The Cortes Portraits: Dan Peters
My training gloves hit the heavy-bag. A jab, then cross. Over the sound of my fists hitting its weight, past the grunts of my fellow boxing classmates, is another sound, a softer sound. It’s the voice of a young girl singing in the music room beside us. She’s working one-on-one with Dan Peters, the founder of Spark Point Music. In this community hub, Dan works to expand the idea of what is possible for youth when their voices are honoured, heard, and valued. I sat down with Dan to talk youth empowerment, nonviolent communication, and the self-confidence that comes with creative expression.
Amanda: This is a really unique moment for me. The Cortes Portraits have all featured people that I’ve known quite well. But today, as the project comes to a close, I’m getting to know you for the first time. Tell me, how did you end up on Cortes Island?
Dan: I first came to Cortes in 2008 on a bike tour with my sister, Jodi, and a friend. I fell in love with the island and returned to visit many times. On the ferry home, I would often think, “Man, those people are so lucky.” Then, one day it clicked. I could be that lucky too. I ended up WWOOFing at Blue Jay Lake Farm. My partner, Jess, joined me the following year and together we built ourselves a little house. The Blue Jay community became our home for the next three years. My view of the world has changed so much since I came to Cortes island. I suppose I’m an “everything happens for a reason” person now.
Amanda: I’ve often heard people on the island refer to Cortes as the “velvet row.” If the island wants you, the path is easy and smooth. That certainly was true in my case. My two-week visit turned into a three-year healing journey. Cortes embraced me, and now as I prepare to leave, I feel like the island is releasing me back out into the world.
Dan: Yeah. I came to Cortes at the beginning of my Saturn return (an astrological concept that refers to how long it takes Saturn to return to the exact location it was in when you were born). Your Saturn return occurs during a three-year window between ages twenty-eight and thirty. Saturn represents structure, authority, and routine, so upon its return, a dramatic shift in perspective occurs that offers the chance for inquiry. It asks, “Have you moved past the patterns of your youth? Or are you still carrying them with you?” I didn’t know about the concept until someone shared it with me as I was en route to Cortes. And indeed, I have experienced so many paradigm shifting moments here.
Amanda: It’s interesting that Saturn’s return would coincide with turning thirty, an age our culture looks upon as a considerable milestone. I recently celebrated my thirtieth with delight and discomfort. Transitions often seem to hold that tension. I imagine moving your tiny home from Blue Jay Lake Farm to Siskin lane last year was equally exciting and possibly difficult.
Dan: Jess and I built our tiny home with intent that it could move, but we weren’t really planning to move it. Blue Jay is such an awesome community, with a great vibe. It just turned out that our lives were based more centrally on the island. Since we were travelling a lot, we were falling behind on our commitments to the community, so it became evident that it was time for us to move. That being said, just because our tiny house was made so it could move, doesn’t mean it is was easy. We had a lot of help to lift it, haul it, and then lay the foundation here. It was a month of low-level constant stress.
Amanda: I bet! It’s all finished now?
Dan: It’s down. It’s solid. It’s great! It’s such a nice feeling to have our home on solid footing. We are hoping to build an addition. Right now, it’s ten by twenty-four feet with a sleeping loft. But having a little person come along, our two-year-old Wesley, has increased our needs. Although we co-sleep, it’s hard not to have a room to put him down for a nap, or a quiet place for him to sleep if Jess and I aren’t yet ready for bed. But overall, it’s a great, beautiful life and we have a lot to be grateful for.
Amanda: My partner, dog, and I primarily live in a very small space. So I completely understand the challenges that come from having less than two-hundred square feet to call your own. Is that why your music room here at Linnea feels so homey? There is something charming about the youth-illustrated walls and the warmth of burning incense. How did this space come into being?
Dan: Well, I started working with Power of Hope (POH) here at Linnea and set up this space to help youth record and produce music during the camp. Tamara McPhail, the Executive Director of Linnea Farm, saw me in here and loved what I was doing with POH. She suggested I do this type of work with local island kids. I thought it was a great idea, but I wasn’t sure how to realize it. Then, I was training with Partners for Youth Empowerment (PYE), the people behind POH, when I met a man who was running a big, highly successful rock-band music school in Portland. That summer, I ended up working for his camp, My Voice Music, which helps kids group into bands, write songs, record, and then perform their own music. Once I saw what was possible, it was easy to begin developing it here on Cortes. My first camp ran three years ago with twenty-five kids. It was received really well.
Amanda: And so Spark Point Music was born! Can you elaborate more on your programs?
