Making Space: How To Make Friends and Move People [Event Recap]
On a Sunday evening a few months ago around 55 people made their way to an intimate theatre in the heart of Artscape Youngplace, a community arts space just off of Dundas on Shaw street. They came together for a panel discussion entitled Making Space: How To Make Friends and Move People. This was our second event in the series which aims to create, as the name suggests, safe spaces for critical conversations surrounding difficult topics like marginalization, oppression, cultural displacement and discrimination. The panel in particular was exploring the barriers and realities in building actionable communities in Toronto, actionable meaning they actually do things and aren't just groups of people that hang out and like eachother because, as our moderator suggested, "Those are just friends."
The talk got right into off the bat exploring the differences between Toronto and other cities regarding our cultural makeup and how that impacts community building. After a moment of nervous shuffling the first panelist to answer was also the youngest of the three, Alexia Bréard-Anderson: "We have people from so many different places ... we have third culture kids, we have families with parents from here, parents from there. Cultural hybridity is a term I keep seeing coming up and up and that really creates a unique sense of identity in a lot of different people so the next that are had between all these different communities are less focused on one sort of ethnicity or background or tradition or custom." Alexia is the founder of Lexiquette and platform highlighting up and coming and emerging artists in Toronto, she is also a Curatorial Studies student at OCAD University.
After Alexia broke the ice the other speakers followed suit. The panelists, all born and raised in different of the world, offered unique and varying perspectives on the topic of community. (Not to toot our own horn, but we were really excited to produce an event with a panel comprised entirely of women of colour!) "I'm from Windsor, and so pretty much every black person in Windsor is my cousin." The crowd laughs at Tiffany Gooch's comment—her engaging and personable demeanour (thanks background in communications and crisis management within the government) is perfect for this sort of thing. She's goes on to compare her first experience trying to engage with the black communities in Toronto, "I just found these silos." Drastically different from the community in Windsor, in Toronto she found the plurality of black ethnicities from Somalians to Jamaicans, were disagreeing in a way she was not used to. Her suggestion? Education & understanding: "It all came back to a history piece and us all understanding how much of our history was the same instead of trying to separate them. For me, the hardest part, was that I'm black but I'm Black-Canadian and so everyone wants to rep their country and where they're from before here and focus on that separation instead of finding a way to figure out what it is that we are all trying to do and do that together."
"It all came back to a history piece and us all understanding how much of our history was the same instead of trying to separate them."
"I don't specifically belong in one spot, I will never be from here or from there, so I see things in a more global unifying kind of way." Gilda Monreal, also known by her artist name Fiya Bruxa, was next to add her perspective. As a multimedia disciplinary artist working in primarily in muralism, Gilda has traveled extensively while working with different collectives and artists. "Having the experience of being in Toronto as it being the most divided city that I have worked in or created in, it's a constant question of 'Why? Why? Why?" She mirrored Tiffany's perspective as continued, "I do see unification but it's in pockets, in silos." Having worked in South America for four years in graffiti and muralism she compares her experiences and sees the differences rooted in our ignorance to our own economic privilege. "Are we so privileged that we can divide ourselves that way? If we were not so privileged would we have to collaborate together? We're humans, we're instinctually/animalistically going to divide ourselves forever—that's our species. But under certain circumstances we will function differently. So maybe understanding our circumstance, this is maybe just the way it is?"
The impact of economic privilege and it's relationship with classism and racism in the city was a recurring theme through the course of the evening and it's easy to see why. Hedged deep into the institutions and systems that run this city are systematic privileges and discriminations that continuously maintain the homogenous roster of people in power. To put it bluntly, as our moderator Sydney Allen-Ash did, the people power are "We can say it: old white men - sorry!" It was invigorating to have three female leaders from three different industries, cultures and demographics to offer their perspectives on what is, frankly, a really hard problem. "When you have different people with different experiences at the table making decisions you just have better decisions, at the end of the day. You don't have people guessing what needs to be done for other people, you have people who have lived experiences that are making decisions. Or you don't have self-serving old white men that are making decisions that aren't even in the best interest of all of the diverse people whatever the organization happens to be." Of course this is a sentiment we can all agree on, but how to do that (alluded to in the first half of our event title that evening) is a different story. Tiffany herself has implemented more diverse hiring practices when given the opportunity to do so, (which she spoke about more in our interview with her that you can read here), but she spoked more broadly about it in the panel. "I think what we're ultimately trying to do is de-mystify how to get into those positions. Because I think that the way that a lot of traditional groups have kept that power is by making it impossible to get that power, they keep it for themselves and they anoint who the next one is going to be. With boards, it's usually it's family dynamics or friends and that's why it's impossible to get any other leadership involved."
"Are we so privileged that we can divide ourselves that way?"
