Digging In With ONN

Coalition building through Queer Vote Ontario

Episode Summary

Queer Vote Ontario is an historic coalition of 2SLBTQI+ organizations with an action plan to ensure queer and trans issues and solutions are on the agenda this election. Join us as the coalition’s co-founder Fae Johnstone shares the behind-the-scenes of how one tweet got it all started, and why we speak better and louder when there are more of us in the room. Guest biography: Fae Johnstone is executive director and co-owner of Wisdom2Action (W2A) and based on unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory in Ottawa, Ontario. She is an experienced community engagement expert, diversity and inclusion consultant, and project manager. Over her past two years working with W2A, Fae has led local, provincial, and national initiatives focused on 2SLGBTQ+ community health and wellness, youth mental health, meaningful community engagement, and gender-based violence.

Episode Notes

Queer Vote Ontario is an historic coalition of 2SLBTQI+ organizations with an action plan to ensure queer and trans issues and solutions are on the agenda this election. Join us as the coalition’s co-founder Fae Johnstone shares the behind-the-scenes of how one tweet got it all started, and why we speak better and louder when there are more of us in the room.  

Guest biography: Fae Johnstone is executive director and co-owner of Wisdom2Action (W2A) and based on unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory in Ottawa, Ontario. She is an experienced community engagement expert, diversity and inclusion consultant, and project manager. Over her past two years working with W2A, Fae has led local, provincial, and national initiatives focused on 2SLGBTQ+ community health and wellness, youth mental health, meaningful community engagement, and gender-based violence. 

Episode Transcription

This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.

Fae Johnstone: When I look at my community, I see a community that is massively over-represented in terms of poverty, homelessness, and every crisis imaginable. And our governments, they see that our party leaders, they see that and they say that they care and they say we need to fight homophobia and transphobia, but they don't really take it seriously.

Sarah: That's the voice of Fae Johnstone. She's the Executive Director of Wisdom2Action, which undertakes local, provincial and national initiatives in the areas of 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion, mental health and violence prevention. Her career in the nonprofit sector has spanned nearly a decade, and now she's using that experience to advocate for the 2SLGBTQ+ community in the coming provincial election.

Fae Johnstone: We'll be releasing a report card on the party platforms and on the party responses to our questionnaire so that we can actually say, this is how they all measure up on queer and trans issues. And if any of them don't respond, and the elephant in the room is that we know one is less likely, they get an F.

Sarah: Fae is doing this work alongside other community advocates in the collaborative group, Queer Vote, Ontario. The coalition includes dozens of 2SLGBTQ+ organizations. Among them are Toronto's 519, the LGBT Youth Line, the national organization Egale Canada and past guests of the show, The Enchanté Network. Today Fae joins to share the work she and many of her colleagues are doing this election season to make sure that 2SLGBTQ+ voices are heard.

This June 2nd Ontarians will vote on who will form our next provincial government. Fae Johnstone is one of many nonprofit sector workers who are advocating for communities and what they need this election and beyond, and to hold the parties accountable to their commitments, and using coalitions to work together and amplify voices

For this special mini-series of Digging In With ONN, we'll be speaking to Fae and other sector folks as we lead up to Election Day 2022. We're excited to bring you these conversations. So let's dig in.

MUSIC: Music Break

Sarah: So please, Fae, if you can introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about yourself, your organization and the work that you do.

Fae Johnstone: My name is Fae Johnstone. I use she and they pronouns, either is good to go. I live most of my life in Ottawa on unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin Anishinaabe territory. In my life, who I am is a question I'm always horrible at answering, but a lot of my work revolves around trans and youth advocacy. I have my BSW and MSW from Carlton and that really informed my career launch into current trans social and public policy advocacy.

I am a white settler. I'm a trans girl. I'm a military brat. Always an experience. I'm a proud mother to three very feisty ferrets. And I have the pleasure of being the Executive Director of Wisdom2Action, a social enterprise and consulting firm that helps nonprofits, governments, and occasionally the private sector do more and do better on diversity, equity and inclusion with a focus on gender and sexual identities.

Sarah: Fantastic. Well, I love to hear that the work that you're doing is really broad and encompassing, but also really focused on supporting 2SGBTQ+ communities. Amazing Fae. Excellent. Well, the first question I have for you, as we think about this Ontario election, which is about a month to go before it happens, is why is it important for your nonprofit to engage in this election?

