Montreal·Black Changemakers

How a Montreal performer created community through ballroom culture

Elle Barbara, known as Mother Elle, didn't always see herself as someone who could make a difference. But once she found out others were looking up to her, she realized the impact she could have.

As she started meeting people who looked up to her, Elle Barbara realized she could make a difference

Elle Barbara is a singer-songwriter, performance artist, activist, and dabbles in DJing. She created the House of Barbara, a group of Black people who compete together at vogue balls, but more importantly, are a foster family. (SAAD)

CBC Quebec is highlighting people from the province's Black communities who are giving back, inspiring others and helping to shape our future. These are the Black Changemakers.

When Elle Barbara started getting into Montreal's music scene, her intention wasn't to get political, too.

But she soon realized that as a Black, trans woman, she didn't have much of a choice.

"The simple act of being out there surviving and expressing myself publicly was an act of activism. It's political in and of itself," she said.

Barbara wears many hats — she is a singer-songwriter, performance artist, activist, and dabbles in DJing.

She spent four years working odd jobs to pay rent and finance the recording of her music, which she self-released. She now sees her art more holistically and integrates elements of photo and video into her work.

Barbara said the act of thinking of herself as an apolitical body used to seemed very attractive to her. She is someone who has "always had a tendency to dwell in the vortex of nihilism."

That tendency was partly informed by low self-esteem, she said. But as she started to meet younger people who looked up to her, she realized she could make a positive impact.

She organizes vogue balls, competitions that centre on Black, queer and trans youth and feature voguing, a stylized form of dance.

She made a name for herself and eventually created the House of Barbara, a group of Black people who compete together on the ballroom scene, but who, more importantly, are essentially a foster family, she said. She is known as Mother Elle, her children come to her for guidance.

But the relationship she has with people in her house is a reciprocal one, she said. They help her as much as she helps them.

"The more I allow myself to express my vulnerability, the more they feel that it is OK for them to open up about their hardships and to not be afraid to be judged or be seen as weak."

A few years ago, she started a project along with two friends, Estelle Davis and Lenore Herrem, called Taking What We Need.

Transitioning, especially for those on the feminine side of the spectrum, is very expensive, she said. Most surgeries, treatments, therapy and even clothing are expensive.

They started throwing parties and organizing small initiatives, rooted in the Mile End queer community, to raise tens of thousands of dollars for self-identified, low-income transfeminine people so they can buy what they need.

Barbara said for people who are Black and trans or queer, coming of age can be hard. Often, they're dealing with baggage from family trauma, microaggressions, trans and queer phobia and racism. That's why the ballroom scene is so important, she said.

"It's important for us to come together because when I first came on the scene, there were a few people scattered here and there, but I hardly saw any sort of movement whose aim was to foster healing, care, building of self-confidence, talent, expertise, all those things that people tend to take for granted," she said.

The Black Changemakers is a special series recognizing individuals who, regardless of background or industry, are driven to create a positive impact in their community. From tackling problems to showing small gestures of kindness on a daily basis, these changemakers are making a difference and inspiring others. Read more stories here.

Written by Kamila Hinkson, with files from Rowan Kennedy