The following is the October blog post by John Howard Artist in Residence Johnny Trinh. To read more on Johnny’s Residency, click here.
Growing up I couldn’t differentiate the roots of American Thanksgiving from Canadian Thanksgiving. For as long as I could remember, the idea of a festival that celebrates the harvest was often overlayed with the image of young people dressed up as colonizers and Indigenous people getting along and sharing food for som elementary school play.
I remember my first real, “Thanksgiving meal” was in highschool, they offered turkey and cranberry sauce in the cafeteria. But I didn’t really learn about Thanksgiving until I started singing in church. Being in the choir led to many church events, where the lovely congregation would make giant feasts. Though we were a small suburban community, the principle behind the feast was that no one was turned away. I remember seeing many people that I did not recognize at Sunday service. Some folks, I learned, who rarely got out of their homes, would come for that special meal. The idea that no one was turned away is what has stayed with me since, and what inspired the Artist-In-Residence Thanksgiving event at the John Howard Society. This blog details the experience leading up to this past week’s workshop.
Over the past several months, I’ve noted some of the breakthroughs we’ve had at the centre. Many of the participants reach new milestones, and demonstrated the impact of the program, these milestones are usually centred around community building, increased sociability, and strengthening relationships within the participant group.
After the success of the Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival, we have continued with our strategy of trying different art practices that can provide platforms for story sharing and engagement. It’s been heartening to see that members are bridging relationships, and are committing to the workshops in a positive way. Some members who traditionally have only come for either snacks, or music, or with their outreach workers have made a point to come regardless of the activity, and without their outreach workers. There are also set backs, I don’t want to paint an image where this is seemingly without challenges. Everyone has their good days, and rough patches. I believe it’s part of growing, and has made this work so rewarding.
One of my dream activities has always been to work with food. After 10 months of weekly sessions at the centre, in early October, I felt like I finally had a strong enough connection with the participants to do it. For several of the participants, their engagement was very specific to an activity. We may have 10-15 people in a room, but depending on what activity we’re doing, some will be active, some will be distant, people come and go based on their level of interest to what is happening. Some folks leave to use the computers, or meet their workers, it was a challenge to have workshops be an almost liminal space. But the breakthrough was when folks started trying things that were not their “go-to” activities. The best example of this was when several folks initiated conversations, sharing their own stories, or providing prompts for the group activity without being asked.
Some of the longtime participants have articulated that they don’t like talking about holidays, or favourite stories, because it reminds them too much of challenging times, triggering memories, and perhaps the contrasts to what they may be currently experiencing. I would note that other participants were happy to dive into these topics, some find the discussions to instill hope, and others note how far they’ve come. I wanted to know how I could reframe these questions to be more open ended. So I started asking them about their current favourite foods, to see what might come of it. The responses started to come more readily. We learned more about culturally specific foods, often related to where the participants ethnicities were rooted. We learned about the best places in the region to get them.
I decided that we would hold a special Thanksgiving celebration. The John Howard Society had already programmed an actual Thanksgiving meal for Thursday. It was not my intention to compete in anyway, and it wasn’t meant to be a grand feast. I vision was that we’d come together, prepare food together, and share that meal. My plan was to go to the recommended food providers and bring in those favourite foods so that the participants could enjoy them, and more importantly, share them with others.
The office manager, Lisa, was amazing in her support and sent out a notice to the entire John Howard Team, and suddenly, what I had envisioned to be a regular group ended up doubling in size. We ended up having over 27 attendees last week. As with many Thanksgiving parties, food is never served on time. The weekend prior, after connecting with Lisa and getting a sense of the numbers, I braved the trenches of grocery stores full of last minute meal shoppers and 40 minute lineups at the check out to prepare. Luckily, as the weekend was winding down, usual Thanksgiving fare were on sale. I picked up bags of brussel sprouts and potatoes. I spent the morning of the workshop preparing tubs of food that we could reheat, and also prepped all the ingredients so that the participants could help make more food, so we’d have an activity to do. What was most important for me was that it was an act of creating together. I did not want the perception to be that I was just bringing food to serve them. Though everyone deserves a good meal.
Then I was on the road, driving out to New Westminster to find the best rated Jamaican patties in the area. The shopkeeper was most helpful, but was busy with a pepper vendor. You know you’re in a legit shop, when there is a vendor on site selling scotch bonnet, and ghost peppers by the boxload. I picked up my patties, and drove through to Delta to get back up to South Van to fetch orders of samosas and pakoras from the Pakistani market. Everything would have been fine, if it wasn’t for the sudden lunch rush, and no amount of pleading can speed up FRESH, MADE TO ORDER samosas and pakoras with in house tamarind chutney. Despite my growing anxiety and panic, there was no way I was going to make it to the John Howard Society on time.
From the Indian restaurant, I frantically emailed and called the office. The team was so understanding, and supportive. They preheated the oven, quelled the participants, and when I finally arrived just a few minutes later, I was greeted by a room FULL of lovely folks ready to have a good time.
I may have bit off more than I could chew that day. We put all the tables together into one long banquet table. While food was being prepped, the participants created art collages on large paper. They drew images of what they were most thankful for. We had music jamming in the back of the room. In the Kitchen, we began preparing more mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts, perogies, and gravy, cranberry sauce, and turkey.
I was nothing short of overwhelmed by the vast numbers, and was worried we’d not have enough to eat. Thankfully, Lisa and the team, ordered a couple pizzas to tide them over, and once we started cooking, everything fell into place. Some participants played music. Many drew pictures and coloured at the table together. Several participants helped in the kitchen. It felt like a large family gathering, in a house full of energy and kindness.
It was inspiring to see how everyone gathered around the table comprised of participants both service users and outreach workers. It meant a lot to me to be able to share food with everyone who was working so hard. I can name any number of things that I am grateful for when it comes to the Artist-In-Residency program. Truly though, especially last week, I am most grateful for the staff team at the John Howard Society CSO.
A team of 7 John Howard Staff jumped in to help finish food prep, allowing me to go out and do more artist activities, connect with the art makers, and jam with our musicians. We also welcomed two new practicum students. One thing I learned was that there are many ways to make offers. Often, we’ll ask a participant if they want to participate in an activity and they may decline at first. We always have back up activities as options, but sometimes we’ll also just start to do the activity, and as the participant’s comfort grows, they usually join in as well. With our new practicum student, Spencer, he was new to this work and thus unfamiliar with the participants. More accurately, our participants weren’t familiar with Spencer. So I encouraged Spencer to simply start playing with the instruments, and from there, the other participants began to relax and jam along.
The food started coming out of the kitchen in waves. The amazing team of 7 took care of dishes as they piled up. The amazing participants helped each other out, grabbing dishes, utensils, serving each other. The entire day was a success.
These are the memories I want to make, and the stories I want to tell. Despite the challenges, we were able to connect with over 27 people, 10 of them, brand new folks who were able to have a great experience with this program. Lisa has often referred to the Client Services Office as the living room for the participants. It’s been so important for them to feel the ownership and comfort in the space. The office is a place where they come when they need support, receive services, get support with day to day needs (employment, training, government forms, etc.). The space is one where they can come when dealing with trauma and struggle. It holds all the memories of those experiences. When we hold celebrations here, like with the Artist-In-Residence program, we are able to fill the space with memories of generosity, kindness, and joy. There aren’t much better ways to celebrate Thanksgiving.