FUTURES/forward Mentorships: Featuring Mentee Alyssa Harms-Wiebe
What can happen in a FUTURES/forward community-engaged arts mentorship? Read on to find out! In this series of blogs, we will post Q&As with featured mentees.
FUTURES/forward Mentee: Alyssa Harms-Wiebe, May to September 2020, mentored by Dr. Claire Robson
Alyssa Harms-Wiebe is a Brazilian-Canadian artist-educator dedicated to bridging literary and performing arts with social and environmental sustainability. She has created writing programs and taught speech and drama at the Bolton Academy of Spoken Arts, taught theatre in high schools, and currently leads creative writing and spoken word workshops with youth at DAREarts. Read more about Alyssa here: https://icasc.ca/futures-forward-mentees/#a-harms-wiebe Alyssa’s mentorship included being placed as Artist-in-Residence with Sierra Club BC. Q: What did you do at Sierra Club BC? The stories we tell shape who we are and how we act in the world. If we can learn to tell more stories about the land we live on and the plants and animals around us, we will come to know, appreciate, and care for them. These guiding principles establish the cornerstones of what students learn through the Roots & Seeds curriculum, a program I created and piloted for Sierra Club BC as an Artist-in-Residence, with the support of the International Centre of Art for Social Change (ICASC) via their FUTURES/forward mentorship program. The story gathering and telling tools offered in this program enable youth to engage meaningfully with their environments and its inhabitants, and equip them to write with vigour about plants, place, and people. My hope is that educators across BC interested in exploring themes of sustainability in their classrooms will also use the lesson plans developed to enhance environmental discourse, storytelling and writing capacity. The program was taught virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, culminating in a final presentation, where students read selections of their writing from the published chapbook created (will be available on the Sierra Club BC website soon), which consists of final drafts of their nonfiction, fiction, and poetry writing. Q: What was a most interesting success? When the collaboration between Sierra Club BC and I began, I felt unnerved by the potential of the COVID-19 pandemic to disrupt our working relationship and the impact of my project. To my surprise, the virtual aspect of my project ended up being a major bonus because travel distance was no barrier for participation. I had the opportunity to connect with students from across the province through the environmental education program I created for Sierra Club BC. Had the project happened in person, I would have been limited to participants in the Vancouver area, which would not have led to the cross-provincial relationships that occurred. Q: What was the greatest challenge? The biggest challenge I faced was how to develop strong bonds online between project participants, to ensure that the students I was teaching would remain engaged. Q: How did you overcome the challenge? In conversation with my program participants, we established a collective learning agreement that included ideas about how students wanted to engage with each other in a virtual setting. There was a desire for movement and interpersonal activities, so I planned every lesson to include these elements. By the end of the program, the students acknowledged that they would miss each other, and that they had learned a great deal from each other’s participation. Virtual learning is something I have only begun exploring since the current pandemic began, and I have been amazed at the level at which people can connect with each other online. Q: How did this creative, arts-based project affect change in climate action? Climate change is a complex problem, one that requires action from a multitude of angles. When you infuse arts-based knowledge with climate justice education, students are able to tap into their creativity and learn to approach climate injustices with fresh perspectives. In the context of my project, students learned creative writing skills that they applied to environmental topics. Though the program I created in May-June 2020 and taught for Sierra Club BC in July-August 2020 was only a pilot, the teaching resources will remain accessible to the organization’s network. My curriculum and resources will be available to Language Arts educators across BC who are interested in broaching climate justice topics with their students. The effect is long-term, and one that I hope will contribute to youths’ ability to think and write about environmental topics with vigour, clarity, and imagination. Q: What one particular thing about your mentorship experience do you want to share? Through my mentorship experience with Dr. Claire Robson, I was able to realize that I know more than I think I do, and that I have the ability to approach large organizations like Sierra Club BC with confident project proposals that are in line with their values. Claire has also helped me to clarify the direction I am interested in pursuing as a community-engaged artist. Moving forward, being able to put into specific words what plans and visions I want to turn into action benefits me greatly. At one point, Claire affirmed me with the comment, “I don’t think you’re an emerging artist anymore. I think you’re an experienced artist with a lot to offer.” That assurance has given me the confidence to take on new projects, and the gusto to take myself seriously as I continue to pursue meaningful, creative, and activist work. Not to mention the fact that I am departing the FUTURES/forward program with a beautiful friendship with a mentor who I know I can reach out to again.
We wish to thank Sierra Club BC for this collaboration and hosting Alyssa Harms-Wiebe’s amazing artist-in-residency! FUTURES/forward gratefully acknowledges that Alyssa’s mentorship thrived due in part to the generous support of the McConnell Foundation and the City of Vancouver.