Promoting equality & diversity online

The Peter Tatchell Foundation (PTF) interviewed Chris Studer (CS) of the Get Real Movement, a Canadian non-profit working to combat LGBTQ+ discrimination in schools and workplaces


London, UK  − 1 March 2019

PTF: What inspired Get Real’s focus on language and discourse?

CS: We were inspired by our experiences mentoring first year students as volunteers for our university’s Orientation Week program, which was full of young, diverse upper year students. We all wanted to make campus a place our first year students felt they could belong, no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion, economic status, or any other real or perceived difference.

When we would hear discriminatory language or attitudes, we approached those conversations in a friendly manner; often opening up about our own experiences to make things hit home. We noticed amazing results: countless students changing their language within a matter of days, and stopping their friends from using homophobic or transphobic language as well; and countless other students coming out to us, telling us they felt less alone and more confident to be themselves than they did back home. We wondered whether we could go even younger: take the positive experiences we were seeing come from our approach, and build the type of high school or a middle school workshop that we wished we’d had growing up. And the idea for Get REAL was born.

PTF: Could you give any examples of topics that may have been controversial with your audience? How do you go about addressing them?

CS: We’ve definitely seen attitudes (and comfort levels) evolve over the years. Back in 2012, we had a teacher from an Ontario middle school tell one of our facilitators they shouldn’t say “If you are gay, that’s ok.” But we said it anyways; we told them that was why we were there. We now keynote that entire school board’s massive annual Gay Straight Alliance Conference, which every school attends. At the university level, we approached the presidents of all the sororities and fraternities at Western University in 2012, about participating in a video focused on breaking stereotypes. Apart from one fraternity, and one sorority, it was crickets. No one wanted to touch our video idea with a ten foot pole. Two years later we asked again, and every single one of them said yes. The video was a huge success, and we received messages from members all over the continent: alumni, so moved to see their organization take a stance on an issue they never could have imagined; and current students, who had shown the video as a means of helping them come out to their fraternity brothers or sorority sisters. Those experiences have been extremely validating.

On the other side, we’ve definitely taken some stances that haven’t been so popular. A bar in Toronto came under fire in 2015 when their social media agency reposted a transphobic meme about Caitlin Jenner; they mentioned in their public apology that they were about to do a Pride fundraiser for us, which was true, and we were immediately embroiled in a national media story. Pride Toronto immediate severed ties with them, and we had strangers calling us saying that they’d never heard of Get REAL, but if we didn’t cut all ties with this bar, they would never support us, ever, because those were bad people. It was pretty intense.

The whole idea for the fundraiser had in fact come around because the friend of one of our facilitators Jem, a gay man of colour, worked there and had just keynoted a conference with myself and my colleague Max, who himself is trans, and one of our lead speakers. We all conferred — myself, Max, Jem, Marley, all of our Chapter Leads, our Board of Directors. Ultimately, we decided that if we heard of something happening at a school, we wouldn’t bail — that would be all the more reason to go. We also decided that we would make up our own minds about who is or is not a bad person. So in place of the fundraiser we ran our first ever corporate workshop, which was an extremely moving and healing experience. It turned into a massive success and landed us back on the cover of Buzzfeed, CTV, and Global News in a series of positive turn-around stories (which are quite rare — when’s the last time we heard one of those?), and we had countless strangers come up to our booth at Pride that year telling us they were watching from afar and respected the way we handled the whole situation.

We’ve also had a few university chapter students over the years, who’ve wanted us to be more aggressive and radical when we go to high schools and middle schools. But as the ones on the ground, in the classrooms, we’ve truly learned the approach that yields the two positive, overarching results we look for: to help marginalized kids feel less alone, and to create allies. So we stood our ground on that one too, and some of those students ultimately left to join other organizations, which was for the best.

In all those cases, sticking to our guns has really helped define us, cement our success with massive school board and corporate partnerships, and attract an amazing group of people to us who are on our page.

PTF: What has been the most helpful tool in mobilizing youth? 

