Constant construction has long been the plight of the Vancouverite. Delayed commutes, jam-packed traffic and ugly sightlines (do cranes of the construction variety outnumber every other bird in the city?) are proof that this city is always growing. But somehow, as we build up and out, there are fewer and fewer places to be—especially if you’re not paying. Libraries remain one of the last indoor community spaces that don’t come with a price tag.
It’s not surprising, then, that the idea for a library is what uplifted UBC student Maya Preshyon when she was feeling disheartened and disconnected this past January. “I was feeling a little bit discouraged, and not really sure what my place was or how to make the changes that I wanted to see,” Preshyon says. At that point, she didn’t have all the details ironed out—after all, she was only 20, not yet finished her degree in social work and Indigenous studies, and had never taken on a project of this scale. Still, she imagined a place run by Black organizers and dedicated to BIPOC community members, where all would feel welcome and cared for. She called it Vancouver Black Library.
So, Preshyon set a fundraising goal of $6,000, and made an Instagram post laying out her thoughts. Her vision had the power to ignite hope in a lot of other Black folks, too. Likes, shares and comments flooded in—from general praise to book donations to volunteer offers. Better yet, money was coming in, too. On February 2, Preshyon increased her goal to $35,000. “There was just so much demand and excitement for VBL that I realized we needed to make something a lot bigger,” she says. On March 23, the goal became $60,000.
That kind of rapid growth meant learning on-the-job for Preshyon, who had some past experience in arts organizing and was holding the vice president position at CiTr and Discorder, UBC’s campus radio station and magazine. Unlike initiatives she might launch within such legacy institutions, VBL was hers to build.
Through the crowdfunding, Preshyon and her team have secured a cozy space in Chinatown’s Sun Wah Centre. “It’s really close to Hogan’s Alley, which was a goal,” says Preshyon. The demolition and expropriation of Hogan’s Alley, “the only identifiable Black neighbourhood and community in Vancouver,” has been top of mind for Preshyon since her very first Instagram post. Today, she and her team have laid out a comfortable, home-y design that makes the most of the site’s 560 square feet. “We wanted to create a space that was made with a lot of intention and a lot of care,” says Preshyon. “A space that is excellent, so people can foster that excellence in themselves—especially the Black community.”
VBL is scheduled to open to the public in September. It’s a library first and foremost—folks will be able to donate and request books on an ongoing basis, helping the library continuously build its inventory. But the space will also operate similarly to a community centre, particularly for BIPOC artists. “In the creative community in general, there’s a support network where you share opportunities, ideas and connections that help people learn and grow,” Preshyon explains. “But the BIPOC community is so separated and segmented in Vancouver that we are kind of disconnected from that web of resources.” To fill this gap, VBL will be hosting free workshops in photography, visual arts, ceramics, music production, financial literacy, urban ecology and more. “We’re also hoping to do Black hair workshops, where parents of Black kids or people who have adopted Black kids can learn how to do Black hair,” Preshyon adds. Also on the list of things to do are book clubs, poetry readings and gender-affirming resource sharing.
The project’s scale is enormous, especially as it involves maintaining a physical space in the rental hellscape that is Vancouver. But Preshyon’s ambition remains strong—and why shouldn’t it? Crowdfunding for the Vancouver Black Library has stayed steady, and the community support has been overwhelming. “Even when VBL was an under-developed concept, there were so many people that were so excited and supportive and affirming,” she says. “There is something about it that is different than other initiatives—I really see this becoming something special.”
Preshyon admits she’s been fumbling her way through at times, but says that advice and guidance—mostly from folks reaching out on social media—has kept her anchored. “I by no means represent the entire Black community. I’m just one person trying to make things a little bit better,” she says. “And honestly, everybody in the DMs is also making VBL happen.”
The sense of isolation that first inspired the Vancouver Black Library has been eclipsed by tenacity and hope. “The feeling of others trusting your capacity to do something important means so much, especially when you feel it from your own people,” Preshyon says. VBL’s story is just beginning—but it’s already a page-turner.
This story was originally published in July 2022, and the Vancouver Black Library has put out another call for donations to make their opening day of September 2. Donate here.
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