Advocacy Spotlight: Human Rights with JAYUxGuelph
JAYUxGuelph is a division of the JAYU charity which operates on the University of Guelph Campus. It is a student run organization which uses the arts to as a platform to share stories of Human Rights. Today we spoke with the Co-Founder and current President of JAYUxGuelph, Emily Kerr.
Emily Kerr (she / they) is a fifth-year student at the University of Guelph studying International Development and History. She is one of the Co-Founders and current President of JAYUxGuelph, and maintains an active role in the organization to this day. She is extremely passionate about Human Rights Work and using art as a way to represent issues affecting people of all different walks of life.
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Nicholas: Thank you Emily for coming out today to speak on JAYUxGuelph and to keep the theme of December as Human Rights Month. I'm really excited to get into this conversation and learn a little bit more about what you do and what your team does.
Emily: You too, thanks for having me. I actually really appreciate it.
Nicholas: Of course, of course, happy to have you here! So, if you just want to start by giving us, a little background about yourself and then a little bit about JAYU in general.
Emily: For sure, so my name is Emily, I use she / they pronouns and I am a fifth-year undergraduate student at the University of Guelph. I study International Development with a specialization in political economy and administrative change, and I also minor in history. So that's kind of my background here. I'm going into my last semester, which is pretty exciting.
And I run a, well, I co-founded more like, a club on campus called JAYUxGuelph with my good friend about two years ago, just before the pandemic started. JAYUxGuelph is a club that aims to advocate and spread awareness for human rights issues around the world but also on campus through the arts. So that's kind of the broad description of the club 'cause there's a lot that goes into that one statement, but my role within the organization is as the co-founder and as the groups president. So my friend and I are both kind of acting Co-presidents in this club because I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it without their help, that's for sure.
Nicholas: Awesome. Well out of curiosity, what does that entail as Co-president of JAYU? I'm sure a lot falls on you there or you're doing a lot of organizing and setting things up. So, what does a typical day look like for you?
Emily: Actually, that's a really interesting question. 'Cause I don't think I've really thought about it before. Being Co-Pres is one of those things that once you start, you're just kind of on autopilot. It's one of those things that I have enjoyed doing immensely over the last, I guess it would be 2 1/2 years now since we started the club.
But honestly, I feel like most of our job as Co-presidents really is just logistics, like our job really is putting out fires when they come up. We run a slew of different programming in JAYU so I would say we have four main program areas if that's what you want to call it. We have public-facing events like you know we had a collaging night the other week. Before that, we've done painting nights. We've done spoken word poetry, things like that that are kind of more public-facing. We have documentary and discussion nights where we watch a discussion or watch a documentary and then have a discussion with, potentially, you know, the director or one of the main focal characters in a film and we get to do a Q&A with those people. We also have our HUM Podcast and our blog that is student-run. And that isn't something necessarily that I run. We have two fantastic coordinators who Take that on and have organized that type of thing. And so, I would say that my job is between those four program areas. It really is just helping to foster a sense of community and teamwork with my executive team.
I've been lucky enough for the last two years that we've run the club that our executive team has been extremely driven and extremely passionate, so I feel like I haven't had to. You know, I haven't ever really had to be the bad guy. But I feel like my Co-president, and I have always focused on, you know not just making sure that that we're checking the boxes and getting things done. SERM form submissions, running events properly, and making sure that accessibility is met. We’re also the ones who are kind of fostering a safe space within our own club, which I think is super important. And that's one thing that we kind of have emphasized the whole time as Co-presidents, because we want it to feel like, not necessarily something super informal, but we want it to feel like a team, not just a group of people who are all there. You know with similar interests, but with a different vision of what they want to contribute to the club.
In the long and short, my co-president and I are basically the logistics team. You know at the end of the day we organize the weekly meetings that we have. We delegate tasks. You know if we have to do paperwork we're the people who end up doing the paperwork, obviously.
That's that's kind of what the job entails, but there's obviously so many parts that I'm not even describing 'cause there are just so many different parts to the job.
Nicholas: Yeah, I guess the question is a bit unfair. I guess every day is a little different. I'm sure you have different challenges and different goals for every day, you know.
