By Letitia Bouie and Katy Rubin
Letitia and Katy here, reporting from the plane trip home to NYC, from Montreal. We just wrapped up an exciting and exhausting week-long exchange of arts and homelessness practitioners from Canada, United States and the UK, organized by With One Voice. We are full of ideas, reflections and next-steps, and very grateful to the organizers, Matt and Ellie, for welcoming Theatre of the Oppressed NYC into this international network!
The exchange was connected with an annual festival of arts and homelessness in Montreal, ATSA – Where Art Meets Action, in French. We spent a good part of the time in tents on the festival site, which was very cold but pretty fun. On the opening night of the festival, there was an interactive activity, Soup and Conversation. The festival paired up strangers to eat soup together and have a conversation on a few topics including economic inequality.
Some observations from Letitia follow – and observations from Katy below that!
Some organizations have the means (like funds, space) but don’t have the know-how;
Some have the know-how but not the support of the people;
Some have the people behind them, but not the means.
All the organizations in the exchange needed something — that’s why we got together.
I am most inspired by these individuals:
David Tohey is a veteran who experienced homelessness and chronic illness; he lives in London. He is a photographer, and he draws and designs clothing for fashion shows, from used clothing and what we call “clean trash” materials. The models are David’s peers. We loved this short documentary about his life and work (here!)
Billy lives in Chicago. He’s an artist who works in the shelter system, and his Red Line Service arts group “services” the Red subway line by giving out food and sitting down and eating home-cooked meals with people experiencing homelessness.
Beth lives in Manchester, UK. She’s a former City Council member and now working alongside the Mayor as an advocate for people experiencing homelessness. She’s working towards policy change!
Carl lives in Chicago too. He works for All Chicago, which distributes the funding for homeless services throughout Chicago, and supports inner city youth community with a new cultural center, Lyte Collective, which has a wonderful music studio. He taught us all how to make our own music studios for just $2,500!
Another Beth, from Portland, created a cultural center for kids experiencing homelessness. P:ear uses the “buddy system” to explore the outdoors, sports and other activities. She also gives them the opportunity to grow as business owners or employees, running their own coffee shop!
Mark, who has experienced homelessness himself, lives in Syracuse NY. He is a one-man organization, giving people who may be homeless a voice to tell their stories. He distributes socks, and he also partners up with other organizations to educate hem about fundraising tools!
Julian lives in Toronto. He uses dance/body expression as an art to counsel youth with oppressions, at an amazing community center called Sketch. He has worked for the shelter system as well.
Holly lives in Seattle and works at Path With Art. They do arts workshops with adults experiencing homelessness. We watched a video about their choir and it seemed like the participants really enjoyed being there. They had people going through all kinds of issues, and the video was very moving.
Some moments in the week stood out to me, including Billy and David’s workshop on “socially engaged art practices.” It was more personal and emotional – a tearjerker – than some of the other talks and panels of the week. It let people express themselves without judgment.
Another thing that stood out was during the first part of our Legislative Theatre workshop, when the delegates from our group made a play about how artists with experience of homelessness aren’t paid or recognized equitably for their work in some projects and organizations. They didn’t know what to expect and maybe weren’t planning to act in a play, and they all did a great job! It also gave the other people in the group the idea of using Legislative Theatre to solve simple, practical obstacles that they deal with in their work.
We also changed opinions about…. Homelessness, what are the needs of people who experience homelessness and how to center those experiences and needs in arts or any other work for change.
On the last day, we all talked about actions we would take once we got home. These are the three things I promised to do:
- Stay in touch with all the With One Voice members
- Be mindful of the language I use at work, to show respect. For example, not saying “us and them” or “those people” or “professionals versus homeless people.” These phrases came up during the week and we talked about how that’s offensive.
- Assist in some sort of social service in Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, like a coat drive, etc. with my troupe
Some other observations:
We had a lot of good meals! Nice food in Montreal. One favorite was a bar with a big beer selection and tasty finger food. We also ate in the tent where we held most of the exchange; one lunch was catering of French cuisine, with dishes of chicken, beef and tofu (with yummy sauces) as well as a nice salad with mango!
These are the action steps that I committed to take at the end of the festival:
- Give a presentation with Letitia on the amazing organizations we met, for our colleagues!
- Talk to our funders about how a funder collaborative on arts and homelessness could be developed
- Integrate singing into our rehearsals - that was so moving!
- Visit Billy and Carl in Chicago when TONYC does workshops there in January!
- Provide high quality, beautiful food in our new TONYC space
- Document TONYC’s policies on compensating all our artists
- Talk about how Legislative Theatre might support the “vanguard cities” that are working to eradicate street homelessness by 2020
- Follow up with the “legislators” from the Legislative Theatre process we held during the exchange on the policy proposals they committed to! These included:
- Working to raise the cap on allowable income for people on public benefits, in the UK and the US
- Tying city funding eligibility to organizations that pay all artists equitably, no matter whether they’ve experienced homelessness before or not
- Ensuring that arts organizations don’t make participants sign over the rights to their artwork; e.g. an organization can’t use a young person’s art on a calendar or marketing materials without permission or compensation.
We had such a full, exciting trip; even more ideas are swirling around. Thanks to all the delegates!