Following our recent article about the anti-homophobic group Get REAL and their video, ‘To My Grade 7 Self’ which went viral last week, I began a dialogue with Chris Studer, one of the organisation’s key figures to set up an interview to discuss the group’s history and the video that caused a storm on the social networks. Joining Chris for the interview was Sophie Bertram and Daniel Worndl. All three are students at the University of Western, Ontario and kindly gave me some of their time to speak with me over a somewhat troublesome Skype connection. I began by asking them about their roles in the Get REAL Organisation.
Sophie: I’m one of the co-ordinators.
Chris: Yeah, me and Sophie and are the co-ordinators together – or the outgoing co-ordinators this year.
Daniel: And I’m just a member of the Get REAL team this year, and I helped make the video.
Polari: So tell me. Whose brainchild was the Get REAL project, because you guys seems to have taken up the baton from someone else?
Chris: Well it was actually, our good friend Arthur So, who first approached me with a notion of tackling homophobia from kind of a young person perspective, targeted at middle school and high school students. That was back in February of last year. And then myself, Arthur, Sophie and our friend Annie started it together back in March 2011. Then Arthur and Annie both graduated… Arthur is in Australia now and Annie is in Liverpool actually right now. So Sophie and I continued on, and we kind of built it up over this year to what it is now.
Polari: It’s really a great project. And it’s so important to tackle these issues with that age group. Whose idea was the ‘To My Grade 7 Self’ video?
Chris: The video was my idea, I wanted to do something that would hit home with not only LGBT youth who have been bullied, but also the people doing the bullying. So a cause and effect. A big part of Get REAL is showing an united front with gay and straight students and I wanted the video to show that as well. We really wanted to show both sides. I wanted to make something young people could really connect to. People in Grade 7… it’s a very know-it-all age (12-13 yrs) a very arrogant age in a lot of ways, and a very impressionable one. I wanted to do something that would really cut through and hit home with young people which is why I thought the ‘To My Grade 7 Self’ concept would work, because it got around the preachy and scolding approach, by taking a “we’ve all been there” honest recount of what we ourselves went through. And, if we could go back, for those of us that did the bullying, we would never have done that – and for those that are there right now, to stop them ever going down that path.
Chris: So in terms of myself in Grade 7 I think I would have resonated with that more so than a scolding from older students saying, “you’re not a good person, you should be like me”. But what we really wanted them to get out of the video, was that we have been there and you can change now, and we wish that we could go back and do that.
Polari: As you say, it’s a powerful concept. To be able to say, that you have made those mistakes and you’re willing to admit that. It’s a brave thing to do.
Sophie: Thank you.
Polari: Using video is also very relevant, as it appeals to the target audience you are trying to reach. It’s also the primary medium used for projects such as ‘Give ‘Em Hope’ and the ‘It Gets Better’ campaigns. How did you promote your video to the point that it went viral?
Chris: We’ve been posting it to all our available networks. One page that I have been following for a long time is Wipe Out Homophobia (WHOF), and Kevin who runs that page has been an amazing, amazing asset. He sent our link around to all sorts of blogs, Enough is Enough, Stop Teenage Suicide -
Sophie: – We’ve also been sending it out to schools we know. So to our previous schools and other people in the group have been sending it out to their middle schools to reach out directly to our audience. We might not be friends with a lot of Grade 7 kids on Facebook but using our school networks is helping to reach them and in turn it’s leading to our end goal which is getting into the schools. A lot of principals of those schools have reached out to us saying, “we would love to have you come in to speak for your alliance” and get our message directly from us – which would be great.
Polari: Which was my next question; you’re obviously getting a great response from the schools, so what is the next step with the project?
Chris: The video was our way of trying to reach these students without actually being able to talk to them, but the ultimate goal is that we would rather be there in person. We have been invited, in May, to talk to our first group of Grade 8 students. So we’re going to show a bit of the video and then we’re going to give a brief 30-35 minute talk to them. It’s actually going to be here at the University Campus but in the future we really hope to run workshops in an intimate setting for maybe just a classroom of students at a time -
Sophie: – and using the ‘university student’ approach. I think what’s unique about our workshop is that it comes from people they directly look up to as opposed to adults, and building it from that perspective. Also to make it into a ‘model’ that any University group, that’s a part of Get REAL, can just replicate and bring to their city or their area -
Chris: – because we want it to spread to other Universities as well.
