Open Your Mind: A Q&A with MES student John Caffery

Ambassadors, The Banff Centre, Leadership Development, 2014

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today the spotlight is on John Caffery, a master’s student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, who is doing research to explore the intersections of art, activism, and education within 2SLGBTQ communities and how to best engage youth in social justice.

Q. Please describe your field of current research.

A. My research is community based and is focused on anti-oppression theory, arts-based pedagogy, and histories of queer and trans resistance.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. As a community worker with Supporting Our Youth (SOY), a community development program for 2SLGBTQ youth, I have been exposed to the oppressions faced by those communities. In response, I implemented a new program: H.E.A.T (Human Rights Equity Access Team). This program empowers 2SLGBTQ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer) youth to be speakers and ambassadors who identify ways to make environments safer for 2SLGBTQ youth and their peers.

H.E.A.T. has now been running for six years, and I wanted to use my time at York University to research areas for innovation in the program and critically reflect on the challenges coming up coordinating a social justice education and training program in a community-based health centre environment.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. In my research and community work with youth, we create environments to learn from each other about how to challenge oppression together.

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. The project explores the historical and contemporary methods and practices 2SLGBTQ communities have developed to resist injustice from an intersectional framework. The research and results are then incorporated into a 30-week anti-oppression training and leadership development program for 2SLGBTQ youth.

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. There are tools for anti-oppression education that we have developed, including my final project, which is an educational poster series that celebrates and honours 2SLGBTQ activism that will be distributed in the youth sector and education system.

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? (I.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry.)

A. The actress and trans activist Laverne Cox came to SOY last spring while she was in town filming the Rocky Horror remake. It was probably one of the most exciting moments of my seven years working there. The invites to the free talk for 2SLGBTQ youth prioritized queer and trans women of colour, which resulted in this beautiful, huge circle of young black kids surrounding Laverne as she shared her wisdom. She spoke for two hours at no charge to SOY, and shared her personal stories about how she handled barriers in her life as a trans black woman, and offered guidance and support to the community. She was brilliant and generous, and I have a photo of the two of us with another local activist, Kim Milan, on my desk for inspiration.

Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry. Can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. The biggest challenge is staying afloat time-wise and on schedule, given that my research is focused on a program I coordinate at SOY. I work 28 hours a week at SOY and it has been difficult to stay on top of readings and course work. On top of that, I became a father while in the program, which meant I’ve had to ask for some extensions but thankfully not too many. 

Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. It feels like the new direction is a big feedback loop. It has been so beneficial to be inspired by a course reading and be able to incorporate it into the H.E.A.T. program right away. Similarly, I’m finding that something a youth said has me reading an article with a particular lens. None of the research feels abstract; it feels like I’ve been experiencing the theory and action intertwined.

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. My research explores the intersections of art, social justice and education.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. Ha! No. I was very clear about what I wanted to do from the moment I applied to the program.

Q. Are you involved with teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. I recently was hired as a professor at George Brown College to teach a course on campaign and community organizing in the Community Worker program, as well as a course on human sexuality in the Child & Youth Care program. I graduated from the Community Worker program in 2010 and had such a great experience as a student, so it is an absolute thrill to return to teach. My research feels very related to the subjects I’m teaching and so they all inform each other.

Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. Try to be realistic with yourself about the timeline.

Group shot of the H.E.A.T. team

Q. Why did you choose York to pursue your graduate studies?

A. I was initially drawn here because of the Community Arts Practice (CAP) Certificate program, but then realized that the Faculty of Environmental Studies accepted non-standard entries like me. With my community worker diploma and the CAP certificate, it is four years of formal education but “non-standard” and not a bachelor degree, and I like that the department recognizes different educational paths. That, and my sense was that there was a strong social justice stream I could take courses in, and a bunch of cool queer and trans folks doing incredible work there.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself.

A. I grew up in Hamilton and moved to Toronto when I was 19. I’m now 38 and a queer parent in a multi-parent family. We are two queer couples that came together to create family, and now we have a ten-month-old baby who fills my life with joy. We were part of a charter challenge in 2016 which resulted in the judge ruling that former Ontario laws were discriminatory. It resulted in the All Families Are Equal act, which was the first update to the parentage laws in 38 years. I began working in the 2SLGBGTQ community as soon as I moved to Toronto. I used to go to dance at a party called Vaseline, then played in a band called Kids on TV for 10 years, and have been a multidisciplinary artist for years. In my 20s I got more involved in community work. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, and I decided to enrol in the community worker program at GBC together in 2008, so we did two years of full-time school together. That program was when my education really began to click for me after struggling through high school. Here I am almost ten years of postsecondary education later, very happy with where I’ve ended up and how it is feeding into my career.

Q. How long have you been a researcher?

A. I’ve never actually referred to myself that way before so I’ll say I’m new to it.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. Bell Hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Darren O’Donnell’s Social Acupuncture are books that have been a big influence. The music of Nina Simone, Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, and lots of disco and house music. The movies that have left the biggest impression on me are Alien, Edward Scissorhands, Star Wars, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Shortbus (which I was in), The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Best in Show, The Crying Game, Pariah, Inception and everything made by John Waters.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. Today I’m reading various essays by the Toronto queer/trans BIPOC collective Marvellous Grounds. Lately I’m watching two excellent documentary series: Cuba Libre Story: A Ragtag Revolution and O.J.: Made in America, as well as watching Transparent, Scandal and Broad City.

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

A. To be honest, picking one is a difficult choice – I’m a dinner party type of guy, and I’m thinking of Miss Major, Quentin Crisp, Buffy Sainte Marie, Sylvester, David Wojnarowicz, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Bell Hooks and Liberace. I think that would make for a memorable night!

Q. What do you do for fun? 

A. These days, spending time with my son is the most fun.