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Big man, soft approach

Jesse Lipscomb is making it awkward
to be a bigot in Canada
By Sam Oleschuk

Jesse Lipscomb made the national news last year, when he was the object of a verbal racist attack. (Photo courtesy Jesse Lipscomb)

THE FIRST THING I notice about Jesse Lipscombe is his size. Standing 6-3 and weighing in at 260 pounds, he dominates the space we’re sharing. The next thing I notice is his kindness. When he arrives at Starbucks, he has a gift for the barista, a goodie bag filled with Make It Awkward swag. As we move into the cafe, he stops to shake hands and share words with the handful of people who recognize him.

Just over a year ago, the 37-year-old St. Albert native made national headlines as the victim of a racially motivated verbal attack in downtown Edmonton.

In late August 2016, Lipscombe, an actor and entrepreneur, was filming a public service announcement about Edmonton’s downtown revitalization, when a man in a car shouted racial slurs at him.

“It’s still jarring,” he says. “No matter how many times you hear it, it’s still jarring. This was different. This was almost old-school jarring.”

A grey sedan pulled up to a red light near where Lipscombe was filming, one of the four men inside the car shouted out: “The n––– are coming.”

In the video, which was carried by news organizations across Canada and quickly went viral, Lipscombe opens the passenger door of the vehicle, kneels down, and engages the man, who responds with inanities and profanity. The car eventually speeds away, with man shouting the N-word one last time.

“I confronted them,” he says, “essentially taking it upon myself to make it a human issue. Oftentimes when people are discriminating – whether it’s in real life or on the Internet – they haven’t put the human element into it. In film or theatre, when you break the fourth wall, you bring the audience right there with you, which is essentially what I tried to do in that situation.”

The film crew kept shooting through the incident, and when they saw what they had, they decided to post the video. It’s near-instant popularity took Lipscombe by surprise.

‘This was different.
This was almost old-school jarring’

“We decided to share the video the next morning,” he recalls. “It definitely got more traction than we anticipated. We thought it would be maybe a local story, which could spark some discussion in my own social media spheres, but it ended up being a good 60 to 70 interviews in two days. It was on every platform across the country, and got attention from the prime minister himself.”

One person who reached out was Edmonton mayor Don Iveson, who invited Lipscombe and his wife, Julia, to a meeting to discuss what happened.

“He called me first,” Lipscombe says. “And he was giving me his empathy. And I thanked him but I told him, ‘A few weeks ago, Bashir Mohamed had a similar incident. There’s been a lot of stuff in the news about Edmonton being racist. And we can complain about it or be sad about it, or we can try and do something about it.’”

Lipscombe was referring to a Somali-Canadian who had been on the receiving end of a similar verbal attack as he was cycling through downtown.

“The next day, we had a meeting with Iveson, and Julia came up with the term, Make It Awkward,’ which initially started off as an online conversation-starter. From the beginning, we wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a race issue; it would have been easy for us to call it a black-versus-white thing, when in reality we wanted it to be an everyday person’s reaction to discrimination. Mine happened to be race. When it is a woman, it usually happens to be some form of sexual harassment. Or it can be religion or sexual-preference based. We wanted it to be inclusive to everyone.”

That marked the launch of Make It Awkward, and Lipscombe started crossing the country, speaking at elementary and high schools, bars, hospitals, hotels – any place that wanted him . He says he began to notice a trend.

“We were becoming a Band-Aid solution. There would be an incident in the workplace, and they would call Make It Awkward to talk about it. While this is still a good thing, we wanted to be more than just a Band-Aid.”

Lipscombe and his small team of employees support him and help Make It Awkward function. Things such as web development, PR, and social media management are delegated to a hardworking team of individuals with a shared vision. Outside of the Lipscombes, there are six employees that help run Make It Awkward.

From the start, Make It Awkward has always preached non-aggressive confrontation. One example is something Lipscombe calls the Racist Uncle Scenario – as in when a family member makes a racist or sexist joke at Thanksgiving dinner, and there’s an embarrassed silence before the conversation moves on. The Make It Awkward approach would be to say: “Uncle, maybe I didn’t understand the joke right, but it sounded pretty racist. What did you mean by that?”

This non-violent confrontation method puts the uncle on the spot, making him think about what he did, and maybe preventing him from making a joke like that in the future. For Lipscombe, it’s about stopping the small things before they grow big and ugly.

“It is the small things that seem to create these giant problems, that often people want to solve,” he says. “We wanted to start at the beginning and tackle the small things, so they don’t lead to big problems in the future.”

Right now, Make It Awkward is focusing on its inclusivity summit in February. The three-day event at the Westin Hotel will feature a host of speakers and events focusing on the inclusivity of race, religion, and sexual orientation. Tickets to the event run from $197 to $455. A live stream is planned.

“The reason it’s a summit and not a conference is because it is so inclusive of music, food, culture, and networking,” Lipscombe says. “I didn’t want it to be sitting down and watching a PowerPoint presentation. It’s going to be a moving experience that hopefully sits with you for life.”

