Back to School: The King George Gay-Straight Alliance

It may come as a surprise that King George high school, just a stone’s throw from the vibrant Davie Gay Village, was without a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at the beginning of the 2012/2013 school year.

“I was shocked,” says student support worker Deona Zammit describing the atmosphere of homophobia when she first started at the school. She recounts how some kids yelled out “Yes it is!” while she was tacking up a series of school board sanctioned “Sexuality is a Not a Choice” posters.

“There used to be a lot of name calling in every classroom,” GSA Student leader Sienna St. Laurent says. “Someone asks a question and another turns around and say’s that’s so gay. They don’t think about how they use these words as part of their vocabulary.”

When Deona and Sienna teamed up to start the GSA in November 2012 they rectified the noticeable absence of King George on the school board’s list of GSA’s. Now every high school within the City of Vancouver has one.

Deona felt the casual use of homophobic language at King George also prompted her to be more vocal about her sexuality. To tackle stereotypes, “its important for kids to see a regular adult living their sexuality in an healthy way,” she says.

While the West End is home to many open members of the LBQTQ community, a high proportion of students at King George come from backgrounds that are less tolerant of alternate lifestyles. According to the Department of Education, all publicly-funded schools are required to provide a safe and supportive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, queer and questioning people.

Their statistics affirm that schools with GSA’s have less incidents of bullying and students feel more comfortable talking about issues of sexuality in the classroom. At King George, respecting the cultural and religious values of the student body while trying to change attitudes about homosexuality has required a balancing act.

“I don’t feel like I need to parade it around,” says Sienna with regards to her sexual orientation. “But if someone asks me I won’t lie. Mostly I wish it didn’t matter.”

It appears that the GSA’s efforts to improve the general atmosphere at the school- painting garbage cans and postering postitive messages in the hallway-is proving contagious. The morning of our interview almost every locker was tagged with a post-it note scrawled with the words, “You are beautiful.”

“I really hate that it wasn’t my idea,” Deona laughs. “But it’s great to see this kind of school spirit emerging.”

In just half a year since the first GSA meeting, King George has experienced a seismic shift. “The entire vibe of the school has changed,” say Deona. “Even as a staff member I feel more comfortable coming to work.”

Among their successes they count: attracting the younger grades to meetings, a recent thousand dollar grant to partner with the Gordon Neighbourhood House and their most ‘liked’ event, ‘The KG Shake’ in which fifty students danced off to the viral You Tube ‘Harlem Shake’ video gyrating their hips bedecked in pink.

Pink has had a special status in the anti-bullying campaign ever since two Nova Scotia high school students took it upon themselves to distribute pink t-shirts to the school populace after they witnessed a boy being bullied for wearing that color.

When asked if Pink Shirt’s day focus on bullying obscures the link between violence and homophobia, the response is mixed.

Sienna notes that gender-based fashion stereotypes are waning. “V-necks are in and I mean, a lot of the guys wear pink everyday.”

Deona says. “Kids are very aware that gender is a social construction these days. At the same time whenever I go into the gym and see the guys lifting weights and the girls bouncing on balls, I think the gender stereotypes seem very much intact.”

The GSA has helped affirm a zero-tolerance policy when the insults “gay” or “fag” are used to pick-on kids stepping out of gender or other adolescent norms. Events such as Pink Shirt Day provide a platform from which to bring in speakers and discuss the various ways bullying takes form.

With ever-changing social media radicalizing the way teens communicate, tackling the way language can be used as a weapon is high on most educators agendas.

In response to the GSA’s initiatives, the teachers at King George have been hugely supportive and taken on more open discussion about sexuality in the classroom.
Sienna says the impact is palpable: “homophobic comments are way down.”

Sienna hopes to tackle engrained stereotypes by targeting elementary aged kids through GSA outreach. She says the six members who regulary meet at King George have a lot of work to do. “My old high school in Maple Ridge had things like Gender Swap Day and a Mini Pride Parade. They signed the wheel chair accessible bathroom as gender neutral.”

“I don’t see why we can’t do that here,” Deona intersects, “I’ll send the email today.” In a school of only 500 students, “where everyone knows each other’s business,” this DIY spirit has already made a world of difference.

“I used to come to this school and think ‘man I hate this school everything here sucks.’ says Sienna. “Now I come here and think, ‘wow I belong to a community.’”

-Written by Matea Kulic

Gordon Neighbourhood House provides the King George Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) with a safe and inclusive environment in which to meet on a weekly basis. The King George GSA welcomes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, their straight allies and anyone else looking to be themselves. Find the King George Gay Straight Alliance on Facebook or contact Deona Zammit to get involved:


Introducing Our New Executive Director, Paul Michael Taylor

Gordon Neighbourhood House, located in the heart of Vancouver’s West End, is currently going through a period of renewal. From technological infrastructure to physical space, this process will assist in helping Gordon Neighbourhood House (GNH) continue to thrive in the West End community. The organization’s new Executive Director, Paul Michael Taylor, is currently laying the foundation for this change. Sitting down with Paul, it immediately becomes apparent that Paul’s ideas, energy and enthusiasm are a great fit for GNH.

