Volunteer Facilitator Spotlight: Creating Brave Spaces

Categories: Our Perspectives
“The magic of WCC is in creating a brave space for everyone to express themselves freely, providing accessible workshops to everyone, especially marginalized populations.”
– María Cristina Sabourin Jovel aka Queen María, WCC Facilitator

For this month’s Spotlight, we are pleased to introduce you to María Cristina Sabourin Jovel (aka Queen María) and Nic Yaansah, WCC volunteer facilitators who facilitate our weekly virtual writing workshop for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC).

In 2021, Queen María worked hard to bring to life several workshops for BIPOC writers. Since then, she, Nic, and many fabulous co-facilitators have created a brave BIPOC community space on Sunday afternoons.

DESCRIBE YOUR JOURNEY AS A WCC FACILITATOR – HOW DID YOU FIND US, AND WHEN DID YOU BECOME A FACILITATOR?

QUEEN MARÍA: I started writing as a way to survive the deep loneliness and depression that I experienced after a
self-imposed isolation, trying to stay safe and out of COVID’s path. A painful separation from most of my support system, resulting from speaking about my experiences as a brown/black person in Canada, left me hopeless. The horrific nightmares I experienced after George Floyd’s murder were terrifying. The countless sleepless nights, after seeing people who look like me, being killed in broad daylight with total impunity, contributed to me feeling unsafe.

Many, who had always welcomed me with open arms, refused to hear what I had to say. I was left all alone, hurting, shattered, depressed, confused, and experiencing complex PTSD symptoms once again. I was feeling worried for my safety and mental health, when I came across a creative writing workshop event on Eventbrite. Little did I know how much my life would change after that.

I still remember how nervous I was the first time I joined a workshop, not knowing what to expect. Everyone was so welcoming. The atmosphere was amazing. I felt heard and accepted, something I had rarely experienced in my life. Writing came to my rescue, becoming a real lifeline, and giving back to me a sense of belonging and hope.

Writing became one of my best friends, one who listened to what I had to say and accepted me just as I was. No expectations, no demands, no conditions, no judgements, pure unconditional love. The kind of love I have rarely experienced before. That is what writing has given me since I arrived in this land 27 years ago, full of dreams.

Writing workshops gave me a safe place, an oasis in which I often was encouraged to be my controversial, outspoken self. Writing restored my confidence in a better future, a new reality in which we all will be treated with respect. I got hooked for life.

Writing led me to gratitude and then to radical acceptance of my own imperfections. It became a powerful complement of the work I was doing with a psychotherapist. Joy and peace followed naturally. Thanks to writing I am still here today, fighting for a better and brighter future for all. In these past three years, I have also facilitated numerous regular WCC workshops with Mood Disorders Ottawa and Centretown Community Health Centre.

NIC: I took a writing workshop through a local community centre that used WCC’s model. I really enjoyed my experience and when there was an opportunity to get trained myself, I jumped in!

HOW DID THE BIPOC WORKSHOP COME ABOUT? WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO CREATE THIS OPPORTUNITY?

NIC: One of my goals for becoming a WCC facilitator was to create more intersectional spaces where individuals can show up as their full  selves. Queen María was really the powerhouse behind this, championing the need for a space for BIPOC folks to gather and write long before I joined WCC.

QUEEN MARÍA: After participating in almost every open workshop for more than a year (hundreds of workshops), I decided it was time for me to share this gift with others by becoming a facilitator in May 2021 and volunteering my time, skills, and effort.

Since I started writing with WCC, I noticed right away there were no specific workshops for people that looked like me, and identified the need for having BIPOC and ACB workshops. Spaces where we could talk about our particular experience as people of colour – without having to further explain what we all know or censor or words.

It is particularly important for racialized communities to see people that look like them leading workshops and offering alternative ways to manage mental health challenges, as well as the intergenerational trauma, racism, and the injustices many of us deal with daily.

In June 2021, the first WCC BIPOC workshop took place with support from Natasha Beaudin at Centretown Community Health Centre in Ottawa, where we continue to deliver workshops. My fellow co-facilitators, Nic Yaansah and Hannah Vlaar, joined me in creating a powerful team I never could have dreamed of. Their dedication was paramount to our success. I also co-facilitated several ACB workshops together with Sharon Roberts and Nagad Hersi at Somerset Community Health Centre.

The magic of WCC is in creating a brave space for everyone to express themselves freely, providing accessible workshops to everyone, especially marginalized populations. As a black biracial woman living in a differently abled body, I deeply value the opportunities in which I am not judged by how I look. Magic happens when one sees someone who looks like oneself leading a workshop. I value everyone as a writer and the enrichment that happens when we all learn from one another. As an Afro Latina of mixed heritage, who has lived most of her life as an immigrant working in different countries – Canada being my home for almost three decades – I have been able to bring the richness of my lived experience to the workshops I facilitate.

