Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 96: elebrating Queer Joy — with Brandon Yan

Speakers: Fiorella Pinillos, Brandon Yan, Paige Smith

Fiorella Pinillos  0:06  
Hola oyentes. Mi nombre es Fiorella Pinillos, y esa es Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. In this episode of Below the Radar, Paige Smith and I are joined by Brandon Yan, the new executive director of Out On Screen. We chat about Brandon's work in film education and supporting queer youth, as well as how his journey with his own identity has shaped his career.

Fiorella Pinillos  0:42  
Welcome to Below the Radar. Brandon, we are really, really happy to have you here. And for those of you that don't know him, Brandon Yan is an activist, advocate and educator. And he's also the new executive director of Out On Screen. Welcome.

Brandon Yan  0:57  
Thank you.

Paige Smith  0:57  
We're so happy to have you, Brandon.

Fiorella Pinillos  0:59  
Brandon, could you start just by telling us a tiny bit about yourself? 

Brandon Yan  1:03  
Sure! So I am the... you know, brand spankin' new executive director of Out on Screen. Our mission is to illuminate, celebrate, and advance queer lives through film education and dialogue, and we fulfill our mission through the two core programs, one being the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, which is... just finished its 31st year? 32nd year? Sorry--it's been a year, like, what is time? And then, also our Out in Schools program, which has been running since 2004. So I've been without on screen for actually a number of years in different roles. I think this is my coming up on my sixth year with the organization. But I grew up in Langley in Metro Vancouver, and, you know, lived most of my life in the Lower Mainland, except for a few years where my family decided it was good to move to the Caribbean, which is a weird thing that my family did. 

Paige Smith  1:57  
Oh, wow.

Brandon Yan  1:57  
And then I did my master's degree at SFU, which is where I met you. And also I met Paige actually at Out on Screen as well.

Fiorella Pinillos  2:16  
So we met, as you said, when we were doing our Urban Studies Master's, and when I met you were, like, a vocal young urbanist with like strong opinions. And like, I remember you had these Twitter account pre-planner, you know, I just remember your journey from being like pre-planner to like new persona citizen, yeah, and activist, and, you know, educator and advocate, and it was quite a journey. So can you just tell us a little bit about your journey?

Brandon Yan  2:48  
Pre-Planner was born from a blogging project that I had called Masters Planning. And so this was, I think, probably in 2009, I want to say, so I finally finished my Bachelor's Degree in History at UBC, I think, in 2009, took me about five or so years, and being unemployed, and like, frustrated with job prospects, I was like, I guess I'm going to do a master's degree because no one's looking at my resume, and I'm annoyed. And it became kind of an economic imperative to do another degree. And so I, in my history degree, I became really interested in urban planning from a historical perspective of understanding why a lot of our social issues exist, the way they exist now. Growing up in Langley, seeing the way in which the suburban environment was manufactured, this ideal of, you know, the nuclear family, and you know, everyone has a car in a garage and this idyllic setting--anyways, I just kind of got really interested in where those ideas had come from, and decided to apply for urban planning programs, 'cause I was really interested in the urban form and a lot of those issues. Anyways, I applied for the those programs and got rejected from all the schools that I applied to. And so I doubled down and started a blog basically out of... kind of sitting down with myself and being like, is this... "If this is something I really want to do, how do I show that I really want to do this, and how do I also not waste this time between applying for school?" And so I really wanted to do a lot of self-education and self-learning, and starting a blog writing about urban issues was really a key way to do that--and I also went to a lot of the free lectures at SFU, which is not a plug for SFU, but the fact that there's a lot of free education out there was really cool. Gordon Price led a lot of those lectures, or invited guest lectures to SFU, and it was just, a really great way to connect also with like, kind of, quote unquote "urbanist clique" in Vancouver, and then... finally got into SFU's Urban Studies Program, which was a great fit because of it being part-time so I could work full time while doing my Masters, for the most part, and even though I got in by the skin of my teeth like they I applied for the Masters and they put me in the diploma program being like, "We don't really trust you with a master's degree..." But I actually really enjoyed the Urban Studies program because it's... was a bit more radical than I think I was expecting in many respects--not all respects, but it really taught me more about social justice, feminism, intersectionality those... the kind of issues that are I think traditionally missing from a lot of planning schools or institutions. And that's kind of like we're Citizen Yan was born, was like... this idea of throwing away, like, "I actually don't really want to be an urban planner," that kind of top-down approach to how we navigate cities. And so Citizen Yan was kind of a, just a, quote unquote "rebranding" of just like, "I just don't really want to be a planner anymore." And also taking cues from one of our former city councilors Andrea Reimer... I think her twitter handle might have been CitizenAndrea, maybe? So yeah, taking cues from folks like that around just like their, you know, the way they approach I guess, their persona online as well. Not being restricted to this idea of just urban planning or urbanism.

Fiorella Pinillos  6:14  
Another moment I remember was when in your professional life when you moved from, like, you know Lululemon to like [laughs] the Vancouver Foundation. You know, you had a desk job. And then when you move to, actually finally to, Out in Schools, and moved to... just to go talk to kids in and around BC and give presentations about queerness, and feeling good about that, and, you know, proud. So yeah, can you tell us about your journey?

