*photo by Angel H. Marchini
This week I’m very proud to feature an incredibly inspirational and accomplished person, who I am very lucky to be able to call a friend. That person is Robb Johannes.
I met Robb years ago through my work as a music journalist. He was promoting his indie band Paint and reached out to me for coverage. We bonded over our love of music, especially 90s era grunge, and his band was one of the first I covered in my early days as a writer. As I got to know Robb, I learned that there was so much more to him than being a cool tattooed musician.
Along with being an amazingly talented musician, Robb is also committed to social justice and activism. Robb was Executive Director of VANDU, the organization responsible for opening North America’s only supervised injection facility. During this time he was involved in successful Supreme Court challenges affirming harm reduction practices and the safety of marginalized women in sex work, as well as allowing homeless citizens the ability to vote in federal elections. Robb also coordinated Justice Studies at Canada’s longest-running Aboriginal post-secondary educational institution and taught in the School of Criminology and Department of Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University, where he earned his Master of Arts. He also spent eight years coordinating the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), a restorative justice-based conflict resolution initiative in federal women’s and men’s prisons. These days, Robb spends his time working as Health Promoter in Community Mental Health Services for Fred Victor, a not for profit organization that works to foster long-lasting and positive change in the lives of homeless and low-income people that live in Toronto. Robb is also an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Toronto for the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. Finally, Robb also sits on a community advisory panel for the Arthur Sommer Rotenberg (ASR) Suicide and Depression Studies Program at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Robb, along with some other music industry pals will be throwing a fundraiser for ASR in honour of Chris Cornell tonight in Toronto. Details here, and more below!
I sit in awe of Robb for not only all he has accomplished but for the passion and selflessness, he shows in everything he does. Learn more about what Robb does and why below.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Apparently, when I was a kid, I used to wear sunglasses inside because I was preparing for a future as a movie star. A couple decades later, I would come across one of the funniest and most appropriate commentaries I’ve ever heard about the plight of the performer. The ever-wise Bono said something to the effect of: “You don’t become a singer in a band unless you’re lacking some serious validation that your parents never gave you.” Communication through performance becomes a craft and develops a life of its own entirely as you go on through life, but its impetus can often be rooted in our childhood dynamics at home – as most things we learn about ourselves in adulthood eventually prove to be connected to. I couldn’t think of a more perfect description of my childhood, which was always an upstream swim to feel validated. The constant “I’m not good enough” mantra led to major overachieving on the one hand and life-threatening substance use and self-harm on the other. I couldn’t do anything halfway: straight-A student and class-A sh*t disturber. And a natural-born performer, just always going “Look at me! Look at me!” while also being shy and private as all hell when it came to my personal business. I always had an inclination to the arts. I was drawing, painting, and singing before I could even speak – but as I progressed into visual art college while being a very young touring musician, I became that annoying voice in the front of the class saying: “But, what’s our art about?” I dropped out of art school to find the answers, and I eventually found the path thanks to some wise and worldly elders in Criminology and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University (SFU), who helped me uncover the links to activism and turning abstract ideas into tangible reality at the street level which I was so desperate to find. Opening the doors of social and political activism not only led me into a lifetime pursuit of social justice, it also lit the fire of inspiration for my songwriting, voice, and performance – thus allowing me to realize my childhood dream of being an artist and activist!
What is your WHY?
I don’t believe in fate or destiny but I also don’t think I chose this work; it really feels like it chose me – or at least, I didn’t have much other choice. I grew up in Surrey, BC, which at the time had the highest Indo-Canadian gang violence rates in the world (and I was a first-generation Indo-Canadian), and lived between Toronto and East Vancouver (internationally known for its epidemic drug scene).