Dan: This is an inclusive, open place where kids get together in bands to write their own music. I help them write, record, and give them the chance to perform original music. That’s an important piece for me, creating original music. From time to time, kids ask me if they can do a cover, and while I’d like to, we only have so much time together. So I keep the focus on honouring their own creative voice. The program is not concerned with the technical mastery of instruments. I invite them to use whatever fingers they like on the piano to make a sound and teach short-cut cords for the guitar. That way the kids can focus more on writing and singing. It’s a flip on conventional music lessons, which teach that form is everything. That type of learning honours different things, like being able to cover a song. I know that if a kid really loves an instrument, they will pursue it more technically. My vision is for the youth to bring something of themselves out into the world, free from the demands of perfection or comparison.
Amanda: I’ve recently finished Kenny Werner’s book Effortless Mastery where he speaks to the negative outcomes of “technical teaching.” His correction methods often remove the instrument altogether so that students can enter a meditative state in which the music plays through them, not from them.
Dan: That’s a large part of what we are doing here. I was one of those kids who was forced to take piano lessons. I hated it. I didn’t learn anything because I didn’t want to do the work. This is a very voluntary space. My role is to support their creative spark. It’s also about giving them agency to create the things that they want to create. To write what they want to write about. I have general guidelines (like no put-downs of self or others) but the kids are free to tell their stories the way that they want. They write an original song, get excited about it, and want to learn the chords to realize it. Of course there will still be frustration, uncertainty, and vulnerability that they need to move through. But It’s simply a different approach to musical expression, which I think is more sustainable than if you are doing it to meet someone else’s expectations.
Amanda: It sounds like a really empowering experience.
Dan: That’s the hope. At the beginning there are a lot of nerves. The idea of having a song on the radio and going on stage, especially if you’ve never played an instrument, can be really intimidating. I get it. But more often than not, the overwhelming majority move through that uncertainty and are rewarded with the sense of accomplishment that comes from pushing your limits. So basically, I’m trying to create a safe space for that. For growth and for realizing that the only way we learn is by pushing up against our edges in safe, enjoyable ways that build confidence. So far there have been many beautiful, amazing experiences.
Amanda: We touched upon your role with POH earlier, as a part of Spark Point Music’s origin story. How did you begin working with them?
Dan: I played at an Open Mic on Cortes where I met Steve Remedios. A few weeks later he showed up at Blue Jay Lake and we started talking about music. Before I knew it we were listening to my recordings and he asked if I would be interested in producing music with kids at POH. It was the very first time I heard of the camp and I decided to check it out.
POH is a super powerful experience. In all the ways that the facilitators try to provide a non-judgemental, inclusive, creative, and open space for youth, it is also available to them. It’s effectively a co-created space between the facilitators and the youth. So we, as staff, are also growing and shifting our perspectives. It’s very different from teaching, which is often a top-down approach where the teacher “dispenses” knowledge. Facilitation is about staying out of the way. Your role is to bring out what’s within the group, not “lead” it. I see facilitation as a skill as much as an inclination. It involves a lot of personal work and introspection. I didn’t know any of that before working with POH. I’ve done every camp since that first year, ten camps so far.
Amanda: During our shoot, you shared that facilitators often hold an intent behind the space they offer. It could be to appear funny, bring clarity, or offer encouragement. What is the intent behind your facilitation?
Dan: My intention at POH, and my work in general, is to connect. So many challenges in our world are born from a lack of connection. And while I can’t form a secure attachment with a youth in a week, I can be a solid person that they can trust, rely on, and place expectations on. I see a lot of youth facing inconsistency in their lives. I want to show them what is possible. That we can be our authentic self instead of someone we think is “better.” And that means letting my faults and flaws show too. That’s the hardest part for me, letting those parts of me show. But it’s important for them, and for me too.
Amanda: I think that underlying authenticity really sets the tone for empowerment and self expression. Earlier today, as we listened to some of your songs, I was struck at how journal-like your music has been over the years. I imagine there is a catharsis that comes with creative expression?
Dan: Yes! Both POH and Spark Point Music hold the idea that creative expression is a healthy and productive way to move through challenges. Often, we aren’t given very good tool-kits for moving through trauma in our lives. Music is one tool that has been so helpful in my own life. I find that when you put the vision of songwriting onto a difficult situation it gives you the opportunity to introspect. It also externalizes the experience, which gives you autonomy. Then, you gain agency by dealing with it on your own terms. And in the way that conversation often fails us, in being heard or understood, music takes the onus off the need for external validation. Hopefully you find a melody you like, craft lines you like, and like the way you sing it, which transforms the negative experience into something you are positively engaging with. In the end you could be singing about something very traumatic. The emotions are still there, but you are given the chance to release them. To give that tool to kids is significant. It confirms that their experience is valid and that there is something worthwhile about processing it, separate from whether it sounds like something they’ve heard on the radio.
Amanda: Nonviolent communication is also a big part of how you personally communicate. Could you speak a bit to the principles behind this methodology?
