LGBTQ youth learn basics of woodworking as part of 'brave spaces' workshops

Mariah Darling, of the LGBTQ community group Chroma N.B., wants to create a more inclusive Saint John for young people. (Graham Thompson/CBC News  - image credit)
Mariah Darling, of the LGBTQ community group Chroma N.B., wants to create a more inclusive Saint John for young people. (Graham Thompson/CBC News - image credit)

Looking around the Saint John Tool Library's wood shop at a small group of young people learning to make a wooden tray, Mariah Darling sees a very different Saint John than the one where they grew up.

"The narrative was if you were queer in Saint John, in order to thrive, you really needed to leave," said Darling, who graduated from high school a decade ago.

Now, as education co-ordinator of the non-profit LGBTQ community group, Chroma N.B., Darling is trying to create opportunities for youth to step out of their comfort zones and thrive — without leaving the city.

Friday marked the last day of a series of March break pop-up classes organized by the group, open to children and teenagers, with younger children needing to come with a parent.

The final class was a session in woodworking, teaming up with the Saint John Tool Library for a morning learning how to make a tray.

Graham Thompson/CBC
Graham Thompson/CBC

Brent Harris, a Saint John councillor, led the workshop, teaching the kids how to use tools such as a pocket hole jig, mitre saw and table saw.

At the end, he said, they'll walk away with a tray and the skills to make bigger items.

"The basic skill sets that we develop are the same skill sets you need for a whole range of types of construction-related activities or projects," Harris said.

Safe spaces to 'brave spaces'

The workshop is a way to introduce young people to the fundamentals of woodworking, but it's also part of a bigger picture for Darling and Harris.

Darling wants to empower the kids to try new activities in a space that accepts them. Watching young people take risks, learn and grow is why they finds courses like this one rewarding.

"That's what's amazing to watch, just to see people get out of their comfort zones a little bit, or even say hi to someone they haven't met before," they said.

WATCH | Brent Harris and Mariah Darling talk about why safe spaces are important:                        

Trying things that youth would, in other settings, hesitate to try is part and parcel of what Darling refers to as "brave spaces."

"A brave space is what I like to call the level two of a safe space." 

Darling said safety should be a given no matter what, but creating safe spaces with room for a few risks is the goal.

Harris sees small classes like this as an important step in encouraging under-represented groups to become more involved in trades.

"For gender diverse individuals, for women, there is just a real sense that this industry is not inviting or desiring them and not a place that they're welcome," he said.

"We've had people across the spectrum use this space, meet people, and it breaks down those areas of bigotry."

First time using big tools

Ryley Smith-Bates, in Grade 8, and Benjamin Melanson, in Grade 6, had never used a band saw, a mitre saw or an oscillating spindle sander.

On Friday, they were using all three before noon.

Graham Thompson / CBC
Graham Thompson / CBC

They don't a shop class in their middle schools and haven't had the opportunity to learn these skills, until now.

"The scariest was probably the giant saw," said Benjamin, who isn't quite tall enough to fully reach the mitre saw handle.

"I feel like I could use [woodworking] a lot. I could use it for a lot of things."

Ryley attended other Chroma pop-up workshops throughout the week and enjoyed being able to connect with the community and, intimidating machines or not, loved picking up a new skill.

Graham Thompson/ CBC News
Graham Thompson/ CBC News

"It's my first time doing it and I thought I did quite well," they said.

"It's not as scary as a lot of people think it is. Yes, big machines are confusing, but some of them are as easy as flipping on a button and then just wearing safety goggles and you tend to be set."

Harris is no stranger to teaching young people their way around a wood shop, and he knows the large tools can be intimidating at first.

"But when they drill that first hole or they make that cut on the chop saw, you can see the confidence level rise. And so that nervousness that is there out of the gate just dissipates," he said.