CS: I think our most helpful tool has been our constant drive to create and push what we can do. Being young has definitely helped our instincts — merchandise design, social media, our speaking style at things like Ted X and We Day — but we didn’t really start to use social media and producing merchandise effectively until about three years in because we were just too busy and stressed with how much we were working to build Get REAL from the ground up. So I think it’s first and foremost been our drive to keep creating and pushing the envelope, and then secondly our positive energy. We’ve worked with some incredible people over the years, and I think that is a testament to who we’ve strived to be. Get REAL took a lot of growing up, and we’ve put a lot of thought into who we want to be as an organization. People ask to join Get REAL all the time, but we’re cautious. We look for kind people, smart people, friendly people, fun people, creative people, ambitious people, honest people. You could be the greatest public speaker on the planet, but if you are mean or petty, this isn’t the organization for you.

I think that overall spirit has really drawn a lot of amazing people our way. Every person we interact with gets that vibe. We’re not cooler than anyone, we’re not above chatting with anyone — at a school, at a conference. If we’re speaking at We Day, we’re more likely be chatting with a 13 year old volunteer who’s really moved by what we’re doing than trying to get a selfie with a celebrity. It’s not necessarily a viral type thing, it’s never launched us into the news or fame. It’s more of a slow-burn, but we meet amazing people through it, who want to be a part of this ride with us. That keeps us evolving and creating better and better work. So I guess if I could sum it up in two things: number one, we keep pushing to create more innovative and meaningful programming, and number two, we work with good people who have a positive influence on all they interact with.

PTF: To what extent has social media played a role in your movement? How have you utilised this?

CS: Like I said, we only really used social media properly around three years in, but now we are focusing on it more and more because we have the time, and because it’s an amazing way to grow. I think it’s the pairing of our merchindise  with our social media. We’re able to connect with people, influencers, celebrities from all over the world because of that pairing. And so social media is now not only driving traffic to our site and our online store, but it’s also connecting us with amazing individuals who are working on brand new projects from across the globe, such as our new Global Ambassador Program that we’re about to launch in March. The youth running that project live in France, and they’re amazing. They first found us on Instagram. They bought merchandise and did a shoot in front of the Eiffel Tower. And now they’re running a brand new sector of our program. We also just hired a Creative and a Marketing Director to take our social media to the next level, which is amazing because we now have influencers and celebrities asking to work specifically with our photographer. We have more to learn all the time. But that’s what good social media is: seeing, learning, testing out, re-adjusting, fine-tuning. It’s fun.

PTF: You seem to be rather focused on creating an inclusive digital space, where did the desire for this come and what are the day-to-day reminders required for that?

CS: We definitely are. Right from day one, we’ve been a hopeful organization. We believed we could create a meaningful program; that it could have a positive effect on young people who need it, like we needed it growing up. Hopeful, solution-based. We wouldn’t have started Get REAL if we didn’t have that view. Our social media has always mirrored that. On any given day we could post the latest 10 disasters, or horrible things that happen in the world relating to LGBTQ+ and marginalized individuals, but we don’t — or at least, not without some sort of a solution or a call to action. It’s no secret that all the studies show a relationship between people being unhappy and usage of social media sites and apps like Facebook; the monetization of engagement means the more outrageous, the more horrific, the more polarizing, the better — that’s what gets shares, likes, comments. Some sites have tried to retain somewhat of a hopeful air, but there is always that danger of being an Upworthy, which has almost become a satirical joke at this point (despite all of the good they have shown and continue to show the world).

So it’s definitely a fine line. We’re definitely not an organization that just thinks “it’s all good.” We’re on the front lines working with students everyday, answering a ton of tough and/or derogatory questions, seeing kids who are struggling to stay in school due to bullying, seeing educators and parents who are very ill-informed and harming their children’s futures. We have members of our organization who come from countries where to be openly part of the LGBTQ+ community could mean persecution, violence, or death. So we know that it’s not all good, far from it.

But because of the nature of our on-the-ground work, we like our social media to be hopeful. There are incredible things that happen, everyday, to advance civil rights, to combat prejudice and stereotypes. Our work also reinforces that: we meet amazing kids everyday who are working to make their schools more inclusive; amazing teachers putting their own careers on the line to support the first kid to transition at their school; amazing individuals starting their own organizations and making a difference. So we tell those stories. We share things that make us laugh. We straight up delete troll comments (we have constructive discussions with 75,000 young people every year in person, we don’t need to go back and forth with some random person who is saying awful things, nor do we need a young kid looking for a little break from bullying at school to see awful comments on our page).

