CCENA stands for the Community Centre for Engaged Narrative Arts. However, before we could move forward with the centre, we decided to hold two panels at McMaster University in order to begin to flesh out the terms we’ve used to define our center. On March 1, 2016, reaching out to people from various institutional and community ties in the city, we held out first panel to discuss the term “Narrative Arts” to gain a sense of how the term informs the work of individuals across various communities, backgrounds and academic fields. Fruitful discussion not only helped us to engage with the important concerns and issues surrounding the term, but also gave us a sense of how we might shape the priorities of the Center for those who may be interested in joining.
We were grateful to have several panelists at our gathering who each took ten minutes to speak to the ways in which “narrative arts” function within their work.
Elizabeth Jackson is the Community Engagement Officer at the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, a large-scale partnered research institute that seeks “to create positive social change through the confluence of improvisational arts, innovative scholarship, and collaborative action.” In her role as CEO, Elizabeth builds and sustains partnerships with artists and community organizations, and designs, implements, and supports arts-based community-engaged initiatives including musical and story-based workshops, community arts projects, and collaborative research projects.
At the panel, Jackson shared her experience with arts-based community-making and ‘mundane’ (that is, everyday) improvisation. She showed us what can happen, for example, when a group of kids of various abilities go out into a city space and ask, would you like to hear a story?
Ingrid Mundel is a Manager and Senior Research Associate at REDLAB (Re•Visioning Differences Mobile Media Arts Lab), University of Guelph, arts based story telling workshops with a range of self-identified communities. Mundel drew upon her work with community engagement to think about how listeners can move between critique and connection.
Bonnie Freeman, an Algonquin/Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Ontario, Canada, is a Professor in Social Work who was involved in narratives from the Unity Ride, when Indigenous youth journeyed on foot to Haudenosaunee and Onkwehonwe communities in USA & Canada (2005 to 2008 & 2011). She also went to the United Nations in 2007 to present a Youth declaration to UN on Indigenous Peoples in New York. Freeman told us that the term “stories” can be deployed to dismiss real-life experiences (for example through the attitude that would respond to experiences with, “it’s just a story”). She also reminded us that “stories” are not just oral; they can also be performances, images, representations, objects, like the two-row wampum, and physical journeys through space, through the land. Freeman’s presentation, thus, implicitly asked us: what stories can the land tell? And do we need to attach storytelling to human subjects and human subjects alone?
Catherine Graham is a Public Performance organizer and professor in Theatre and Film, McMaster. Hunter asked us to pay attention to those whose stories are not as often told. She also warned us about the tendency to place stories in our own frameworks and not those of the storytellers, and she asked us to be wary of the reception of stories that casts tellers as “broken” and listeners as “saviours.”
Kim Echlin is a novelist with a career in community-engaged storytelling and gathering. She was at the time also Writer-in-Residence at McMaster. Echlin asked us to think about listening as a potentially revolutionary act. For example, we often conjoin “story” with “telling” in the blink of an eye: but what about listening? And how can listening facilitate respectful acknowledgment of the stories of others?
Finally, Amber Den, joined us at the gathering as a panelist. She is a community activist with an interest in the topics of gentrification, marginalized urban community-building. During the meeting, Dean troubled the assumption that just getting people to tell their stories will lead to social justice.
When taken together, the panelists’ presentation helped to carve out threads of possibility with respect to thinking through the term Narrative Arts. As we consider it, these threads neither circumscribe nor define what we “have” to think about when we say story, when we say “narrative arts,” but it gave us important frameworks through which to consider the term. We began to tease out more threads from these presentations on our second panel held on April 19, 2016, this time with a different set of panelists sharing their experience:
Maroussia Ahmed, who has worked for many years with refugee women’s groups in and around Hamilton.
Klyde Broox, a dub poet, who has worked in many community initiatives, including poetry workshops with migrant workers.
Jeff Mahoney, who is largely known from his regular community column in the Hamilton Spectator.
Simon Orpana, a graphic artist, who has been involved in the Beasley community for many years.
Here is a summary of some of the ideas borne from the larger group discussions that took place following both panels.
Q: How CCENA might contribute to ongoing community initiatives?
- Power can have a negative effect on storytelling and narratives: we have to pay attention to the frames we use through which to tell stories. To that end, we must think of how CCENA, being attached to an academic institution, might be involved in the channeling of community voices in ways that do not define or instruct them.
- CCENA can work alongside organizations such as the Hamilton Literacy Council and Discovery Programs to share stories and provide support and advice for community members
- Providing support and resources to conduct a project for women, particularly survivors of violence. This project would be aimed in giving them the kind of support needed as they go through the process of healing.
- In general many of the participants have an eye towards supporting those narratives that are usually left out of dominant frames: stories told by youth, women and those struggling with housing; stories aimed at illuminating corporate exploitation of community, stories about belonging, histories of geographies and spiritual geographies, etc.
- At the same time, as with the notion of power and framework, we must be keenly aware of the complex question of ‘giving’ a voice to the ‘voiceless’.
This is part of the ongoing conversation of the role of the Centre and its use for individuals belonging to various communities. We look forward to more fruitful discussions in the future.