people in those situations. It can be as simple as commenting on a page that posted something racist, saying, “That’s not okay.” People think that’s nothing, meanwhile you’re sitting at home getting all these messages from people on that page.
FULL: What can businesses in Winnipeg do to make more people feel safe?
AP: The hipster coffee culture of this city is very white — especially in its hiring practices.
UC: Black people drink coffee. People of colour drink coffee!
AP: The best coffee in the world comes from those countries! It goes back to the nepotism of this city.
I think it’s important for POC to open their own businesses too. As much as diversity representation is crucial and imperative for the advancement of the cultural dynamic in this city, and the world in general, I’m also very in favour for having those spaces that are just for POC. I respect what QPOC has done, and what I hope Black Space can do, creating a culture. It goes deep. I can’t really put words to it, but it is something that is so crucial.
UC: There are organizations or groups who call QPOC or Black Space and say, “Hey we want work with you on this thing.” They bring you into a meeting and the work is mostly done. They say they want to be more diverse, and they want to get us involved. But they’ve already done everything, and when something is built all white it doesn’t have an authentic feel of being diverse, being inclusive. That’s why you don’t see it and it doesn’t happen. You have these businesses or organizations whose mandate is to be diverse and inclusive, but at the foundation of what it is, there’s no diversity.
AP: So that’s exactly what their business is going to reflect.
FULL: And however well-intentioned they may be, they still don’t have, like you said before, an experiential understanding of your experience, so as hard as they’re trying, there are going to be gaps.
UC: There are going to be gaps, and it’s important to recognize that and take the initiative to ask questions. If you’re a white guy opening a business with five other white guys, and want to create as safe a space as possible, but there are no women, queer people, or people of colour involved, that’s who you need to be talking to in order to make your space safer.
AP: If they want to be authentically diverse and inclusive, find diverse business partners. You don’t always have to be friends with the people you run a business with, but everyone is going to bring something to the table. I agree with Uzoma that if a business isn’t diverse from its inception, I question its authenticity around diversity.
FULL: What are you hoping will come out of the panel discussion?
UC: A domino effect of organizations realizing that they haven’t really been great at reaching out to diverse groups, and a sense of accountability to live up to their mandates. Terms like diversity, representation and inclusion are used too loosely at this point. We want to see some concrete action behind those words.
AP: I think it’s a great opportunity for people who have created safer spaces to share what their motivation was behind it, and how they’ve gone about it. It’s a less intimidating way of promoting those values. I also think it’s a great opportunity for the people who work at creating safer spaces to get critical feedback.