The Banff Centre

The following are excerpts from a statement of intent from Groundstory Founder, Jessa Agilo, to participate in The Banff Centre’s 2018 Getting to Maybe: A Social Innovation Residency, submitted in October 2017.  

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, 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 the rest of Canada through shared learning.

Over the coming decade, Groundstory invites businesses, non-profits, governments, funders, and impacted people 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 are not refined enough and deserve further study. This preliminary evidence helps to direct and justify this work, rallies others to the cause, and defends against detractors.

I am applying to Getting to Maybe because my own “groundstory” is moving into uncharted territory. As the Founder of ArtsPond / Étang d’Arts (a young non-profit 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 are prepared to thrive with the growing exodus of artists forced out of their homes and spaces of work due to precarious employment and rising property costs. 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 where all bets are off and the future far from known.

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 a subsidized live-work loft 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 stagnant and declining wages alongside 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.  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-fcoused 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 remind myself that I constantly strive to live and breathe the community-engaged values that I believe in. 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: “80% 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. I’m in. Fingers crossed, so are you.