The Banff Centre

The following are Stage 1 and Stage 2 proposals for Groundstory Project Manager Jessa Agilo to participate in The Banff Centre’s 2018 Getting to Maybe: A Social Innovation Residency.  Stage 1 was submitted on October 25, 2017, and Stage 2 on February 8, 2018.

Stage 1

Deeply embedded within Canadian arts and culture, over the past three decades I have followed the many varied roles of artist, educator, producer, manager, advocate, and entrepreneur in diverse rural and urban communities across Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, and Quebec.

As an arts manger, working one-on-one with arts organizations and independent artists to help grow and sustain their impact has been a deeply rewarding journey. However, as the very systems that shape and support the traditional meanings and values of culture become ever more unravelled, in response I am compelled to retool the focus of my attention from the private needs of the individual toward the collective agency of the system and our shared community.

With a firm belief that the arts are well-positioned to inspire and lead positive systemic change,  I most recently founded the Collective Impact effort Groundstory (Histoire de terrain). The mandate of Groundstory is to uncover and address the roots and adverse ripple effects of gentrification in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area (GTHA) and across Ontario and Canada through shared learning.

Over the coming decade, Groundstory brings businesses, non-profits, government, funders, and impacted people together to collectively explore solutions to the urgent issue of growing displacement of artists and other low-income families from gentrifying neighbourhoods in the GTHA. Currently engaged in the initial stages of defining a Common Agenda and a shared Theory of Change for Groundstory, I have been inspired by the work of Carl Grodach and others who have demonstrated traditional narratives around the role of the arts and the creative class in gentrification and displacement are not refined enough and deserve further study. This evidence helps to direct and justify our work, rallies others to the cause, and defends against detractors.

I am applying to Getting to Maybe because my own “groundstory” is moving into unchartered territory. As the Founder of the young non-profit, ArtsPond (which is serving the role of backbone for Groundstory), I am questioning what I now value as a leader and how my experiences may both help and hinder convening a more expansive and equitable dialogue around this issue. I am also questioning many of my assumptions about the vitality of cultural exchange in an increasingly urbanized, digitized society. I am questioning where and how our artists can continue to live, create and share their work with others when the system is changing at a rapid pace. With the majority of Canadians living in urban centres, I question if the socio-economic fabric of our cities is prepared to absorb the loss of artists? All of these questions tie deeply to the challenges (and opportunities) of using Collective Impact to address gentrification and its adverse ripple effects, especially in what many see now as the birth of a post-industrial, post-capitalist society.

For example, supporting the highest concentration of artists of any neighbourhood in Canada just a few years ago, my community of Parkdale/West Queen West is at the epicentre of gentrification in Toronto. As an owner of an Artscape property with a mandate of “affordable housing for the arts, forever”, like many of my friends and colleagues, my ability to afford the rising costs of shelter is increasingly at risk. Securing sufficient income for another year of mortgage payments, let alone for all artists “forever”, seems like an impossible task while coping with some of the highest annual rent and property price increases in the GTHA. I know too many artists that require ‘day jobs’ in order to create work and support their families. Within my networks, a growing number are leaving Toronto permanently. Even the developer of my building (Urbancorp) went bankrupt. The recent scare at 401 Richmond is a powder keg that could still explode despite political interventions. I fear what Google’s Smart City plans for Waterfront Toronto may also do to reshape the future of the arts in my city.

While it is already too late for many artists and arts professionals of my generation, identifying the root causes of gentrification and working intentionally with others to reduce the vulnerability of artists and make positive change happen is a cause that I now awake and fall asleep to each and every day.

It can be a lonely effort working for the system. While I hold the necessary skills to navigate change, I am eager to reflect and connect with others who share a similar narrative as mine. I have deep connections to BC and the inspiring environs of Banff and the Cascade Mountains. I am eager to dive into and challenge my assumptions about the value of culture and how they can be recast to respond to rapidly changing norms in our society.

I have always been a bit of a ‘black sheep’ in my family and community. I often start conversations with, “I wonder” or “What if”? This led me originally to become an artist, then an educator, an arts manager, entrepreneur, and now a ‘rabble-rousing’ change agent for the system.  I am comfortable operating deeply within both personal and systemic discourse. As a transsexual survivor of sexual abuse, I am inspired by the healing values and rituals of Indigenous communities. I also find solace and spirit within the bountiful natural lands of Canada.  As a Doctoral Candidate drop-out many moons ago, I continue to massage my fandom for knowledge through continuous education and self-learning. I am currently engaged in multiple academic-style research projects, including leading Groundstory’s international literature review on gentrification with a team of 16 volunteers and a research bibliography encompassing nearly 8,000 public and academic sources. I continuously hone my facility in Collective Impact through training with Tamarack Institute, Collective Impact Forum, Innoweave and others.  A knowledge seeker? Yes, I am.

While Collective Impact is a popular global framework surrounding the issues of education and poverty, to my knowledge there is no precedent for an arts-centred Collective Impact response to gentrification. My hesitations about Groundstory are not surprising given the complexity of the systems Groundstory is attempting to understand and respond to. At times, I think I must be too naïve, or too egotistical, to even dare believe that a partial solution might be possible. When hearing about Groundstory for the first time, many friends and colleagues have responded, “Wow, that’s crazy!”, “Hell, where do you start?”, or “I wouldn’t dare touch that with a Canada-wide pole.”

At this time, I have doubts about what may become deliverable milestones in my lifetime. I am uncertain how to know whether we have arrived, or how to evaluate and adapt our interventions according to evidence gathered. I have doubts about what an impact practice might look like that is responsive to the realities and needs of all of the GTHA, which is one of the most culturally diverse urban regions on the planet. I wonder what scope is both necessary to the future viability of Ontario’s arts sector, and yet also deliverable by the humans at the table. The stakes are not small. With the future at risk, I worry about who is not at the table, and who is being left out. At the same time, I also rekindle that I live and breathe the community-engaged values that I strive constantly to represent. I am someone who is willing to be a leader only insofar as it allows the marginalized to realize their power and take the stage to share their stories. This seems like a strong and grounded place for Groundstory to live.

For the long-term, my own Theory of Change for Groundstory reads: “75% of artists and arts professionals in the GTHA are satisfied by their shelter and spaces of work by 2030.” Getting to Maybe should help “set the stage” to get there. No maybes. We’re in. Fingers crossed, so are you.

Stage 2

Groundstory is the first arts-led Collective Impact effort to be funded by Ontario Trillium Foundation. With 80%+ of Canadians now living in urban areas, the mandate of Groundstory is to address the urgent effects of gentrifying neighbourhoods on arts/cultural workers from major and mid-sized municipalities across the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area (GTHA). As equitable access to appropriate and affordable spaces for artists becomes increasingly difficult to secure, Groundstory asks how Canadians wish to realize the value of culture in our society and its built environments. It also strives to empower artists and other vulnerable populations to take on leading roles in fostering a vision and action plan for building more inclusive, engaging, and accessible cities now and in the future.

Like many of my colleagues, generations of deeply-entrenched socioeconomic barriers in the arts have traditionally indoctrinated me into self-perpetuating a system of Canadian arts and culture that is too often seen as deeply silo-ed, resource poor, risk adverse, and fearful of change. This has prevented many arts leaders from feeling adequately equipped to take on complex social challenges.

With Groundstory, my desired new role is to help the arts go deeper and catalyze a shift in the appreciation and impact of the arts as vital incubators of whole systems change in cities across Canada. Strengthening my own personal and professional skills in the tenets of social innovation is an essential first step. Equally important is strengthening the confidence, literacy, and intelligence of the broader arts industry in collaborating with each other and the broader community to achieve social change. As a potential Getting to Maybe participant, I hope to share lessons and insights garnered during the residency to help Canadian arts leaders to dare to act differently in addressing increasingly critical issues from deepening income inequality/precarity (due to growth in the digital economy) to the lack and loss of affordable shelter and engaging public spaces (due to gentrification).

For the next evolution of Groundstory to achieve greater systemic impact, there are several important gaps that need to be filled. These include detailed baseline and micro-trend surveys on what the realities of artists are living and working in our cities. It includes greater cross-sectoral alignment and collective pressure on developers and government to reflect and protect the needs of culture in the few public spaces remaining in our cities. In the shorter-term, it requires socioeconomic and political interventions to ensure artists have the financial skills and capacity to absorb the rising costs of shelter and remain living and working in our cities, or to provide services and support for those that are regrettably displaced. Most importantly, it requires the coming together of artists and residents to express the collective urgency of determining how to foster creative, inclusive cities. It requires a new generation of careful, meticulous thought and passionate political action, in the manner of Jane Jacobs.

As the founding backbone infrastructure for Groundstory, our greatest opportunity, and challenge, is to establish a new and responsive dialogue on these issues where the voice and interests of any single party do not outweigh another. It will necessitate sensitive coalition-building backed by strong evidence and research. The occasion of Getting to Maybe is ideally situated between Groundstory’s Stage 1 baseline research and community development (2017-2018), and Stage 2 pressure-testing of solutions (2019-2020).  Supported by a growing team of 48+ volunteer researchers, Stage 1 research includes a comprehensive global literature review on the “roots, ripples, and responses” to gentrification in the arts.  Stage 1 also includes original applied research efforts such as baseline provincial and national surveys (arts industry and general population), regional focus groups, and public roundtables in Hamilton and Toronto. These activities will help evaluate Groundstory’s developing Theory of Change while identifying relevant gaps in data for future research.

Groundstory’s early Theory of Change (“75% of arts and culture workers in the GTHA are satisfied with their shelter and spaces of work by 2030”) is meant to be easily relatable for artists; a “way in” to social innovation across all regions, abilities, cultures, and disciplines. It is also meant to be easily scalable, allowing deepening levels of investigation as the roles and correlations of contributing factors to satisfaction become better understood. This preliminary statement is problematic, however, as gaps in historical data are too numerous to be able to establish a baseline easily. Applied research is necessary to determine what is not just a desirable but deliverable milestone by 2030.

The specific solutions to be pressure-tested and then implemented in Stages 2 and 3 have not been collectively identified yet. In the beginning, our priorities are to identify interventions that help vulnerable artists from diverse neighbourhoods resist the impacts of income inequality and involuntary displacement, including improving access to community services that enhance their financial stability; achieving greater financial independence; becoming and staying employed; and becoming socially-engaged entrepreneurs.

By mapping and responding to factors that drive changes in the long-term affordability and accessibility of shelter and cultural spaces in gentrifying neighbourhoods, Groundstory will also help municipalities implement sustainable infrastructure plans that are responsive to the socioeconomic needs and potential of the arts to build vital communities. Thus, arts and culture workers will have improved access to the types of spaces necessary to produce and maintain compelling services and programming that connects more people to arts and culture in diverse communities.

Thank you for this opportunity to share.