The talk continued still rooted in power and privilege but looking broader to differentiate types of communities that can exist (and maybe co-exist?) in Toronto. "Can a grass roots or a 'passion project' ever turn into an institutionalized organization, and do we even want it to?" Sydney posed the question to the panelists. Gilda responded with a slow, fearful "No..". The question was knowingly divisive at face value because Gilda's career as an artist is rooted in holistic approaches that are community-based and community-driven. She comes from a school of thought where institutions, like the commercial art world or the governing bodies that Tiffany works in, are the antithesis of her goals and responsibilities as an artist. "When I see the global system and the shit that they are doing to Mother Earth, the wars and the economy, it's so messed up." She continues while looking at Tiffany, "I respect and admire people that work within the institution. But I just also question it so much that sometimes that I believe that, especially as an artist, I don't have to work with grant system I don't have to work with the institutions. I have the responsibility to work outside of the institution and to create examples of leadership or examples of groups that are leaders. For me it's important to create spaces outside of institutions because I think that once you become a part of the institution there is a compromise to a certain value system."
Tiffany's approach to the concept was much different, but not as oppositional as anticipated. "I don't necessarily attribute money to institutions, I think that sometimes institution means having an organization that is able to exist without the current people that are involved in it. So if they were to leave the goals would still be able to be worked towards." She continued on to give a more holistic perspective of the value concept "It's important if you really believe in that cause to create something that allows for new leadership to come in a be trained and continue to work towards that. I think, ultimately, way to protect something from 'institutionalization' is really just making sure those goals and what it's trying to accomplish are continuously revisited and it's moving in the direction that you've always meant for it to." Tiffany then offered a checklist of questions to constantly compare your organization to as it grows, "Okay, so we've reached these goals. What are we going to do next? Do we need to continue to exist? And really question that, not just keep the institution for the sake of keeping it but to always have something you're working towards."
"I think that once you become a part of the institution there is a compromise to a certain value system."
The evening went on exploring access and communication, inter-generational mentorship, and funding. After about 45 minutes of panel discussion the lights were brought up and the mic was handing to the audience for a Q&A. The Q&A sessions at Making Space events are something like we have never seen before (and we're not just saying that!). Consistently we have experienced such involvement and vulnerability from the audience and it is a beautiful indication of their investment into the talk itself. At this talk a member of the audience raised an albeit long-winded question about spirituality in relation to the speakers' work, a topic that, though alluded to, was not specifically addressed in the discussion. Our Moderator began to divert the question, admittedly unsure about how this was relevant, but was cut off by Gilda who interjected with her own experiences. "I know that for me there was change in my journey when I understood that my Grandmother's teachings were not Chilean they were Mapuche indigenous." She went on to explain how discovering that connection changed her perspective, "Having these traditions that connect me to this wisdom that is thousands of years old and understanding that I am not alone, that there is a web of knowledge out there, and gave a purpose in my journey that is not the ego, that is not the self." The other speakers followed suit exploring and explaining their own personal journeys of spirituality. Tiffany added her own difficulties with the idea, "I struggle with this because I was raised to believe my religion was my spirituality and then I had my coming of age moment and making a decision about what I really believed and what I was raised to believe because of my religion—and when I couldn't reconcile those things I walked away. I think for me spirituality is a lot of gratitude and understanding that connection of everything that I'm doing to outside what I am and who I am." Alexia added something similar "[Spirituality] is gratitude, it's self-reflection, it's collective reflection. It's listening, you're not only listening to your environment and to the earth and to the people around you, you're listening to yourself - that's where you get that confidence from, it's from listening to yourself."
"I bring three people from three different backgrounds, three different walks of like, three different industries, so that we can talk about something and understand and learn from each other."
Our moderator was the last to add to the question, "I want to take a second and say 'thanks' to you guys because that question in particular is not something that I'm even particularly well-versed in in myself like I don't see myself as spiritual, like I wouldn't use that word. I believe in something, in the energy, in the flow of good and bad karma and you get what you need, but I think that my initial reaction to be like 'Uhh, what is this question, how do I answer it' is a reflection of that, is showing that I don't know what I believe in, in that sense. And, to be completely honest, I use these panels, these 20 or whatever interviews I've done with people, as a way of learning about myself. I don't bring this together because I have the answers and I want to see if you have the same answers as me. No, I bring three people from three different backgrounds, three different walks of like, three different industries, so that we can talk about something and understand and learn from each other."
With that sentiment the evening ended shortly after to give way to numerous new connections and smaller conversations between audience members for hours after the talk. If you would like to learn more about upcoming events hosted by Portrait or in the Making Space series send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll add you to the mailing list.
In the mean time, follow our Instagram and Facebook for updates - the next Making Space event is at the end of May.