Fae Johnstone: Yeah, there's a lot at stake. This election we've gone through multiple years of a pandemic that still hasn't said goodbye. I live in Ottawa. We've seen the trucker convoy, white supremacists coming into our cities and occupying our towns. I think in this election, there couldn't be more at stake for the nonprofit sector, for social justice, and for health and social services.

We're at a time where around the world, we are seeing a rise in far-right populism. We're seeing attacks on fundamentals. And so I think our nonprofit sector, which has sometimes been very loud and sometimes been very quiet, I think in 2022, we need to rediscover that voice and use it more than we ever, ever have before. Because if we don't, our communities will keep struggling. Our communities will not have the resources they need. It's time for us to be loud.

Sarah: Thank you. It really feels like this year and this election is really pivotal. And you're right about the many things that have happened, and we've seen so many, incredibly frightening instances of white supremacy and colonialism coming to the surface and in places that we hadn't expected it. So I think that's so important to really acknowledge that.

In terms of the collective organizations and Queer Vote Ontario, I'd love to hear more about that. What are the goals and who is involved?

Fae Johnstone: I like to tell the story of how it came together because it's like most things in organizing and nonprofits. It all started with a random email to a whole bunch of people. In a lot of our work at Wisdom2Action, we try to be catalysts to bring partners together, to talk about our priorities and our issues around federal and provincial governments.

With the election coming around, I opened up my Gmail and I just went through my contact list and I sent a note out to every organization, partner, ally, buddy, and community leaders saying, Hey, what are we doing for this election? There's a lot at stake and we've got better at being loud, federally, but we need to translate into Ontario action.

And so from there, we brought our first meeting together and just began talking about this and about what we could do this election. And over the course of the next three months, we met at the top of every month. We brought more partners into the conversation, so that by the time that we launched last week, we had, I believe 23 partners from across Ontario that has now risen to over 45 across this province, including feminists, 2SLGBTQ+ and health and social service organizations.

What we're really asking for, what we're pushing for is two things. First and foremost, simple engagement with our issues. We're telling our political parties and our party leaders that it's not enough to just pose at Pride for a photo op, it's not enough to say, yeah, I don't hate 2SLGBTQ+ people. That the bar has to be higher. We need to see our elected officials, see our parties engaging with our communities. Because if you're talking about homelessness, you can't not be talking about queer homelessness. If you're talking about poverty, well, I hate to break it to you queer and particularly trans folks, particularly Black, Indigenous and racialized trans folks bear the brunt of income disparities in this country. And so we need to be part of the conversation. So that was goal one.

Goal two was to get specific. Not to just say, engage with our stuff, but to say here are the three things that you can do. And they're not all of the three things, they're largely speaking to what nonprofits and social services might need to better support queer and trans communities, but they are, first to create an action plan on 2SLGBTQ+ issues so that the government can recognize the breadth of their role and create a vehicle to create change within government.

Second is to dedicate funding to our chronically underfunded, queer and trans social services. So organizations like Kind Space in Ottawa, or the 519 in Toronto or Pride organizations in rural communities across this province. They need support because they've been doing the work, but they've been doing the work without resources and we're always in crisis mode responding to the latest instance of hate or responding to a 15-year-old trans kid who just got kicked out. And that rural pride is the only option. So ask number two is helping those.

And then the third is improving coverage of and access to trans health services. So the trans folks across our province, no matter where they are or what's going on in their lives can get access to quality competent and affirming healthcare writ large, as well as the specific surgeries, and procedures that many trans folks might need that aren't currently covered by our provincial health care plan.

Sarah: Thank you. I really appreciate that. There really is a real breadth in terms of what you're asking for and advocating for more importantly. And I think too, that as you were speaking to that Fae, I was thinking that for Ontario, so many of those things you think about, health, education, those are at the provincial level. So sometimes I think folks get confused or wonder, well, why don't we go to the Prime Minister and ask for these things? Or why don't we go local? But it does matter the level of government to whom we're advocating. I really appreciate that really strategic thinking alongside all of that huge collective of 45-plus organizations.