Emily: Absolutely yeah, exactly so you know it. It really depends on the time, the semester, the time of year, everything like that. Because we generally have different programs that run every year. So in the fall semesters, we kind of focus more on public facing events. We tend to run an IM program which I'll get into more after this description, but we tend to run IAM programs so we have one program running in the fall semester and one in the winter semester and then this year, in April we're planning to do this.
It's not necessarily top secret, it's going to be very public very soon, but we're planning to launch an Arts Festival that's run by students in April about human rights issues! So next semester will kind of be shifting into festival mode and trying to focus on planning that out 'cause this will be our first one. This will be the inaugural one, so we're trying our best to get those details and those logistics ready to go so that next semester we can kind of jump full force into that.
Nicholas: Yeah, I'm sure it's an exciting time. I got a colleague of mine that is actually involved with JAYU in Toronto and I know they have the Film Festival going on right now. So is that sort of our own festival here in Guelph?
Emily: Yeah, similarly, so I guess if you look at the history of JAYU as the charity organization, not the chapter in Guelph, like the whole organization, really started from a documentary festival, you know Film Festival and so I think that my Co-president and I we really wanted to focus on that and we wanted to make sure that we could foster, some type of space and we wanted to do something big.
It's also our final years, right? So we want to go out with a bang and really make an impact because the last couple of years everything has been virtual right? So it's been really hard to find advocacy avenues that work in a virtual space the same way that an in person space does. So we've been pushing really hard and hopefully COVID will sit down for a moment so that we can do the festival in April.
We wanted to mimic the human rights Film Festival that JAYU puts on every December. But we did wanna have our own spin on it and that's something that Gilad over at JAYU, who has really emphasized that as well for us, because he really wants us to, he wants it to be our own thing. He doesn't exactly want it to be something that is exactly like the Film Festival. So generally we're planning to have an opening night with some performances, potentially a documentary night like I was talking about earlier and then one of the other things that we'd like to do is have a four or five day exhibition of some pieces that students have come up with during some of the different workshops that we have that we've run. Like I said, IAM programs are programs that we fund and support on campus, and we essentially bring a mentor and professional artist into a four to six week workshop with equity seeking groups on campus. So we've worked with The Guelph Black Students Association.
Next semester, we're hoping to work with Guelph Hillel and Guelph Queer Equality and essentially, they do workshops, and they've done poetry before. This semester, we're hoping to do printmaking, potentially digital storytelling and digital moviemaking through a cell phone and essentially each of the final end results of those workshops are final projects of explore a human rights issue through that person’s perspective, so that's kind of the focal point of the festival, because we feel like that's super important 'cause those are the voices of our own students. You know, saying something potentially really meaningful and something big about the space that they occupy on campus. So, we wanna make sure that it's not just something that they create and it just kind of falls away and becomes hidden. It's something that will last and be seen by people because it deserves to be seen
AM I WRONG TO LOVE? Exhibition
Nicholas: Yeah for sure. Well let’s push it out a little more because I was curious about the advocacy work that you do. As you know it is Human Rights Month in December, so would you say that's kind of a way to bring these equity seeking groups together in a way that, it’s not like a town hall. It’s actually using something such as art to, you know, create something yourself to be able to express yourself in a way that isn't just a formal setting.
Emily: Exactly, and I feel like many people kind of know this already because they've already had experiences with art and with emotions really. But art is one of those mediums that can portray a really powerful message without having to get wrapped up in jargon or discussions. It's super emotive and sometimes the most simple pieces of art, even if it is just a sketch or a photo that you took on your phone, all have stories embedded within them. And I think that was the motivating factor for us to found this club because we realized that on campus we have lots of amazing advocacy groups for different types of human rights, but there was never really a use of art mediums specifically to speak about it.
And I think too, people always assume that art needs to be professional in order to convey a message. But I don't think at JAYU that's something that - we definitely don't think. Art totally is subjective and it's one of those things that can be can portraying meaning in some of the most unlikely, unlikely places.
That's definitely been a guiding principle, guiding value for our team to just use art in a way that can say what words can't sometimes.
Nicholas: Totally. And having that you know, like I was saying earlier, having that platform, I think that's huge. If I can bring you back a little bit as you are one of the co-founders of JAYU, isn't this kind of what you envisioned when putting the chapter together? Or what was your mindset? When you were looking to put the chapter together, what inspired you to get involved like this? And what were you looking towards, what was your goal to accomplish by getting this chapter at Guelph?
