Artists put creative talent toward social justice

Photo Credit: Photo Alicia Bridges

Artists put creative talent toward social justice

👤Alicia Bridges 🕔Oct 09, 2014

A crowd files through the narrow entrance to the Old Church in Smithers, one by one unpeeling layers of sweaters and coats that protected them from the cold. Conversation fills the narrow hall. Five empty chairs, each with a few items of clothing hung over its back, are arranged in a line on the stage.

The chatter subsides when a woman walks onto the stage and quietly dresses herself in the clothes from the first of the chairs. She pulls on a navy parka, heavy winter boots and gloves, and slips a papier-mâché mask over her face.

In a gruff man’s voice with a broad, local accent, she starts to speak. It’s a statement that jolts the audience into remembering not everyone will have a place to retreat from the cold tonight: “Last night I slept in the trees. I got sleeping bags. The shelter, they give me blankets. I got a camp set up. I got a place I can hide it. Keep it safe. I’m cold. Winter.”

The woman behind the mask is Valerie Laub, a Smithers playwright whose last two shows were about the realities of living with HIV and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in the Bulkley Valley. Laub’s work is one example of how the arts are raising awareness about the challenges facing disadvantaged and marginalized groups in a way that PowerPoint presentations, pamphlets and reports can not.

Through visual and performing arts projects, artists are not only exposing the wider public to the reality of an underprivileged existence, but empowering those whose lives are affected.

Social issues take centre stage

Tonight at the Old Church, Laub is performing No Fixed Address, her play about homelessness in the region, for the first time. The show consists of monologues by five individual characters, the first of whom is the 50-year-old man who slept in the trees last night.

Laub created two of the characters—a female victim of domestic violence and a child without a home—based on conversations with local people. The other three—the 50-year-old man, a young man trying to beat alcoholism and a member of the “working homeless” whose salary can’t support the price of local rents—are based on real individuals.  

The play’s impact becomes evident during a post-show Q-and-A, when many in the crowd express how the characters humanized an issue that, for many Bulkley Valley residents, is almost invisible.  

Laub says she is compelled to write about social issues because her own upbringing, although not perfect, was more privileged. The arts are her way to contribute.  

“My job is not about the specific issues. My job is to present a piece of theatre and to do it well enough that it raises awareness and empathy from people,” Laub says.  

The artist says theatre allows her to combat issues she is passionate about by raising awareness and promoting empathy from her audience.

“It’s really important to me that people who are marginalized and invisible in our society have a voice and I really believe in people getting to tell their stories,” she says. “I think (performing arts) have entertainment value, which really counts, because it brings more people in.”

Hope through hip-hop

Laub’s show at the Old Church opened with another local artist with a drive to inspire change. Warren “Dubz” Wilson performed a set of hard-hitting original hip-hop songs about homelessness, alcoholism and suicide, all of which have impacted his life.

A local aboriginal man, Wilson wants his lyrics to inspire troubled young people to embrace their culture and choose a better path for their future. Although his subject matter is confrontational, it’s delivered with optimism.

“What I highlight mostly is addiction and drug abuse, but I don’t just talk about the problems of it or the problems that cause it, I try to convey solutions,” he says. “Music is very global. It can speak to a lot more people.”

Both Laub’s work and Wilson’s music have been supported by Positive Living North (PLN), an organization assisting marginalized people in northern British Columbia. For six years, the Smithers PLN office has run Reflections of Hope: Images from our Community.

The photography contest aims to help PLN’s members express themselves creatively by giving them disposable cameras and asking them to respond to two questions: “What does it mean to belong to community?” and “How do you see your community?”

The resulting photographs are displayed at the farmers’ market in Smithers and the winning entries, chosen by community members, win cash prizes. They are also published in a calendar that can be purchased locally.

PLN on-site manager Melanie Monds says the project aims to include and empower the region’s low-income population.

“It’s really hard to engage in art if you don’t have money,” she says. “It’s about empowerment, it’s about inclusion, it’s about offering people the chance to see that we all live in the same community.”

However, she says there is a fine line between raising awareness and fuelling stereotypes, something she has encouraged the artists to consider when choosing their submissions.

“They are already marginalized and stigmatized. There is no benefit in showing something that might just affirm it or further stigmatize or marginalize a person,” she says.  

New point of view

Ensuring artists are treated respectfully is something Bulkley Valley Community Arts Council (BVCAC) president and dance artist Miriam Colvin feels strongly about. Inspired by the PLN model, in 2013 she launched a community-wide camera project called Life Exposure through the BVCAC.

“What PLN did that really resonated with me as an artist was they not only put a camera into people’s hands to see from their point of view, but they really honoured the work of each person as an artist,” she says.

It was important to Colvin that the project was as inclusive as the PLN project. Like Reflections of Hope, it displayed all of the images in black and white to avoid differences in quality that were more obvious using colour.

A unique selection process also allowed the jury to ensure the exhibitions in Smithers and Old Hazelton included work from a diverse range of photographers. Colvin says it is important that artists whose work highlights community and social issues create a process that is ethical.

“Artists who work with community to craft performances are in a position of trust and we must honour that trust in order to meet the goals of empowering our participants,” she says. “For me, when I work with a community, I am listening for your voice.

“If you want to share your voice and I have something that helps you do that, that’s great.”

Arts projects may only reach a small portion of the population, but every slight change in perspective brings communities closer to bridging the divide between the underprivileged and the wider public.

It’s motivation enough for local artists, from all walks of life, to use their creative talent to promote change in the Bulkley Valley.