That's pretty great. That's really great to see. And it seems like really since the campaign has been launched, the response has been incredible and more and more folks are signing on whether they're individuals or more organizations. Can you speak a bit to what the reaction has been?

Fae Johnstone: Yeah, I Yeah, I think writ large, it's been excitement, on queer and trans organizations and movements. Historically, we've only been able to get attention around the big controversial issues. So in a post-marriage equality world, it's really hard for us to get anybody to pay attention to our issues. It's a young sector. It's a new sector. But our sector is stepping up and saying we actually have the political will and political capital. We can flex our advocacy muscles and I think we've been really scared to do so. I think we've been quiet out of fear of reprisal. And also because again, when you're busy dealing with all of the homeless, queer, and trans kids in your community and all of the hate and all of the harassment, you don't have time to do a provincial election strategy.

The thing that we've been hoping to bring to this is just that coordination to say, let's put each other in a room. The campaign came together because of three people. I will take a bit of credit because I wrote a lot of copy, but AJ Adams is a community member who literally just did the whole design. Create an entire brand overnight around this campaign. It was a labour of love by community members and organizations. Folks like Debbie at the CCGSD, like Tyler and the boys at The Enchanté Network, and like Berkha Gupta at the LGBT Youth Line. These folks gave their time and their energy to make this campaign happen.

Sarah: Awesome. And it's such an example too, of working collectively. And that leads to my question, you could have, and some organizations choose to work on their own and think about the strategies and the political election campaign and asks on their own, which is great because they are advocating. But I'm wondering, why did you think, and how did you come together in terms of working collectively? Why was it important to do that rather than as an individual organizing?

Fae Johnstone: I think it's very much because we speak better and louder when there's more of us in the room. And if we're saying the same thing, not always the same thing, but near enough to, there are rural and regional differences, and there are other priorities as we've said, but if we can speak with one voice if we can repeat that roadmap on 2SLGBT+ issues-

Most governments struggle with not a ton of political will definitely, but also no idea if they were going to do something, no idea where to start, and no idea what to do. And so our hope really was to say this is what you can do. And as a baby sector, as a new sector, I really hope that we're able to learn from where other sectors have struggled. And a lot of that is around coalition. Around alignment on advocacy. We're not as movements, we're not always good at that. Especially when organizations become professionalized. And so our hope really was to go in with that collaborative spirit from day one. We didn't come to this conversation with an agenda. Again, it was me sending out an email saying, here are some things we could do. Let's have a conversation, but we can throw it out if we need to. And it also allowed us to share the different things that our organizations are good at. Nonprofits are also not always great at that. We're not good at saying here are my strengths, but also here are my weaknesses.

And what we were able to do was say, oh, you are a great designer and oh, you have great relationships with parliamentarians, oh, you can reach the grassroots. So we were able to really leverage all of the strengths. It looks so much better than I would've ever imagined possible because everyone brought that lens to the table.

The 519 is creating our voter engagement content. That is an amazing innovation cause then everyone coming to our site will be able to learn how to vote and how to vote as a queer and trans person. And so that collaboration strengthens the whole initiative through and through.

Sarah: I remember one of the first tweets that you sent out to ask the network, here's what I'm thinking, who's onboard? What an interesting origin of how that started with one Tweet. And asking the question, that's where it starts. Right? Asking the question, Who wants to work together?

It sounds like a lot of people raise their hands. A lot of organizations raised their hands and said we'd love to. You can organize on Twitter. The amount of work that I do is just like DM-ing people saying, Hey, can you come to this thing? Or, Hey, can you go there? We have networks, like never before.

So we don't need to get too formal either. We don't need to make it formal. We don't need to have special platforms to do it. I like when you mentioned earlier, too, how do you come together? And one thing that ONN has learned over the years is what makes a coalition successful. And often it's parking egos at the door so that it's focusing on the issues, on the policy change or systems change. I'm wondering if you can speak to that. With getting a group together so quickly, it sounds like folks were just really excited to work together.

Fae Johnstone: Yeah. And there's always going to be egos in the room and there's always skin in the game, right? Like at the end of the day we live in a -I'm going to say- capitalist hellscape. We are often reacting to funding parameters that don't respond to our organizations and our needs. But the nice thing for queer organizations is that we're new as funding recipients, we can actually negotiate and navigate as a sector. So if we can get used to that now it's easier.