Emily: It's a good question because I feel like there were a bunch of factors involved, so one of them being my own personal values and goals in life. Like I said, I'm in International Development. I've always been involved in social justice since I was a little kid. You know, it's something I've always really cared about. Human rights specifically, really is. It seems to be something that I keep coming back to over and over again, and so I've always been kind of involved. Then I actually ended up meeting the founder of the charity JAYU based in Toronto, Gilad. He was running a photography workshop, three years ago in Kitchener-Waterloo and I was actually an undergraduate research assistant for the Prof that was running the program with Gilad. So I ended up meeting him. We talked it out. I had never heard of JAYU before, so this was like totally dipping my feet into a completely new lake.
And yeah, I don't know we just connected really. I found so many parts of him as a person reflected what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I felt like it would be a great way to bring what I learned from JAYU the charity back to Guelph. Because like I said, we don't really have anything like that on campus or didn't have anything like that on campus before we started the club. So one day we had finished the IAM program and and we were actually driving back to Guelph from Kitchener. We were sitting in the car together, and I was like I think I wanna start a chapter at Guelph and he said that would be awesome, we’ve been trying to get chapters started at universities for a long time now and it just worked and so I guess the follow up question to that is what we did we envision at the beginning, and I think that’s a tough question, and I feel like one thing that I've always wanted in the club is a sense of of autonomy and independence among our exec team. One thing that I know that I want to abide by, not just in my personal life, but in my life going forward. Whether it's in a job or in an academic space or in a social space, I wanna make sure that people's opinions and voices are heard.
And I'm not so much the type of person that abides always by the book and you needs to follow and do the exact same things as we've always done. I'm not someone who advocates for the status quo, and I think that we've really kind of adapted that to be part of our club values because from the beginning we have really just put the feelers out there for our exec team. We've really kind of just said, you know what? This is our baby. We're really passionate about it and like, let's see what we can do with it and the blog and the podcast actually came about from two of our execs who just said, hey, I think I wanna do this and we were like awesome, go ahead, go for it, because truly the executives are what make the club tick. And if you're not listening to your executives, not honouring the ideas, the amazing ideas that your execs have, in a way you're not living up to your own values as a human rights club.
Nicholas: We at SHAC, we can totally relate. It's very nice having that very open space where you're allowed to be open minded and make suggestions and kinda capitalize off that right? So you with your podcast, for example. That's actually something we've been discussing at SHAC. And yeah, we looked over your podcast earlier. Kind of as like a, you know, an inspiration for something that we would look into doing. So to have that leadership, having you there that's awesome for your team.
To have the execs feel free to give their ideas and not worry about getting shut down because it's not the status quo as you said, having that environment makes JAYU sound like a great place to want to be in and then have those execs tell their friends, tell their colleagues, tell whoever about the work they do and get more people involved, right?
Emily: Yeah. When I was in first year, I actually joined a couple of clubs just to get involved and see what university life was like and one of the things that personally I just I couldn't really do, I couldn't fit myself into a lot of the club structures because it was so rigid. It was very much like, we're going to sit down, talk the agenda and then we're going to check off the boxes of what needs to be done. And I just found it not really inspiring as a space to exist in for someone who's supposed to be coming up with ideas for events and programs and stuff like that. And I think that's one thing that kind of influenced the way in which we we've run the club since its inception, right? I mean, we usually have check-ins at the beginning of every week to see how people are doing, we’re very flexible when it comes to taking time off because we're all people and I think sometimes that as clubs we tend to get wrapped up in just doing a program or putting out another podcast or putting out another blog post and there's a person on the other side of that who is feeling stressed or who is having a rough time.
I'm human, and so I think that, especially my Co-president and I have tried to be as mindful as possible making it a safe space for everybody where everybody is heard and where everybody feels like it's just a group of friends getting together and we're all passionate and we all want to do something interesting and insightful together. And I think that in a lot of ways, that kind of attracts the right audience. And like you said, our club in terms of recruitment other than my Co-founder and I, we only started the club through word of mouth. We did put out a call for execs at the beginning, but it was very much like an “oh my friend told me about this” or you know, “I heard something about this and I want to learn more” and it's kind of grown through word of mouth which is I think in a lot of ways what we wanted it to be in terms of recruitment because we wanted to attract people who would hear stories of what we did. That's really cool.