Brandon Yan  6:47  
Yeah. Well, I mean, I, so yeah, referencing my former-former-former job at Lululemon. It was weird, because like, I have no background in human resources or computer systems, but I was hired to do both those things at Lululemon's head office. And, yeah. I mean, it was a very, obviously a very interesting place to work, but definitely not the the work that I really wanted to do. I've always been drawn to more community-driven work. And so, when the opportunity at Vancouver Foundation came up, I was really excited and stoked. And like anyone who knows, moving from more of a corporate world to a nonprofit world, like there's a, you know, there's a trade off in usually salary. And that was also the case. But I got hired at Vancouver Foundation to be a grant administrator in Children, Youth and Family Granting, which is kind of where I got involved in, Out in Schools. I met a lot of folks who were applying for grants and kind of got more involved in the nonprofit sector, as the person you know, like... A lot of the first point of contact for people applying for funding. But I also... my boss there, and my manager, so V Nguyen, who is--was the director of Children, Youth, and Family Granting, and then Nicole McClellan. I met those two people who I think were really instrumental in also some additional understandings of the way the nonprofit sector works, but also way it should work. They became really important mentors in my life. And V has always been a guiding star in the way I think, a director or a boss or, you know, a human being should behave and act and encourage their employees and the people in their lives. And so, there have been some, I guess, decisions made at Vancouver Foundation that I disagreed with, and I was not... un-vocal about them. And basically, Jen Sung, who had been working at in schools was moving on from her position. And there was an opening, and I applied and went through the interview process, and got the job, and throughout this, like V was always very supportive. Yeah, my... I've just been very lucky with bosses in that sense of like, everyone being kind of really supportive and encouraging me to take on these new endeavors despite challenges. And so I started with Out in Schools and took what I learned at Vancouver Foundation, working directly with youth on things like our youth philanthropy council, and Fresh Boices, and ran the education program for Out On Screen, which is Out In Schools and got to kind of... delve deeper into my personal journey with talking about sexuality and gender and, and how it intersects with also race and culture and that's been a very fulfilling path so far and continues to be so.

Paige Smith  9:45  
We wanted you to maybe just describe in general what Out In Schools does and like maybe with that, what sort of impact you've seen with your work in schools and then maybe more broadly, the film festival and everything.

Brandon Yan  10:02  
Sure. So Out in Schools, I mean, just to go back to its kind of inception in 2004... So, the Queer Film Festival happens in August every year. And so, unlike a lot of other major film festivals in the city, it happens actually not during the school year. And so it was always a lost opportunity to bring and connect with queer youth, because festivals like VIFF, or DOXA, have usually happened in the fall, and in the before times, when we could gather in a theatre, teachers can basically sign up and bring their whole classrooms into a theatre to watch a screening of something. That was never the case for the Queer Film Festival, and so Out In Schools basically started as kind of like this opportunity to bring queer film to schools. And... we basically kind of created a few programs that teachers could connect with. And I think in the first year Out in Schools did like something like eight presentations, which was huge at the beginning, because again, this is before... this was even before gay marriage was--or queer, like, you know--gay marriage was legal. It was legalized the year after. And then... like today, like, where I'll be, again, in the before times, when we were traveling around the province... we've been to almost every single school district now. We're still, I think, shy of about two to three school districts that--where we've never been before. We had had those school districts lined up before the pandemic, but alas, plans changed. And essentially, what Out In Schools does is it still brings queer film into into schools, into classrooms. But what's changed a bit is that we do a lot more dialogue, a lot more conversation, a lot more question asking. So it's not your typical, don't like, anti-bullying presentation. It's not your typical, like, let's just, you know, gender-sexuality one on one, it really weaves queer arts into the framework of how we talk about gender, sexuality, and... What this does, I think, is opens the... the gates to empathy, and to curiosity, but also in many ways to, to let... let a lot of students who might not be queer, see kind of like a non-stereotyped version or vision of what queerness can look like. And in many ways, it's like, it's kind of boring. [laughs] Like, it's, you know, we're... many times it's also just like, really joyful. And we also wanted to change that narrative where a lot of I think mainstream queer film tends to be quite tragic... and sad. And so when queerness is usually created for straight audiences, the way they try to hook people in is through... usually through tragedy, the idea that you want to create that kind of like, they want to create sympathy, rather than empathy. Like, like... "Look how these poor LGBT people are treated, we should treat them better." But it's actually more about like, there's actually such more breadth and depth to being queer or trans or two-spirit or nonbinary or asexual that doesn't get, you know, showed in typical mainstream productions. And so yeah, that was always... our hope is to bring queer joy also into classrooms, and have that be the focus of our attention, because, you know, I think, again, like... a lot of the old school presentations, I think, that existed before... my critique was that it assumed that no one in the classroom was going to be queer, it assumed that no one was going to be seeing those depictions. Because I think if you if you continually show people tragedy, like, it... it frightens people, like, "This is what my life is going to be like?" You know, "This is this is what's going to happen to me if I come out." And it's also to acknowledge, like, tragedy, obviously continues to permeate the queer and trans community, especially Black, Latinx, trans women of color... But we also wanted to produce, you know, this idea that, you know, change is possible and hope exists as well. And so that it was kind of like, how I... how I saw the program and how I use the program is showing, like... we show a film called, or a film around, like a trans Korean-American swimmer, like Schuyler Bailar, and how he's overcome his challenges and had a very supportive family. So like, when we show these presentations to parents it's like, look at the difference, like a supportive family can make to a young person's life, right? And it's also showing the transformation, I think, for adults who, at the beginning, were maybe not so supportive? To afterwards and how that can definitely change the trajectory for that child's path. You know, it continues to transform based on the issues at hand, and what's going on in the world, because I think what's happening... young people don't have a dearth of information available to them. They actually have almost too much information. And so what we try to do, is we come into a school and we also like... be in that place of curiosity, ask those questions. And sometimes, like, we also preface, like, we won't be offended, because I think that I think what most people are afraid of is actually saying something wrong. And we will always acknowledge it like, "Maybe that's not the best way to like framed that question, here's why." It's, you know, being open to to those things and, and also being that space where young people can ask questions... or answer questions! Because it's also really cool when you ask a question about queerness, or transness and a young person in the audience can answer the question, and with confidence, and then their peers see them as kind of this idea, "Oh, I can go to them if I have questions, or I know that they're a safe person I can talk to." And so it kind of also generates that atmosphere as well.

