Out There

Chronicles of a student of International Development




Our words and actions have it. And it’s easy to forget that when things line up the way we want them to. We realize most viscerally the differences between the weights of our words when we lack that weight, when our voices fall on deaf ears, and when others are heard over us.

This is what I want all you folks to have in mind when considering my post about Pride not being enough.

When I say that I want all you allies to whatever movement it is to work against oppression 365 days of the year, and that includes me too, so I’m there with you, I don’t want you all jumping up to champion a movement. You may be enthusiastic, you may want to do good, you may have the best of intentions, but this doesn’t mean we can go ignoring power dynamics here.

As a queer person, I want the LGBTQ movement to be led by LGBTQ people. I want the focus to be on us. So when allies to the movement get involved, it’s wonderful for the support, but we need to know that you’re not going to try and lead this movement.

I know you might feel guilty for the oppression of queer people that you see, but that doesn’t mean you can yell over my queer voice. Allies are important in supporting movements. They also need to realize that the same dynamics that created oppression also exist between allies and the people the movement is advocating for.

Straight allies still have privilege over queer people, even in conversations about LGBTQ topics. The same goes for abled people in conversations about disability, or white people in spaces for people of colour.

I highly recommend the video “I’m the Jerk” by Lindsay Jack, a K-W slam poet.

Her piece describes someone with privilege, unaware of the impacts he has on others, and not good impacts either. She then moves to talking about how “we’ve all been this guy”. Privilege isn’t exclusively male, there are many kinds of it intersecting many communities.

She concludes with a pledge to shut the fuck up. To shut up when no one is speaking to her, to shut up when in spaces where others are speaking their truth. She is making talking about being conscious of her privilege, to not using it to have her voice heard when it could drown out the voices of others.

And it’s not only in social justice circles that our voices drown out those of others, this is a crucial concept to be aware of in International Development. When I, a white, middle class, English speaking Canadian find myself in Nepal for 8 months, how will I use the weight of my voice to make myself heard? Will I use that weight for good, to lift others up, or will I use it for bad, to focus on my own ideas and perspective and take away from focus on others who may be more knowledgeable or be more impacted by the situation?

So, friends, let us go forward in our attempts to make the world a better place with awareness of when our voices carry weight. And let us make sure that as allies to others, we aren’t stealing thunder or spotlight or focus or voice.




Pride isn’t Enough

I finished this year’s Toronto Pride festivities like a christmas tree. That is to say, dehydrated and covered in tinsel. Well, maybe not tinsel, but there was glitter. Lots and lots of glitter.

(Stole that joke from the show Bob’s Burgers, no humour credit for me)

This is my second year going to Toronto Pride and as a young queer who tries to be out and proud 365 days of the year, I have really mixed feelings about Pride. So I’m going to share some of them with you.

  1. Loving – Going to pride is like going home. The LGBTQ community is unique in that this tie that binds us together isn’t one passed genetically (not in the same way community ties like race can be). So places with other queer people are comfortable. It’s a place where you can feel represented, where you can see people like you.
  2. Normal – During Pride I can hold hands with my trans partner and not get looks from the people around me. People can be public with their relationships and it’s not strange like it is outside of this space. Along the same lines, the attention gained by gender bending and presenting in ways way outside the boxes of expectation don’t get the same kind of looks as they do out of this space. We’re celebrated and we can celebrate.
  3. Extreme! – Pride brings out the loudest and proudest in people. They range from fully clothed to topless to completely naked. There are fabulous drag queens, cosplayers, and more leather daddies than you can shake a paddle at. People play up the sexuality and there are loads of sex toys and kink items to be purchased from the many vendors. Other vendors hire people (I’d wager mostly men, honestly) to dress in skimpy outfits to market their products. This ace person gets kinda tired of the sexy nature of it sometimes, but to each their own. *shrug*
  4. Exotic – that said about normalcy, in some ways there is an element of an exotifying gaze that is felt at times at Pride. And sometimes I wonder how much of Pride is LGBTQ people coming and celebrating ourselves, and how much is straight people coming to gawk at all of us in our hyper-sexual, gender bending glamour.
  5. Political – People debate whether Pride should be about going out and having fun as ourselves, or if it should include space for the politics of our community as well. There are some who want to put down the signs and stop protesting and advocating for a week each year, and some who say that by de-politicizing pride we’re losing an essential segment of the things that makes this community what it is.

Pride is salvation from the heteronormative soup I swim in every day. It’s also a convenient attraction to be watched by people I worry may not have very happy intentions.

I like to go out to Pride and just enjoy myself. But one sign in the parade hit me hard this year. It read, and I’m paraphrasing, “Today we are your spectacle. Tomorrow we go back to homelessness, poverty, discrimination, etc.” And that’s an important element to hold onto.

Pride festivities come and go but we still have jobs to worry about, discrimination to endure, families to come out to, and medical professionals to dread. Pride has merit in bringing people together, showing us others who are similar, it allows us to connect with resources and community groups we may desperately need.

