‘We can create these things ourselves’: Fundraiser launched for Vancouver Black Library

A UBC student is fundraising for a new community hub – the Vancouver Black Library, a safe space for thinkers, artists and other community members looking for connection. Crystal Laderas reports.

A UBC student is hoping to bring a community hub to a historic neighbourhood where Black business, culture and joy once thrived in Vancouver.

Maya Preshyon is fundraising for the Vancouver Black Libary and looking for the right space in the Hogan’s Alley area in Strathcona.

“I was just one of those slumps that a lot of Black people can relate to in Vancouver, where you feel lonely, isolated, you want to do something to make the community better but you don’t even know where to start because it’s such a big thing to correct,” she tells CityNews.

“Black people are here, but they exist in bubbles that are separated from one another. And we run into each other, we see each other but there’s nowhere for us to really connect, because that localization of community just doesn’t exist here.”

Since launching a GoFundMe, Preshyon says she’s been overwhelmed by the community support for the initiative. Along with a small group of volunteers, she’s been cataloguing donated books until 3 a.m., and her vision for the space has grown — and her hopes for the future are rooted in an effort to reclaim some of what was lost when the community in Hogan’s Alley was displaced so the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts could be built.

“It’s just a huge, huge initiative to repair that deficit. Because other communities like the Asian community in Vancouver, in Chinatown which is right next to Hogan’s Alley, you can see that they have, over generations, built really amazing infrastructure — galleries, libraries, community centres that have brought like-minded people together,” she says.

“It just makes me think if Hogan’s Alley wasn’t destroyed, if those communities could flourish and grow next to each other, the Black community would have those same things or similar things.”

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What was initially a plan for a small library, with a fundraising goal of $6,000 has transformed into a plan to create a dynamic community space. She was inspired by a Chinatown space focused on Asian art, and friends, and created as a way to counter historic discrimination against the Chinese community.

“Libraries connect people to information but they also connect people to people. So the library is a community centre. It’s a place for people to study, to chill. We’re going to host workshops, book clubs, group therapy, have child care solutions for single moms who want to come and do computer work while community members they trust can watch their kids. zine making. We have a lot of plans because a community centre has infinite possibilities.”

‘that consistent, vibrant presence is missing’

The latest Statistics Canada Census says there were 26,830 people who identified as Black living in the Greater Vancouver area in 2016. But Preshyon says the lack of a place to come together can make living in Metro Vancouver isolating.

“There’s Black people everywhere, but usually, Black people find themselves being one of the only black people around them,” she explains. “When you do find Black people and you want to connect with them, it’s so far and few between that you can make those kinds of connections with people in your workplace, in school, your friendship circles. A lot of people don’t have that cultural connection.”

Some who’ve made the move from out east, like Sade Awele, say it was especially hard to find community in Vancouver.

“When people move to the city, the first question is, ‘Where are all the Black people. Where are the Black professionals? Where are the Black artists where are the Black influencers? It’s almost like you have to make this active effort to find people who are similar to you, people who might share a similar mindset and have similar interests,” she says.

“For me personally, that has been the struggle, being able to see that consistent gathering of Black people in the community, that consistent, vibrant presence is missing. There’s a part of myself as missing that part of the community.”

Awele says she thinks more advocacy needs to be done, more awareness raised, and more infrastructure created in order to connect Black people in the region.

‘We don’t always want to talk about the hardships’

Preshyon says while there are groups that focus on mutual aid, and fighting racism — there isn’t a space or organization that offers what she thinks a community hub will.

“Those are initiatives that are extremely important, but [this] is different because it’s not so much not so addressing or correcting trauma. It’s fostering something that’s healthy, growth. It’s in the direction of building something positive, as opposed to needing to fix damage, which is an unfortunate circumstance, that the Black community is always having to heal and patch in Vancouver,” she says.

“At the same time, Black people just want to exist together, we don’t always want to talk about the hardships and the struggles.”

The new fundraising goal is $35,000, enough to rent an accessible space for a year, one that’s large enough to host events.

“The amount of crowd support, engagement, and affirmation of the need for this made us realize that we should be expanding. Even within in a week of the library being an idea, a concept I felt so much closer to people, so much more connected to everybody. The support’s been amazing, and the solidarity has been shocking and really impressive.”

The space will house a curated collection of books, with a focus on BIPOC authors. A wishlist will soon be available for those who want to donate. Another goal is to have a children’s section.

“It seems like such a small thing, but Black kids being able to open a book and see themselves in it. My little brother, he’s three and for Christmas, I got him his first book that has a black kid in it and when he opened it, he said, ‘that’s me.’ That is something that I think is so important and sometimes overlooked.”

‘We can build these things ourselves’

Nola Boasberg, Maya’s roommate who is also putting in long hours helping make the library happen, says she sees it as part of a long tradition of grassroots efforts by marginalized groups to create spaces where none exist. She says the example of Victoria’s Hauqiao Gongli Xuexiao, the first Chinese Public School in Canada.

“There was a lot of exclusion from state resources and state services that were filled by the community themselves. In Victoria they built a school because their kids weren’t allowed to go to school” she says.

“It’s so inspiring, and it’s so empowering. That’s one of the big things here. We can build these things ourselves, and we can create these things ourselves. If there is a need, we can see it, recognize it.”

More information on the crowdfunding campaign can be found online.

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