The headliner is Jane Elliott, a former Grade 3 schoolteacher from Iowa, and well-known LGBTQ+ and anti-racism activist. In 1970, she created the Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes Exercise. In which people with one eye colour are labelled inferior, and other people are instructed to treat them so, the objective being to teach people what discrimination feels like.

Other scheduled attendees include Iveson, former Edmonton Oiler and sports commentator Georges Laraque, and actor Quinton Aaron, who starred in the Oscar-winning film, The Blind Side.

“Ideally, we’re looking for leaders within their social circles,” Lipscombe says. “We want active attendees who will take what lesson they learn and implement it into their environments, whether that is at school, work, or wherever.”

The idea of the inclusivity summit is to get all the experts in the same room, to bring together influencers from different walks of life.

‘You just kind of try to laugh it off.
They just want a reaction’

The loudest voices will always attract the most attention, and Make It Awkward is no different. Anonymity on the Internet has created a troll culture, people who seek out confrontation, and derive pleasure from harassing and upsetting others. Sarah Dharshi, who is Make It Awkward’s social-media manager, says she often finds herself on the receiving end of web harassment.

“I’ve definitely learned to take it better over time,” she says. “You just kind of try to laugh it off. They just want a reaction.”

Dharshi is vocal about her activism on social media, and admits that she can sometimes make it as awkward for friends as for strangers.

“I’ve had to say goodbye to a lot of friendships,” she says. “People that I’ve known for a long time, just because I’ve tried to make it awkward when I’ve seen them say something that seemed inappropriate.”

For example, there was one instance with someone she has known since high school, and with whom she still shares a social sphere.

“We would just keep going back and forth,” she says. “We had very different opinions on topics that we were both passionate about, and eventually I just had to say to him, ‘Hey, I don’t want you take this personally, but I can’t keep arguing with you. I have to remove you.’ And I did. It was the right choice for both of us.”

Dharshi says those instances hurt more than the obscenities from strangers that fill up her inbox.

“I’ve heard everything, from being called a goat-fucker, to being reminded not to behead anybody today, ‘Because this is Canada.’ You just have to learn to laugh those off.”

Dharsi also helps make it awkward with her public speaking experience. She is the founder of Bad Bitch Mentality, an all-female hip-hop dance group that she started in 2011. It works on empowering women through dance. Through her time with her company, she has taken it upon herself to speak publicly as often as she could, which naturally turned into a similar role with Make It Awkward.

“Make It Awkward lets me do what I love, which is public speaking,” she says. “I have always wanted to be an influencer.”

Being the face of a movement, and in the spotlight, Lipscombe also has had to deal with cyber-attacks, and, like Dharshi, he says he has learned not to give them a second thought.

“Growing up as relatively successful actor and an athlete, everyone has had an opinion about me. Internet trolls are easy to ignore, but really ignorant people can be turned into a tool to help educate others.”

Internet trolls aren’t the only opposition that Make It Awkward has faced. The organization has been criticized for attention it received right from the get go, as Make It Awkward began with national attention. And there are other advocacy groups who argue that Make It Awkward’s non-violent approach doesn’t go far enough.

“Our approach is that you catch more flies with honey than by being an asshole,” Lipscombe says. “And not everyone thinks the same way. We’ve been told we’re not aggressive enough to create real change, but being aggressive has never been a thing for me.”

Make It Awkward is spreading across Canada. Most recently, the group started a chapter in Toronto. When creating a new division, the first step is to identify leaders who can help run the organization, Lipscombe says.

“Right now, we’re identifying Make It Awkward reps and leaders in different cities, putting on an event or two, and addressing the different problems that exist based on where they are.”

Since the organization is still so new, it is using Edmonton as a model for how to grow. However, what works in Edmonton may not work in a place like Toronto.

“There’s different attitudes around inclusivity, and different problems,” Lipscombe says. “In a place like Toronto, there more pockets of diversity that exist, but also a larger tolerance for things like Make It Awkward, and people who support it. In Nanaimo, there’s a lot more indigenous issues there then Edmonton or Toronto, it’s important to be aware of those differences.”

Currently, Make It Awkward only has chapters in Canada, but there are talks of spreading south.

“We are looking at opening a chapter in Las Vegas,” Lipscombe says. “We haven’t yet, but the hope is there. We’ll have to look at what approach we will have to take.”

He says the process of founding Make It Awkward with his wife Julia has been a lifetime highpoint.

“It was in the first two weeks that I was doing this that I really felt fulfilled,” he says. “This was the type of feeling that I want to have all the time when I’m doing work, and that was really eye-opening for me.

“Everything that I wasn’t as passionate about was pushed to the side, the biggest problem so far is that it’s only been a year, trying to do what I want to do at the size I want to do it takes a ton of work.”

Lipscombe speaking at a TEDx event. Make it Awkward confronts bigotry with non-violence and reason.  (Courtesy Jesse Lipscomb)

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