But Pride isn’t enough. It’s only a small part of the queer work we do the rest of the long year. So for all the allies out there who like coming to Pride to show your support, my challenge to you is that you expand that support to more than a week, or a weekend, or a day a year. See what roles there are to help LGBTQ people gain access to resources and services in your area. Learn more about us and support the LGBTQ people around you.

We don’t get a break, not even during Pride. And I challenge you to be mindful of that.



Finding Balance

I used to be a ballet dancer. I took lessons for 13 years and consider it to have been an important constant in my life.

There are many fundamentals to dancing, and in the same way that you can’t run before you can walk, it’s crucial to understand the basics before you start trying gargouillades or strings of pirouettes.

One of these basics is balance.

Sometimes you just have on or off days when it comes to balance. Something just isn’t lining up right and all your turns and arabesques are a little bit off. But balance can be improved, and there are tips and tricks to doing so.

One thing that’s important is knowing yourself. Where is your centre of gravity? What parts of you are strongest? Weakest? Knowing these things means you can account for them.

It’s interesting after developing the training and awareness to have more consistent balance how thinking about it varies. When it’s there, it’s there. When it’s not then a lot of thought and effort goes into trying to find it. Maybe if I alter my ankle positioning slightly, or if I adjust my hip placement. Is my weight shifted to the wrong part of my foot?

But when you have it, then it’s breathing, and feeling the strength of that solid position, maintaining it and trusting it.

I find that balance in dance has parallels with balance in the rest of my life. And I’m still doing a lot of learning about myself.

I struggle to manage shifting commitments with the time I have to conduct them. When there are things to be done, I have difficulty finding time for myself. And when I fail to find time for myself then I burn out and become incapable of functioning.

My physical balance may be something I know well and am familiar with. I know the quirks of my body and how it all lines up. But I don’t have that with my mental and emotional balance.

This has been emerging as a problem this term. Between 4 courses, two jobs, placement preparations, and an attempt at a social life before I leave for 8 months, Finding time for some of those things and time for me has been a struggle.

And how will this balancing act change on placement when all the commitments are different and the time arrangement will likely be completely different too.

I suppose the lesson here is that if I relax and trust myself then maybe I’ll find that my balance is better than I’d thought when I was busy worrying about it. And that the more I work at it, the more I’ll know about me, and the closer I’ll get to finding that balance.

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Actors big and small

An “actor” in the International Development context refers to a significant player in a certain situation or project. Usually, an actor represents a group, a perspective presumed to have distinct interests and an investment in the outcomes of the scenario.

If the World Bank wants to build a dam in Thailand, some actors would be: the Thai government, the World Bank, the villages in the area where the dam will be built, and the companies contracted for constructing the dam.

Establishing knowledge of the actors and their interests and dynamics is often a key part of understanding the environment in which we’re participating in development work. But a lot of the time we forget that actors aren’t just big unified voices yelling a certain opinion.

Often, I think, we forget that “Actors” as groups are made up of “Actors” as individuals.

The capital-G Government is made up of people, some of whom are going to be related through social or familial connections to people who make up the Villages. Even companies and international institutions are made up of individual people with relationships with others. (As much as ignoring that fact allows us to easily villainize big institutions for development we don’t see as being effective)

Figuring out how actors interact with each other is tough enough, but when you consider the ever smaller actor groups and then finally individual actors, getting a whole picture looks really daunting. (At least that’s how I see it right now as I start to give serious thought to how I’ll see and think about development when I’m on placement in 3 short months)

Or perhaps what looks like added complexity is a step closer to the big picture. And in understanding how what seem like insignificant ties between individual actors impact the big picture we can better navigate the environments we find ourselves in and sort out these actor dynamics.

And here we are again, reaffirming that development is enriched through a holistic approach, and it’s always about people.

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Development at home: the St Jacobs Farmer’s Market

This summer and last, I’ve worked at the world famous St. Jacobs Farmer’s Market. It’s a pride and joy of Waterloo Region residents, tourist hub, champion of local foods and crafts, and a very interesting place to work.

When I started at the market doing the ever glamorous job of frying eggs and putting sausages on buns, I had an odd feeling that my time with this community was going to be a significant learning experience, and that it would impact how I think about development.

I arrived with a peripheral involvement in the market, my family has purchased goods from vendors there for as long as I can remember. I thought I was part of that community, and I was, in a certain sense. But working there made me see a whole new level to the market community.

I started to get to know the vendors, figuring out how pricing works for vendors compared to customers, the semi-joking competition for good employees, and interesting relationship between the formal market employees and the vendors. There were many mistakes I made, and not just the obvious ones like burning sausages, but the subtle ones you don’t see coming, like peeving your boss for charging a vendor full price for food when you’ve never met them before.

This all required me to invest in the community, in understanding their coordinates and finding how I fit in.

Another way my investment in this community impacts me is in the effects of the challenges it faces. The most obvious being the fire last year and all the changes that has brought to the market and its vendors.

Not only did many vendors loose goods in the fire itself, but changes in vendor locations and layout caused sales for some vendors to drop dramatically. There were frustrated accounts about dealings with insurance companies, and the dialogue around changes to vendor spot allocations, parking, and new buildings are ongoing.