Paige Smith  15:29  
This makes me so happy to hear. Like I wish so desperately that they'd had... that my school had had that presentation when I was a kid. That... it sounds so awesome. I love what you guys do.

Brandon Yan  15:41  
It's... it is really, like. I again, this is like kind of why I stuck with this work, is it's... it is really impactful, and you don't always get to see the results of your work. But I think we did actually connect with Elizabeth Saewyc, and the UBC School of Nursing, and Sarah Vick. They basically... what they did was they looked at Out In Schools data since 2004, where we've been how many presentations we did, and they looked at the adolescent health survey that they do... It's almost like a teen adolescent census they do every few years in schools. And they basically looked at their data, and our data, and where we've been, and saw a correlation, and some... connection between where we've been, and actually an improvement in school atmosphere for folks who identified as queer or even young girls and like, reduction in things like drinking or like, bullying and whatnot. And so there is that study available, which is like, a very nerdy, impactful thing that we do. But there's also the anecdotes, I mean, I remember my first presentation in a place like Gold Trail. And, like, it was literally like, I was like, brand new to the job. And I will never forget the moments where a young person comes up to you and like, is almost afraid to say what they want to say, but all they say is "Thank you." And it's like, it's... it's, yeah, it's just like, those are the moments where you know, that, like, they're processing something. And, you know, again, it's like, they never, they never got to see something before and now they've seen it, and... and now they're able to kind of like move forward. I think. Humblebrag, also, is that Out In Schools has been very instrumental in provincial policy as well. In the last year, I think of the BC Liberal government a few years ago, they passed a ministerial directive at making sure that schools have a sexual orientation and gender identity policy, because in BC, all those policies are school district by the school district. So, there's no... there's no kind of overarching provincial policy. And that was one of our goals, was to get a provincial policy protecting queer and trans kids in schools. And we were able to push that forward. We even basically wrote the directive, and some of that... and some of that, that policy, we worked with, like the BC Teachers Federation, we worked with the Arc Foundation. We worked with UBC, like... we worked collaboratively with a lot of organizations to to push for policy change, and we got it. And that's been really, really key, I think, for a lot of our work that has happened over the last few years.

Fiorella Pinillos  18:20  
That's really amazing.

Brandon Yan  18:23  
Yeah, it was kind of like a... a fairly new piece, Out In Schools, as it grew. Like, again, when I started, Out in Schools... it was just me as a program coordinator, running the whole show. And then we added staff, like, we brought Gavin, and I moved into a director position, which actually allowed us to do more policy work. And so, because I think--what the old program model was all about, enabling change with young people, but it's like, those people come and go through the school system. But actually, what you need to do is think about it from a systemic level, like, oh, well, teachers, teachers are actually the, the environment creators and like the policy, like the administrators are also the environment creators, so. What we need to do is also focus on the adults in the room who are going to be there for maybe 10 years, or 20 years, however long their teaching career is... to give them the tools and resources to support the queer and trans youth who come to their classrooms. And then, how you do that is also by, you know, bugging the people who are in charge of policy and like, government, and... and that was also just really an interesting process to go through, I think, learning how government works, and who to talk to, and, you know, who's like, you know, "This person is the minister, but actually you want to bug this person," and like, the ins and outs of like, yeah, advocacy in that way.

Fiorella Pinillos  19:43  
That's really--yeah, that's really incredible that you were able to like actually achieve something like that in BC.

Brandon Yan  19:49  
Yeah, it's like, I think the ministerial directive was important. It basically updated each district's code of conduct, but it doesn't necessarily create resources. It doesn't necessarily direct teachers. Like for instance, I think when you are training to become a teacher in BC, I think like even just the module on LGBT, whatever, is like maybe a day. So it's like... and there's a lot for teachers to learn too, right? So we're understanding that obviously, being queer is also like... It's a bigger issue than just learning one module one day in teacher training. And there's also intersections to queerness, too. I think one big thing we're trying to push now is, how do you... how do you bring culturally relevant queer, transness, also into the picture as well? Because there's no one way to be queer, trans, or two-spirit as well. So it's like, when we traveled to a district, which is like, primarily Indigenous young people, making sure that we have Indigenous facilitators also bring their experience, you know, there, it's, it's also that kind of connection as well. So it's not just like one size fits all.

Paige Smith  21:02  
Stepping to a new note, we wanted to ask a little bit more about the festival. Just now that you're the executive director of Out On Screen, you know, there's the festival component and the Out In Schools component. So with the festival, as someone who really loves the festival and has attended and everything, I... One of the things I really love about the festival is this ability to feel, like, connection, through the events and the screenings. So, this is kind of like a tougher question, but like, how did you folks deal with that this year with everything being online and everything?

