Vision for change

Roxanne Stasyszyn, Centretown News

Roxanne Stasyszyn, Centretown News

Jeremy Dias strives to promote acceptance and diversity at schools and in the community.

When Jeremy Dias was taunted, bullied, and beaten up for being gay, he decided to fight back.  But instead of using fists like his harassers, he built Jer’s Vision, a youth-led organization to combat discrimination and promote diversity.

Jer’s Vision deals with all kinds of discrimination, and runs dozens of free programs in schools and in the community to educate and support youth.

“I devote an obscene amount of time to this charity,” Dias says, “but I love what I do, and I’m privileged and lucky to do what I do.”

 Dias, 24, who now lives in Centretown, hasn’t always been so lucky. When his family moved from Edmonton to Sault Ste Marie, he was the only person in the community who was not white. He experienced racism and homophobia on a scale that he just couldn’t understand.

“On my very first day of school, someone called me the ‘N’ word,” he says. “I didn’t know what to say, so I made a joke out of it, and he leaned over and said ‘I’m going to kill you’.”

Dias approached his principal about it, who then told him to suck it up. Racism became part of life at his new high school, and he soon realized he would get little support from the administration.

“People ripped up my homework, and lit fire to my desk,” he recalls. “It seemed like that was just the kind of education they had had.”

At the end of grade 10, Dias decided to tell his close circle of friends that he was gay. The next day, one of those friends announced over the school’s PA system that ‘the brown Jeremy is gay.’ He remembers the following days as hellish.

“I was an alien and I had no friends,” he says. “Some people tried to stay away, and others were just totally cruel.”

He tried to initiate gay and lesbian support programs at his school, and took proposals to the administration and the school board, all of which were turned down. He says he was called a homo and a fag and that his locker was vandalized. As the abuse grew more regular, he says he lost his energy to fight back. However, one day when a student was taunting him, another girl in his class turned around and stood up for him for the first time ever.

“She really went off on him,” he says. “It was the first time anyone had ever done something like that for me, and afterward I just felt like I had to do something equally heroic.”

So, in 2002, he filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission against the Algoma District School Board, and several years later he won a $5,000 settlement. He says the school also had to do diversity training, and buy new books dealing with gay and lesbian issues for the school library, something which he says is a very personal triumph.

“I remember having a really bad day and I tried looking in the library for books for support. I found none,” he says. So, he and his mother bought several books and donated them to the school library. Dias says the librarian threw them out right in front of him.

“She didn’t even try to hide it, or throw them out somewhere I couldn’t see,” he says. “I remember I dug them out of the garbage afterward.”

Dias decided to use the money from the settlement to start a scholarship for GLBTQ youth activism in schools. Today, the Jeremy Dias Scholarship has transformed to be available to youth who have worked to eliminate any kind of discrimination in their school or community.

After the scholarship was launched, Dias says he started receiving support from volunteers who wanted to do more to fight discrimination in schools.  Jer’s Vision was born.

“People started asking, ‘how do we change the world?’ and we just decided to get together and do it,” he says. “We launched a bunch of programs, starting with online stuff like guidebooks, and moving to where we are today.”

Now, the organization runs dozens of programs and has a team of over 800 volunteers supporting the projects. Jer’s Vision has offices in Ottawa, Toronto, Peterborough and New York, and collaborates with organizations like Canadian Blood Services and the Bank Street BIA to make sure youth voices are represented throughout the community. They host an online news show, and run education and arts programs like a theater company and art galleries.

Their largest program is the workshops and assemblies they run at schools, conferences and community events. All of their programming is run for free, even though they currently receive no government funding at all.

 “There are already so many barriers in GLBTQ education, economic is just another one that doesn’t have to be there,” he says.

Dias recalls one incident that he says was particularly rewarding. He had done a presentation at Osgoode Township high school, and afterward, when the students returned to class one student remarked that something was “so gay.” Before the teacher could interject, three students turned around and responded with examples from the presentation and started discussing why the comment was inappropriate.

“You want to see that what you’re doing is making a difference,” he says. “I feel confident in saying that what we do makes a big difference with the straight students.”

Dias balances his charity with the task of completing his undergraduate degree in political science and psychology at the University of Ottawa. Friends and colleagues, like Jer’s Vision board member Stephanie Gray, say he is a workaholic.

Gray met Dias at a party, where he recruited her web-designing skills to build a site for the organization. Now, she manages the organization’s website and marketing. She says Dias’s work ethic is inspiring.

“No one can keep up with him,” she says. “It’s a motivator just watching him work!”

The Jer’s Vision office in Ottawa is almost too small for Dias’s big personality. He is eccentric, expressive, and constantly moving about or shouting out ideas to another volunteer sitting at a computer, madly typing out his thoughts.

Paula Collins met Dias when she invited him to be a guest speaker at a leadership camp she was a part of. She says she was so impressed that she started getting involved with Jer’s Vision.

“He inspires hope,” she says. “He really gets what problems youth face.”

Collins is a board member at Jer’s Vision, and runs the National Capital Region Gay-Straight Alliance which works to create an accepting space for teens and promote diversity. She says it was Dias who inspired and enabled her to create the network, and that his vibrant personality is contagious.

“Youth are so excited to work with Jeremy and be involved in projects under Jer’s Vision because of his personality,” she says.

Dias says that similar groups  work with supporting victims of discrimination, but that Jer’s Vision is different.

“Most of our programming isn’t necessarily for the gay kids, we work mainly with the straight kids,” he says. Doing it any other way, he says, “isn’t addressing the problem in the long term.”

Dias says this is what he wants to do for the rest of his life.

“If I could do this forever, I would,” he says. “In 10 years, maybe I’ll be working out of a bigger office,” he jokes.

But he admits that sometimes he gets worn out.

“It gets tiring, telling the story about how I was beat up and harassed, presentation after presentation,” he says. “You want to cry sometimes, but you suck it up and you stay because you have to engage people in making a difference.”