Lights, camera, Askew – The spotlight is once again shining on one of the North Shore’s most inspiring women.
It’s easy to see why, too, there’s hardly ever a dull moment in Orene Askew’s life. She’s a well-known DJ, a motivational speaker for Indigenous youth, a Squamish Nation councillor, a voice for the two-spirited on a few different LGBTQ+ boards, and a business coach.
As she puts it, she’s always “rushing to get somewhere” but it’s always “a lot of fun.”
Over the past couple of months, Askew has been living a little like a reality TV star. Cameras have been buzzing around her taking in everything she does on the daily for a documentary being made, basically, about how uniquely awesome she is.
It isn’t something Askew planned, it was more so being in the right place at the right time. While giving a speech at the British Columbia Institute of Technology not too long ago, her beaming smile and infectious laugh caught the attention of one of the co-owners of Human Biography, Sharad Kharé, who immediately knew he wanted to work with her and share her story.
Human Biography is known for producing video content “for the most powerful brands, organizations, and humans on the planet,” (so, it’s kind of a big deal).
“He was in the crowd and he heard my story, and basically he came up to me and was like, ‘I want to work with you. I want to tell your story.’ He's worked with some pretty big celebrities like Meryl Streep and philanthropists with amazing stories.”
After securing a grant through Story Hive, Kharé got in touch with Askew and got the cameras rolling. “Basically, he and his crew have been following me around with a camera, like, everything I do. I see them more than I see my own partner,” Askew laughed, adding the whole experience and the crew had been “awesome" so far.
Without giving too much away, she said the producers were trying to catch every aspect of her life, from being Afro-Indigenous and two-spirited, the inspiring work she does, and how it all connects back to her passion for music and DJing all in a 20-minute documentary.
“It's going to be really cool,” she said. “I'm excited to see what they're going to come up with.”
For Askew – A.K.A. DJ O Show – music has always been her “outlet” and it’s “been all around her” tying her life together from when she was young. Whether it was learning the importance of the beat through Squamish Nation teachings in drumming and traditional songs, making mix-tapes for her friends, or hearing her grandma from Gary, Indiana, play the piano at church and listening to her stories of being in an R&B group in the ‘70s called the Rosettes.
“I come from a really musical family,” Askew said. “I just really had to figure out what I wanted to do with it. DJing is so much fun and the look that people give you when you play their favourite song, it's worth a million dollars, just seeing them smile with their eyes and having the best time of their lives. It's amazing.”
While she hasn’t been turning tables as much during the COVID-19 pandemic, the 38-year-old has still been busy helping to inspire Indigenous youth to chase their own dreams and be themselves.
Askew said she’s always felt a strong calling to be a role model to the younger generations in her community.
“Something in Indigenous traditions that we're taught is you share what you know with younger people,” she said.
“It’s really, really important to me to be a role model in my community. To be someone who sets an example and someone that youth can look up to and be like, ‘hey, if they're doing it, I can do it, too.’”
Over the past nine years, Askew estimates she’s given over 100 motivational speeches to Indigenous youth across Canada. She talks to them about her own struggles and triumphs, becoming a DJ, her Afro-Canadian and Indigenous background, social justice, and entrepreneurship.
Askew said breaking through to youth was all about “honesty,” adding that she shared with them that “she didn’t always make really good choices” when it came to her education or trust fund – while also trying to drive through the message of how important education is.
“It’s about them knowing you can come back from your mistakes,” she said. “It's great for me to get up there and for them to see how glamorous my life is right now, but I've made mistakes, and I've had to work my way up. It's not all perfect all the time.”
In her talks she also shares a personal story of the night she lost all her belongings in a house fire, managing to get out only clutching onto her DJing equipment. That moment is important for a couple of reasons: it was the instance Askew realized she wanted to pursue being a DJ and secondly, it’s a story about how you can lose it all and bounce back.
The first time she ever told the story to a crowd was at an Indigenous youth conference in Ottawa, in 2012, two weeks after the fire had happened. It was at the conference that she knew her words were powerful. She said the story often uplifted people and inspired them.
Another message she liked to leave with youth is that “politics doesn’t have to be boring,” always reminding them that she is a DJ and a councillor at the same time. She said she encouraged youth to get involved with what's going on in their community because they “do have a say.”
Now in her fourth year on the Squamish Nation council, Askew said it had been an amazing experience and she’d learned so much, adding that one of her proudest moments was putting a rainbow crosswalk in the community and at the moment she was working to secure gender-neutral washrooms.
“I feel like it's a really amazing platform to uplift the voices that aren't really uplifted,” she said. “Being black and Indigenous and two-spirited, I get to come to the table with that perspective.”
Askew’s continuous hard work has also culminated in her being a recipient of the Capilano University Alumni Awards of Excellence Enduring Award.
While Askew studied radio at BCIT, she later hit the books at CapU to study business administration on and off between 2013 and 2017 while juggling her many roles. As she runs her own show, Askew said she did the course to bolster her skill set when it came to the behind-the-scenes work of being an entrepreneur.
She said she was honoured to be recognized by the university.
“It's a university that's on our territory, so it seems like I'm representing our people,” Askew said.
“I can't stress enough how I've been raised by my Squamish Nation community and my family and I’m a result of that. Going to CapU and being able to go out into the world and share what I've learned – It's totally come full circle.”
Askew received the CapU award virtually at a Talk Show on April 15.
The documentary by Human Biography is expected to be released in June.
Elisia Seeber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, North Shore News