Brandon Yan  21:36  
Yeah, I mean, I don't know. Like, we're still processing it, really. But I think we, we were... I think one of the earlier festivals to kind of have to digitize. I mean, I think DOXA was before us, or at least they delayed their festival to the point where I think it happened also around there. And so we also learned from looking at other people doing what they were doing, and kind of like taking ideas and... But the connection part is definitely important. I think our festival, like, a lot of smaller film festivals in the city are based around a community or identity or common experience... whereas if you look at something like VIFF... VIFF is like, your film... film lovers, you know, festival, it's your, people go there because they love film, not necessarily because they are a certain way or you know, have a common experience. Which is not a diss on VIFF, it's just like... I just noticed as someone who helps run VQFF and is part of the VQF--a different vibe, when I go to a VIFF screening, like it's a very different vibe. VQF always feels like a reunion, every time you go to a screening, like... people chatting, it's... it's a lot of people don't always celebrate Pride in the same kind of like mainstream way. And they find other ways to do that, and the film festival is one of those ways. And so for us trying to find the ways in which we can keep those connections going was difficult, given the limitations of digital transmission, I guess, because it's like... what makes us different than Netflix, if we just become a streaming platform, you know? What makes what makes a film festival different than... whatever... if all it is is just video on demand now? And we still haven't cracked that, I don't think, but I think what we tried to do was, we did things a bit differently. We didn't do video on demand, we had set screening times, like a traditional festival did, and people loved it, or they didn't. So in many ways, it's... it created that same schedule-ness that a festival creates, so you kind of have to actually plan your evening. People loved that during the pandemic, we heard some feedback, "It actually made me think about like what I wanted to do, and plan ahead and made me actually..." Like, some people gathered in their backyards for the projector and they sent pictures, it was really cute. And so we love that aspect of it, of people actually creating their own screenings in their own bubbles. And then, you know, the other limitations of a festival normally is like, people have schedules and like, they have kids and like... they might not be able to make the seven o'clock screening. And by the time, you know, they realize there's a screening, it's too late, right? And so they might miss their chance to watch something. And so there is that trade off of programming in that respect. We also at the beginning of the year didn't know what this year would look like. So we planned pretty conservatively. We screened only half the number of films who normally would, connecting with artists was difficult, especially for live Q&As, because they're around the world, and like trying to line up times where they could live chat was difficult, so we prerecorded a bunch of things, which I think also limited interaction with our audience. They couldn't ask a question in the moment and have it answered. Yeah, it... we're still figuring it out, I think. We're about to go into our planning process for next year, and I think we're... we're open to new ideas, and I think that's the thing for us--it's like, we've been running a film festival that's been pretty much run very similarly for the last three decades, and this last year was the first time we've had to think, in a wholly new way. We knew there was going to be a day where we had to do online screenings. We knew that day was coming, and it was kind of just forced upon us last year. But the weird thing, too, is like when you're--I mean, this is this is in the minutiae--but like, you know, we, when we... we book venues, like, we're actually spending about the same amount of money on technological platforms as we would on a physical venue. 

Paige Smith  25:34  
Oh, wow. 

Brandon Yan  25:34  
So there's really not, like, a cost savings from a festival perspective that way. I mean, QFF has always been interesting in that we don't... we, like, our whole shtick is also around access. So we give a lot of our tickets away for free, we typically try to price lower, or a tiered rate than other festivals. And we also don't, like, charge more for different events, like, you would pay the same ticket price for our opening night gala as you would for any other screening, where other festivals tend to tier up as well. But yeah, it was also just like, hard to figure out ticket pricing for digital, because I think we were talking about it--you know, we're not we were like, "Well, we're not a streaming platform, so we're not gonna go with the Apple like rental video of like, $3.99." Because like, there's also... a way to want to respect the artists as well of like, you know, we're not just a service renting their film, like we're, we're showcasing their arts, we want to be able to pay our artists, we... I think also, we also are one of the few festivals that pays short, filmmakers?

Paige Smith  26:36  
You are! You are one of the only festivals that does it, and it's amazing. All festival should do that.

Brandon Yan  26:43  
Like I know, it's not a lot of money. But like I when I heard like, this year, this year was the first time I realized that we were one of the few festivals that paid short filmmakers--I'm like, wait, what? And it's like, yeah, like, I think that's also like we, you know, we I mean, and also as incoming Executive Director, like there are lots of shifts and pushes and pulls in the nonprofit sector in general, and the art sector, obviously, right now. I think Vancouver's arts scene is undergoing a lot of transformation, to put it lightly. And, you know, we want to be part of that positive change, too. Like, I think there's lots of things we can continue doing. And I think there's some things we can do differently. But the way I tend to work is a bit more collaborative, you know, as like, I think that we're going to have to be moving forward. And our, you know, our organization kind of straddles both, like the queer serving, like, you know, community, but also the arts community. And sometimes those things are, like, slightly different. And so figuring out ways in which those can all work together is really, really key. But yeah, we... That technological divide is just a hard one. We tried really hard to figure out ways in which we could maybe provide like laptop rentals, or free Internet, or even like, like... offsite screenings, that would be safe? For folks who don't have the technology or the setup. And just as COVID progressed, it became clear that that was not going to be a safe way to, you know, operate. And we're still not sure, I mean, we just actually did our first drive-in screening at the end of October, which went really well. It was Rocky Horror Picture Show. And it was like 50 cars, max, so maybe 200 people or so? But everyone was in their own cars and was very spaced out. And it was just like to be watching a film together, and hear people laugh, and to hear people scream, hear people clap. People got out of their cars to do the Time Warp. And I'm like, this is like, this is like, why we have film festivals, you know, like, it's,

Paige Smith  28:49  
That sounds so magical!

Brandon Yan  28:51 
It felt so magical after being so isolated, I think, from what we do normally. Because again, it's like, there's Netflix, and--I love Netflix, I love the accessibility of Netflix, but it can never replace that feeling of being in a packed theatre of people laughing or crying or, you know, shouting together about a common experience. So it's just hard it's so hard to replicate and like--

Fiorella Pinillos  29:18  
I'm excited! I'm excited for, like, the new year and how you reimagine that... the experience

Brandon Yan  29:25  
Yeah, even Out in Schools too, like, we're... you know, it's hard to deliver a presentation like we used to and actually like, I've... I've put it forward to both the Film Festival and the Out in schools program as your new Executive Director, like... think bold! Because like, the like... we like... there's nothing holding us back from changing anything now, because--we don't like there's probably no way we can deliver in-person programming and get next year based on where we are today. And so, we're kind of, like... we're untethered from a lot of those expectations. So like, maybe Out in Schools doesn't do presentations the way we used to do. Maybe we start creating content, maybe we commissioned filmmakers to do it, like, you know, it's like, our mission isn't very specific to the program, right. Like, our mission is very broad--film education dialogue. It's not like, it's not... film festival, school presentation. It's like, you know, I think nonprofits are also gonna have to go back to their mission statement. Like it's, you're not--your programs aren't... your programs don't drive your mission, your mission drives your programs.

