It was standing-room only at Pulse Jul 9 as members of the queer community packed the Davie St club for a town hall to envision a full-service community centre and discuss what components such a place might feature.
Hosted by Xtra West, the town hall followed several months of heated discussion sparked by news in April that the directors of Qmunity (formerly The Centre) were considering moving the community’s current facility out of the West End.
“Now is the time to start dreaming and planning for our own space,” Little Sister’s co-owner Jim Deva told the crowd in the opening panel.
“We need a home to come home to. We could be together in our own facility and learn from each generation what magic and what power that we have. I think it’s time that we started believing in that,” he said.
“We’re sort of foreigners in our own country,” he continued. “We have our own community and our own community consists of a diverse group of people, all coming together.”
Other panelists presented successful community centre models, as well as concrete ways to raise the substantial funds required to launch a new gay space.
“All it takes is a big vision, strong leadership and a will to collaborate,” said panelist Steven RodRozen.
“Don’t ask for too little and make sure you ask for absolutely everything that you want,” advised panelist Michael Harding. “Because folks, you only get one kick at the can. All the money you need is available to do what you want to do.
“There is a kind of political window going on right now in British Columbia and with the city which you can walk through and get money but you have to look like a united community,” he said. “You have to make that political will happen.”
Participants were then asked to break into six groups to brainstorm what they would like to see in a new community centre, who the stakeholders might be and what each person would be willing to contribute to the process to make it happen.
The youth table presented its wish list first. Spokesperson Daniel Ellis called for a performance theatre, an art gallery, a portrait collection of pioneering queers, a gym, youth services and a youth wing, sex-positive space, a dungeon, a café, a library, a clinic, office and conference space, counselling services and more.
The other tables echoed many of the same suggestions and added more of their own, such as a living room and casual spaces in which to drop-in and socialize, a seniors centre, archives, recreational space, daycare services, a crisis line and life skills training, a kitchen and a community garden.
Without exception, table after table called for a performance space or theatre. The consensus was that a new community centre should be multi-purpose, full of spaces in which to socialize, accessible and inclusive.
“We need a community centre and it needs to be represented by the whole community [and] we need to have many stakeholders from many organizations sitting at the table with this,” said Oliv, a transgendered outreach worker and facilitator at the BC Persons with AIDS Society. “I think we need to have the community involved and I think we need to move forward.”
Planning a multi-purpose community centre is too large a project for one organization to take on, said Pride Society president Ken Coolen; it must be a community effort and responsibility.
Coolen was pleased with the town hall’s diverse turnout. “There’s young, there’s old, there’s men, there’s women. There’s a really diverse group here and it’s nice to see that so many are behind the project,” he said.
Qmunity’s executive director Jennifer Breakspear said she was “thrilled” to see the turnout at the town hall. She urged participants to support her organization too.
“You have a community centre, people. You have a community centre that’s ready and willing to serve and support your community. We just need you there with us,” she said.
Breakspear pointed out that it’s not the first time the community has been consulted on what it would like to see in an ideal community centre. “We’ve done this before. We’ve developed a feasibility study. We have a plan. What we need is the will.”
Released in 2007, The Centre’s own feasibility study contains many of the same ideas presented at last week’s town hall, including a performance centre and a community café. April’s proposed site outside the West End contained none of the elements identified in that study.
“We are not holding this back, my friends, we’re ready to go,” Breakspear addressed the crowd.
“You want to talk about dreams? I’ve got dreams and some of them involve gatherings just like this, involve groups of people just like this lining up and putting their names on lists and saying, ‘I’m willing to commit. I will go to meetings. I will dream big with you. I will ask for money. I will go talk to politicians.’
“And I will go there with you,” she promised. “And my board of directors will go there with you. And we will build this community centre together.
“You’ve got one already but we can build it bigger, we can build it better. We can do more for you. But we can only do it with you.
“So please, please, while you are dreaming big — while you are dreaming that beautiful vision of that community centre that we all want — support the community centre you have now. Don’t let what you’ve got fall away in pursuit of dreams,” she urged.
“Support what we have now and dream with us,” she continued. “Let’s work on this together.
“It’s got to be a community initiative and I believe it has got to also involve Qmunity,” she concluded.
While some community members applauded Breakspear’s words, others were unimpressed.
“There’s a huge history of talking about the queer centre and nothing has happened,” said Laura McDiarmid. “We’ve been talking about a centre since I was a young dyke. This didn’t just stop and start with Jennifer. I’m sorry — this is a community effort and this is something that needs to happen and the time is now.
“And it doesn’t take someone going ‘I, I, I, me, me, me,” McDiarmid continued. “For this aging senior lesbian, I want, in my lifetime, to see a centre. I want to see it happen and if we keep dragging our heels it’s not going to happen,” she warned.
The meeting ended with an open call to join an exploratory team to compile the town hall findings and present recommendations and potential next steps to the community at a follow-up public forum. At least half the people in the room signed up.
Watch xtra.ca for more information in the coming weeks about the team’s first meeting.