Newly hired Jer’s Vision educational coordinators Hannah Collins and Cameron Aitken have transformed from bullied teens into confident leaders as they have travelled to schools across the city giving workshops on queer life.
The workshops are question-based and follow an open format where students are encouraged to be inquisitive by asking any question regarding queer life. The coordinators, both 18, say this structure allows students to feel comfortable discussing sexually charged topics.
“We don’t have a big board with things we write,” Collins says. “It’s not like students sitting down and listening to us talk. It is all discussion-based.”
There’s no question too taboo, Collins says. If there is an inappropriate question, they will come up with an appropriate answer.
“We’ve had curious questions and not-well-informed questions,” Aitken says. “I was asked why I don’t like girls.”
While attending high school in Sault Ste Marie, Aitken was an insecure and unconfident teen, he says, and classmates who used homophobic language picked on him.
“My school wasn’t a safe space in the sense that there hadn’t been a lot done to address diversity, homophobia and transphobia,” he says.
Luckily, for Aitken, his high school amalgamated with another institution to form Superior Heights Collegiate and he took the opportunity to start fresh. Aitken founded the first gay-straight alliance in his area and pushed for official days of pink and purple to recognize the plight of queer teens.
“In some ways, I think I was somewhat blind to any type of bullying that happened after a certain point because I just didn’t have the time,” Aitken says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t say it was a positive experience. I would say it was a defining experience.”
For Collins, the label “Hannah the queer” became a tiresome identity while attending Nepean High School.
“I liked my classes, my teachers and my friends, but I was that weird art rat, punker kid,” Collins says. “The rest of the school was very politely homophobic. Everything would be these awkward stereotypes.”
Collins credits Jer’s Vision for giving her the opportunity to express herself with like-minded people. After completing her co-op placement with the youth diversity initiative, she volunteered before applying for the educational coordinator position. Additionally, Aitken volunteered with Jer’s Vision before snagging his current position.
Jeremy Dias, Jer’s Vision’s founder, says Collins and Aitken stood out in a crowded field of applicants.
“They bring a real skill set, real honesty and experience to the table. We knew prior, but I did not expect them to be this good, this quickly,” Dias says. “Normally there is a learning curve, and it seems like they have just hopped over it.”
Their workshops are vital, as the curriculum in most Ontario schools jumps right over queer history, Dias says.
“LGBTQ communities don’t fit anywhere in the curriculum,” he says. “There’s no explicit mention of LGBTQ people or relationships. That’s where homophobia and transphobia come from. Getting our stories out is step one to addressing the systemic challenges we face on a daily basis.”
Hyacinth Haddad, communications coordinator for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, says the Jer’s Vision workshops offer important learning opportunities for students.
“These conversations are an important part of our commitment to developing student voice, character education and safe and caring learning environments,” Haddad says. “When we invite students to explore these issues, we create opportunities for them to identify shared interests and experiences and to celebrate our unique attributes.”
Looking forward, Collins and Aitken say they are working on conceptualizing a workshop specifically for upper-grade physical education classes. They would like to conduct workshops for middle-school kids to stop discrimination before it starts.
“As we let our own light shine we unconsciously give others permission to do the same,” Aitken says, quoting Nelson Mandela. “I think that personifies our work as we show the students what we have done and how we have persevered through bullying to educate them on queer life.”