Fiorella Pinillos  30:27  
But yeah, you've talked about, you've talked a bit about your, your identity, and how your own experiences growing up in Langley as you know, queer biracial kid, you know, really shaped your experiences now. And I just--and I read your piece, the CBC article that you published recently, and I was just so inspired by... by some of the stuff that you mentioned about, you know, like that, or that internalized racism that you felt growing up. I yeah, I just wanted to... see if you have any, if you wanted to tell us a little bit about that journey, you know, finding out your roots and connecting with your Chinese heritage?

Brandon Yan  31:13  
Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of it goes... it's so interconnected to the work I do now. I think growing up, usually the storytelling, like the first time, I remember, being really attached to like a TV show was Queer as Folk, the UK version, which was definitely not meant for kids the age I was when I started watching that show. And also, like, highly problematic now. But, you know, watching a show where it was just about queer people, not just like, the one gay person who happens to be there, who was a side character supporting, you know, other people was really instrumental. And then, you know, progressing from that, you know, never really seeing a lot of Asian or Chinese people at the time, I didn't care, because it was one of those things where... I think again, and like in the piece I wrote, like, whiteness was like, the goal, or heteronormativity was the goal. And I think so, or at least that was something you were to aspire to, in and on, like, little thoughts that kind of stick with me growing up around, like, you know, why... why is my dad different than other people's dads. And, you know, my dad was, you know, a Chinese immigrant who ran a business, a weird business in Langley, ran a nightclub. And, you know, wasn't that stereotype dad on TV, who would be like throwing the football around the field--even though I hated sports--but like one of those things weird, like, I was supposed to like those things? And I--it also just like, shows the power of media, to influence the way in which you see yourself in the world, or your position in the world, right? Never really wanting to know more about my Chinese ancestry at all, like zero interest whatsoever. And even when I did my degree, my first degree in history, like I still didn't care about Chinese history, I still didn't care about like... my entire degree was focused on like, Canadian colonial history, and like... I'm so different from even just, like, 10 years ago, about my mind view, my mindset and like, who I want to be, and whatnot, and SFU's Urban Studies program, again, there was a lightbulb moment when I was in Matt Hearn's class on art culture in the city, a class that we took together, I think, and you know, and he made us read this paper by Iris Marion yYoung about the politics of difference. And even though I had thought I was a critical thinking person, I still had those thoughts when I went to, you know, the Pride Parade and whatnot of like, I like Pride, like, I'm going to do this, but also, like, I don't really understand why everyone has to be so outrageous and like, if you want to be taken seriously, why don't you act like a "normal person," and I'm doing air quotes. And reading that paper, like, blew up my mind--I'm like, what does it mean to be normal? And why should your rights and how people treat you be based on your behavior, or what you wear, or your--people's perceptions of you? Right? And I think it's like, that kind of really was transformative for me of understanding, you know, rights, space narratives and, and how we see movements, like the feminist movement, the queer liberation movements, other, you know, Black Lives Matter, and all these other really important social movements of our times. So that was really important for me as another key turning point. Yeah, also just like mortality, like, you know, our elders are getting older. The stories that they could tell are disappearing. And... and feeling also sometimes a little, in some ways, jealous of people who can like... who know their ancestry, of like, where they come from and who their, you know, who their grandparents are, or who their great grandparents were, and I always knew my white history, like I knew more about that than I knew any About my Chinese history, because I just didn't bother to ask. And also, I think there's also that that element of immigrants' narrative where they don't want to talk about it, because the whole point of moving sometimes is to assimilate and to adopt, you know, this new country and new way of being. And there's also probably lots of trauma in there. And so, you know... started asking questions, when my dad was around, and getting bits of pieces here and there of like, who our family was before they moved to Canada. And then in earnest, just doing some more research in the last couple of years, really. Because, yeah, again, my dad is almost... 80? Yeah.

Brandon Yan  35:47  
And he's like, the middle child, too. So. Or like, one of the younger kids. So my aunts and uncles are not getting younger, and... basically just wanted to reach out to them being like, hey, like, I actually know nothing about you. Like I see you occasionally for dinners and whatnot. But I actually don't know what you do for a living, what you did for a living, where you went to school, where you grew up, what you think. Because usually at the dinner table, they would always speak Cantonese with each other. And us as kids, not learning any Chinese would just sit there kind of like talking amongst ourselves.

Fiorella Pinillos  36:21  
But you also started taking some some Cantonese as well.

