T hese days, many people seem to doubt the effectiveness of activism as a means for social change. Last weekend’s Got Your Back! workshop, however, demonstrated the ability of activism to raise awareness about and improve issues of social inequality in concrete ways. Drawing on speakers dedicated to a variety of causes, the forum not only addressed issues of both local and global importance, but also proposed direct ways in which the audience could get involved with these causes.
McGill undergrad Liam Olson-Mayes, one of the small group of Concordia and McGill students responsible for organizing the event, explained how Got Your Back! came into being: “A few months back we had the idea of creating a rad forum on support… There were a lot of issues we wanted to discuss. We contacted different organizations and chose which causes to focus on based on who responded.” Discussing the groundwork for Got Your Back!, Olson-Mayes emphasized the importance of the help of Dean Spade, an assistant professor at the Seattle University School of Law who spoke during “I Am What I Say I Am: A Panel On Self-Determination.” Olson-Mayes also explained that despite some on-campus publicity, the target audience for the workshop was not so much students as it was various non-profit organizations within the Montreal community, most of which were contacted directly. As Olson-Mayes revealed the efforts that went into planning the event, it became clear how Got Your Back! attracted representatives from so many diverse and interesting groups concerned with combating social inequality.
One of the highlights of the forum was a lecture entitled, “Dealing With It: Intense emotions and grief while organizing.” Gathered in a circle, the attendees first revealed their causes, diverse concerns ranging from feeding impoverished children to LGBT community activism. The main speaker, Pascale, then began to share her experience working at Stella, an organization that supports sex workers in Montreal. In her words, Pascale has seen “a lot of crazy shit.” She discussed the health and political issues surrounding sex work, bringing up an interesting point: “People think it’s chic to protest for gay rights and pro-choice rights. But they also think it’s chic to protest against sex work, and don’t realize the political consequences of their actions.” According to Pascale, the criminalization of sex work leads to legal troubles for Stella and can prevent sex workers from gaining access to the health resources the organisation provides.
In addition to sex workers, the lectures also focused on sexual assault victims, aid for migrants and refugees, the meaning of “safe space,” and provided a glimpse of the inner workings of the penal system. Most of the workshops were held in the same interactive and engaging manner: an informal yet informative lecture followed by an active question and answer session, and suggestions from the audience on how to resolve the set of problems facing a particular community.
Although one might have been turned off by the overwhelming lists of terms and causes used in Got Your Back!’s publicity materials, the lecturers, volunteers, and the atmosphere itself was nonetheless engaging. It was clear that those involved in the workshop stood that creating a comfortable environment for open discourse is the vital first step in getting people to engage in social action.