Creative Calgary Congress — Exploring ways that the arts and artists can play a leadership role in making Calgary a more curious, compassionate and creative place for all citizens.

The Artists and Equity Activists — Michele Decottignies and Jenna Rodgers

Moving from individual empowerment (inclusion) to collective impact (equity) through cross-cultural solidarity.


From Me to We, Inclusion to Equity

Using Theatre of the Oppressed as a jumping off point, we will be exploring some of the impacts of invisible, inequitable power dynamics that exist within diverse communities.

Jenna Rodgers is a mixed-race director and dramaturg based in Calgary. She is the Artistic Director of Chromatic Theatre— a company dedicated to producing and developing work by and for diverse artists.

Michele Decottignies has 30 years’ experience teaching evidence-based, anti-oppressive practice to agents of change in the arts sector and beyond. She spent the last 15 years exclusively prioritizing equity and diversity in the arts through her own company, Stage Left Productions— a conduit of artistic innovation and cultural freedom for diverse artists.


Intro

We will be exploring how to move from me to we, from inclusion to equity. This shift is necessary in social justice, as it allows us to attend to the inequities that exist in all spheres of influence (individual, social and systemic). Using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques as a jumping off point, this will be an active, embodied form of exploration. We’re going to examine how the systems that exist in society enable inequity, and where opportunities to speak out and resist exist, especially in those moments when it’s difficult. Our goal is to discover ways to disrupt inequity in our society, and move through the interpersonal tensions that can emerge, in ways that might be challenging but are necessary and constructive.


Open Session #1

Introductions were made through a deconstruction of power, where we invite participants to each share their name and respond to a prompt that everyone has an answer to (for example, your name and favourite colour, birthday, political leanings, etc…). In this introduction, we went around the circle sharing our names, and a “rose” (a positive) and a “thorn” (a negative) in each of our lives. This process of introductions equalizes those status quo, and thus invisible, power dynamics — which then brings us all to a place of more equal status within our micro-community. Samples of what was shared, from the group included (rose) coming here, and (thorn) politics of exclusion.

Mapping Power

We then used a mapping process for making invisible power dynamics more visible, by sharing where we were all born. We drew an imaginary world map on the floor, and asked everyone to move to where they were born and notice where everybody else stood. Then we repeated the process, this time moving to where our parents were born. We repeated the mapping again, this time moving to where our grandparents were born.

Then we invited participants to reflect on the power dynamics that are embedded in immigration, by discussing these questions: How did the relationships in our micro-community change, as we moved back in time? Where did you feel that you gained power and where did you lose power? How did those shifts make you feel? What is the impact on you? On others in our micro-community?

As posted on the Clothesline | Image: Calgary Arts Development

Mapping Diversity

We then used a similar embodied mapping process, to examine the power dynamics of diversity. We invited the participants to position themselves on a spectrum (an imaginary line drawn down the centre of the room), based on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is low agreement and 10 is high and offered them several prompts to respond to:

How do you feel about Calgary as a city, overall?
RESULT: Positive; 6 to 1 ratio of a 7+ rating vs. a 1 rating

How creative is Calgary?
RESULT: Middling; 6 to 1 ratio of a 5 rating vs. a 1 rating

How diverse is this room?
RESULT: Quite diverse: 100% stood around 7–8 rating

How diverse is Calgary as a whole?
RESULT: Middling: Most of the group clustered around 5

Do you think this room represents the city?
RESULT: Middling to Low: Group clustered middle to low

  • Business people are missing.
  • Gender diversity is missing.

Participants were then invited to also declare non-visible aspects of their diverse identities. Sample responses include:

  • Chronic illness
  • Mental health
  • Depression
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Polyamorous

There was a palpable relief in the room, after space was created for those declarations.

The group wraps up its discussion | Photo: Calgary Arts Development

Circle of Solidarity

We moved back into a circle. Four people were invited to form a central circle, and the rest to form an outer circle around them. Those in the inner circle were invited to speak and asked to only address each other. The people in the outside circle were invited to “tap in” by changing places with someone in the inner circle, when they too wanted to speak.