Our first public BIPOC Sunday workshop was launched by Nic, Hannah, and I, back in September 2021. We had many other facilitators join us over these three successful years – shout out to Leona, Sharon Roberts, and Susana Mesa for their support. Nic and I continue to facilitate the Sunday workshop every Sunday.

CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE PROCESS OF DEVELOPING YOUR OWN WEEKLY WORKSHOP? WHAT CAN YOU RECOMMEND TO OTHER FACILITATORS WHO WOULD LIKE TO CREATE THEIR OWN OPPORTUNITY AT WCC?

NIC: My process is ongoing – I am constantly bookmarking potential writing prompts and, each week, I try to find ones that feel relevant. We often find that several writers in the workshop are on the same wavelength, and it’s really gratifying when a prompt lands and the participants bite into it.

Honestly, I would connect with other facilitators at WCC who have similar dreams for a workshop. I was fortunate to be trained at the same time as Queen María, and meeting her was fundamental to actually creating the workshops, and then spreading word about them.

QUEEN MARÍA: Nic and I love to explore the work of writers and artists from different countries, as well as visual prompts and current events. We incorporate music, paintings, and dance in our workshops as prompts, offering a variety that enriches us all. The BIPOC community is not a monolith, and we approach our workshops with respect and curiosity. We use themes and explore different regions in our prompts. Participants also able to suggest favourite poets, writers, and other artists to us, and we research pieces that might speak to us. We use writing as a way to process emotions together.

I know firsthand what it feels like to not be heard, and I am committed to create an environment in which every voice is honoured. I believe changes come from within – one person, one piece of writing/art/sharing/workshop at a time. I have found that my writing seems to empower others, which has given me an additional incentive to continue learning and developing my craft every day. I feel happy and alive when I write and facilitate. I love to share that feeling with others.

Some of my recommendations to other facilitators, who would like to create their own opportunity, are as follows: Never give up. Stand straight, with your head high. Be proud of who you are and what you represent. Never forget where you came from. Celebrate your uniqueness and fight for your right to be heard. Everyone’s voice is important. Do not be afraid to be create your own path and to be different. Learn and educate yourself as often as you can. Master the skills of facilitation. Ask for help. Share your energy with others. Do not try to fit the stereotypes or expectations imposed on you. You are worthy. We all are. You are never alone in your experience. Together we can create a better society for all. Trust your instincts and, again, never give up. I applied three times before I got into the training to become a facilitator. Giving up was never an option for me. If what you are looking for does not exist yet, create it.

HAVE YOU WITNESSED A HEALING IMPACT THROUGH FACILITATING THIS WORKSHOP?

NIC: Absolutely. For me personally, it has been healing to reconnect with writing after years focusing on other things. Writing is an expansive space to express myself and I know it’s the same for our participants.

QUEEN MARÍA: Participants thank us every time we have a workshop, letting us know that the work we do is important. We cry, laugh, and share together while enjoying writing. These workshops allow for a deep connection for we all are equally brave together.

One gets to know one another just as we are. No hierarchies are imposed. No false acceptance. No expectations. I love sharing with others, listening to different points of views, opening my mind to new ideas and feeling like a student again, a role I have always adored.

Creative writing makes me feel heard in a society that tries to silence the uncomfortable. I cannot go more than a couple days without writing. I speak from the experience of living in an immigrant, visible minority, black female fat body with physical disabilities. I believe by telling my story I can help to destroy stereotypes and advance social causes, as well as healing myself.

Writing is a powerful tool for recovery and for finding ourselves.

THE WEEKLY BIPOC WORKSHOP HAS RUN FOR OVER THREE YEARS; WHILE THE ESSENTIAL WCC WORKSHOP INFRASTRUCTURE REMAINS THE SAME, HOW HAVE THE WORKSHOPS EVOLVED? 

NIC: The number one thing is it feels more like a community. It’s always exciting to see new faces in our workshop but it’s also really wonderful seeing the same faces coming back each week.

And the transition, from new face to familiar face, is so warming. I’ve also noticed our participants – and myself included – are willing to take even greater risks in being brave.

So often, a share will start with, “I don’t know if this is actually anything but…” and then the participant launches into a piece of writing that leaves us breathless. It takes a lot of courage to share one’s writing and it’s an honour each time a participant takes the leap.

QUEEN MARÍA: Nic and I have evolved in our healing journey and as facilitators, encouraging the sharing of ideas, resources, and information with others. We alternate from traditional writers to Instagram poets, to singers, to painters, and so on. Our arsenal of tools is as diverse and rich as we are.

Most of our participants are regulars, who are happy to welcome any new face that ventures our way. Everyone is welcome. We offer specialized workshops, where time is decolonized. At the end of each write, participants do not want to leave for they feel heard, accepted and supported.

Together, we have become a powerful team of facilitators and participants. We look forward to each Sunday afternoon and to including new facilitators in the mix. We continue to reinvent ourselves, pushing the boundaries of knowledge, creativity, and art, increasing access for all.

Thank you Queen María and Nic for your fearless, steadfast work as WCC facilitators and community members. We are deeply proud to spotlight your voices and efforts this month. 

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