'Cause we have execs that have a range of different roles where some just do blog posts, some are just focused on doing the podcast. Some of our execs are, planning and organizing events. There's a whole bunch of different roles that have different kinds of levels of capacity because we want to make it work for people in. However, they're able to be whatever capacity they're able to be involved.
Nicholas: Yeah, and from what you're saying it sounds like they're not limited in those roles either. It sounds like if you're working on a project and there's a fellow exec, if they have some advice or something for you, you're more than open to listening to that right? There's no strict roles such as many student organizations you're talking about. For example, if you’re the financial person in student organizations, that’s kind of the be-all-end-all-you know, whereas from what you're telling me, it sounds like JAYU is a wide open space where you're able to contribute in any way possible right? And kinda feel that you're being heard?
Emily: Yeah, exactly, I think as well part of university is figuring out what motivates you and what inspires you and what makes you passionate. And I feel like that's reflected in people's ability to try different things depending on their capacity of course. But like for as an example, we have our coordinator of our blog, The Bulletin, which has kind of taken off. She’s working on a project that we're hoping to unveil at the festival in April, where she's decided to make a magazine that looks at all of the blog posts or pieces of art, any type of media that we've created as a club in the last couple of years and has decided to put it together and into a magazine and then potentially distribute it at the festival.
And again, it's something that we haven't told her to do at all. She's an extremely driven and well-rounded person, so it's of no surprise that she took it upon herself to do more. But she wanted to and we want to foster that type of drive. You know, we don't want to say, that's not what we're planning to do. You know, it might need a couple of tweaks. Sure, maybe to fit with guidelines, but we never want to take away from people's drive and determination to do something different or do something that hasn't been done before, right?
Nicholas: Well, with you and your background, out of curiosity, 'cause we discussed a few different initiatives and programs here, is there anything in particular that you're the proudest of? Or something you were really happy with? How it turned out or does anything in particular stand out to you?
Emily: Oh my God, this whole experience with JAYUxGuelph, I'm proud of the whole. I'm proud of the whole damn thing. I feel like every time we have our exec team at our weekly meetings and we’re getting to talk about events and planning and just all sorts of things that happen over the semester. Me and my co-founder, we just turned to each other and we just go “Oh my God”. Like you know 2, 2 and a half years ago we were struggling to get accredited. We didn't know what we were doing. You know we had never run a club before. We'd been apart of a couple each but never, actually founded one and ran it.
At the beginning our standards were so low and with good reason. You know you can't shoot for the stars right away, but I remember once we started, when we did our first recruitment program and we were looking for execs and we had immediately like 12 people interested and I was thinking how 12 people know what this club is? First of all who has told them about it and over time just seeing the impact. I don't even know how to describe it. I feel so grateful and proud to be a part of a club made up of so many passionate and driven people who really are striving. They’ve got great futures ahead of them and honestly I see everything we do as a win because before we started there was none of it right?
So there's not necessarily something particularly that I'm proud of. It's more like when we when we get a confirmation of running an IAM program with a club like the GSA and we have their exhibition up on our website that was just, it's so cool to see those ideas actually come to fruition because I feel especially in that first year when COVID also hit at the same time we had to take a step back as a club 'cause it at the time it was just me and my co-founder you and we had to say “how are we gonna make this work in a virtual space”? Because in a lot of ways a lot of the programming that JAYU does used to be very much grounded in an in person experience. So we were basing it all off of that. So we did take a whole semester to just plan like what are we gonna do? What is this gonna look like? And to have the kind of response that we've gotten from our executive team come from just the general campus public and to hear stories that are just so meaningful, whether it's on our podcast or whether it's submissions to our exhibitions with the GSA.
Those are all so powerful to me because those are voices that maybe otherwise wouldn't have been heard right? I don't know if there's necessarily something that I can say I’m particularly proud of. I just am continually proud of the club.
It feels like at the beginning our standards were so low we were like you know, if we do one event every semester, we are going to be so happy. But now we're running upwards of three or four events were running at least one IAM program a semester. We have someone who is a grant writer who we've been securing grant money with. We didn't ever think we would be able to write a grant good enough to actually get money. Like all of those are really small wins and I think when you operate in that positive mindset as well, it teaches your execs to have that.