Brandon Yan  36:25  
Yeah, I started. First, I really wanted to get into it, I think a few years ago, and I can't remember exact dates, but... Vancouver Community College offers Cantonese lessons. And so I start, I signed up for lessons. I remember going to dinner with my family, and my dad was there and I'm like, "Hey, like I'm learning Cantonese," and like, would try something. And my dad's response, like I said, in the the thing I wrote for CBC is like, "Why would you want to learn such an ugly language?" And that... that hurts so much. Yeah. Not because I like, not because I wanted him to be proud. But because I think, you know, what makes it ugly? Like, you know, the thing that... the first couple lessons I learned about Cantonese, it's like, the way in which we greet each other. In Cantonese is always like, sihk jó faahn meih a, which is like, I mean... I butchered the pronunciation of that. But it's "Have you eaten?" Like, it's not like... There's no--it's not like, "Hi, how are you?" It's actually like, "Have you eaten yet?" And the way in which we take care of each other through food, it's really, you know, I think a lot of the culture is built into the language. And I think that's really beautiful. From a nerdy perspective, also, like, there isn't... from Out in School's gender perspective, there isn't he or she, there's only like, one, there's like a just a, it's a gender neutral pronoun. It's basically they. So it's i It's I, you, they, but... it is a gendered language in many respects, but like, it doesn't have a gender pronoun, which is really cool. Which is also why a lot of elderly folks in my community mix up she and he interchangeably. Like they'll just refer to people as she or he, and they don't even care because, like, in their brain, like, it doesn't exist. Yeah. So it was like, again, like, I think that's like... I am regretful, I didn't learn earlier, because I think again, it's harder to learn a language as you... as you get older. But it's such an interesting language, it like--it really is like the tones? It's so interesting to me, the way that a single word said six different ways is six different words, which sounds really daunting, I think, for people who learn languages, but I think it's just really, I mean, for me, actually learning Cantonese felt easier than learning French, because there weren't any... because there isn't really any tense to it either. So there's no, you don't have to change the words don't actually change based on the tense, so there's no like, conjugation really. Again, I... this could also be wrong. It's just like, I took a few lessons on like, now I'm an expert in Cantonese.

Fiorella Pinillos  38:58  
But... but, you know, I completely, I mean, my first language is Spanish, if the listeners don't know. But I'm raising my kids in Canada, and you know, like, language is super important to me, you know, to connect them to like, my culture, I guess my kids are half Peruvian, half Canadian. And so like, yeah, like, I try my best to, like, speak to them in Spanish, as that's the way they they are going to connect with their grandparents and cousins, through... and the culture and like, you know, the story so like, you know, it's such an important piece, I don't want that to be lost. And so, you know, it's so important to just try to like, keep that that connection to language. And, yeah.

Brandon Yan  39:49  
I mean, that's kind of like what I wish I had. Because growing up, like, we would always, every Sunday we would go to Chinatown to pick up my grandma. Well, we'd pick up at her house and then we'd drive her to Chinatown. And we would go for go for lunch at Maxine's, and... and then my dad would like, you know, force me to go with my grandma shopping. But she didn't... she didn't speak any English. And so, it was always just awkward for me, just like, following her around carrying these very heavy bags of oranges, so many oranges, because, you know, they would use the oranges for her shrines. And then you know, she would, she would also eat the oranges. But you know, I never never had a conversation with her ever, you know, because, you know, our the extent of our conversation was like, she would say something in broken English and I would say something in butchered Cantonese. Usually it's "Thank you," or "Happy New Year," really. Those are kind of those that's the extent of the the Cantonese my dad would ever teach us so. And I would probably also say like, it's probably hard for parents to get your kids to do things that are probably going to be good for them later on. [laughs] I have no doubt that if my dad put us in some sort of Chinese school that I would hate it. But it's like, yeah, I, so... I have a lot of empathy for parents in that respect. But yeah, it's something I think... I wish I would have had now, obviously, and doing family history, and research is also just hard in a different language too--it's like, because Cantonese is also like a spoken language, it's not a written language per se, like there's not a huge connection between... because you can, a lot of people can speak Cantonese, but necessarily don't know how to write in Chinese. It's... because it's not like a phonetic language, right? It's a character. So you have to be able to read the character, to be able to understand the written aspect of Chinese. And so doing research is just like, very hampered when people like... "Use!" Like, I have no idea. If my records would be in here which order they would put my grandparents' Chinese names in, or English names, because again, like, you know... everyone has a Chinese name, and then they have an English name. And like, who knows how they were written in the records and...

Paige Smith  42:05  
I love how in the article you wrote, you talked about the Chinese name that you have and how it was given to you by your grandma. That's so beautiful to me. Maybe you can like talk a bit about that as well. 

Brandon Yan  42:18  
Yeah. Something that I didn't really, I think, growing up, knew a bit about my dad always would reference like, Chinese names, but I never really asked what they meant. Because again, I don't... don't know any of it. But again, once I got old enough to start asking questions about things and he's like, oh, yeah, your Chinese name, like if you break it down, it's like, Yan Nim Boon. And it's like, Nim Boon means like, "remember your roots," or "origins." And, to me, it was like, like, oh, like, that's actually just way too, like, appropriate at the moment, anyways. But I think as the first or the eldest son born, to, you know, her son, it was really important, I think, for her to like, pre-pre-pre-plan that in my brain of like, he's gonna want to know, he's gonna be--he's gonna be the one that like, like, somehow she knew this, this young child is going to be the one that remembers our history and like, writes it down and save it.

Paige Smith  43:22  
He'll lead the way! 

Brandon Yan  43:22  
And so, learning that was really really cool. And yeah, also just further grew my interest in our family history and... and also like, that was kind of like, I think, what I was trying to do was to... in my election campaign, having it--my Chinese name quite prominent in a lot of my materials was also around like, I think showcasing to my father that, like, there's nothing to be ashamed of. And also, like, this name means just, there's no--this name means just as much to me as my English name that I use more frequently. And also just like an acknowledgement, like really only my family would use my Chinese name, right? Like, it's... it's not a common name that's used among my friends but like... it's everywhere now that I like... it's on my email signature it's on my Twitter handle, it's like... it was really interesting about bringing my Chinese name into kind of my normal everyday life outside my family... was around seeing other people get sparked about doing the same with a lot of their names, especially folks who are--come from a mixed heritage where they might have more than one name. And we're also--names are, again, like I know names mean something in all languages, but it's like really cool to me that like in Chinese, like the characters are specific, like wishes or hopes, like for your child, too?