Another challenge this year has been the weather. Cool days through April and into May impact not only the market attendance but also the ability of the farmers to get into the fields. The weather is better now, for which I’m eternally grateful, but the difference of a couple weeks can have a huge impact on the growing season. These are things which genuinely worry me in a different way than they have before, and my joy at warmer weather now has many layers due to its connection to the vendors I have come to know.

To conclude, there are two development lessons here.

  1. Spend the time and energy to understand the coordinates of the community you’re in, and find your place in it. My experiences at the market have necessitated this. Though a language barrier will certainly change my ability to do that on placement, I have a better understanding of how important this is to enhance your experiences when working within the community in question.
  2. Invest in and work to understand the issues the community faces. I don’t know what to do about the weather or fires or market politics, but seeing it and understanding how it works is certainly a first step. Listening to the vendors and their interactions with these issues is an important role to play. And even if I define that role right now as only being “cook of eggs and peameal”, in reality it involves so much more, just as the potential role of “website builder” or “report editor” may not seem important when I’m on placement, but perhaps I can see the hidden value as I now see the value I bring at the market.

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Learning from bearded ladies

Conchita Wurst’s win of Eurovision which can (and should) be watched here has been causing all kinds of discussion and controversy within and beyond Europe.

The basics is that a drag queen known as Conchita Wurst from Austria won this year’s Eurovision. Her performance of the song Rise Like A Phoenix is spectacular to take in. Also, an essential element of Conchita’s presentation as a drag queen is her dark black beard. And this is where the real controversy comes in.

Now I’m no stranger to discourse of gendered expectations for presentation, but this response posted on one of my professor’s doors got me thinking a bit harder.

The first reaction I had was one of amusement. The hypocrisy of the Russian Orthodox Church has been pointed out. It’s funny.

But my second response was one of more confusion. Why is it that one bearded person in a dress can be criticized for those qualities by another person with the same qualities? Who gets to say what is adequate gender conformity? And where does power come into play in this question of women with beards or men in dresses?

And thank heavens the buses are so poorly scheduled on Sunday cause I found myself with a 30 minute walk uptown to try and figure it out.

Firstly, the ROC is privileged to have tradition on its side, and for the general public, we have tradition in the scourge of the gender binary to dictate behaviours for our day to day lives. Two different worlds, one where a certain dress associated with religion has been long acceptable for men to don, and the other where the binary still subtly rules and tells us how it is appropriate to act and present one’s self.

So for all those of you giving small chuckles and saying “yeah yeah, but it’s different”, yes. The context is different, but why does that make the gendered expectations different? And where does power come in?

The fact of the matter is that some men in dresses hold high social standing and some are gender deviants who should be shown their place. And the difference between the two is in where we place them in our social order.

Gender is about power, and we can learn a lot from understanding when gender is used as a power play. One way this is done is through reinforcing the gender binary.

Men, don’t wear make up, no dresses or skirts, come to think of it, no pink either, just in case. Women, please emulate men because as we all know, being a man is significantly better than being a woman, but don’t be too manly, make sure your outfit is shapely but not too revealing. Oh, and ladies, no body hair. Just, no.

That’s one enforcement of power that we should be fairly familiar with. Often a group with power will use the gender binary to keep other groups in its clutches, whether that’s in the form of the church telling off women with beards or men telling me I’d be prettier if I wore more makeup.

But importantly, another use of gender as a power play is when we mix it up. And when we won’t apologize. Non-conformity such as obviously feminine presentation with a beard confidently alongside, or masculine presentation with beautifully crafted make up, or perhaps a delightfully androgynous mix of everything, is radical action.

And again, whether you’re enforcing or smashing the binary, at the end of the day we’re reminded that it always comes down to context and power.


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Monday development negativity

As usual, reading the news is an activity I believe is important for the line of study and work I’m interested in, but is not a very enjoyable way to pass the time. And I can’t help but wonder, as I have many a time before, if the number and intensity of conflicts around the globe are actually increasing or if I’m simply becoming more aware of the world around me.

I’m full of fear and apprehension about the future. The understanding I have gained of conflict from the colonial and cold war eras is not helping to reduce my paranoia about current hostilities.

If the conflicts of today are simply old poison in new bottles, then I can’t help but worry that maybe its second crack at killing us will be successful.

What can I do about such things as international conflicts? What can we do about clashes between global superpowers? What can be done when we aren’t even members of the aggressive nations? And what can be done when we are?

I don’t know.

I just don’t know.

Okay, that’s not entirely true.

So don’t y’all go quoting Margaret Mead at me or telling me to sleep in the room with a mosquito. I’m sure all of you have had the development blues at one point or another. Goodness knows this isn’t my first time at this rodeo.


I know that my actions have power and it is the collective actions of many individuals who are passionate which generates change.

I know there have  been movements and activists and movers and shakers before me who have made great gains and there will still be those people long after I’m gone.

I know that all I have is my own capacity, my own time, and my own resources. And I will do what I can. I will use this capacity and time and resource base to improve the state of the world. And I can hope that others will do the same, and together we will make things better.

But today, I can’t help but wonder if it’ll be enough.