By: Lauren Wallace, Peak Associate
Fast facts on Ashley
Name: Ashley Brooks
Education: Ashley recently finished his PhD at Anglia Ruskin University on the perception of gay men in the United Kingdom
Hometown: London, England
Hobbies: Ashley loves cooking and travelling, especially when combined
Recent trip highlight: A two-month honeymoon in Europe and a “fantastic” Independence Day fireworks show on the beach in Hawaii
Right now, walking upward from the lower level of the Rotunda implies navigating a maze of caution tape, plastic sheeting, and signs that point out exactly where we’re supposed to walk this day of the week. But amidst all the clutter and clamor of the construction, one brightly coloured clapboard out in the Rotunda’s walkway gives a beacon of light and safety to SFU’s LGBTQ21A+ community.
Out on Campus (OOC), reopened since November of 2018, is colourful and inviting as I sit down on the ever-comfortable couches in the resource lounge. I’m here to interview Ashley Brooks, who’s now at this space’s helm as the new OOC coordinator.
Ashley recently emigrated from England, warmly expressing his excitement about working as the new coordinator. Not only was it a way to support the LGBTQ21A+ community, but it’s also a way for Ashley to overcome the barrier of being an immigrant with no Canadian work history. That being said, he’s particularly excited about the change from selling personal loans downtown.
“I was like, yes! Get me out of here! Please let me do something I’m trained to do and that I really love doing!” Ashley jokes.
Ashley’s history of involvement
Ashley comes to SFU with significant experience in organizing and running groups, starting from getting engaged in the LGBT Society at his previous university, Anglia Ruskin, and going on to become their treasurer for a year.
Then his focus switched to research, concentrating on focus groups on attitudes towards transgender people in the UK. He facilitated research groups, organized surveys, and analyzed data before catching what he called, with a big smile on his face, “the research bug.”
Ashley did his final-year project on the position of being come out to, and “flipping the script” as he described it. Soon after, he pursued his PhD, spending three years researching attitudes towards gay men in the UK and the stereotypes surrounding the community. As if a PhD wasn’t enough of a workload, he also started working at a charity called the Encompass Network.
He described not only how that organization linked a bunch of LGBT groups together within Cambridge County, but also the immense amount of work that was ahead of him.
“I came in at a very tumultuous time … I walked in on a five-month backlog, and everything was on fire!” he remarked, grinning.
Happily, he added, “But we got through it! And I was there for a year. I would have stayed longer, but I was getting married, going off on honeymoon, and then moving to Canada!”
The move to Canada
One of the biggest joys of talking to Ashley was listening to him recount growing up in England. “London is a really interesting place. Obviously, it has a soft spot in my heart.”
However, he did acknowledge that living there was fairly difficult. “I outwardly sound like a posh Brit,” he joked, “but the reality is I grew up in poverty in London.”
He remarked that even after moving away to Cambridge for university, there were still problems, similar to those that certain communities face here in Vancouver, such as homelessness. The rivalry between Ashley’s alma mater and the prestigious Cambridge University it shares the town with might even be likened to SFU and UBC’s relationship.
At the same time, he found there weren’t many big differences between the LGBTQ21A+ communities in Canada and the U.K. Ashley thinks it may have to do with the similar laws and protections both nations offer, which result in similar perceptions of “reverse inequality.”
The challenge of reopening Out on Campus
Considering that his experience with Encompass seemed to beg similarities to joining Out on Campus after a long period of closure, it became clear Ashley had an appropriately realistic grasp of what he was getting into by stepping up to the plate at SFU.
“I was aware coming into the [job interview] that the space had been closed since the end of August until I started. I was aware that I was walking into a situation very similar to Encompass and that everything could be on fire, and I was at peace with that,” he nodded.
“I’ve had to talk to a lot of people and understand the recent history of Out on Campus and those issues like staffing that have really made the service suffer and, by extension, made our communities here suffer.”