Polari: That’s another thing that appeals to me about you project – that you are trying to build a network across all the University campuses. I hope that students on University campuses in the UK also pick up on this and that they join the network too.
Chris: That would be great!
Sophie: Absolutely, that would be unbelievable!
Chris: Yeah, there’s a really great video out of Ireland I saw recently.It’s called ‘Stand Up’… Did you see that? Where the guy says, “I’ll hold your hand”, it was an amazing video.
Polari: Yes it is, we posted an article promoting the video (see here).
Chris: So, to have Get REAL in the UK would be phenomenal.
Polari: And in terms of outreaching to other campuses, how are you going about that?
Sophie: We have had people approach us, friends and even people we don’t know. We’re in talks with two other schools in Canada, they’ve reached out to us to start a ‘chapter’ on their campus. Otherwise we have it on our Facebook Page, to contact us via email about any of our promotional stuff and our branding so-to-speak, so that they can just replicate it. The only thing that we ask is that we can have a Skype meeting first so that we can see what the people are like, but otherwise we’re really open to anyone starting up a chapter, because like you said, it’s about building a network and spreading the voice.
Polari: I think it’s a completely brilliant thing that you are doing, particularly as you’re not an exclusively gay organisation. I think because a large majority of you are straight, you are addressing this issue from a straight perspective which gives Get REAL a unique power to affect people.
Daniel: There are a few clubs on our campus that just target the gay student base and as a member of this club you can see that it’s a lot different because you are completely integrated with straight students as well – there isn’t a divide at all. So, it’s sort of neat that this club is different in the sense that -
Sophie: – it’s about being the same, not different -
Daniel: - exactly, so that divide is completely broken down with this club, which is, I think, more powerful.
Chris: It is nice. And it’s definitely one of the appeals, because to be a part of Get REAL all you have to be is just someone that wants to see homophobia eliminated and want to do your part, no matter how small to make it happen. Whether it’s going in to high schools or just being on our Facebook page. It’s just a group of students really, which I think has an appeal to those that weren’t previously involved with University clubs.
Polari: And going back to talking directly with high school students, that’s really exciting part of the project and that happens soon?
Sophie: It happens really soon, in the next two weeks on May 11th we’re talking to Grade 8 students.
Polari: It’s great that you can do that and it really does have a positive affect. Sir Ian McKellen spoke to kids about homophobic bullying in schools in South London, and they still talk about his visit. It’s great that tackling homophobic bullying is now on their agendas, they’ve become very passionate about it.
Sophie: That’s great! I think the strongest message from our video is that these things are learned and are passed down from a previous generation. And you’d be surprised at how open-minded kids are when they realise that it’s learned and they can make the choice to unlearn it or ignore it. I’m hoping that when I have kids they won’t even consider this as something that is remotely cool and they’ll never know it because it doesn’t exist anymore…
Polari: Hopefully projects like this will lead to that day. So what’s next for Get REAL?
Chris: There are a few things we are playing around with, but we’re kind of finishing the school year now, so this was our first full year and the video is the last project that represents Get REAL’s 2011/12 year. We have just picked two new coordinators at Western, Hilary who’s in the video, and Andrew, and they are developing their own projects now, but for 2011/12 the video was our last big project.
Daniel: I think it’s important to note as well, that the video just went up a week ago, and it’s been cool to see how quickly it went viral, all over the world and got a ton of views. But the video isn’t being used as it was meant to be used right now, I don’t think – everyone is aware of it right now, but now it needs to be used as a tool to actually get in and talk to those younger students. So I don’t think this project is over yet, it’s just starting…
Chris: Oh yeah, it’s not over!
And with the enthusiasm and commitment of people like Chris, Sophie and Daniel, I’m sure it’s not!