There's so much to do and we're only making a small, small dent in the social justice issues that need to be fixed in our world today. And I think by fostering that sense of positivity and drive in our executives, like who knows where that's going to take them in their futures, because this really is just fostering their ability to be great people. And great, you know, advocates for tomorrow. So I think that that's kind of the outlook that I've taken up. And that's why I don't necessarily think there's one thing that I would be proud of, but its accumulation of all the things we've done, because without that stuff in the past we wouldn't be where we are today.
Nicholas: I’m just reflecting on that putting myself in your shoes. It's almost like watching your baby grow, right? Everything that comes along with it, whenever there's a new program or a new initiative. Or you know, even bringing new people into the organization. It's something that you may not have thought was possible when getting started, or you might not have thought was going to happen right? So when you were saying you're just putting a small dent in, I look at it differently. You know, that dent wouldn't have been there.
Emily: Oh absolutely.
Nicholas: Yeah, more and more comes along the road, right?
Emily: Absolutely. And you're right. It definitely is our baby. Every time we do something new or something gets a little bigger or we get funding for a new idea. We're just like wow like this is crazy to see this start from nothing and now actually turn into something real and have real impacts for people on campus. For me, there's nothing better than that. You know, knowing that somebody is getting something out of what we're doing, you know.
Nicholas: Yeah 100%. Well, you touched on it a little bit. If I could ask more about it. You spoke about, the whole COVID situation, how you were pushed into a virtual setting. Would you say that's probably been one of the greatest challenges you've had in your time at JAYU? How did that work? And then you said you were planning most of time, but what was your mindset at the time?
Emily: I feel like every club has struggled with this. I think it's an understatement to say that COVID has been a wrench in all of our plans, but it's one of those things that we just don't really have any choice. We have to operate in this way and I think the one good thing that has come out of COVID is reflecting on the way in which we run clubs and how we can make them more accessible to a broader audience of people. And of course, it's not perfect, but it definitely is something that we took into account when COVID was happening as we became accredited just at the beginning of 2020. So January 2020, we started running weekly, just more general meetings 'cause we didn't exactly have an exec team at that time. And then in March COVID hit and we went completely virtual.
After that, we did take some time, we worked on updating our Constitution we wrote out some new plans for how we would want the team to work and you know, we adapted some of our roles to kind of fill some spots that we didn't really see as necessary before COVID started. So I feel like it definitely has been a struggle and it's been a struggle, I can say with confidence for everybody who's running a club right now.
But I think that we've taken this opportunity. We've seen it more as an opportunity than as a challenge, because we've been able to play around with, like I said, different ways of doing programming, and different methods of portraying art. So, like I said, we have an exhibition online with the GSA rather than in person. We have our blog and our podcast, which luckily again in a virtual space, we can still do interviews or podcasts.
For our blogs, usually we have a submission portal that you can submit your stuff online. It's not like you have to meet with somebody in person to get that story moving.
Really, it's been about just patience and flexibility, because honestly, we are all working through a pandemic. It's not just the club that's operating in a pandemic we’re all people who are operating within a pandemic too. And that has such intense impacts on mental and emotional and physical wellbeing right, so I think like I said before, we've really focused on not necessarily slowing down, but really like taking time to reflect on how our club runs and how that could impact people who want to be involved in any capacity. So we haven't necessarily seen it as a challenge, but more as a chance to reflect and to try new things. Like I said, we were never really planning on doing exhibitions virtually, but what we learned from our first exhibition with the GSA being online is that it's a great place to have stuff stay for a long time, you know it's not like an exhibition that's virtual ever needs to get taken down unless you know your domain get expires or something but we kind of realized that, like hey, we can actually have these exhibitions put up online, even if there is an in-person component and after the in-person component we can just put them online and people can continually consume that media and always see them. It's not just you see it at an exhibition and it's over with right?
Nicholas: You know what, how relevant is that to today's world? It’s nice to have them accessible online. You know how many people are using, technology as a way to get introduced to something. For example, being able to view the exhibition online and then you know, once the time comes when it's safe to have a setting back in person how many more people would come out? That's kind of planted the seeds for those who want to come get involved, or even just to come look at what it is that you're doing and they want to come see it first hand, you know. So planting those seeds when you're in that position where you know your work is directed to that online setting is amazing. And that's something inspiring to me because I think the biggest thing that you said was you didn't see it as a challenge. You saw it as an opportunity, which I think is an amazing mindset. You know, because how many people were put down a bit by the whole COVID situation and not able to fully alternate their service and be able to sit back and think how could they do it differently? Meanwhile, you used it as a chance to see “how can we enhance our online setting”? And that is totally amazing, and I really love that.
