When I first met Jeremy Dias, the founder of Jer’s Vision, it was 2007 and I was attending a talk by the Dalai Lama at the Ottawa Civic Centre. There were dozens of vendors outside the auditorium. Most were selling prayer beads, jewellery or clothing, but there were NGOs and nonprofits, too. One was Jer’s Vision.
As I browsed the tables before the talk, Dias approached me with a big smile. Within a minute, he had me signing something. A petition? An email list? I don’t remember, but anyone who knows Dias knows his infectious enthusiasm. He believes wholeheartedly in what he’s doing.
This is the work of Jer’s Vision: to get a few important messages out to thousands of people every year. Bullying must stop, kids deserve love and support no matter who they are, and there is nothing wrong with being gay or trans.
Jer’s Vision goes about its anti-bullying work in five main ways: educational workshops and presentations in schools and community organizations; conferences and professional development sessions that give both kids and adults tools to confront discrimination; arts initiatives, like an upcoming youth-led theatre project called The Bullying Monologues; collaborating and participating in communities; and anti-discrimination initiatives that provide youth with guidance, tools and resources.
As I chat with Dias, his co-worker Faye Estrella, Jer’s Vision’s new conference coordinator, interrupts to ask him a question about a group from Calgary that wants someone from Jer’s Vision to come there and give a talk.
“What’s the minimum number of kids we need to run it?” asks Estrella.
“Twenty-five,” says Dias. “If they can pull together at least 25 kids, we’ll run it.
“We fundamentally believe that we need to have some sort of dialogue in all communities and schools and spaces, so we’re willing to have those baby steps,” Dias say. “Then, hopefully, we’ll grow those schools and communities.”
Because Dias is known for his unshakeable vision to end all bullying, most people think the name Jer’s Vision came out of that lofty goal, but the story behind the name is altogether more random.
In high school, Dias had a lot of trouble finding a part-time job. No matter where he went, people assumed he was an immigrant who couldn’t speak English. At last a café owner gave him a chance with an off-the-wall job.
“We used to go to this psychic. She ran a café called Enchanted Cups, and I finally got a job there reading tarot cards,” Dias remembers.
When business started to pick up, Dias had to manage his own schedule, so he had to get a business name. He settled on Jer’s Vision.
Later, when he started his nonprofit, he decided the name worked well for both. It also meant he wouldn’t have to change his email address. Bonus.
Like many gay teens, Dias was bullied in high school. He came out at the end of Grade 10 and, from that point on, was harassed relentlessly — by teachers and students alike. The apathy of the school board made it all the worse: Dias could find no allies.
“I hated going to school,” says Dias, who recalls one day when a fellow student tipped him off his desk chair. He hit his head on a radiator, but all the students, and even the teacher, laughed. “I got bullied a lot. I got picked on, and I got beaten up.
“My school failed to provide me with a safe place to learn, which was supposed to be guaranteed under my human rights. I wasn’t allowed to go to prom with my partner, I couldn’t put up posters, I had a rainbow sticker on my bag and a teacher ripped it off. And anytime anyone picked on me — teacher or student — no one ever got in trouble.”
At age 18, Dias launched an Ontario Human Rights Commission complaint against his high school and the Algoma County School Board.
In 2005, when Dias was in third-year university, a letter from the school board arrived in the mail along with a $5,000 settlement cheque. He had won his case. Dias decided to use the cheque as seed money for an initiative to help youth fight bullies and discrimination. It would eventually become Jer’s Vision.
“It was really exciting, actually. It felt very validating,” Dias says. “In addition to the $5,000, they also had to train all of the staff on the board on diversity. They started gay-straight alliances at two high schools, and the school board would pay your bus tickets or your cab to go if you weren’t at the right schools. All the libraries had to get new books, too. A couple teachers and my principal and the director of the board took early retirement and will not be allowed to teach again.”
At first, Dias and his friends decided they would dole out the money into small annual scholarships for youth who were working on anti-bullying initiatives in their schools. Dias and his friends held a fundraiser in the fall of 2005 to raise more money for the scholarship fund. They doubled the amount in one night. Once a couple corporate sponsors came on board, some programming options opened.
“As soon as we started advertising workshops, we just could not meet the need,” Dias says. “We were asked to do conferences and workshops and staff training. There was no way for us to keep up with the demand, even just locally.”
Seven years later, Jer’s Vision has one paid staff member, a handful of committed people who receive honoraria for their work, a youth-only board and a constant influx of high school co-op students leading the charge on a variety of projects.
“I’ve been here about a month and a half, and it’s been awesome,” says co-op student Hannah Collins, 17. “I did the speech for the Ontario Bar Association for this conference they were having about [Ontario anti-bullying] Bill 13. Right now, I’m working on a project for the new gender identity bill. I’m contacting Conservative MPs to find out whether they know about and support this law. Then we’re going to do a series of viral videos and an online petition.”
Estrella thinks it’s a positive thing that Jer’s Vision is still very new and always changing.
“What I’m pretty happy about it is to be able to come here and say, ‘I want to offer anti-oppression training, I want to be able to offer gender diversity training within this group of volunteers and make sure everybody here is on the same page.’ I’m excited that I can come in and have ideas like that. The structure is so fluid.”
One of Jer’s Vision’s most visible projects to-date is The Day of Pink, an international day to end bullying, homophobia and transphobia. People are encouraged to dress in pink on April 11 and host awareness-raising events in their communities. This year’s Day of Pink Gala will honour Rick Mercer and Jack Layton for their work in support of the queer community.
Day of Pink Gala
Wed, April 11, 6:30-9:30pm
Tabaret Hall, University of Ottawa
550 Cumberland St