Monthly Archives: March 2019

Story Untold: “I Can Still Love This Community and Want It To Be Better”

Story Untold with Danielle Williams

Photo from melaninbasecamp.com

Danielle Williams has no quit. An army veteran and Harvard graduate, she has been an advocate for diversity in outdoor adventure sports since 2014, when she co-founded Team Blackstar Skydivers. An African-American skydiver living with a disability, Williams has over 600 jumps under her belt, and has also launched Melanin Base Camp and Diversify Outdoors.

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Born in New York, a fourth-generation army veteran, Williams spent her childhood across the United States — “all up and down the Southeast,” she says. Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee.

“I loved the idea that you could just pick up and move and start over,” says Williams. “It was always kind of this underlying assumption that we would join the military, because that’s what my dad did, and that’s what his dad did, and that’s what great-grandad did … I never really considered doing anything else.”

Williams found skydiving in 2011, after she’d returned from a deployment in Iraq. At the time, she’d been building roads and repairing culverts. She wanted something to ease the transition to civilian life.

“I thought I would check that box one time and then walk away, because I didn’t envision myself as a skydiver. I didn’t know any people who looked like me who were skydivers.” – Danielle Williams

“While you’re in a war zone, you have this sort of feeling, and when you get back to the States, a lot of people look for it in different avenues,” she says. “I thought I would check that box one time and then walk away, because I didn’t envision myself as a skydiver. I didn’t know any people who looked like me who were skydivers.”

She went to a drop zone in Kentucky and signed up for a tandem dive.

“They had a little Cessna 182, which is like a small four-seater plane,” she says.

On the plane with her, another diver was going up alone.

“That just blew my mind,” says Williams. “I didn’t know you could skydive without being attached to somebody.”

Soon enough, she was logging jumps at every opportunity — enjoying the hospitality of a culture that seemed to open its arms so readily. Dinner invitations. Offers of guest beds in camper vans.

“I remember jumping at this one drop zone in Mississippi, and I had just gotten there … and this eight-year-old girl approaches me. She’s like, ‘Hey, you’re new here! We have an extra bed in our camper. Do you want to stay with us?’” she laughs. “That’s just, like, how the culture is.”

“It’s really motivating to see people — especially women, especially women of colour — to see them just killing it and performing really well at professional levels.” – Danielle Williams

Still, Williams didn’t know many skydivers that looked like her. When she found a group one St. Patrick’s Day Weekend in Georgia, they decided to go for a record: how many African-American skydivers could they get together in one jump? They were six friends and one videographer in total.

“We just kind of ran with it,” she says. They called themselves Team Blackstar. “It’s been five years, and we’ve grown from that original group of seven people … to over 270 people in six different countries.”

Things seemed promising. Exciting. That first record-setting jump, says Williams, “was right before my life fell apart.”

In 2015, Williams was deployed to the Philippines for her next army stint. She got sick.

I didn’t think it was much of a big deal,” she says. “I came back to the U.S., and maybe two months later, really weird things started happening. And it took about a year to get diagnosed.”

Doctors told Williams she had rheumatic fever — a disease that can involve chest pain, joint pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Muscle movement can become involuntary.

“I was still trying to stay pretty active, but I was really sick,” she says. “I went from, like, trail-runner, skydiver, super athletic, overnight to [being] on a walker. And I was on that walker for three years.”

As she adjusted to her new circumstances, Williams found herself with time in front of a computer. She put it to use and started Melanin Base Camp and Diversify Outdoors.

“People like to say that nature’s colourblind. I’m sure nature’s colourblind, but nature is inhabited by people. And whatever issues we have in cities, or in the towns that we live in, guess what? We bring that into the outdoors.” – Danielle Williams

“When I started out [in skydiving],” she says, “I just wanted to fit in … I didn’t want to talk about [race].”

But what started with Team Blackstar lit a fire. Soon, Williams wanted to find more people of colour in outdoor adventure sports, and find a way to amplify their voices. In 2016, she started @melaninbasecamp on Instagram and launched a blog the next year.

“People like to say that nature’s colourblind,” she says. “I’m sure nature’s colourblind, but nature is inhabited by people. And whatever issues we have in cities, or in the towns that we live in, guess what? We bring that into the outdoors.”