Fiorella Pinillos  44:43  
That's so beautiful.

Paige Smith  44:44  
With that, we wanted to talk a little bit about your journey into politics. So like, you mentioned it was your name and everything. So maybe you could talk a little bit about what inspired you to run for city council here in Vancouver and yeah, what Are you interested in that?

Brandon Yan  45:01  
Yeah, I mean, I think I've always been a very politically minded person. In high school, I was the nerd who would read newspapers. Like I would, I would literally bring the newspaper to school and read it, like, during my break because...

Paige Smith  45:16  
You sound like a grandpa, just like...

Brandon Yan  45:17  
I am a grandpa! Like, I... old beyond my years. And you know, I, I would write letters--I wrote a letter, I remember writing a letter to the defense minister Art Eggleton, in the 2000s, early 2000s? About Canada buying missiles, and I'm like, "This is a bad idea." Like, this is what I did in my spare time. You know, and also, like, I think I'm a product of also the generation of... Remember, when the BC Liberals came to power for the first time, and they cut education funding? And I, I was having none of it because it... like, most things, when when funding gets cut, it usually impacts arts first, because arts... Arts is seen as like a, you know, a "nice to have," not a "necessary." And so like, I was always... I was always a theater kid--surprise, surprise. And so like those, those classes were impacted almost immediately, based on funding cuts. And so I got really interested in activism, fast forward, I think, into my adult life. In Vancouver, being very involved in urbanism is also being involved in politics--in Vancouver, at least. And the time of the last civic election in 2018, was an interesting time in general, because we had seen basically, the implosion of the long-standing party Vision Vancouver, a lot of incumbents stepping aside, not running for reelection. There was a... most actually, most of council was stepping aside for... not running again, on both sides. George Affleck also stepped down and wasn't going to run for reelection. Elizabeth Ball, like--there was a... almost everyone on council was not running for reelection. And why that was actually really important was because incumbents typically are almost impervious to failure in some respects, in elections in Vancouver. Just given the way our election system works at large, it's like, it's really hard to unseat an incumbent. And so when there are no incumbents, that's actually a really opportune time for change, and for new people and new voices, new experiences to try... to try to make it to Council. Put it out there, on Twitter, of all places, of course, like.

Fiorella Pinillos  47:34  
Of course.

Brandon Yan  47:34 
"If I were to run, which party do..." Vancouver is a very party-driven, also, civic system as well, which is unusual for the civic level in Canada... except for, I think, Montreal. Put it out there, like all the parties that I think I would align with, and OneCity reached out to me, which was a fairly new progressive party at the time, kind of like a child born of both Vision Vancouver and also Cope. And those two parents were still angry about it. And I think still are--you know, the whole, like splitting the left and all the things and whatnot. But I got to meet Cara Ng and RJ Aquino, we literally just went for coffee. And they're like, "Hey, like, we think you would be great. And like also, like, would you want to try for the nomination process?" You know, and I'm like, "Okay, well, like, let me get involved and see what this is all about." And I really liked that approach. I also like the fact that I met with two people of color, which is sometimes quite rare in politics. I mean, obviously, we see Vancouver City Council, despite being all women, very few people of color. No, no Asian people, despite a city being almost half, you know, of Asian descent. And, yeah. I tried there and got to know a lot of the folks running the campaign and OneCity at the time, and probably still is, is mostly run by women. Which is, which is... Yeah, I mean, it's quite rare for a political machine to be run almost entirely of women, and felt like a good spot to get involved, and... but I think for me, it's always been a, I don't know, constant struggle of like, internal debates around like, you know, who should be represented and whose voices are important. And, you know, I think I made it clear to them also, like if there are other folks who I think should be, you know, more forfronted in, in the nomination process, like, by all means, like, I have 0 ego, I know that like... being a counselor is hard. It's not like a job you walk into being like, T"his is gonna be easy!" and like, "Change is gonna happen!" because it's like, it is democracy and it can be quite slow and painful.

Brandon Yan  49:53  
So. I don't know. And then I won the nomination as kind of this newbie on the scene, which is really cool, along with Christine Boyle. And remember... Christine was like, just like the dream team like, she super supportive and like, I mean... I taught her about Star Wars. She didn't she had never seen a Star Wars, so I'm calling her out. Anyways, but we had a good... Honestly, the campaign itself was, for the most part pretty positive and fun. Even election night, where... I lost. But the thing is like, I wasn't expecting a win, to be honest. Like because it's a first time running for council, a young person, a queer person, a person of colour, like. The odds are not usually pretty good. But yeah, election night was fun. It was really fun.

Fiorella Pinillos  50:50  
And you're still recovering from...?

Brandon Yan  50:54  
Oh, yes. Which is why I'm like, I don't know, I'm not really in tuned with OneCity at the moment, just because like I yeah, I... and also taking on a much larger responsibility with the organization I am right now. It's like, you know, that is a lot of my focus, and will be part of my focus for the next few years, so. It's like, taking responsibility seriously, you know? It's hard. It's hard, like when your work is social justice, and very personal based to also be involved in other... other movements and processes that are also require kind of the same energy from you.

Fiorella Pinillos  51:30  
It's all very passionate!

Brandon Yan  51:30  
And it's exhausting. 

Fiorella Pinillos  51:31  
Yeah, oh, yeah, I bet.

Brandon Yan  51:32  
Like if it was, if it was like, if my day job was just me back at Lululemon, doing like, whatever, like... I'm sure I would have energy outside of work to do those kinds of things. But when your work is also your passion, it's... it's hard to also do... I find it hard to do other things in addition to work.

Paige Smith  51:51  
That's why it's good. You have a dog, as you can have your dog time.

