Engaging Diverse Communities is a research and education project of the Toronto Arts Foundation’s Neighbourhood Arts Network, and Manifesto Community Projects. Engaging Diverse Communities aims to strengthen relationships between the arts and social service sectors in order to build capacity for artists and cultural workers to increase access and reduce barriers to cultural participation for culturally diverse communities.
The Neighbourhood Arts Network is pleased to welcome our new Engaging Diverse Communities project coordinator, Leah Burns. Read on for more about Leah and this exciting new project!
I am really excited to join the Neighbourhood Arts Network team and this important project. I have been working in and thinking about community-based arts practices in Canada and abroad for the past 17 years. What inspires me the most about community-based arts is the opportunity it provides for connecting with other people in creative and supportive ways. At its best, creative collaboration in communities is a complex dialogue. Different personalities, ideas, and understandings come together to share an experience and generate new expressions that don’t emerge in the same way when working independently. It is truly amazing how energizing this kind experience can be.
One summer evening in 1994 I walked into Trout Lake Park in East Vancouver. Usually a very quiet green space surrounded by residential housing and a small community centre, the park that night, was transformed. It was a magical setting. Flickering lanterns of various shapes and sizes dotted the landscape: some shaped like large lotus flowers floated on the water pulled along behind a kayak gliding gracefully around the lake’s edge, others, small and round, adorned the branches of one large tree lighting it up, so that it almost appeared as if it was on fire. Nearby a small group of performers stood singing in a clump of reeds. In the distance fire dancers could be seen moving rhythmically across the grass. As I stood there watching, a wide range of people, neighbours and community members that one wouldn’t normally encounter together, slipped past me to join a bustling parade led by small band of djembe drummers and horn players weaving through the park. Many of the people carried their own lanterns or musical instruments; some were dressed up in elaborate costumes, and everyone was aglow with enthusiasm.
This was my first encounter with the Public Dreams Society a community arts group in Vancouver that works collaboratively with communities to create inclusive celebratory events that often aim to transform and reclaim local public spaces. It was also a pivotal moment for me in terms of my career and life choices. This magical moment solidified my decision to pursue an arts practice that would allow me to share and build opportunities for collective, creative experiences. I want to help others experience the sense of agency, excitement and transformative potential that the arts can offer. I would later come to work for Public Dreams as well as numerous other community arts organizations in Vancouver and Australia.
Since moving to Toronto to study in the year 2000, I have sought out similar opportunities for participating in and contributing to community-based arts practices with organizations such as: FoodShare, MuralRoutes, Scarborough Arts, LEAF, Arts for Children and Youth, OCADU, the Centre for Arts-Informed Research, and the Faculties of Health and Environmental Studies at York University.
My studies and work as a researcher have also been linked to community arts: reflecting on the use of community-based arts to support social change and environmental education, developing alternative approaches to arts evaluation, and examining community arts education programs.
In all these contexts an important theme that comes up again and again is the need for networking and development. As community-based arts workers we need more time and opportunities to think about our practices and to share what we have learned with one another. We also need more resources for developing skills to address the diverse needs of the people and communities we work with. Sharing and professional development helps us to improve and to be more inclusive. It also helps us to re-energize, reduce burn-out, and re-ignite the creative spark and passion for collaboration that motivates so many people in this field.
As part of the Engaging Diverse Communities Project, I will be connecting with a range of social service and arts organizations throughout Toronto to identify best practices for supporting and engaging culturally diverse communities through the arts.
This information will then be shaped into a series of free workshops, case studies and practical toolkits for arts and cultural workers.
If you have questions, suggestions, or would like more information about the project please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org