Emily: Yeah, thanks. I think one of the things that became very clear to us is to have a very strong social media presence and that was something that you know all of us as an exec board just didn't know where to start with, so we've really been focusing on that. I would say our biggest way that we've learned to adapt is improving our social media presence and improving the type of connections we make with different clubs and people through social media. So, if you go on our Instagram, for example, we tend to try a lot of the time to have different events in collaboration with other clubs doing really cool things on campus. So, our collage night this semester, we ran in conjunction with the Fine Arts Network or FAN. All of our podcast episodes have been with special guests, including some students who have started a magazine called Delve Magazine, which is also very cool. I will shamelessly plug that.
We've really had that chance to get our name out there and to make our presence more well-known as well, because we were really trying to tell the campus that we were here and we existed at a time when COVID was just starting, so we definitely got overshadowed by the pandemic with good reason. I mean, I don't blame anybody for not paying attention to us.
So it definitely was that moment where we just had to be like, OK, we're gonna shift gears and we're gonna make our social media more relevant. We're gonna make it different, we're gonna make it more consistent, and that's one thing that we've really been trying to focus on to improve our presence.
Nicholas: Yeah totally. I feel like social media is huge, especially. We're looking towards ways we can expand our social media to let people know about us. You said that, we're here, we want to give you that space where you can come to us if you're not aware 'cause here at Guelph especially, there are so many great clubs, great organizations, great initiatives that just don't get the exposure they deserve.
They do great work, and building that community is something that's huge, especially in the work that you do. For example, if there is someone who may be reading this, or someone that comes across your website, your podcast, or any of the blogs, is there any advice or words of wisdom you have for them? If they're wondering whether or not they should get involved, is there any advice you would have for those people?
Emily: I think my piece of advice is that you have a voice and you need to use it. If there's something on campus or in the world that you are passionate about, something you want to change and feel driven to make a change in your lifetime. There's nothing more powerful than that. Having your own voice and being in a place, in a country, where luckily enough we do have that privilege to be able to speak our truths.
There's also a bunch of really great community-based organizations in Guelph that really are focused on centering the voices of people and their experiences. If you have those experiences that you want to share, or there's something that you're passionate about, do get involved. Reach out. You know people are people like us, especially at Guelph. We're more than happy to talk to you about an idea that you have or you know something that you've written and you want to put on our blog. You know, we do that all the time and we want to foster an environment where we're not so much a club, but we're more of a sounding board where people can say something and our job is to help amplify that voice.
Emily: So if you do come across stuff and there's something that really lights up some inspiration inside of you. Run with that and use your voice because, in our opinion, it's one of the most powerful things out there in terms of making change.
Nicholas: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think it's just that extra push right? To see that organization you're interested in and to get into contact for example, with an individual like yourself, reaching out and having that conversation. I think just for me, having this interview with you. I already get the sense that you are a very welcoming, helpful individual where if I was involved in the club I would never hear “that's a bad idea”. It'll be more of a “how can we turn this into a way that it'll work” right? And how will it align with the goal that we're trying to reach? You know what I mean? And that's just from, a 50-minute interview with you. That's something I already gathered. So I already wanna be a part of JAYU just from sitting down and talking here today.
Just being weary of the time here. I don't want to keep you for too long. Is there anything that we haven't touched on that you'd like to share with anyone that would come across this?
Emily: Check out our website JAYU.ca/guelph. Follow us on Instagram at JAYUxGuelph and all of our information on workshops, programs, anything, all go through our Instagram just because that's been the place where we've been most easily able to interact with people. And if you have questions, reach out to us because we are more than happy to answer any questions that people have.
Nicholas: Alright, well thank you again for coming and I hope you have a great day now and I look forward to getting this all together and showing you and showing everyone who comes to check out what we spoke about today.
Emily: Me too awesome. Alright, well you have a great rest of your day Nicholas and it was so nice to meet you.