But there's also history. A lot of our work has been really localized over the past decade. And so it means that we're coming into conversations where a lot of the relationships are actually entirely new relationships. And so it means that we can do that trust-building together.

And then the last piece is recognizing that our egos aren't going to get us anywhere. In the nonprofit sector, it's the thing that I struggle with the most. The, oh, we have to walk on eggshells around these hooks because they're powerful and influential. Well, hey, anybody who can write an op-ed. Which is indeed anybody and everybody can be influential too and does have that political will and clout in and of themselves. To me, it's about re-imagining who has that power and who has the right to claim ownership.

Wisdom2Action does not own or claim ownership of Queer Vote Ontario, that's another part of it. We didn't say, this is our thing. We said, this is our, -the gesture is important for the listeners- this is OUR thing.

Sarah: I'm thinking too, you mentioned the elements of the campaign. Would love to hear more about the different parts. You mentioned, voter engagement, for example.

Fae Johnstone: We've got a few pieces in the works that I'm happy to hint at, but some of them are slightly exciting, sparkly things we'll be sharing soon, hopefully. First and foremost, it was the call to action. So here are our priorities, let's mobilize. We've also got a candidate survey. So any candidate for any party in Ontario can complete a survey to demonstrate where they stand on our issues.

And that survey is accompanied by a pledge. A pledge to vote in alignment with 2SLGBTQ+ issues. A pledge to be a champion and to have a zero-tolerance policy for homophobia and transphobia. Part of this is really about saying to candidates, this will matter. It'll be the doorstep. It will matter to voters. You need to show that you stand by our communities. And then on our end, we're happy to say, look, everybody, these folks signed our pledge. It makes an impact. And so we've got the calls to action.

We've also got a pledge for individual voters. They can fill out a letter on Queer Vote.ca to send a note to the premier and to the party leaders saying I'm going to vote for the party that cares most about 2SLGBTQ+ issues.

In terms of other things we've got going on, we've got a questionnaire out to all of the political parties themselves as entities on 2SLGBTQ+ issues and asking some other questions, like what is their stance on sex work decriminalization? What is their stance on addressing the criminalization or continued criminalization of HIV? Or the lack of access to essential medication? We've got that piece and we will also be releasing, and this is going to be something we haven't done before in Ontario that I know of, we'll be releasing a report card on the party platforms and on the party responses to our questionnaire so that we can actually say, this is how they all measure up on queer and trans issues.

And if any of them don't respond, and the elephant in the room is that we know one is less likely, they get an F. If you are not willing to give us the time of day to fill out a questionnaire, we're not going to give you don't get a passing rate on our survey.

Sarah: Thank you. Yeah, that's great. Yeah. I think it's important to be identifying what the parties are saying or are not saying.

Fae Johnstone: We'll be adding a page with information on how to vote, how to register to vote, what to do if your legal name is different from your chosen name, or if anything else might arise in the voter process because we know current trans folks face additional barriers and we can equip them with the knowledge and tools to navigate those.

Sarah: Thinking about provincial party leaders, what's one thing that you want them to know?

Fae Johnstone: My heart goes out for the 15-year-old homeless, trans kid, and I don't think they see that kid. I don't think they understand that that kid exists. Even the most vocal champions, I don't think they think of queer and trans people as a public policy issue. To me, it's not enough to say gay rights or trans rights. I want them to recognize that we can't talk about any issue without a queer and trans lens. We can't talk about violence against women. We can't talk about housing. We need to recognize that addressing homophobia is effective public policy and that there is a massive, incalculable, economic, and social cost to homophobia and transphobia and to inaction. It's not a matter of doing nothing or doing something because doing nothing is still keeping that trans kid homeless.

Sarah: This is what healthy communities are made of. And as party politicians often talk about a healthy, thriving, Ontario, that means everyone in Ontario and in communities, and to be able to see everyone. That is so important.

Thinking about post-election, what are the plans? Have you discussed it amongst the group and the coalition? Are there any plans for post-election?

Fae Johnstone: So I can say on the Wisdom2Action side, we have an exciting announcement coming up over the summer that I am hoping everyone will be keeping their eyes peeled for. That will inform our future plans for 2SLGBT+ advocacy in Ontario and across the country. Keep your eyes peeled for that.

