Party with a Purpose

It’s Edmonton’s early-summer blast: a big, loud rainbow of fun and excitement. But it’s more than just a party — it’s a gathering dedicated to equality, inclusion and belonging.

That’s Alyssa Demers’s message about Edmonton’s Pride Festival, the annual celebration of the city’s vibrant LGBTQ community. The theme of this year’s event, which runs June 8-17, is “Full spectrum Pride,” a phrase that mirrors the diversity of the festival-goers.

And nowhere does that theme resonate more than at the festival’s Youth Zone, a place where younger attendees are welcomed into the celebration.

Demers (whose pronouns are “they and them”) is a junior high school teacher, outdoor enthusiast and sometime drag king, with deep involvement in the Pride Festival. As co-chair of the Edmonton Pride Festival Society board and the ormer director of youth engagement, Demers finds particular meaning in the Youth Zone.

While supervising students on the playground on an unseasonably chilly spring day, Demers talked about the festival’s efforts to expand its appeal across the diverse LGBTQ population.

“Our community is so many different folks,” they said. “So many people from different walks of life: ages, race, class. We’re really focusing on the intersectionality of our community.”

This year marks the 38th edition of the festival. Dana Marsh, communications officer for the Festival Society, says the 2017 event saw wide participation.

“We had 50,000-plus parade attendees, 410 volunteers and 36 events,” Marsh says. “There were also 55 sponsors, 98 parade entries and 91 non-profits showcased.”

Over the years, the festival has expanded to incorporate the breadth and diversity of the community.

Demers said the Youth Zone came out of an awareness that the Pride Festival could do a better job of embracing different age ranges, particularly the younger population.

“In 2012 I was in high school, and Edmonton Pride had received some feedback that Pride was too adult-oriented,” Demers said. “So a small committee of youth and I decided to create the Youth Zone. The year after that, in 2013, I became part of the board and I was the director of youth engagement for three years, basically overseeing the Youth Zone and working directly with youth in the
Alberta GSA network to see what kind of stuff they wanted to do and what events they wanted to see.”

The Youth Zone has played an important part in making the Pride Festival more family friendly.

“I feel like it is gaining more traction and people are aware that it is part of Edmonton Pride,” Demers said. “Youth know that there is a place they can go and hang out.”

The Youth Zone has become an important place to reach out to LGBTQ young people and connect them with valuable resources. According to a survey in 2014, Demers said, 40 per cent of homeless youth in Canada identify as LGBTQ.

“We try to make it as accessible as possible and connecting them with resources in the city is super important for us,” Demers said. “In addition to having beverage gardens and kind of a party theme, we are also including in our programming things that are outside of just the old ‘Pride’s a party.’ We’re advocating for safe housing for our youth, we’re advocating for safe housing for trans youth, we’re advocating for basic human rights.”

“Every youth deserves to have a safe place to be.”

But the Youth Zone is also as much about fun as it is about advocacy. This year’s Youth Zone will include a video-game trailer, oversized board games and a Pride Wall where youth can post notes and messages of positivity and pride for others to view and enjoy.

“We have a lot of moving activities like giant board games, some big inflatables, a big canvas so that kids can do some art while they’re there,” Demers said. “And we try to get as many vendors and resources out as we can — like the Youth Empowerment and Support Services, SAFQEY, the Pride Centre — because youth are coming from all different demographics.”

Demers notes that Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) plays an important role for the Youth Zone. Funding from ECF’s Young Edmonton Grants program helps offset the costs of rentals and supplies for the event. “ECF is really important in meeting those costs, and they’ve been so awesome every year,” Demers said.

The Edmonton Pride Festival continues to be equal parts activism and celebration, and Demers acknowledges the LGBTQ community has an ongoing struggle for equality and inclusion. They are optimistic that the Youth Zone can play a key role. “There’s a lot more work to do in our community,” Demers said. “It’s a lot more than a party; we’re fighting for our rights.

“We haven’t reached equality until every single one of us has it.”