Two things come to mind when I consider what brought me to, and keeps me in, the work…
- To this day, nearly every person I work closely with that’s either currently, or has at some point in time, lived on the street and struggled with substance use, has experienced some form of chronic pain or violent trauma. They had a car accident that left them unable to walk comfortably. They had a fall on the job and their WCB claim was denied. They were in excruciating pain day-in and day-out, and simply could not afford medical coverage because they ended up laid off, or maybe didn’t have unionized employment or health benefits, or hadn’t yet acquired permanent resident status in Canada. They couldn’t sustain full-time work because of the pain, but couldn’t afford medications to keep the pain at bay, so guess where they’d go? Main and Hastings. No one would judge them there if they needed to get a fix to deal with the pain just to be able to sit upright every day. But that fix doesn’t come without its traps, and next thing you know, you’re fucked. That story is a lot more common that we let ourselves believe because that’s a frightening reality that hits too close to home – when we’re all just two paycheques away from being on the street ourselves.
- When I was about 19, I went into a federal prison for the first time at the recommendation of a professor of mine who had become a mentor, almost a parent figure (she passed away in 2011). While there, I ran into a fellow I went to high school with who had committed a double murder around the corner from my old house after a party a few years prior. The whole community had demonized him: “How could someone be such a monster?!” My experience was much the opposite: the person I talked to that day, and many days and years thereafter, was calm, collected, adjusted, well-aware that he had made the biggest mistake of his life, had made efforts to make amends with the families of his victims, and had been volunteering as a counselor for at-risk youth who were walking the fine line between the path he ended up taking. He and I reminisced on old times passed and what his plans were for when he would hopefully get parole soon (which he did, and has been doing great for over a decade now). I realized on the drive home, listening to the first Audioslave record, that we were the same kid. We hung out with the same people. We got up to the same trouble. We made the same enemies. We got angry at the same petty things. I could just as easily have ended up where he did – and my dad, or myself, could just as well have had an accident on the job that could have led me to Main and Hastings.
And I did end up homeless for a couple years. I did end up with a severe alcohol and cocaine addiction – after I had a Master’s Degree, had been a university professor, and traveled across the country as a musician in support of charting albums. I have proudly kicked those in the last couple years and don’t take a moment for granted anymore. So, when I first started working at Main and Hastings, not far from where I lived in Vancouver, it wasn’t out of service, charity, or a guilty conscience, it was out of just being a contributing member of the community that I lived in. I carry that with me to this day.
What are some of the successes (big or small) you’ve had?
It’s not often that we take a step back and look at things we’ve achieved, either as artists or activists since we’re usually too wrapped up in the day-to-day. I’ve come to accept that it’s okay to do reflect lately – not out of vanity but out of taking opportunities to learn from the past, for better or worse, and apply those lessons or mistakes to present and future endeavours and challenges.
A few things I can say I’m proud to have been a part of over the years have been:
- the Supreme Court of Canada exemption to keep InSite, North America’s first supervised injection facility, open and running in Canada (Attorney General) v. PHS Community Services Society;
- mobilizing massive community consultations in the Missing Women’s Case in the Downtown Eastside Vancouver and the Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford case, which struck down oppressive sex work laws;
- working as the Executive Director of the world’s largest peer-based harm reduction organization in Vancouver known as VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) when I was only 25;
- helping implement a satellite residency clause in the Canada Elections Act in 2008 that allowed thousands of homeless citizens to vote in federal elections by having a membership-based organization’s address act as their proof of residency for identification purposes;
- coordinating and operating an Aboriginal Justice Studies program at Canada’s longest-running Indigenous post-secondary institution, the Native Education Centre (NEC);
- being the first-ever male instructor in the Department of Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University (SFU) to write his own selected topics course (Gender and Social Control);
- running an $18 campaign for Mayor of Toronto in 2014 that yielded a 12th-place finish out of 65 candidates and the highest votes-per-dollar ratio of all candidates;
- and most recently being appointed adjunct professor in the Factor-Inwentash School of Social Work at the University of Toronto.
The diversity of the successes is a fair reflection of the wonderful opportunities I’ve had over the years, and I’m grateful for everything that’s come my way by chance, force, and will.
Who (person or organization) inspires you?
I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who inspire me day in and out to continue to think outside the box, keep the heart and soul in the work (while being sure to not bring the work home with me), and understanding that when it comes to making steps forward in matters of public health, political stripes can become irrelevant.
