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New Vancouver Black Library will connect community and offer a safe space rooted in joy, not hardship

"I want it to be rooted in optimism and joy," says the project's founder.

Two weeks after Maya Preshyon and her boyfriend Simon Grefiel came up with the idea for the Vancouver Black Library, the project is well on its way to becoming a reality.

The idea formed when Preshyon was pessimistic about the cohesiveness of the Black community in Vancouver and started wondering how to solve the issue. She had considered academia and the arts as potential, but challenging, avenues.

"Simon suggested to me to create a library because he saw at the Centre A gallery, at the Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, they had a library connected to their gallery," she tells Vancouver Is Awesome.

That was Jan. 23 and the next day the Vancouver Black Library Instagram was created. Preshyon, a third-year UBC student, and a team (most of whom are roommates) quickly moved from concept to action, launching a fundraising campaign. While the goal was originally $6,000, they've upped it to $35,000; at the time of publication around $14,500 had been donated.

"I feel so grateful that the VBL is at the place it is because community organizing is bit-by-bit, little-by-little," Preshyon says of the unexpected fundraising boom "It's not a coincidence, it reflects how many people want a resource like this."

The group has come up with a plan and concrete goals to address the issue of a lack of community in Vancouver.

And while Black literature and writing will be a part of the plan, it's more than that. The team's aim is to create a space for the Black community to gather and interact. If a community member has something to offer, the Vancouver Black Library would provide a place for that.

"What we're most excited about is our springboard initiative; like workshops, zines, group therapy," says Preshyon.

While black history will play a significant role in the VBL, it won't be the focus. Preshyon notes the Black experience is informed by the past, with many people radicalized by the deaths of George Floyd and Trayvon Martin and social impact that followed, but adds that the trauma and hurt in the community shouldn't be its foundation.

"I don't want community engagement and blackness to be rooted in hardship, I want it to be rooted in optimism and joy," she explains. "I think the library is the right thing to do that."

That comes from Preshyon's own experience.

"I didn't know that until recently that it was so important to me," she says. "Because so much of my experience as a Black person has been trauma and overcoming hardship."

That experience included connecting with the community through the Black Lives Matter movement, which carries a heavy tone. The hope is that the library will have a lighter tone with a safe, comfortable space for Black people, Preshyon says.

Connecting people to the "infinite" potential of learning is a big part of that.

That space will exist soon, if all goes according to plan. The fundraising effort means the group expects to be able to find a place they can rent for at least a year; they're actively looking for that spot now.

"Right now I'm looking for a location to sign a lease for March 1 which has been a journey," Preshyon says, acknowledging Vancouver's rental market isn't the easiest to work in, but noting that some property owners make space for art and community organizations.

The team is also looking at grants to help and have a sustainable 12-month strategy with budgets set out for different financial support.

A book drive to collect a variety Black literature is also going well, and Preshyon notes Massy Books will be helping fill that out as well. They've also created a book drive toolkit.

The community interest in the project has been huge as well, with librarians, photographers, and "all sorts" of people offering to help with anything from cataloguing books to physically preparing the space once it's picked.

"There are people with skills in every kind of thing we might need, it's been really amazing," Preshyon says, adding that it's been a shock that so many people want to help.

While the vast majority of feedback and discussion online has been positive, there has been some who disagree; Preshyon says they "might not understand the concept." But that's all the more reason to move forward, she adds.

"I think if anything I think it highlights the real need for something like this, because that type of ignorance is so rampant," Preshyon says.

For those interested in contributing, the VBL can be reached at [email protected]