Having recently come to Gordon Neighbourhood House after having been at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, where he held the same position of Executive Director, Paul sees great opportunity for Gordon Neighbourhood to grow alongside the community. “Many great relationships are built here. One of our volunteers in the thrift store is sitting in on the English Language course offered upstairs. I think that’s the real magic of a neighbourhood house, when you see someone who sees this space, this community, as their home and a place in which they belong. I want our neighbours to feel the very same way, and enjoy all that their Neighbourhood House has to offer”.

Paul has been active in right to food and social justice organizations for most of his life. Born and raised in Toronto, he moved to Vancouver in 2011, Paul’s passions can be traced back to his early childhood. “I grew up as a poor, hungry kid in Downtown Toronto. I was raised by a single-mother, and for portions of my childhood we had no electricity, heat or hot water. I felt the shame that is ubiquitous for those with fewer materials, until I realized that our poverty was based on systemic issues that I could work to help challenge. I’ve done so for most of my life since then.”

Paul’s childhood would be the driving force behind his involvement in youth shelters, neighbourhood houses and as a champion of the Right to Food. In Toronto, Paul served as the executive director of Second Base Youth Shelter, a homeless youth shelter, where over 700 homeless youth would visit yearly. During his time there, Paul was influential in the Right to Milk program and its proliferation throughout Toronto at other youth shelters. He also worked to establish Second Helping Youth Catering social enterprise, an on-site health clinic and the creation of an art studio at the shelter.

While working at the DTES neighbourhood house, Paul walked by GNH one evening and immediately became interested in the area. Upon learning more about the West End, Paul was fascinated by the range of socioeconomic experiences in the neighbourhood. Inspired by the makeup of the neighbourhood, and lack of community space, Paul wanted to help amplify a community feeling in the West End. “Gordon Neighbourhood House presents a unique opportunity to help foster a centre where neighbours can come together. A space where any resident can drop in to socialize and familiarize themselves with their neighbours.”

Although Paul’s enthusiasm for his ideas isn’t easily contained, he is the first to acknowledge the great work done by his predecessor John Lucas. “ A wonderful fellow, John Lucas, who was the Executive Director for seventeen years. He is a wonderful and special human being who unfortunately couldn’t continue. It is a real honour, and challenge, to try and fill his shoes and move the organization forward.”

A loud voice in any neighbourhood and organization he has worked within, Paul works tirelessly to ameliorate his communities, his diligence only matched by his kindness and warm-hearted nature.

When asked what his ultimate goal is with Gordon Neighbourhood House, Paul replies with his broad smile, “Bring people together.”

-Written by Ashkon Nowtash


What’s in a Brand? Community Journalist Gavin Reid Explores the Gordon Neighbourhood House Rebranding Process

As a community provider with a rich history of giving, Gordon Neighborhood House understands its responsibility within the community. The services and programs provided are a reflection of the vision shared by each person that walks through the doors of Gordon House. One of the main challenges for the organization is to let patrons of the West End and citizens of the Lower Mainland know that the Neighbourhood House is committed to providing a centre for growth and sharing. A vital step in delivering this message is the creation of a strong brand identity, one that signifies to Gordon House staff, volunteers, donors, and members that it is an organization dedicated to a cause.

In an effort to better understand the work of creating a brand identity and the benefit it gives to the organization I spoke with James Kim, Communications Consultant; Cassie Clay Smith, Graphic Designer; and Paul Michael Taylor, Executive Director of Gordon Neighbourhood House.

James Kim has been a part of the creation of a brand identity for Gordon Neighborhood House since November 2012. I asked James why a brand is essential to any organization: “It is important to create a good first impression. A brand reflects personality and helps make it recognizable in different environments.” Establishing a vibrant first impression to Gordon House’s neighbours assists in building trust and creating friendships.

Cassie Clay Smith is a designer with a broad portfolio who has been a leader in the rebranding of Gordon Neighbourhood House. Educated in Fine Arts and Graphic Design at Langara College and Kwantlen Polytechnic University, I wanted to hear her hopes for capturing tangible meaning with the formation of a brand identity: “As an organization with a huge heart, I wanted the branding to encompass feelings of community, belonging, professionalism and a bit of sophistication. The literal imagery of the branding is the feeling of being in a treehouse in which you explore.” Gordon Neighborhood House is a place where all in the community are invited and welcomed into an explorative environment in which a variety of programs and services are offered. This offering fosters an atmosphere of togetherness within the walls of the Neighbourhood House.

Paul Michael Taylor serves as Executive Director of Gordon House. The opportunity to speak with him about the rebranding process was a key point in learning about the transition that takes place from the brand into the day-to-day operations within the Neighbourhood House. “The brand is a visual cue that introduces people and lets them know who we are and the work we are committed to doing,” says Paul. “With confidence and belief comes consistency in our work,” he adds.

Gordon Neighborhood House has a historic relationship with the West End. A unique and uplifting brand identity aims to speak to the community as a whole, from the volunteers working within the Neighbourhood House, to potential donors who enlist trust in its work, to those in the community who walk through its doors for the first time. A symbol of warmth, dynamism, and fellowship, James, Paul, and Cassie hope that the new brand identity helps connect community members to the Neighbourhood House. Gordon Neighbourhood House is open to all and forever in flux–together we grow.

-Written by Gavin Reid
Gordon Neighbourhood House's New Brand.

Two Summer Camp participants sport the new brand identity with their GNH t-shirts.