With Diversify Outdoors, Williams and other athletes and activists formed a coalition to promote diversity and equity in the outdoor space — not just for African-Americans, but for any groups that have been historically underrepresented.

“I can still love this community and talk about ways that we need to improve,” she says. “I can still love this community and want it to be better.


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Story Untold: “You Never Know When Your Chance is There”

Story Untold with Issey Nakajima-Farran

Issey Nakajima-Farran has more than a few stories to tell. Such things tend to happen when one spends a career chasing a soccer ball around the globe. From the time he was three, the 34-year-old winger for Pacific FC has moved to Japan, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Denmark, Australia, Cyprus, Spain, and Malaysia. To hear Nakajima-Farran tell it, he’s ready to make Vancouver Island a longer stay.

“I really want to make this my last stop,” the Calgary-born Japanese-Canadian says. “I fell in love with this island — I’ve been telling everyone that asks me.”

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Born to a Japanese mother and English-Zimbabwean father, Nakajima-Farran moved with his family to Tokyo at the age of three, where he fell in love with soccer watching Verdy Kawasaki and his favourite player, Kazuyoshi “Kazu” Miura.

“I really want to make this my last stop. I fell in love with this island — I’ve been telling everyone that asks me.” – Issey Nakajima-Farran

“Back then, it was the biggest club in J.League. All the national players were playing at that team,” says Nakajima-Farran.

The first Japanese player to earn the Asian Footballer of the Year award, Kazu became the sport’s biggest star in Japan, winning four consecutive league titles.

“He’s still playing, which is incredible,” says Nakajima-Farran. “The guy’s like fifty-something in J.League. He only plays like fifteen minutes, but he does a couple stepovers, and basically all of Japan just loves it.”

At ten, Nakajima-Farran and his family moved to England. His parents sold the move as an opportunity to develop as a soccer player, and the Calgary native joined Crystal Palace’s youth team.

“The training at Crystal Palace took us an hour and twenty minutes, hour and a half, just to get to training, and [my dad] would be the one driving me three, four times a week,” says Nakajima-Farran.

At 16, he was faced with a choice: stay on at Crystal Palace and drop out of school to train in hopes of making the pro team, or return to Japan to play and further his studies. He left for Tokyo, where the reception from his new coach was frosty.

“He always said to me, ‘Foreigner, go home.’It always got to me, because it was such a racist comment, and they never saw me as a true Japanese,” says Nakajima-Farran. “It gave me all the motivation I needed to play now … because it was all about me proving him wrong. It’s always been because of that.”

“He always said to me, ‘Foreigner, go home.’ … It gave me all the motivation I needed to play now … because it was all about me proving him wrong.” – Issey Nakajima-Farran

In 2004, he debuted for Albirex Niigata’s Singaporean club and scored 26 goals in 45 appearances. The next year, he earned a spot on Singapore’s Under-23 national team, where he scored twice against Japan. The performances were good enough to land Nakajima-Farran in Denmark for his next stint, where he helped Vejle BK to a championship and promotion to the Superliga.

At 22, Nakajima-Farran made his debut for Team Canada against Hungary.

“[My parents] took my bedsheets, spray-painted a Canadian flag, and I think they were the only Canadian fans in Hungary,” he laughs.

Since then, the Calgary native has earned 40 caps for Canada, playing against the likes of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. (“I remember James [Rodriguez] was standing in front of me, so I tugged his shirt, and he gave me a look,” Nakajima-Farran laughs.) Along the way, Nakajima-Farran played alongside current Pacific FC teammate Marcel de Jong, as well as co-owners Josh Simpson and Rob Friend.

After Denmark, Nakajima-Farran left for Australia, where he helped Brisbane Roar FC to a record-setting 36-game unbeaten streak and the A-League Championship. He also survived a close call or two with a kangaroo.

“[My parents] took my bedsheets, spray-painted a Canadian flag, and I think they were the only Canadian fans in Hungary.” – Issey Nakajima-Farran

“I didn’t realize how dangerous they were, so I stopped and got out of the car — literally two metres away, trying to take a photo,” says Nakajima-Farran. “This kangaroo was bigger than me … [My teammates] were like, ‘You’re an idiot. These things will slice you open.’”