Speaking of that, we’ve noticed an amazing community grow around our content. So many students and young people are constantly messaging us that they come to our page for support, to be inspired, or have their day brightened. More and more people are writing in saying our page has helped them come out to friends and family. It’s pretty amazing, and we definitely didn’t think that would happen. We just post from the heart, and we post about hope. And when we acknowledge the bad, it’s almost always with some solution attached, or some type of hope attached. When we share an article about Chechnya, we share it with a swipe up link where our supporters can donate to the Rainbow Railroad, and learn about the incredible, life-saving work they’re doing. Because there are good people out there; tomorrow can be better.

PTF: Has your experience made you more hopeful or cynical regarding the state of online activism? And youth activism?

Honestly, I think it’s made me more hopeful. When it comes to online activism, there will always be cynics; and there will always and have always been lazy people. But I think that the earliest conversations around online activism tackled a lot of those issues — Are you really getting out there? Are you actually making a difference? — right at the beginning of all of this. The Kony cynicism was definitely a watershed moment for people being more cautious about what to get excited about, but ultimately, I don’t think it completely paralyzed people. I think it just made people sharper, and smarter, and hungrier for genuine and effective and honest work to support.

These days, most organizations I come across are very thoughtful, conscious, and honest about what they actually do, and don’t do. And most of the young people I interact share that self-awareness: they might share an uplifting video, but they probably wouldn’t go so far as to say that doing so was activism. If anything, they’re humble about the impact that they do, and the causes they take part in and care about.

Overall, I think that in 2019, it’s not black and white: online activism can be amazing, and offline activism isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. You can make an incredible impact from your couch with the click of a button, if that click is attached to a large sum of money donated to a dynamic charity or a micro-loan that is impacting people’s lives for the better. Conversely, you can be down on the front lines, in the streets, or working with students, and have a terrible, adverse impact. We hear about that happening all the time. So I don’t think online activism is inherently good or bad. I think it’s the nuance of the approach and the understanding of the audience.

And as for youth activism… I think young people are incredibly active in virtually every space right now. Look at March For Our Lives. Or the waves of young people pushing for climate change legislation across Europe. I don’t see any signs of that slowing down, minus of course the incredibly negative themes of traditional and social news media outlets that are making some people throw up their hands and say “What’s the point?” But again — I think young people are seeing through a lot of that stuff. They’re more media literate than we give them credit for: they get that media outlets need shock and awe for advertising, and they’re incredibly attune to what’s “real”. So overall… I’m hopeful.

PTF: Given that human rights discussions tend to be rather polarizing, what next steps would you recommend to young activists who may be discouraged from getting involved? 

CS: Good question. I’d say don’t lose sight of who you are and what you believe in, deep down. It’s incredibly important to always keep learning. We only know what we experience, what we read, what those around us share with us. And even then, that’s usually only partial knowledge. But we can know some things, and there’s no need to be bullied or scared by polarizing discussions into wavering. One small example: I’ve seen a lot of people online say blanket statements like “All white people are privileged, and white people cannot possibly be bullied by black people.” I just don’t buy that. I could bully someone, and I have; that’s one of the main things that motivated me to get involved in Get REAL. I see black people bully white people online all the time. And I’ve travelled all across the country and met hundreds of thousands of students, and I have been to schools where it’s almost all black students, and seen white students write down notes of paper about being bullied for their race. There are tons of privileges that go along with being white, absolutely. But for that kid, in that school, trying to get by day by day? That struggle is what they know.

So I’m not going to go along with an opinion that runs contrary to what I know, to what I see in front of me, to what I believe deep down. And nor should you, if you’re out there reading this. Don’t lose sight of your own beliefs. And at the same time? Get out there. Talk to people about your ideas. Don’t be afraid to create something. There will always be haters. There will always be trolls. I once did a Ted X Talk about not needing permission to start something meaningful. I believe that, still. Advice, knowledge, statistics — gets lots of those. Soak up knowledge that will make you smarter, more efficient, more agile, more inclusive, more effective. Never make the same mistake twice is entrepreneurship 101, especially in the non-profit / charitable space. But don’t be afraid. Do good work, learn constantly, do better work, and prove the cynics wrong. And feel free to give me a shout with your idea. We always answer back! 🙂

You can follow the Get REAL movement on Twitter.

Watch their mini-doc here

Shop Get REAL merchandise here