Interview: Diandra Oliver

Welcome to the first instalment in my irregular interview series. “Irregular” because I don’t yet know how often I will post interviews, and also because the interviews won’t always follow standard Q&A procedure. Essentially it’s a place to showcase A1 friends, family members, and colleagues doing amazing work. My blog, my rules.

First up: one of my dearest friends, Diandra Oliver. Diandra is an awesome babe, economist, and DIY superstar living in unceded Coast Salish territories with her partner and son. Diandra is working on her PhD in Geography at Simon Fraser University, where she is injecting a culture of care into her teacher assistantships and researching how youth manufacture diaspora and resistance in Spain as a way to respond to the financial crisis. She is an organizer in the local economy movement, directing her impact on settler responsibility to support decolonizing activities in food work and citizen intervention in the food system. She is a co-founder of Home Sweet Home, a community-funded grocery store, café, and model for economic and social development in rural BC. Her writing can be found in Concrete Garden, Shameless, Remedy, and Our Schools, Our Selves.

Diandra and I have been friends since our first year at Douglas College in New Westminster, BC. We spotted each other across an anthropology classroom, admired each other’s fashion sense, and one day started chatting (note: it took months for us to get the courage to talk to each other!). Here we continue that chat in typically haphazard fashion.

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How did you come to start the PhD program at SFU?

This is my favourite story, but I feel like it downplays how awesome I am, or ignores the fact that I worked hard to achieve this thing. I realize in my telling that I overemphasize the magic, but I’m constantly pinching myself.

The short story is that I had the shittiest fucking graduate experience for my MA. So many beautiful and kind profs and I worked together, but when push came to shove it went to shit. I wasn’t prepared and in hindsight I’m pissed at myself for not seeing the writing on the wall. Regardless, I came out of that experience screaming to everyone I knew, “Don’t do it!” To this day I mourn those lost relationships and am working on remembering it as a positive or growing experience.

But then, in January 2015 I really felt like I was ready to walk back into Mordor and take the ring back. I was witnessing all these super-awesome youth-led economic projects emerging out of East Vancouver and I began to travel from Prince George to Van to meet with them, participate in their events and be part of their community. Every single person I talked to asked me, “What did Matt Hern say? Have you gone to see him yet?” Matt is co-founder of the Purple Thistle Centre, a youth-led space for art and activism in East Van.

So I went to see Matt. It took me six months, but I went.

It was surreal walking up to his house and accounting for why I was there. Neither of us really knew why I was there, but everyone I loved and trusted just told me to go and talk to him like I was on some medieval quest. The kind of quest you pack beer for. Matt opened up to me like he does to many youth in his community that I’ve heard about, and I was humbled by his graciousness and genuine interest in who I was and what I was trying to accomplish. There was a moment when we were talking and he totally offhandedly asked, “What do you know about DIY culture?” and I guffawed, “Um, everything?” Ha! It was the best time, really. I soon admitted I had been trying to connect with Geoff Mann about working with him and Matt said he would get hold of Geoff before I left town. Two days later, Geoff and I had lunch and my life changed forever.

I am steadfast that I brought myself to this point, that I’ve worked hard and I deserve an accomplishment such as this, even if the accomplishment means a long stretch of work ahead of me. I felt so proud to be the first person in my family to go to graduate school, that I am making good of all of the things my immigrant family worked so hard for. That every single time I’ve self-advocated against unnecessary academic bullshit or called out a sexist power struggle was worth it and meaningful.

Even though I am in Year 01 Semester 02 I instantly cherished being able to work with someone as kind and prolific as Geoff. He’s inspired me to rewrite my experience of academia and I am eternally grateful. He’d be the first person to deny he was the-most-awesome, propping up someone else instead of himself, but I’m so proud to have the opportunity to work with him.

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What was it like being out in a small, industry-based city/northern resource town like PG?

I have so much pain about the process of coming out in Prince George and being in a serious, long-term relationship with a woman while living there. I always felt like I was part of the queer community and those nearest and dearest “accepted me,” but when my main goal was/is to destroy the patriarchy there were times when my gender and sexual orientation were so often on the line in an effort to get my politics across. My identity quickly became an easy target for hatred. I have a file on my computer of screen captures of things people said about me on the internet (as I’m sure most modern women do). I’m so glad to not be there anymore and am ashamed by my inability to make life better for other queers who are still there. It’s not okay there, it’s not safe for the LGBTQ community unless you actively work to pass in the cis-heteropatriachy.

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You love rivers! Tell me about that.

I grew up on the unceded territories of the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum First Nations, on the banks of the mighty Skeena river in northwest British Columbia. From a young age I learned that the river was the backbone of our life in the area, but also the blood in our veins, the food in our stomach, the air that we breathed, the stories we became. A river’s power to sustain life, balance an ecosystem, and feed communities is an inspiration, and the way rivers carve the landscape, leaving their imprint on the ancient landscape, is a reminder of our need to revere and protect them. It’s so easy to feel like the world is all of a sudden going to shit, but rivers are this great reminder that there’s a long history here, in the place you’re in, and that this struggle is just part of the flow, where it came from and where it’s going.

What keeps you up at night?

The onslaught of ideas and witchy dreams. I’ve stopped letting anxiety keep me up, it’s pretty much just excitement and premonitions now.

What fires you up each morning?

Coffee and the kid tickling my feet to wake me up.

What’s your fave Sunday activity?

