by Maja Staka
When Nasra Adem performs, you can’t help but stop and listen. The 22 year old Edmonton Youth Poet Laureate isn’t just a passionate artist, she’s also relatable to a fault – bringing up issues that directly affect the people she loves and the neighborhoods that raised her. Once Nasra gets going, her eyes become wide, her feet get loud and her hands move in unison with her mouth. It’s simply magnetic.
This magnetism was only intensified on March 8th as Nasra kicked off Girlbossyeg, a yearly networking event for Edmonton women, with a poem about her personal associations with the body.
“The body is baba’s voice 1 minute before Morning Prayer… in this body, in this desert of my own unknowing, still room to be person, to be bright yellow and to dream and dream and dream. My queendom looks and smells like thick thighs. The body is a person, and I am a person, a woman black as all hell, queer as all hell, Muslim as all hell and all real, all existing now, and here, at the same damn time bear witness. The body is faith, the body is a vessel, and the body is the music crashing at our feet begging to be remembered. I belong to myself, I belong to my damn self. Which is to say, I’m free.”
Nasra was not alone in her prayer for acceptance. Five other female leaders and creators joined the poet to inspire a room full of people to come together and take action to speed up gender equality and encourage female entrepreneurship. Whether this meant sharing a life-long goal brought to fruition or the very beginnings of an idea, Girlbossyeg promised to engage, motivate and instigate future opportunities for women and non-binary persons across our city and across Canada – and it certainly achieved this goal.
This year, instead of addressing a giant crowd, the panelists had eight minutes to chat with several small groups of participants. Once time was up, the speakers moved tables. This organization gave participants the opportunity to interrupt the panelists and ask questions, which turned the entire experience into a living conversation.
The evening’s second panelist, Kristina Botelho, spoke openly about her struggle with digestion issues and subsequent idea to open a plant based restaurant in the downtown core. Her goal was to serve Edmontonians the same down-to-earth meals she made for her husband and kids, which included veggie chilli, vegan corn chowder and whoopee cookies. It took three years for Botelho to open Kb&Co, and the restauranteur admitted to feeling delusional at times, a feeling only increased by family and friends naysaying her concept. The entrepreneur never gave up, and on Wednesday she urged the women sitting around her to hold on to their dreams with an iron grip – no matter the opposition.
Another speaker, Marni Panas, encouraged attendees to fight for the causes they’re passionate about. The diversity and inclusion specialist certainly never had it easy, but her determination to fight for the LGBTQ population led to Gender Identity and Gender Expression being added as protected grounds from discrimination to Alberta’s Human Rights Act.
“What was important to me was not compromising on my values. Not for money, not for a promotion, not for my life partner. I mean it isn’t easy, but you’ll only ever judge yourself on the decisions you take and the things you fight for.”
When asked how Alberta was doing in terms of LGBTQ equality, Parnas mentioned how quickly people fixate themselves on Alberta’s redneck stereotype when in reality, Albertans are standing up and saying “you know what, we don’t accept the status quo, and we want change, we need change,” and that this conversation can only get louder.
Other speakers included Edmonton City Counselor Bev Esslinger, architect and Manasc Isaac owner Vivian Manasc, and Maritza Vargas, a marketing specialist born in Ecuador who spoke about her fight for recognition in the male-dominated sales world. When male colleagues told Vargas she shouldn’t continue with the job if she ever wanted to have children, she was stunned. Instead of backing down, she vowed to climb the company’s ranks and has since worked all over the world. Vargas assured attendees that yes – they can in fact do it all – whatever “all” means for them.
Of all the topics covered during Girlbossyeg, community building reigned supreme. Change for equality has never been achieved over night, and the panellists at Girlboss all agreed that women need to both encourage each other to reach for the stars and create support systems and opportunities for people to come together and fight for the individuals and populations that are most vulnerable in society. For Nasra this meant creating Sister 2 Sister, a monthly showcase for women and queer artists of color. For Kristina Botelho, this meant opening a restaurant where anybody with food sensitivities could eat with their families, and for Parnas, this meant changing Alberta’s legislation to create more inclusive environments for all Albertans.
Encouraging men to join these communities is also incredibly important. One attendee spoke about her boyfriend being unsure if he should wish his female friends a happy International Woman’s Day. She assured him that he could, and that he should encourage his friends to do the same. Woman’s rights are Human rights, and although there is still a ways to go in the fight for equality, that fight should and can start at home, and with the smallest of changes.
Alberta is a province that is full of potential, and Girlbossyeg is helping women of all backgrounds discover their talents and take charge of their own future through an evening of discussion, creation and collaboration. If the same power and determination seen at Girlbossyeg are used to create immediate action in our own city, there’s no telling what wonderful things the women of Edmonton will accomplish.
Photography courtesy of Intervivos.