I’ve got to hand it to Qmunity. For an organization with a once-questionable track record of community engagement, this summer’s consultation, launched May 27 with an all-day event, seems carefully thought out, transparent and sincere.
“We are very invested in having this be a hub for the entire LGBTQ community,” executive director Dara Parker told the nearly 120 people who joined Qmunity for a full day of discussions on community priorities and values.
Parker acknowledged that a full day is a big commitment and thanked the participants for their input. Their input, along with feedback gathered throughout the summer from an online survey and eight more focus groups, will help shape the new queer community centre that Qmunity has been entrusted and funded by the City of Vancouver to create.
A new building without people is “just a shell,” Parker and Qmunity board chair Morgan Camley repeated throughout the day, as they asked participants to reflect on the community’s current and future needs, and how best to meet them in a new facility.
Parker says she and the board began developing the consultation process the moment the city awarded them $7 million in community amenity funding for a new centre in December 2013. “As soon as we secured the money we knew that for it to be successful we needed to effectively engage the community,” she says.
So Qmunity enlisted an advisory panel of people from a cross-section of community groups to help plan the consultation process, secured funding to run it, and hired a neutral third party (the Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue) to collect the data and produce what will be a public report on its findings.
“We really want this to be community-driven,” Parker says. A community process, not a Qmunity process, she adds.
For an organization once seemingly steeped in its own perspective and less than proactive in seeking outside input, this shift towards broader consultation is a tribute to the new team that has gathered at its helm in the last few years.
“We’ve got to put the bad old days behind us,” Camley says, quickly clarifying that Qmunity has always done “excellent work” but perhaps suffered from a perceived disconnect from the community.
Camley hopes this summer’s consultation will bring more people back to Qmunity. “Because we can’t have a vibrant community centre unless it’s a diverse community where people feel ownership,” she says.
“We need people to feel like this is theirs,” she continues. “This [consultation] is not an exercise. This is genuine.”
Having spent the day observing May 27’s consultation and the obvious effort put into it, I believe Qmunity is genuine in its intention to involve the community in shaping the new centre.
I also believe that it’s planting seeds to help steer the community towards the overall vision that it considers most feasible, which is also valid, if a little limiting.
Qmunity brought in Maura Lawless, executive director of Toronto’s queer community centre, The 519, to extol the values of adaptive multi-use space in a community centre. It’s a more “agile, creative use of space,” Lawless says, and it gives the centre more opportunity to adapt to its constituents’ evolving needs.
An adaptive, flexible model has always been the clear answer, Parker says, particularly since Vancouver’s centre will likely be limited to just 900 square metres and a tight operating budget.
Years of failed capital campaigns and fizzled community involvement in building an ideal centre suggests Parker is right to be pragmatic, and spaces that can be used for, say, performances one day and a community yoga class the next are nothing if not practical.
“We want to get it right,” she says, “but we don’t want to let perfection be a barrier to advancing the project.”
I’m still reluctant to give up on the dream centre once envisioned by community members whose wish lists included a designated theatre, a gym, archives, a living room, a gallery and other such amenities. But after 30-plus years of failed attempts to build and finance that centre, I think I’m ready to temper those dreams and support Qmunity as it seeks the input it needs to shape the pragmatic centre of our more realistic dreams.