Being in the forest! For the longest time I held the conviction that hiking is an avoidable assertion of colonial power. The things I would pick in the woods aren’t mine to take, those trails aren’t mine to say I claimed, the summit not something I could, with confidence, say was mine to achieve. It still makes me uncomfortable, but I’ve started a Sunday practice of going outside. We find an established trail and head out, slowly but surely, and give thanks. I’m so humbled by the landscape and I am honoured to get to spend time out there. I recently read this great (academic) article about co-becoming with the landscape, that together with the land we become an impression of or image of a certain place. As a settler, my experience of the land and being part of the land is heavily informed by the unceded Indigenous territories I walk on (this includes the territories of the Musqueam, Skxwú7mesh-ulh Úxwumixw, Stó:lo and Tsleil-Waututh nations). I want to do everything in my ability to take care of the land, to make reparations and to show that I care beyond just my access to it.

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You’ve recently moved back to Vancouver after several years away. What has changed in that time? What do you notice? What most excites/depresses you about being back?

I’m so sad I ever left and I’m so glad to be back. I spent so many of my years fighting the fight in rural BC and for much of that time really felt like no one ever heard me. I felt like I wasn’t effective in the struggle, or that my tactics were wrong and useless. In the city I feel shame about not being as available to the struggle as I’d like to be, but late capitalism is exhausting and hard for everyone. There are so many struggles here in Vancouver: housing, poverty, kind-of-shitty transit, the commodification of sustainable lifestyles, the high cost of living, racism, pipelines, MMIW. But I still love it here and I’m happy every day, and I plan to live in my Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood until the big earthquake hits and the zombies come.

My favourite part about being back is the intense sense of community that is here and that I am growing. I really feel like being in a community means we all need to get by together, and I’m grateful for the friends and the hugs and the support networks.

What’s your favourite tattoo and what’s the story behind it?

Candy hearts that say “fuck you” and “pay me.” My BFF, Laura, has matching tattoos that say “MINE” “MINE” “MINE.” It’s a genuine response to the awesomeness of #giveyourmoneytowomen and Kristen Schaal’s bit on The Daily Show about the gender wage gap.

What does being a self-identified maker mean to you? How do you make space for creativity in your life?

It’s been so freeing to make room for myself in that space between making something and that thing as a commodity. I was an early adopter in the DIY community so for the longest time my making was a big part of self-economy. The things I made would put food in my stomach and pay my rent; it was part of my utility. It was so powerful to know that even though I was poor I could make due with what I had. After over twenty years in the DIY game I’m starting to pull back from the economy of it. I’m blown away by the knowledge I carry around in my head about fibres, construction, fabrics, working with paper, weaving, etc. I recently knit socks for my partner and a baby sweater for my friend’s babe, and sewed dresses and undies for the Radical Spirits’ Solstice Market as part of my side business, Wolf & Hardy Co. I’m so honoured to move back to this place and to be welcomed into the DIY community so quickly. I identify so much with craft+DIY, but it’s nice to distance myself from that identity as a commodity.

How can we empower youth?

I’m a firm believer that youth are inherently empowered. They have strong opinions, incredible resilience, and skills to incite panic, anxiety, rage, and adoration in any adult they spend time with. They make great decisions, too. I worked in “youth work” for so long and always felt tokenized by the systems of power that engaged with me as a youth, or that tokenized the youth I worked with. It’s so easy to forget as an adult what the immediacy of being young and in need of connection or respect is like. Almost that “growing up” is an act of hardening and adults are unable to be kind, empathetic and caring towards young people. Youth drive systems change, they drive cultural movements and they are often the most hurt demographics. Lately I’ve been thinking about recognition and how adults can empower themselves to be better listeners and share their power with others. It’s an obvious struggle, but youth/kids have so many solutions, adults need to just do what they’re told.  

What are you working on these days? Tell me about your research, craft projects, self-care commitments, anything.

So many things.  I am an associate editor with Concrete Garden magazine and we are starting on the next issue for Spring 2017 (Subscribe! It’s a great magazine!). I’m also always knee-deep in a number of knitting and sewing projects, and am hoping to figure out bra-making here soon.  A handful of grad students have started a solidarity collective across disciplines, which has been so nice making new friends and building community. And I’m amping up my work with the Working Group for Indigenous Food Sovereignty and hope to be useful in supporting pipeline resistance projects in BC.

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Over the past few years I’ve really gotten into routines and rituals in my house and life. For almost five years I made pizza every single Friday and would feed people pizza. I’ve laid that practice to rest and have been looking for new ways to bring ritual into my life. I’m working on adulting, getting my body moving, paying bills, cleaning the house, etc. It’s exhausting, but worth it. Taking care of myself has so many layers and I’m worth it.

You run a small business with one of your best friends. What’s it like to build a commitment to friendship into your business model?

The central part of doing business as Home Sweet Home is honouring the best-friend relationship between me and Laura. Choosing to work with your best friend can be difficult (and many business “experts” warn against it), but we were really careful to make our business partnership legit with boundaries (and signed a partnership agreement almost a full year before we opened the first store) but also to verbally and on paper commit to the relationship and the health of that relationship as the biggest priority in our business life together. Working with anyone is a challenge, especially when you are managing a business together or dealing with sexist bullshit together, but I am eternally grateful to have dealt with all the shitty and great things of owning a business with my best friend.

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Probably the hardest part is that now I’ve moved and we’re both starting new projects I regularly mourn how our relationship has shifted. We see each other less and speak to each other less. The move means I’ve lost that person in many ways, even though she’s there forever, you know? It’s just hard to shift from the intensity, and it’s definitely a loss. So many small businesses are closing all the time because of personal life issues rather than business issues and I’m interested to hear how small business owners feel about the shift in their relationships and community because of their personal decisions. We hear so little about the emotional and relationship experiences of small business owners; the focus is always on their ability to participate in some neoliberal economy, but the actual functioning of our lives is never that way.

 

Thank you, Diandra! xoxo

Diandra puts together an annual playlist for her friends. Here’s the 2016 selection.

All images courtesy of Diandra Oliver.

 

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