The purpose was to discover how invisible aspects of the power we hold in interpersonal relationships/group dynamics can create and prevent the disruption of unintentional exclusions.

The question posed to the inner circle, for discussion was: How would you define the cultural landscape of Calgary?

Sample Answers:

  • For so long the cultural landscape has felt pressed underground, we need the sun to hit it — shine a light on it and recognize it.
  • The clothes we wear, the writing we do, our history; is all our culture.
  • It is an aesthetic city that is pretty. The centre area is so pretty and we have spent good money toward art, but I am perplexed by the complaints of costs.
  • There is value in what artists create.
  • Creative experiences in Calgary can be limited by mobility, especially for people with disabilities. It’s important to learn about more options so limited mobility and lack of money won’t take the spontaneity and fun out of experiencing culture in Calgary. It’s easy to get stuck in your own space and stick close to home.
  • The landscape is about division — biases of views, of communities, it has led to violence and the cultural landscape is one of the victims.
  • There is a subculture. I wish we could stop the horrible derision, the misunderstandings, the culturally bred anger to things we don’t understand.
  • How do we break out of our own echo chambers so that understanding comes with knowledge? I believe there is always an opportunity for change through knowledge. If we sit in our own views then look out and then look in again, we are no better than those we criticize.

A second question was posed to the inner circle to discuss: What are you doing to make the community a better place?

Sample Answers:

  • After years of being home working on my own, I have had to step up, to defend public art, support place making, stepped up as a person of colour. And I’m here today because I am learning that I can’t make change from isolation. It is important to infiltrate from the inside. If you want change to come from understanding strengths and weakness, you need patience to understand movement at a glacial pace.
  • I started a burlesque group this year that wasn’t manifesting how I thought it should, but I just went ahead with it anyway. I’m overwhelmed, but I’m moving ahead.
  • Through my music I’m having more conversations, but I’m realizing that the conversations can be a real risk. We are looking to raise people up and help people find more stamina in their community, to be seen, to be restored so we all have the energy to keep fighting for the communities we want.
  • I work in leadership development, and I am understanding that benefits of working to develop leadership from within small organizations can help groups find allies and learn to do more with what they have. There are ways to recover — I think we can all do something. I have only lived in Calgary for 18 years after moving here from Edmonton, which is much more of a government town. Calgary seemed very corporate and American-influenced at the time, but I am seeing a significant shift toward more community collaboration.

Wrapping Up

We went around the circle and shared one word about how we were feeling now, after immersing ourselves in our collective exploration. Sample responses included:

  • Hopeful
  • Vulnerable
  • Connected
  • Compassionate
  • Proud

Open Session #2

Introductions, Mapping Power and Mapping Diversity were the same as in session #1 but with different results.

How do you feel about Calgary as a city overall?
RESULT: Middling — everyone clustered around 5–6 on the scale

One person commented that Calgary feels more like a business centre, not a true city.

How creative is Calgary?
RESULT: Wide range — no clear consensus

How diverse is this room?
RESULT: Good — everyone clustered around 6–7

How diverse is Calgary as a whole? How inclusive is Calgary?
RESULT: Wide range, no clear consensus

Brief conversation about the meaning of diversity, meaning how much we embrace others’ differences. What about inclusion? That’s different. Much of Calgary Congress for Equity and Diversity in the Arts’ 2017 work will be around making the needed distinction between “inclusion” and “equity” clear across the professional arts sector.

Exercise Discovery: Language, and how each individual understands it, makes an impact on the collective conversation we’re having. This is why a huge part of social justice education is focused on the history, use and applications of language as a tool of equity.

Do you think this room represents the city?
RESULT: No, there are no children and no men.

Group asked to also declare non visible diversity. This group was much quieter than first group. Only a couple of things came up:

  • Ninth generation Canadian.
  • I’m a newcomer, Jewish.
From me to we, a quote of inspiration | Photo: Calgary Arts Development

Circle of Solidarity

Same as Session #1, but with this discussion prompt: How are you feeling, post-US election?

