The Art of Changing the World

Conference Reflections

by Maigan van der Giessen

The arts, especially participatory, community-engaged approaches, are increasingly recognized as core elements in diverse change agendas. From November 3 – 5th, 200 people with a passion for community-engaged arts gathered from coast to coast to coast of Canada and abroad for the Art of Changing the World Conference on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation/Ottawa, ON. Artists, scholars, educators, community organizations, policy makers and funders converged to share ideas, reflect and collectively enhance the power of the arts to bring about social transformation.

Artist: JR – Mexican, US border (view from US side). October 2017

The conference was hosted by the International Centre of Art for Social Change, and the Art for Social Change Research Project. This conference was the culmination of a five-year national research initiative on art for social change, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It was the first study of it’s kind in Canada.

I was very grateful to be able to attend this conference and learn from the many arts practitioners and community builders whose work was featured.  As an emerging practitioner (a decade still seems young), I have a lot to learn about the many approaches, skill sets and values that underlie this work. I dearly appreciated the opportunity to connect with like-minded and differently minded individuals and organizations from across the country and the globe.

Often times, I find the most insightful moments come from conversations in the free spaces outside of organized conference sessions.  The very first night, after delegates arrived at the venue we were invited to speak with one person we didn’t know about our work and I had the fortune of speaking with a woman from Toronto about transformation! She shared with me, that as a 63 year-old performer in the arts community, she has really struggled with feelings of homophobia for her whole life.  She described how much her views had changed as she got to know LGBTQ individuals and how her journey and her perspectives have been informed by the people in her arts community.  She said next week she is going home to debut a theatre piece about this journey to her Christian Chinese community and she is terrified. I was so moved by her courage to confront and transform her own beliefs and share them with her larger community.  This moment really confirmed for me the true power of art when it is fuelled by intention, authenticity and vulnerability; it’s a transformative tool for personal as well as social change.

The workshops I participated in on the first day brought me in contact with a few heroes, like Jesse Stewart, who created a Masters Program in Music in Social Justice at Carleton University.  His workshop showcased some really interesting new technologies that increase access to music making for people with limited mobility. We got to play with lots of new and homemade percussion instruments and jam out!  I really enjoyed this, and was fortunate to connect with a young ‘Throat-boxer’ from Nunavut – Nelson Tagoona. Nelson combines throat singing and beat-boxing in his music, and travels to communities in the North inspiring young people to express themselves, their culture and who they are.  Building these types of connections; gaining inspiration and advancing my practice through collaboration is exactly what I hoped to gain during the conference. I was inspired by the way he utilized a vocal processor and I hope to experiment a little with one soon too. I hope to reconnect with this young artist in the future.

Another valuable insight came in the ‘Art and Conflict and Social Transformation’ workshop led by two women who worked extensively in post conflict Northern Ireland using theatre.  One participant asked “How do you ensure you are telling the right story? How do you avoid focusing on dominant narratives over more marginalized ones?”  One of the presenters suggested that “to get to the “truth” it is valuable to include as many narratives as possible and remain curious about what happens when these different accounts or stories bump into each other, rather than viewing them as right or wrong.”  This really rang true for me and I am hoping to integrate this value of curiosity and non-judgment into my own storytelling approach.

I was happy to see a session on Facilitation Methods by two seasoned practitioners, as it’s always really nice to learn new ways of ‘holding space’ in community.  Here were some things I heard that stuck with me:

  • Let your guiding principles be unconditional love, and equity, in particular towards those in the room you struggle with
  • Don’t be afraid of silence
  • Be responsive, read the room
  • Listen without judgment
  • Draw a reluctant or disruptive participant by giving them a role
  • Empty yourself out before you begin
  • Know yourself and your triggers
  • A good question to build community agreements: “What are your gifts? And what do you need from the group so you can share that gift?”

I really appreciated these reminders and am already using some of these tips in my own practice as a facilitator.

Much of my work is in the area of supporting digital storytelling through photography and audio/visual recordings (videos, songs, podcasts).  The Digital Storytelling workshop I attended wasn’t entirely new to me but I mostly appreciated the discussion around ethics in storytelling.  There were many voices that cautioned and affirmed the importance of consent in stories collection and that organizations and individuals should check in multiple times with the ‘story source’ and allow them to withdraw consent at any time.  This was important for me to hear, as we often get lost in thinking that these stories are somehow ours after we ‘capture’ them.  They belong to the individual or community that shared them.

Lastly, I was able to go to BluePrint for Life’s hip-hop workshop by Buddha (Steven Leafloor), another hero of mine.  He talked about the incredible work he and his team of hip-hop dancers, emcees and artists are doing to create opportunities for healing in remote northern communities.  My big take away here was that reconciliation work is often framed as intercultural and that healing needs to happen between communities. However the reality is that most often there is deep personal and community healing that needs to take place first.  This brought me full circle to my teachings from Righting Relations and beautifully tied together many of the things I have been exploring through my many projects over the past year.  I am grateful that I was able to attend and look forward to seeing what opportunities these new connections and perspectives will open up.

Stephen Leafloor leads a hip hop workshop

Big thank you to the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights and the Righting Relations Western Hub for supporting me to attend this event.