Later, he played in Cyprus, before brief runs with Toronto FC and Montreal Impact. It was Friend, says Nakajima-Farran, who approached him about the idea of joining Pacific FC after his latest stint in Malaysia.

“Rob reached out to me last year … and I thought it was a great concept of having our own league,” he says. “That’s what we’ve always wanted as Canadian players.”

At 34, Nakajima-Farran is the oldest player on a Canadian Premier League roster, but he’s excited for the season ahead — and for the game he’s still got left in him.

“Any five-percent tip that I can give [younger players], if I can help them just a sliver to be a better player, it’s nice to be appreciated in that tiny way,” he says. “I still feel too good to quit. I love the game too much to say goodbye to it … I want to keep that going for a few more years.


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Story Untold: “As Long As There Is Racism In Canada, I Want This Project to Keep Going”

Story Untold with Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is the Victoria-based photographer behind the Profiling Black Excellence project. Photo credit: Nathan Smith.

Nathan Smith is used to being profiled. A Jamaican-Canadian photographer from Victoria, British Columbia, he figured he’d harness the racism he’s experienced as a person of colour in Canada and put it on full display. So began his latest creative work, Profiling Black Excellence, a photo project exploring the experiences of racial profiling felt by people of colour in Victoria and Vancouver.

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“I’ve had one gentleman refer to me as a ‘thing’ to somebody else right in front of me, as if I wasn’t standing there. I’ve had people touching my hair without asking, people saying the n-word around me,” says the 27-year-old. “In a lot of cases, whenever you have folks sharing these experiences — people of colour sharing these experiences — very frequently, they’re met with, ‘Well, I’m sure that this was just an isolated incident; it was a one-time thing,’ or ‘Are you really sure that it was about race?’ But as a person of colour, when it is about race, you can tell.”

For Smith, the idea for the photo project came from an incident in late December of 2017, when he was walking home from a night out with friends.

“I’ve had one gentleman refer to me as a ‘thing’ to somebody else right in front of me, as if I wasn’t standing there. I’ve had people touching my hair without asking, people saying the n-word around me.” – Nathan Smith

“There was a couple in front of me, and they had actually stepped off from the side road and went into my pathway,” he says. “For the entire time that I was behind them, they would continuously turn around and look at me, and then walk faster — to the point where they ended up jaywalking across two main streets in downtown Victoria.”

Unnerved by the incident, he went home and set up his camera for a series of self-portraits — “to kinda just show myself that I’m not a scary person; I’m not anyone to be afraid of,” he says. Smith planned to share the photos on Instagram, but paused for a moment when a thought came: “I wonder how many other people that has happened to.

Smith made a habit of asking other people of colour when he ran into them on the street: had they experienced the same things before? It didn’t take long for an answer. The first time, it was when a fellow young man named Parker stopped to pet his dogs outside.

“His response was, ‘My man, of course.’ And that’s kind of how it started,” says Smith.

A landscape photographer by nature, he began taking portraits of the people he met, selecting quotes from their conversations to share online.

“The main thing I was trying to do was just relay that the people in the project are real people, and they’re regular people,” he says. “They have feelings, they have emotions, and they just want to live.”

For Smith, the portraits provided the perfect medium: a way to tap into his subjects’ humanity and put their stories into the spotlight.

“The main thing I was trying to do was just relay that the people in the project are real people, and they’re regular people. They have feelings, they have emotions, and they just want to live.” – Nathan Smith

“It’s very hard to distance yourself from it when you’re looking at them,” he says.

Eventually, Smith started approaching galleries in Victoria about putting together an exhibition. The first few didn’t respond, but before long, he met Alison Trembath at the Fortune Gallery.

“I said, ‘What about February for Black History Month?’ And she was like, ‘You know what? I love it. Let’s do it.’ So we booked it right then and there,” Smith recalls.

The gallery exhibition has come to a close, but Smith is determined to keep the project going online — and perhaps pursue another gallery space in the next year:

“As long as there is racism in Canada, I want this project to keep going.”


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