This summer the Purple Thistle Centre — a youth-run community centre for arts and activism in Vancouver — hosted a three-week institute centering around radical social change. The idea was to create a space that would be something like an alternative to university, with rigorous theory classes in the mornings, a lunch together and then community work placements in the afternoon. Evenings were a mix of talks, workshops and participant-led events. As a core organizer of the institute (along with Matt Hern and Am Johal) and a zinester, it was inevitable that I included a zine-making workshop in the institute’s third week. Zine-making, to me, can be about connecting radical theory to praxis with the hope of creating something, be that a zine or art piece — in place of boring papers and dispirited exams. After the workshop a local community organizer, Jeanette Sheehy, said to me, “I found that by working on my zine what I learned [at the institute] sunk in more.”
The participants came from all over North America and from a myriad of backgrounds. The ages ranged from 15 to 42 and many of the folks came with BAs and MAs behind them. There were even a few PhD students in the mix — all testing out the radical deschooling philosophy of the institute.
To help kick off the zine-making, a local East Van activist and writer, Hari Alluri, ran a word-play collage workshop. People brought in their class readings and we suggested that they start cutting and pasting from the documents to make some poetry and prose to inspire their zine- making. This proved to be a great way for everyone to finish something, especially for folks who had never made a zine before. Nick Montgomery, a participant who holds an MA in Political Science felt that “(t)he decoupage method created a great basis to start from… cutting up the readings was a great starting point, and a kind of self-facilitated debrief from the ideas and arguments in those texts.”
It’s been exciting to hear from people about their finished zines. Five awesome zines were born out of this process and it was really validating for me to see physical objects built out of this program. Everyone was really proud and excited to have produced something so meaningful to them. “I wouldn’t share my fucking academic papers with everybody but I would share my zine. It’s real life,” says Sylvia, a local East Van youth mentor. In a time when people are hungry for credentials, it’s thrilling for me to have these (mostly academic) people feel successful in an alternative to university, which is based around not giving grades or credits. As John Holt says, “Learning is doing,” and I think it’s fair to say that was our motto at the institute.
I am reinvigorated to make my own zines again. This fall, members of the RAIN collective (a Vancouver anthology zine) and folks from the institute are working together on the fifth issue of RAIN. This RAIN will be the Institute issue with the central theme of creating counter projects as a proactive step to radical social change (and having fun while doing it). Zine content can be serious stuff, but the making of a zine ought to be enjoyable.
Building community is core to the Thistle and RAIN projects and I think that making something together (whatever it may be) and being creative in a group can allow for us to be vulnerable, and being vulnerable is how I think we begin to make real change.
It’s true that some people may thrive at traditional institutions, but many do not. I think that art (and in particular self-publication) is a way to not only thrive but to hone one’s skills while at the same time becoming a cultural maker. As one of the participants, Kelsey Cecilia, who holds an MA in Indigenous Governance said: “discovering the zine-maker in myself was about letting go of a need to have arrived at the ‘right’ conclusion, and embracing a desire to be a part of a conversation.” The DIY nature of zines is a fun and grassroots way to build community, share your learning and make your ideas concrete in order to make a difference.
Carla Bergman is a community activist and organizer, the co-director of the Purple Thistle Centre and a maker of zines. She is currently working on a couple of books, one titled unsettling education, and a film about creating counter-institutions with the Thistle as a case study. She lives with her partner and two unschooling kids in East Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories.