This month, the Access Hub blog is a dynamic discussion about institutional collaboration (the good and the bad) between three Access Advisory members: Sean Lee, Christine Malec and Teneshia Samuel. Each of them offers a wide range of experience working internally and externally with institutions of varying sizes. What can institutional collaboration look like? What are the pitfalls and possibilities of Disability to disrupt and prompt structural change?
Speaker 1 (00:08):
Welcome to a special edition of Radio LUMI, created for the Access Blog with Christine Malec, Teneshia Samuel and Sean Lee. You can find us on the Luminato website at www.luminatofestival.com.
Christine Malec (00:31):
My name is Christine Malec and I am joined by Sean and Teneshia today because we're going to talk about the question of institutional collaboration. And so, a brief introduction of myself. I'm a member of Toronto's blind community. I'm a musician and a content creator. I'm a podcast co-host and I've done some work with Luminato as well. I'm kind of an arts consultant within the blind community. And I think I'm just going to start with a little tidbit about what institution means to me because that's a pretty big word. So, an institution is someone bigger than me who involves a lot of people, a structure, an organization and a lot more resources than I as an individual have. And an institution to me is something that's been around for a while, has its own culture and its own way of operating. And so, when you approach that as an individual, there's a learning curve to understand what that institution is and that's how I feel about it.
Christine Malec (01:44):
So, Teneshia, do you want to introduce yourself?
Teneshia Samuel (01:48):
Yeah, absolutely. Thanks so much, Christine.
Teneshia Samuel (01:51):
My name is Teneshia Samuel. I go by, they/them pronouns. I'm a writer, I'm a board director, a social activist and former politician. So, there's something to be said there about institutions and my involvement in them. And in terms of how I would define institution, I like to think of it from an organic standpoint. They're almost like living creatures, living beings. They have values. They have goals. They have reasons for being. They have projects, work plans, cultures, end goals and focal points. I did a lot of work in human resources throughout my career. And there's so much to be said about culture and strategic goals that are involved in institutions and project oriented work in institutions. And so, I see a lot of systems and ecosystems that are involved when we start to define the word institution. So, I think there's a lot to be said about that during our discussion today.
Christine Malec (03:11):
Sean, would you like to introduce yourself?
Sean Lee (03:13):
Thanks. My name is Sean. I use he or they pronouns. I'm the Director of Programming at Tangled Art + Disability and I'm a Disabled artist and curator myself.
Sean Lee (03:33):
Christine and Teneshia, what you've said about institutions really resonates with my own definition of one. I think oftentimes they're meant to be fixtures. They're meant to be spaces that have been around for a while and are oftentimes serving the public, which is what comes to mind for me. And with that idea of them having their own ecosystems and their own goals as organic beings, like Teneshia had said, I think that really resonates with me. I think the size of an institution can also really differ. There are institutions which can be really small, really grassroots. And then we have the big and very well resourced institutions that I think of that have been around for a long, long time.
Sean Lee (04:29):
And oftentimes when we think institution, we can also think of spaces that might have become stuck in their ways. And to me, I think that brings us into our topic for today, which is that idea of institutional collaboration. I think this is almost as opposed to institutional like bull dosing, which I think is oftentimes more of the experience that a lot of people have. "Can an institution exist that has existed for a long time.? And so, this is the way and there's no other way." I don't mean to go into a negative place with what an institution is I think many of us have this notion that institutions can oftentimes be more static and less changing or less nimble than perhaps not in an institution.
Christine Malec (05:30):
As you were talking, I was thinking about approaching the concept of institution as someone with a disability because I haven't really considered this before but growing up with a disability, an institution was somewhere I would go and be the supplicant or the student or the recipient of something as a disabled person. And so, the word is something that I think about. And in my career, I was a massage therapist for 20 years before I got into the arts world. And so, most of that time I was working independently and I still feel like a fish out of water when I find myself in the context of an institution like, "Am I going to say the wrong thing? Am I going to forget to filter? Am I going to understand the culture properly in a way that's going to make me make sense to them and then make sense to me?"
Christine Malec (06:31):
And so, I find that as a self-employed person most of my life and someone with a disability, that there was an initial learning curve and still is. Every time I approach a new organization, I'm on hyper vigilant observation mode to understand the culture of it and how to relate to people in it and how do people interact in that way?
Christine Malec (06:54):
So, Teneshia, I liked what you said about it being organic. Would it be okay to say a bit more about that? I'm curious because I think your experience is a bit broader in that sense.
Teneshia Samuel (07:04):
Yeah. Organic in the sense, and I like to think of it from a business standpoint because I worked in corporate banking for the longest time before I actually became an artist, if you could believe that. I say it from a standpoint of, organic-ness. Not just because of my eco understanding of the world but in the way that businesses are built and institutions are built, they are things that grow. They are things that evolve over time as people come and go and add their value and they leave and certain things leave with them and die and fall away. And I sort of see institutions or organizations or these kinds of bodies or entities as things that have a life to them or a life cycle to them.
Teneshia Samuel (07:58):
And Sean was saying earlier that sometimes we have a negative understanding of what an institution is like and that can depend on our experience and what stage in that life cycle we encounter that institution. And sometimes institutions or organizations or these organic bodies or entities can be really rigid in a way. They're very solid and unchanging and that's just the way the ecosystem's working at the time where people are resistant to change and it feels like you're fighting the man when it comes to certain institutions. It's difficult to enforce change in ways where you would find negative institutional cultures.
Teneshia Samuel (08:47):
And then in other instances you may find institutions seem to be more flexible and fluid and changing and open to evolution. And so, whenever you enter them or encounter them, you're not beating your head up against the wall in a way but you find yourself integrating and you find yourself vibing and flowing with them in a way. And those types of institutions tend to be more collaborative and that's what our discussion is about today. My question is, “What makes an institution open and willing and able to collaborate with other institutions and other people or other bodies or organic bodies that are involved in the whole conversation there?”
Christine Malec (09:37):
Sean, you could have come at this from a few different angles because you're an artist and you work with an organization also. What do you think is the best case scenario? Say an individual, particularly with a disability interacting with an institution?
Sean Lee (09:53):
Well, I think institutions oftentimes don't realize that people are the thing that make it exist. I think a lot of times the static-ness that Teneshia was talking about is sort of, unfortunately the culture that an organization exists in. I think when there's a commitment to valuing the people first, I really feel like that's when the organizations can begin to understand more flexibility. It can really drop this idea that everything always has to be perfect. And I think for an organization for instance like Tangled, where we try to lead with Disability justice, understanding that idea of Disability justice being something that doesn't necessarily even fit within a nonprofit complex is pretty radical but I think also something that needs to happen because we've been taught that success and failure look like certain things in the world.
Sean Lee (11:18):
And I think the funding structure of a lot of these institutions are ingrained into those ideas. And so, when Disabled folks come to challenge the cultural practices that are oftentimes associated with ableism, are oftentimes associated with the many systemic ways that oppression's been created to only serve a certain subset of people. Organizations really have to do a lot of, not just learning to be different but actually actively being different and knowing how to change their structures.
Sean Lee (12:06):
Also, I think Disabled folks have been marginalized for so long and for historically such a long time that a lot of us don't even know our own rights going into a space that we should be able to demand access. We should be able to demand a different way of working. And I think to Johanna Hedva who's an artist based in the US who has really popularized the idea of an access writer. So, the same way that in theater, you might have a tech writer, a list of the things necessary to make a show successful. Artists can come up with their own access writer. What makes a space and a culture and an environment accessible to you and negotiate with an organization about those things. So, what I'm saying is it's sort of two-pronged. An organization has to be open to that change and artists should feel that they're empowered and to be able to demand that sort of change.
Christine Malec (13:33):
I keep coming back to this truism of the pandemic that it has made arts organizations look at this question in a broader way. Partly because there's time, there has been time but there's a way in which all members of society suddenly have some of the constraints of people with disabilities. And I think it's an interesting time in the evolution of organizations and institutions and how they're interacting with people with disabilities because of that enforced pause, the emphasis on inclusion that's come in the last couple of years and the recognition that everyone's got stuff and limitations. And so, the benefit of an institution versus an individual is an institution's got money, they've got resources and there's an infrastructure in place. There are systems to make change. And so, for me, one of the most positive experiences I've had is working with Luminato and being part of the access advisory and Radio LUMI.
Christine Malec (14:48):
And the reason I say that is it's been a real collaborative process. And so, it's idyllic in the sense that there would be a gathering or a meeting and the "institution" is saying, "What do you think we should do? Let’s blue sky. What's the perfect approach that you would love to see? And then we'll talk about that, take some of those ideas." And as an institution who has resources, who has funding, who has access to high ranking facilities and people, can we make that come true? Can we make that work? So, every step of the way of Radio LUMI, for example, was a collaboration. So, you would have myself and a couple of other blind or low vision people talking with audio describers and artists and festival organizers to collaborate on, "What do we all think is the best way to shape things?" And so, it becomes a collaboration in a way that I don't always associate with institution and also that as an individual, there's just no way that I could make those things happen in the world because I don't have the resources that an institution does.
Christine Malec (16:12):
Teneshia, do you have an example of a best-case scenario of when it really worked?
Teneshia Samuel (16:19):
When I think about what it looks like when institutions are open to collaborating and collaborating in a way that's socially just... I am just like Sean. I come at things from a social justice point of view. I like to look at it from the social justice perspective in that I kind of categorize and I hate to categorize and label things but anyways, it makes things a little easier to understand. I like to look at institutions or organizations from that actor, ally or accomplice kind of lens. If I'm evaluating an organization as an actor when it comes to Disability justice or racial justice, I'm describing them as their actions being performative in a way.
Teneshia Samuel (17:18):
And their actions and behaviors don't challenge the status quo. And that's something that you'll see quite a bit, especially in racial and Disability justice where people are being used as diversity clout or diversity tokens in the workplace or in the organization or in the festival in order to show like, "Hey, we ticked the boxes and look, we're being inclusive. We've got people to show off as being a part of our diverse landscape." That's very much performative. That's very much acting in terms of being collaborative. And then we have that notion of allyship where actions are operating in solidarity with those people who tend to be marginalized, racially or disability wise. Allies tend to operate in privileged spaces.
Teneshia Samuel (18:16):
So, they tend to be individuals who don't come from that marginalized community. They take their learnings and their lessons into their privileged communities in order to challenge the status quo and educate themselves and their other people. They teach their own how to become more collaborative in ways that aren't performative and that reflect the experiences of people who are racially diverse or diverse in terms of abilities. And then what's recently come from the social justice community is that notion of being an accomplice to the goals and the needs of people who are marginalized, disability wise or racially wise. And that's when actions are coordinated with the needs and the worth and the value and the dignities of People of Colour, of Indigenous communities, of People with Disabilities and Neuro-diverse communities. These movements work in the direction of liberation and they work in the direction of having the interests of the liberation of these marginalized people and they disrupt the status quo.
Teneshia Samuel (19:41):
And so, they challenge the system of oppression and that's my ideal perspective of what it looks like to collaborate in an open, honest, transparent and authentic and genuine way. From a social justice perspective, I see successful collaboration between institutions as being authentic and wanting to show deep and genuine authentic interest in the needs and the humanity of people who are marginalized. And a lot of times that looks like learning and changing and being comfortable with the fact that learning has to take place. Especially over the past couple of years with racial justice being at the forefront of our news stories these days, a lot of people have started to commit to that learning and unlearning of certain ways that were the status quo in the past. Changing and learning also includes listening to other people's experiences and not trying to save or jump in as a savior to speak for, to lead for or take over those people who are marginalized.
Teneshia Samuel (21:07):
There is that understanding that people with disabilities, people who have been marginalized historically have the ability to lead. They know what their needs are. They just need that support and maybe resources in order to have their needs addressed. And on top of that, institutions who are open to collaboration, they tend to accept criticism. They accept feedback thoughtfully in a way that allows them to act differently when they go forward. They're very permeable when it comes to accepting that feedback from people who are marginalized. They have open ears, open eyes and open senses when it comes to accepting the experiences of those who have been marginalized. Good allies and good accomplices understand that mistakes can happen too. Sometimes they will make mistakes in the process of integrating feedback from the lives of people who have been marginalized and from the lives of d/Disabled people.
Teneshia Samuel (22:17):
It requires a little bit of course correction and learning and unlearning and going back to the drawing board and centering and uplifting the voices of those people they're working to serve. It also requires talking and checking in with other people who are connected to that institution who have those resources, those privileges of resources to ensure that the voices and the lives of marginalized people are centered and valued. And that continuous striving to be an ally and accomplish to continue to educate oneself is also a good characteristic of what it means to be a good ally. I have to say being someone who's very intersectional, being Black identified, visually impaired, hearing impaired and neurodiverse. And especially during Black History Month, I'm very popular with a lot of organizations who want to come and have me speak and talk about diversity but it's funny because I only hear from them during Black History Month. I don't hear from them during other months of the year when my needs still matter. My needs still hold value and my needs still need to be upheld and met.
Teneshia Samuel (23:47):
And so, in a way, I see that as being an actor in terms of institutional collaboration. It's performative. It's not genuine or authentic. If there was to be authentic or genuine allyship or accomplice-hood, if you will. People like me who are Black identified or People of Colour and also Disabled, they would be engaged throughout the year, 24/7, 365 days a year. Not just for the shortest month out of the year. And so, that would be an example of how it played out in my life. I can't complain that I'm very busy this month as a Black Queer and Disabled identified individual, but I would love to also see the same amount of work flow in across my desk other days of the year. So, that's definitely an example I can share in terms of institutional collaboration that comes from a performative standpoint and how I'd love to see it evolve into something that's more ally oriented, more accomplice oriented.
Christine Malec (25:00):
I felt like on the advisory for Luminato, my personal experience was that I got exposed to a range of people with different disabilities, different attitudes toward advocacy and activism and inclusion. And I learned a lot because I was like, "Oh, yeah. We can have that." "That's great." "That's really good." But then someone else would say, "Well, why wouldn't we have this and that, and this also because these are really important." And I go, "Oh, yeah. Of course." And so, even just as an individual, for me to be part of an organization or an institutional collaboration, it exposed me to other people with disabilities or different disabilities who had a really different approach.
Christine Malec (25:48):
And it really broadened my sense of what's possible in a way that was really helpful for me in terms of thinking more broadly. I sort of assumed, "Well, if I have a disability, I must therefore be thinking broadly and inclusively and with all the potential that we could have," but really it's not true. I'm only limited by my own experience. And so, that's one of the things that being involved with an institution has helped me to do is broaden my sense of what's possible and what institutions could be doing.
Christine Malec (26:25):
Sean, what do you think institutions need to be careful of in their attempting to be more inclusive or just including a broader portion of the population? What do you think is the caution for institutions?
Sean Lee (26:42):
I think the caution, I would say is just trying to slide people into the normative way of working. I think as Teneshia mentioned, there's a disruption that can happen with Disability like disrupting practices that preexist. And so, not trying to just slide disabled folks into practices that might not actually be accessible for them and making people contort themselves and really stress themselves in order to fit into a schedule or a program that just isn't possible. For us at Tangled, the mindset really used to be like, "As Disabled artists, we can do it too. And we are just as good as able-bodied folks." And then I think be being Disability justice led, we have come to this new question, which is like, "What kind of world are we trying to compete in? And why are we trying to compete in there at all?"
Sean Lee (27:51):
Why not create different kinds of worlds? I think about our own practices at Tangled and how they've changed. In 2019, Gloria Swain curated an exhibition called Hidden and one of the artists wasn't able to participate and Gloria, instead of replacing the artist, just kind of held an empty wall for them and wrote a statement about this idea of holding space for others. And we learned from that moment and Tangled has since implemented something that we call a Care clause. Maybe there's a better name for it but we've been really saying that in this Care clause, the artist, the health of the artist, the mental health, the physical health and the wellbeing of the artist is more important than any deliverable.
Sean Lee (28:49):
And so, even if the artist isn't able to deliver exactly what was promised or it was late or it doesn't get done at all, the artist still gets paid. It's just to show that the artist is the most important piece of what it is that we do. And I think the care clause is something that we put in to show that we're trying to slide into formalized contract words but we've been practicing this idea of a care clause for a while before we put it into our contracts. And I think it's about trying to shift our cultural workings to unlearn the ableism that perhaps even as Disabled folks that we've been taught.
Sean Lee (29:49):
And so, I think that idea of collaboration is really important here for an artist. If something's late, is that okay? And maybe that's the way it works. Maybe it opens without the show being totally finished and it doesn't have to be perfect in that sense when we are open. Maybe it can be iterative and changing. And I think that's something that a lot of spaces might be very hesitant to do is to show imperfection. I think that could be really generative and really powerful. One of the ways that we are not just sliding ourselves into normative culture but really changing the very culture that we're participating in, that we can shape it ourselves.
Christine Malec (30:44):
Wow. That is so interesting and provocative. I'm a little preoccupied with the idea of a Disability rider. And so, my mind's going to, "Does that mean I could get a braille legend for the case of whiskey that I insist on?" I want to know what each bottle in that case is. Can I get a braille legend for that?
Teneshia Samuel (31:03):
It was so beautiful what you said there, Sean, about the Care clause. I just love that idea and I think it's so beautiful because it just acknowledges the humanity of that artist. They're not just a cog in the artist gallery industrial complex wheel to just be there to produce. It really challenges that capitalist sense of culture that you see a lot in the mainstream art scene. And it seems like Tangled is really disrupting that and really changing what it means to represent artists and represent who they are in the fullness of their humanity. I see so much compassion in the way that policy is even driven in that Care clause. Compassion is a really important feature of what it means to collaborate with institutions in this new futuristic way. And this will create a new culture for us going forward. So, I think that's so beautiful. I just wanted to say that, Sean. I love that idea of the Care clause and just acknowledging that humanity of the artist who's involved in that whole exhibition.
Sean Lee (32:34):
Thanks so much, Teneshia.
Sean Lee (32:38):
It's really interesting because I think some of the questions we get are like, "Well then, what if an artist doesn't do anything?" And it's like, "Well, that doesn't happen," because us as artists, we want to invite folks into the worlds we create and the artistry that we have. And so, it's about creating an environment that folks can thrive in and not have to feel that they're only able to participate if they can meet certain deadlines.
Sean Lee (33:13):
Thank you very much for saying that. That means a lot and I should mention that it's not just me at Tangled. Cyn Rozeboom, our executive director. She's the one who said, "We should put it into our contracts. We should really just formalize it, even if it's what we practice. We need to show that folks have protection." And I think it's part of that idea that folks can advocate for themselves. And maybe not every organization is ready to do that, but I think every organization needs to recognize that we can't just be sliding people into practices that previously were not invitational to Disabled folks. That's why a lot of Disabled people aren't in these spaces in the first place. So, when you actively seek our contributions and our community, then it means that changes also need to happen within the institution too.
Christine Malec (34:13):
I love the takeaway that compassion and institutions can coexist. That's a really neat idea that... Those two words don't usually go in the same sentence. So, thank you Teneshia, for putting those together. And it's been great to hear the experiences of both of you, which are different and I think broader than mine. So, thank you for the opportunity.
Teneshia Samuel (34:39):
A final word for me and some key points that were really pulled out in this discussion was in order for progressive futuristic oriented collaboration between institutions to occur, there really needs to be this challenging, disrupting, dismantling and learning in the system and evolving beyond what's been a part of the status quo. A lot of care involved. And again, as Christine mentioned, compassion too. There's so much involved in this process and it's a continuous feedback loop between those who are in those positions of marginalization and those who are in position of privilege and having access to resources. So, those are my final takeaways of what's happened during this conversation.
Sean Lee (35:40):
Yeah. I think for me, compassionate institutions. That really beautifully sums it up. How can we have more compassionate institutions instead of having them be these really intimidating fixtures that we can't critique or that we can't negotiate with. Instead, how can we have institutions that are invitational, that are compassionate and really want to deeply engage and not just tokenize. So, I think that's a big takeaway from this conversation today.