Dan: As humans, across cultures, we all share the same basic needs. Physical needs like shelter and food, as well as emotional needs like belonging and respect. We also have the same basic feelings whether that’s anger or disgust, irritation or joy, sadness or happiness. Then, on top of that, we also have thoughts and opinions - that’s where nonviolent communication comes in. Communication is always an attempt to meet a need. Our feelings are inspired by whether or not those needs are met. But what makes one person angry, might make another scared. People respond with a range of emotion based on their experience. Nonviolent communication tries to find language that doesn’t judge or blame, so we can better meet each other’s needs. Empathy it a big part of that. So if someone is yelling at you, nonviolent communication would approach that situation through inquiry: what is the other person feeling? What is their need? Yelling in anger indicates a deep need that is not being met. Nonviolent communication offers a framework outside of our cultural conditioning to judge. Judgement is completely subjective. It is our unique experience of reality. Even just understanding that offers an openness that can be disarming during times of conflict. There is no “right or wrong” or “good of bad.” Those are just judgements. When working with youth through music I remind them that some people love Taylor Swift, while others love classical music. You may not like either. Who gets to be the arbiter of truth?
Amanda: I think that approach cultivates a lot of self-awareness. Shifting words like “should,” which signifies a “should not,” to “could” which invites possibility.
Dan: The more emotional literacy we have, the more we understand what is going on within our self. Instead of our emotions being a loud trumpet blast, they can become a nuanced symphony. Maybe you aren’t frustrated, but irritated. Or maybe I’m not angry, but I’m scared. Those small semantic shifts are so powerful in how we express ourselves and speak to others.
Amanda: I really admire the heart-felt authenticity with which you express yourself. I feel it in your music too. Your song, Breach, written in response to the Wet’suwet’en territory crisis could have easily stoked the anger many of us felt. But instead, your lyrics were a haunting inquiry for those “following orders.”
Dan: Earlier in my career my music was angry. Anger is okay. Anger is necessary. But you don’t need to live in it, you need to move through it. We live in a world where things can be very aggravating. There is a lot of injustice. There is a lot of inequity where people’s basic needs for community, health, and safety are not being met. I’ve found if I want to be effective, I need to strike up dialogue instead of spreading anger. I don’t know if any RCMP officers will hear my song. Writing a song is not a lot of leverage for social change. But hopefully it will speak to people in a way that is less polarizing, so if they do hear it, they will have more space to hear it.
Amanda: Music has been a very strong tool for revolution in the past. I think it still holds a lot of power in bringing a community together. Especially compared to more violent communication which often holds righteous judgement. That type of communication only widens a divide.
Dan: That’s true. Cortes Island exemplifies that right now. People on either side of the SRD petition feel judged. That’s what happens when two camps break and insults are flung back-and-forth. I’ve watched people on both sides of this debate speak in the language of judgement. That type of communication only moves us further away from resolution. If we became conscious of what our feelings are, and then became conscious of what our needs are, we can speak to those things instead of pointing blame. It would also give us all a much better chance at being heard. If someone were to say: “When Noba Anderson received funds to build an addition onto her home for her father,” which is an observation, “I felt uncomfortable, because I have a need for integrity and fairness and I’m not sure what has happened here” it would be a much less combative way to express concern than by signing a petition for investigation. Then Noba, would also have the chance to express her feelings and needs directly. When we hear each other’s needs we are able to see commonality. While our strategy may be different, we can empathize with a desire to fulfill that same basic need. As long as our community is stuck in the language of opinion, judgement, and blame we will continue to move further apart. It’s tricky, because each one of us is a product of our environment, upbringing, family, and a culture that models this sort of judgment-based communication. Social Media exacerbates this. It’s a great place to point fingers because it offers an anonymity and we can detach from the things we say. It’s dehumanizing. By expressing our feelings, without blaming anyone, we can humanize the situation. We will also connect more, even if we don’t hold the same values. Community is built through hearing other’s needs. And that is not happening on Cortes right now.
Amanda: There is certainly a big political chasm on this island, first with the election and now with this petition. I recently left a couple of local Facebook groups because I was constantly operating from a place of fiery irritation. I’m still in the world. But, I don’t need to move in it from a place of constant frustration.
Dan: Yes, it’s too bad we can’t focus on the things in this world that we are grateful for. While we shouldn’t sit in privilege and think about how lovely that is, we should at least take stock of the fact that we have food on our shelves, clean air to breath, and no bombs falling from the sky. Do we really need to get so worked up about this? Of course, that’s my own judgement. In the end, empathy seems to be at the heart of the issue. It is possible that human beings can foster goodwill towards each other. It is a possibility. It’s also a choice.
This interview had been edited for content and length.