Yet he was assured in his ability to get through it all, and “rebuild and restore faith in Out on Campus.” Of course, now that Ashley is here, one of the biggest questions on the table is what the next hurdle is for Ashley to tackle.
“One of the big challenges for us is outreach,” he began. The lack of OOC in September, during Week of Welcome and the fall Clubs Days, really hurt public knowledge that the space even existed. Recently, OOC has been trying to be as visible as possible.
Ashley was happy to mention OOC’s participation in the Spring term’s resource fairs and Clubs Days. “That is a really good opportunity for us to re-engage with students, rebuild that community.”
Fitting in with the Rotunda community
While sitting in the Rotunda, looking out over the sea of plastic-covered construction, it was impossible to ignore the future situation of OOC, and the future of the Rotunda community in general.
Ashley touched on the fact that as OOC is a department of the SFSS, he is in an awkward position for expressing his support of the groups still mired in questions about their future existence. He expressed his gratitude that so many groups currently involved in the Rotunda space concerns seemed appreciative of his position.
“I’ve already networked a lot with SFPIRG,” Ashley noted. “Craig [SFPIRG’s Director of Communications]’s been incredibly helpful, as he used to work here as an administrative assistant.”
He went on to express his wish to engage more closely with SOCA, but was hesitant to distract them from their current efforts. “I’m conscious that they are very, very busy just fighting to exist.”
He is optimistic and excited to move to the SUB building though, despite expressing concerns typical of moving to a new space, such as whether the new building will offer a room “fit for purpose” of the safe space OOC currently stands for. After being able to take a site tour of the new OOC location, he was excited to report not only is the space somewhat larger than the current one, but also that it had side rooms more suitable for private discussions or quiet areas where students and OOC staff can work.
“I’m really excited to see it when it finishes.”
Next steps for OOC
The next step in anchoring OOC to the SFU community, he says, is collaboration with other resources and departments at SFU, such as the Human Rights Office.
When I asked what the community here at SFU can do to help out with the initiative to bring OOC back into the spotlight, he was very clear: “Volunteer.” Ashley said the inconsistency in keeping the space open really hurt the volunteer initiative in the space, but he is positive that everything is looking up as volunteer orientations are on January 30.
He was happy to report that not only have they developed more materials to train future volunteers, but OOC has been granted the capacity to let students include volunteer time at OOC on their co-curricular records. This, he said, would be a great way to “boost [the] employability” of students who want to contribute.
Ashley also revealed the space has launched a new anonymous messaging service on an app called Lipsi, for students who might find entering the space daunting, or who are worried about outing themselves to peers simply by crossing OOC’s threshold.
“People can anonymously ask us for peer support, we can help signpost them for some on-campus and off-campus resources, they can talk to us about issues they feel embarrassed about, that they don’t want to talk to us about in person….”
The next place you can meet Ashley in person is at Out on Campus’ reopening event, featuring free food and drink, on January 23. “It’ll be a really nice opportunity to rebuild that community,” he says.
“We’ve had a rough time as the space has been closed,” he acknowledges. But Ashley strongly believes that student engagement is the way to rebuild OOC. “Come in. See us. Give the service a reason to exist. Send the message that we are important and valuable to the campus community. Say hi,” he finishes, smiling.
As I leave the space, amidst goodbyes and some waves, it is heartwarming to see more people have joined the room since the start of our interview— getting lunch, talking with staff, working on their own projects. With an accomplished veteran of tricky transitions at the helm, it looks like the Out on Campus space will continue to bring LGBTQ2IA+ students a warm place to call their own.
If you miss chatting with OOC staff during the Clubs Days week, make sure to check out their re-opening event, January 23, or reach out to the coordinator through firstname.lastname@example.org.
The anonymous chat service is also available at lipsiapp.com/ooc-admin-assistant. The Lipsi app is available for both iPhone and Android devices. All terms of service for the OOC app can be found on their Facebook page.