The Bonos of the world are so admirable in their ability to check their baggage at the door and sit across the table from those with access to the means to make lasting and meaningful change regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum, and to respectfully engage in challenging, respectful dialogue that’s forward-thinking and results-driven. That’s not easy, and I can say that because I’ve been there – on a much smaller scale, so I can only imagine, and tip my hat greatly, to the work someone like Mr. Hewson has done over the years.
In the end, however, I constantly come back to Malcolm X, who I also have tattooed on my left shoulder. To me, Malcolm X personified the progressive activist spirit in its truest form. Brother Malcolm’s said that to understand someone, every second of their life must be taken into account; if they looked left once instead of right, even that influences who they ultimately become – and that applies so powerfully to his life, which needs to be viewed as a whole, and seen as one of the most beautiful examples of a person taking a journey from the rough-and-tumble streets to the hearts of millions; from rage to unconditional love; from exclusion to acceptance; from confusion to enlightenment. And more so, he articulated that the purpose of life is to continue to grow, develop, learn, and educate oneself. If a belief one holds to be true comes to be proven false by new education, information, insight, and awareness, it’s perfectly acceptable, respectable, and without shame to dispose of that belief and adopt a new one that is more enlightened and evolved. Never stop learning, no matter how old you are, never rest until the job is done, and never settle for anything less than what you know in your heart is what is deserved.
Malcolm X is so often portrayed by mainstream media as a militant, but he was, in reality, probably the most enlightened, insightful, pragmatic, and progressive of all the major civil rights leaders who have graced us with their presence.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s said that turning our power over to a g-d as we understand it will help us to maintain sobriety, well, for me (as hardcore an atheist as you will find), I look to Malcolm X (and my dog) for assurance daily that everything will be okay.
If you could pick one charitable organization to ask our readers to donate to or volunteer with, which would it be?
I sit on a community advisory panel for the Arthur Sommer Rotenberg (ASR) Suicide and Depression Studies Program at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. I’m there not only as a health and social services practitioner with 18 years’ experience in the field, but as an artist, member of the community in Toronto, and survivor of addiction and suicide. The ASR program is involved in community capacity-building for suicide and depression interventions and awareness, research and program development, knowledge translation, clinical and therapeutic support, and outreach.
The work of ASR has especially been on my mind lately in light of musician Chris Cornell’s passing, which hit frighteningly close to home for me and those in my inner circle. Without going into too much detail, two years ago, my life was saved just in time, in nearly the exact same circumstance which Mr. Cornell sadly did not survive. Subsequently, I was connected to counseling services through St. Michael’s Urgent Care Program, participation in (and now co-facilitation of) a 20-week support group called PISA (Psychoeducational Intervention for Persons with Multiple Suicide Attempts), and am now an active member in AA in Toronto
I spent so many years putting everyone and everything else first in music and activism that I burnt out in a major, major way, and was just a ticking time-bomb. I now make sure I spend 5 days a week in the gym (my church), do yoga on the regular, go swimming, spend as much time with my dog as possible (and she is also now a certified therapy dog, so we go to work together!), and find enjoyment in the little things in life, like record shopping and cooking.
In addition to all the self-care measures, I have integrated suicide intervention and awareness initiatives into my non-profit target areas, as well as my artistic work; for instance, on August 11, myself and a talented group of other musicians from various bands in Toronto will be uniting to take on the brave and rarely charted step of performing a tribute set to Mr. Cornell at C’est What? In St. Lawrence Market, with partial proceeds going to the ASR program.
Talk about inspiring! Robb is always someone to go above and beyond the call of duty. You can come see him in action tonight with the rest of the Chris Cornell Tribute crew at C’est What? in Toronto. Considering his own past trauma and how triggered he has been by Cornell’s death, it’s a testament to Robb’s strength and generosity of spirit that he will be belting out tunes in honor of his hero and mine. For that and many more reasons, I am very proud to call Robb a friend. I’ll be there front and centre. Hope to see you there too.