Putting People First
As program manager of the Community Arts Council of Vancouver, I have the privilege of overseeing some amazing initiatives. All of our programs aim to support communities, people within communities, and foster social transformation. As a community-engaged artist, I bring an interdisciplinary approach to auto-ethnographic performance, working with the participants to realize the impact of storytelling. I write these exact words on reports, grant applications, and press releases. Colleagues, and board members sometimes cringe at these ‘academic’ 7 syllable words. Sometimes I say those words so much, I forget to communicate what they mean. Sometimes I forget what they mean to me. But then we have a stellar session at the community services office, and we remember.
During my final year of graduate studies, I was deeply transformed by a transcript of a round table discussion between Alice Talbot, Bryoni Tresize, and Caroline Wake. http://www.performanceparadigm.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/trezise-and-wake-utp-interview-final-copy-with-images.pdf
Over a decade later, it’s still one of my core readings, one that I refer to whenever designing a residency. The speakers were discussing the Ethics of Non-Disclosure. Talbot had recently joined as Artistic Director of Urban Theatre Projects. Talbot said, “In 1996 I started working as an artist-in-residence at Innovative Health Services for Homeless Youth (IHSHY), whose core constituency was young people who may have experiences of being homeless, mental health facilities, detention centres, substance use and low levels of literacy… When working with people in crisis we often relate to people in terms of their problems. Rather than engaging people as a pathology, the process of public dialogue and consultation engages with people as experts.” I don’t need to comment on how much her work resonantes and parallels this current project.
Caroline Wake offers, “Ethics of non-disclosure might also be called an ethics of repetition. For instance, one of the things that has struck me about refugee theatre is that refugees are constantly required to retestify and occasionally this can be retraumatising, whereas your work seems to try to avoid this cycle. Is this how you see it?”
Alice Talbot responds, “We need to destabilise what we expect from people in trauma. When someone is in crisis, they tell their story to the social worker, then to the mental health worker, and then to someone else and so on, until they have retold their story many times. In essence, they are reliving trauma and crisis, potentially without a sense of containment. When people are consulted instead of interrogated, they are more likely to cooperate and, ideally, collaborate…”
Through all of the activities I designed for this artist-in-residency, I focused on an activity based model, where people are asked to do a task, create an artwork, play together. The activities are the container, and within them we learn new ways to dialogue. For example, when we create our semi-weekly mixtapes, each person contributing a song they like to make our playlist for the day, the act of recommending a song is the task. It’s relatively accessible, not too difficult to do, and then as the music plays, we learn more about each other- what our interests are, and if we’re lucky, people share an extra story around why they offered that song.
And very much like building blocks, we gradually increased the demand each week, moving to more involved activities: knitting, sculpting, paper mache. But this work isn’t linear, for folks facing barriers, everyday is a new challenge. I recall a pivotal conversation that taught me this lesson.
7 years ago, in the deathly cold of -40 Regina winter, I drove my friend home from work. We stopped in for whopper Wednesday at Burger King, because it was a meal we could afford. She was struggling with a particularly severe bout of depression and anxiety. She thanked me for the ride home and then broke down before exiting the car. She felt so defeated, heightened by being next to me, she said, “I don’t know how you do it, you work 4 jobs, struggle through grad school, and find the time to pick me up, I wish I was strong like that.” I told her it wasn’t strength, and if it was, it was no different than hers. We were young adults struggling to pay rent, eat, and we both knew what life was like without a home. We’d been roommates, we’d huddled together in empty apartments trying to get by. I said to her, “you’re in the thick of it right now, you’re not different. Before this you hit this rut, you were working 3 jobs, but you’ve got a solid place to live right now, and a job that supports you. Really though, when you’re struggling this much, it takes all your energy to get out of bed. If you were able to shower today, that’s a win. But today, you got to work, we get to eat. You’re strong, don’t you forget it.” We laughed, prayed for some relief from this weariness. Funny enough, I’m still working 4 jobs to slowly do more than just get by.
I think of this story every time one of our participants has a bad day. I think of this every time I feel like one of our activities isn’t working. Then I reset. Before we can practice positive social interaction, make friends, consider what citizenship and community means to us, we need to have a sense of agency. So many of John Howard Programs are designed to build agency. Agency is a sense of self-determination, independence, and a sense of control over one’s own life. Sometimes the best thing we can do is trust that people know what they want, trust them to be the experts of their lives. Many of the participants in the artist residency have had lifetimes of disempowerment. It will take dedicated time and continued positive conditioning to overcome this.
Sometimes in my positive reinforcement and encouragement, I didn’t appreciate the significance of the feedback I was receiving. There were moments where I felt I knew better, that I assumed a participant was more disinterested than disabled. That may have been the case some of the time, but in hindsight I can see the moments I was pushing and could have been yielding. Asking the same question multiple times, forcing the issues, feeling the pressure to produce a “product” from our activity sometimes undermined that core goal.
So this past week we went back to making a mix tape of sorts. The week prior, I overheard a conversation between one of our participants and their outreach worker. The participant was pushing to incorporate more movie outings as part of their programming. With the limited time that they shared with their outreach worker, the staff person tried to reinforce the constraint on time, and help the participant recognize how sitting in a dark theatre wouldn’t help them practice the social skills they were developing. It was a difficult conversation, and I thought I could help.
So we held a YouTube film festival. With the recent snowmaggaedon in Vancouver, the challenges of January, we had a few participants who were struggling more than usual. I wanted to create a very low key activity that wouldn’t challenge or exhaust our folks. So attendees would recommend a video they liked, we would queue them up, and between videos we’d talk about them.
I thought we’d have more music videos and viral shorts, but to my surprise it was cultural videos that had the most draw. After a couple music videos, I decided to put on some Chinese New Year Celebrations from around the world. One participant who had only been in the space a couple of times, but from China, was excited to join in and talk about the celebrations. I saw the sense of cultural pride, nostalgia. So based on what I knew of the people in the room, I started calling up videos from the various countries we were from. The room lit up. Participants were moving around, scrolling through videos, telling us what it was like growing up, or travelling. We traversed the world through a series of beautifully shot tourism videos of Italy, Fiji, China, Edmonton, Alberta in winter, and more.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the work that we’re doing, we forget what we’re trying to do. I have alluded to this in previous posts, sometimes I feel the self-imposed pressure to “produce” something at the need of this residency. I have my own writing practice, and we create a lot of art pieces, but there is always that nagging in the back of my mind about producing ‘aesthetically high calibre’ work that would look good on a report or to a future donor. This residency costs money, so reporting and documentation is important.
Often times, all we need to do is create a container that everyone can agree on, and then get out of the way. I can’t bottle up the magic moments when eyes light up, and the space is filled with laughter and friendship. I shouldn’t. Because last week was a great week. Tomorrow could be a bad day. Everyday is a challenge, and everyday has the potential for something transformative. By putting the participants first, and creating a container where they choose what fills it is all that we need to do.
It’s taken a year, but the core group of participants have really created an inviting space that supports new folks whenever they arrive. As I said, it’s been an absolute privilege to help and to witness the impact of this program. Looking forward to some exciting programming in March.