What Spaces Harbour Social Justice? Reflections on the Closing of Rhizome Cafe in Vancouver

In my three months in Vancouver, one of my favourite places has been Rhizome Cafe, on West Broadway. Jaimie, my partner, went there before I arrived from Aotearoa and knew I would love it – not just because of it’s deep orange walls and inexpensive organic food and fair trade coffee. But because Rhizome Cafe is set up as a social justice hub. They host around 200 community events a year, and are committed to encouraging community dialogue and letting marginalized voices be heard.

They are filled with community events pretty much every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They are undoubtedly a queer space, Jaimie and I recently went to an all genders swing dance class there (Jaimie doesn’t dance usually so this was my big opportunity šŸ˜‰ )

Rhizome have just put out a community letter saying that despite the good work of ‘Friends of Rhizome’, they just can’t keep up with rising costs and stay true to the Rhizome ethos. They will be closing mid July.

I feel sad about Rhizome on multiple levels. Firstly, because it’s friendly and diverse atmosphere is one of the only places I’ve felt at home in yet. Being a non-white queer migrant in Vancouver is hard! And yes, I know I’ll find more places, but Rhizome was really wearing it’s credentials on the outside, with it’s big colorful rainbow heart pinned to it’s sleeve. I also felt the ease of not being judged on a couple of days when I took my laptop there and wrote for a few hours and only bought coffee.

Secondly, Jaimie and I had already been fantasizing about one day having a cafe/ social justice space like Rhizome in Auckland. Because the thing I’ve noticed on a really practical, pragmatic activist level is that it can be really hard to get the places where you do social justice stuff to meet up with the places where you just hang out, and where people gather so that you get the right kind of momentum and energy. And obviously, there are commercial places that act as social justice hubs informally – like the brilliant Alleluyah in St Kevin’s Arcade in Auckland – but they have their limitations in terms of being able to get big groups together for classes or anything. And then, you have a whole lot of lovely “community” venues like old halls in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn in Auckland, but apart from the afternoon or two days where you are there working on your particular issue, you don’t get the momentum effect of foot traffic and cross-pollination. With Rhizome, you can effectively go there and bump into an issue or group you are interested in. It creates an organic sense of community-building.

The hard part is relying on commercial venues to build community. And yet, so often I’ve been at ‘community events’ at public venues where the idea of community is unworkable, and the space feels forced, or we are only preaching to the converted – people who already have a high level of commitment to the issue at hand. I’ve experienced this myself with events I’ve organized – not to mention the number of times I’ve reinvented the wheel when some other activist group will have already solved something similar.

So I’m left wondering what kinds of spaces let activism grow and flourish? And how in these dangerous neoliberal times will we be able to build ourselves strong enough to push back without them? There’s heaps of dialogue about online activism, but it seems to me that one of the challenges in overcoming slacktivism is figuring out how to shift people from engaged online conversations to actions that occur in the real world.

Vinaka vakalevu to Rhizome for the work well done, I hope your future permutations are successful, and that the new shoots will not be too far away.

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