Sample Answers:

  • A lot of my friends are obsessed about it, overwhelmed. I felt sick. How can I contribute?
  • I have to go to the States and I’m scared, I’m afraid about compromising who I am.
  • I just came back from south China seas. People are complaining everywhere but are not seeing why/how people in the US felt pushed toward electing Trump.
  • My fear is what is going to happen here with our politics.
  • We have to be diligent.
  • In Mexico, people are being encouraged to stop buying American.
  • Discrimination is passed down from one generation to the next. We need to call out people who make hateful statements.
  • Feeling ripped into as I may need to distance from my family.
  • It starts with those that we can influence.
  • We must be careful about the types of leaders we elect.
  • Education is important — these conversations need to happen with our children.

Wrapping Up

We went around the circle and shared one word about how we were feeling now, after immersing ourselves in our collective exploration. Sample responses included:

  • Astounded
  • Fragile
  • Vulnerable
  • Grateful — good to know there are people like me in my new home.
  • Hopeful — for city of Calgary.
  • Thankful
  • Optimistic
  • Fragile, sad
  • Hopeful
  • Hopeful, safe
  • Empathy, compassion
  • Grounded

Comments from Jenna at the End of the Day

The people who came to the sessions came open and willing to put their hearts on the table and hearts were open and truths were spoken.

We started out with embodied (active) exercises that deconstructed the invisible power dynamics that are present in diverse groups of people, that equalize power by putting all participants on the same level, and that create opportunities for diverse voices to be heard. We discovered moments in which we could locate commonalities within a diverse community, as well as the real differences that exist among us. We had a conversation, in a really strange and structured way, where people were forced to listen, speak and be heard.

Overall, we examined the impacts of invisible power on a diverse community, as a sample of the larger population in Calgary. Participants in both sessions shared that they came away feeling deeply impacted by our collective exploration.


Jenna Rodgers

Jenna is a mixed-race Director and Dramaturg based in Calgary. She is the Artistic Director of Chromatic Theatre — a company dedicated to producing and developing work by and for diverse artists. She is a Co-Producer of the Calgary Congress for Equity and Diversity in the Arts (CCEDA), and is the Associate Dramaturg at the Playwright’s Colony at the Banff Centre.

Recent directing credits include: Lunchbox Theatre (Let the Light of Day Through) Chromatic Theatre (10-Minute Play Festival, Cowboy Versus Samurai, Parched); and Common Ground (Beneath the Skin). Assistant Director: Lunchbox Theatre (In on It; Book Club; Epiphany; What Gives?!), Downstage (A Bomb in the Heart); Tarragon Theatre (carried away on the crest of a wave), and fu-GEN Theatre (Ching Chong Chinaman, Yellow Fever).

Beyond the Banff Centre, Jenna has had the pleasure of dramaturging work at the Kennedy Center, Lunchbox Theatre, Chromatic Theatre and fu-GEN Theatre. Jenna holds a MA in International Performance Research from the universities of Amsterdam and Tampere.


Michele Decottignies

Michele Decottignies has 30 years’ experience teaching evidence-based, anti-oppressive practice to agents of change in the arts sector and beyond.

She’s spent the last 15 years exclusively prioritizing equity & diversity in the arts through her own company, Stage Left Productions — a conduit of artistic innovation and cultural freedom for diverse artists.

Through Stage Left’s globally-esteemed Theatre of the Oppressed practice, Michele has successfully facilitated over 300 arts equity workshops, across Canada, as well as in the USA and Australia.

Her arts equity practice is unique: It pays equal attention to the barriers experienced by all equity-seeking communities and attends to inequities embedded in all three spheres of influence (personal, social and structural). Michele especially pays particular attention to needed cultural and emotional safeties, and her approach goes far beyond those divisive frameworks of “us versus them,” toward cross-cultural solidarity and collective impact.


About the Creative Calgary Congress

Calgary Arts Development produced the first Arts Champions Congress in 2011 as a meeting place for people who make Calgary’s arts sector a vibrant and exciting place to work and our city a great place to live.

Renamed the Creative Calgary Congress in 2014, it returned on November 22, 2016 as a place to share ideas and explore ways that the arts and artists can play a leadership role in making Calgary a more curious, compassionate and creative place for all citizens.

Learn more about the day and add your voice