Brandon Yan  51:55 
Yes, My dog is my therapy time. It's sitting right next to me sleeping.

Paige Smith  52:02  
Yay! When you were running you for your position, with City Council. I remember you describing things like that were important to you like, radical transformation and justice and values, turning your values into actions? How are you enacting those in your work today with Out On Screen and, and all the work that that encompasses?

Brandon Yan  52:26  
I mean, it's a it's a driving force in the work that I want to do in both, I think, both with politics and also with, I guess, my organization, which is also political. And I think we're, when I was running for council, I think we had the, like, a great opportunity, obviously, to, to push for more radical change. Especially the limitations, I think sometimes that exist at the civic level can be frustrating, they still are frustrating. But with my organization, and now being Executive Director, in many ways, I... I'm more powerful now that I would be in council because I have control over, you know, what Out On Screen can be or how we can move forward. Whereas on council like, you know, I watched Christine and watch her struggle with a council that is, you know, people like the idea of this, you know, independent councillors and everyone kind of being nonpartisan, but you watch and you actually, you can see the difficulty in that, of like actually trying to push through progressive change, when you don't have a party mechanism to get everyone together to connect and collaborate in that sense. Where... but also like, being an executive director is also... it shifts and changes over time. I think, traditionally, executive directors have always been very top-down. They try to mimic almost corporations or companies in that respect, and I don't... I don't like to operate that way. And so, it's my hope that we don't do that. So, there's a lot of conversation and change in the nonprofit sector around like, how do you flatten, you know, like a top down organization? How do you make responsibilities and power more horizontal? How do you fundraise in an ethical manner? You know, these are all the conversations that I'm loving having right now. I don't have any answers for these. But as we go into strategic planning for the end of the year, you know, we're reading things like, you know, what does white supremacy look like in a nonprofit? Like, what does it mean? How do we recognize those behaviors, and how do we shift them? You know, and there are simple change--simple I mean, there are changes we've made as an organization over the last number of years, like. We became a living wage employer. So our minimum wage is the same as the living wage, organized by Living Wage BC. We make sure that when we do job postings, we post salary ranges We've removed a lot of the education requirements from job postings, you know, like there are things to make your organization more progressive, in a lot of those senses, and those are kind of like operational changes. And fundraising is a big one--there's a new grassroots kind of organization campaign called Community-Centric Fundraising, where they tried to push for change in the fundraising aspect of things for, so--nonprofits, obviously rely heavily on fundraising. But I think so it's important to actually make sure that our values align with the way in which we raise money. And it's... it's hard, because we exist in a capitalist system, and you, you know, I want to pay people well, and in order to do that, you know, you need money. And in order to get money, you need to do fundraising, and sponsorship, and you know, all these interesting things that you have to do to be able to pay people to exist. And your programming too, right, like your programming should be leading a lot of things. I think, in the past, I think our fundraising led a lot of our programming, and it actually has to be our programming that leads our fundraising. So you know, we should be forefront, putting the young people we should be for fronting the artists and, and showing people, those, those folks who are impacted by your work versus like, you know, throwing a big fancy gala, you know, like. Maybe there's a better way to do it than doing that. We all love a good gala, but also like ,when you're charging $500 for a ticket, who can be there and who has access to that space? And those philosophical questions, I think we're gonna be grappling with for the next little while. And also, we're in the middle of the pandemic. And so, the nature of working has just changed dramatically, too. Being a boss in a pandemic is a weird thing to think about. Like it's, you know, paying attention to public health orders, and then having to go online and email your staff being like, "Hey, this is the new protocol. And, you know, please be safe," and also like, working from home is a challenge in the best of days, even though I think people dreamed of working from home before, but now it's like, I wish I had the option to work in an office. And yeah, my job isn't to make sure people are clocking in at nine o'clock and clocking out at 5pm. It's just like more like, you know, are folks getting what they need to, to do what they need to do? And I'm still figuring a lot of those things out. Yeah, and I think for us as an organization, what I would love for us to be is like, you know, the kind of... we want to be role modeling, I think the behaviors and in the arts sector, or in the, you know, LGBT sector, of how you can operate as a nonprofit, how you can operate as an organization in general. And so, figuring that out is like, kind of where I want us to be.

Paige Smith  57:50  
It sounds challenging, it sounds like it's, like...

Brandon Yan  57:51  
It's so challenging, but it's like, it's... it's the exciting bit, it's like, you know, when you, you get control, and being able to work with your, your board and your staff on these cool things of like, "Wait, like, why have we done this before? Why, like, why are we doing it this way? Why haven't we done it this way?" And it's like, there's so many opportunities, I think, for really good change in that way of like putting our values, our progressive values, into action in those ways. So like, you know, if we're, if we're not the organization to do some of this work, like, what are the partners that can do that, like, for instance, there's the... they're called SEARA? S-E-A-R-A? And it's basically a new kind of, like, grassroots organization trying to fund BIPOC artists who lost a lot of their income during the... and so, like, supporting their work is really integral to supporting our mission of supporting artists. And so it's like, you know, there's, we don't have to do everything, we can work in conjunction with other people doing the work too, right? So especially when it comes to... maybe experiences outside our immediate experiences of who we are as people at Out On Screen, too.

Fiorella Pinillos  59:02  
Oh, it's been wonderful to have you and I feel like you've had such an intense last decade... such a it's such an amazing journey of like, discovering, and like, changing and learning. And, you know, thank you for for sharing all this with us. And yeah, it was a pleasure to have you here in Below the Radar.

Brandon Yan  59:26  
Yeah, thank you.

Fiorella Pinillos  59:29  
Thank you for tuning in to hear from our guests, Brandon Yan. Head to the show notes for relevant links to learn more. Asa la proxima.

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
December 14, 2020

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