But within the coalition, I think we're building relationships. And again, we've never done this. We have The Enchanté Network network federally, they're connecting our services, they're connecting our organizations. We need the same provincially. And I don't know if this group will lead to that. But I think we are building the relationships that we need for it. And I can guarantee that we're not going away in future.

Queer Vote Ontario might not be around every day or every month, but every four years, every time there's a new election happening in this province, my personal and organizational commitment will be running a Queer Vote Ontario campaign to make sure that there are no more elections without queer and trans issues on the agenda and part of the conversation.

Sarah: Fantastic. So really you see the long-term commitment. To build off of that and to really leverage, as you were saying, relationships that you're building amongst each other and I'm sure with the parties and with candidates as well-

Fae Johnstone: As a movement, we are great at this. Give us an issue, we will rally and organize and protest. But as a sector, we're new to engaging in this kind of politics. We don't do government relations much. We don't do the game of saying, okay, like, thank you for this, but also you need to do all of these other things. As a sector, we don't bring a policy lens to a lot of the issues. We bring a human rights lens. And a human rights lens is absolutely essential, but you need both and you need to have governments and elected officials who know that if they piss us off, and I mean that a little bit bluntly, we are able to push back.

I want an Ontario where every candidate is afraid to say something homophobic. I want an Ontario where every party leader knows it will cost them votes because it will, but we will make it cost them more votes if they do not take our 2SLGBTQ+ communities, our priorities and our issues seriously. That is an Ontario that I am very committed to having.

Sarah: Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Yes, that sounds fantastic. Being pointed about it too. This is what the results will be. The impact will be.

Thinking about, for organizations, sharing some of what you've learned so far, how can organizations continue that relationship building and coalition? Especially when they're time-specific, like an election?

Elections are often, they're almost like a reset button in my head. The election is where everyone's paying attention, but it isn't where the details get sorted out. So in this action plan that we're proposing, we're not saying exactly what the government is going to do about it. We need to be in the room to keep those conversations happening because 95% of what matters isn't what's in a party platform. It's how a party platform is translated into policy and implementation. It is harder to sustain. And it's harder to sustain public interest outside of an election.

Fae Johnstone: But I think that we are able to keep that momentum going by keeping the pressure up. As soon as an election is ended. It's not like we're going to say, okay, the election is done and whoever's elected, you’ve got four years. Go show us what you can do. We're going to say that, we're going to be keeping a close eye on you.

Sarah: So we'll continue to keep them accountable. Whoever forms the new government. Making sure that they are accountable to the promises that they've made and working with communities across the province, including 2SLGBTQ+ communities. Fantastic.

What's one part that you love about working with the coalition?

Fae Johnstone: We are organizations. We have resources. We are impactful when we want to be, but the humility in our movement, it's something that warms my heart and that positions us well to invite others into the conversation. None of us own the show. Nobody has ever owned these movements. Nobody owns any movement. If somebody says they own a movement, you should leave the room because that's not going to be a good conversation. And that person is not somebody I would trust in charge. But that humility allows us to name when we're screwing up. It allows us to be humble when we put a foot wrong and allows us to be humble when we invite other people in whose agendas, approaches and politics might be different. It allows for a better coalition when we're engaging humbly.

Sarah: Amazing. Well, it was such a pleasure speaking with you today, Fae. I really appreciate the insights, especially since, as you said, this was the first time to be doing this and to already have so much ready to go, and, a few new pieces coming out soon. But to hear about the enthusiasm really of, of having those 45-plus, organizations and folks around the table is really exciting to see in the sector. And I really appreciate you sharing those stories and the insights behind the scenes, with us today. Thank you so much.

Fae Johnstone: Yeah. Thank you, Sarah. It's been an absolute pleasure. I'm really happy to be here.

Sarah: Thanks so much for joining the first episode of our special Ontario election coverage. In the coming episodes, we'll bring you more of the amazing folks working to bring the issue that mattered to non-profits to Election 2022

To make sure you're notified when our next conversation goes live, make sure to subscribe to the show. And if you enjoyed it, feel free to rate and share it with your friends, family, and network.

This has been Digging In With ONN.