The Elephant in the Room: Personal Security in Community-engaged Arts Work

September 29, 2017 by Sophie Han ACW 2017 Gathering /

A reflection by Sophia Han, MA Candidate in Global Communications at SFU and a Research Assistant with the Art for Social Change (ASC!) Research Project

A breakout session at the Kitchen Table Chataqua in Vancouver hosted by ICASC and the Art for Social Change (ASC!) research project surfaced the issue of unstable economic security and challenges to personal well-being that artists doing community-engaged work often experience. Participants initially brainstormed their perspectives in a small group and then reported back to the 30 others in the room, offering key points that had surfaced: how do we acknowledge this issue within the community? What are the personal, economic and emotional challenges when working in this field and how do we work together to address them? What can we do (both individually and collectively) to create more security, enabling people to be more creative and to take risks? While work in the arts has become increasingly precarious in both the Global South and North, we need to invite open discussion about how to reduce isolation and move together toward better economic security for individuals working in our sector as well as sustainability for the field itself.


What’s in it for me? What’s in it for us?

Community-engaged work is often project-based and whether on a large or smaller scale, can involve years of commitment. Discussion of compensation, including benefits, can be challenging in a field where the work is often driven by passion and where burnout is endemic.

How best to reconcile passion with your own needs so that you can keep on “giving”?

Support from peers in the community can play an important role in providing emotional security. When we change the paradigm so that economic security and self-care are not solely individual responsibilities but communal ones, we invite open discussion of possible solutions. In this case, the question being asked isn’t “How can I meet my needs?” but “How can the community help to meet my needs?” This approach to reciprocal support requires a systemic change in how we approach partnerships and build relationships/alliances with each other. As noted in the findings of the ASC! State of the Art interim report the process of relationship-building can involve long-term commitment. This investment is to be encouraged if we want to foster personal and community resilience.

When the dialogue opened up to others in the room, more questions about relationship-building processes surfaced:

  • What changes occur when we invest in building long-term relationships? How does this condition how we make decisions together?
  • As artists, how can we emphasize that relationship-building within our community and with project collaborators is part of an ongoing process instead of simply preludes to individual ASC projects? The State of the Art report highlights the importance of investing time to build clarity and trust between partners sometimes years before a project launch.

Learning to Talk Honestly About Elephants

Artists are sometimes their own worst enemies when issues of compensation arise. Everyone in this dialogue acknowledged the need for honest and open communication when questions of payment arise.

Can we advocate for our own economic security from a place that is vulnerable but also a place of strength, a place where we can ask for, receive and offer help despite the challenging economics of our field?

This discussion was fascinating to me because it outlined the challenges to holding frank discussions about compensation and addressed expectations that can often exceed the limits of labour laws and constrained budgets. Many positions in cultural industries have become precarious in the new economy but within private industry, such discussions have become normalized. Negotiation about compensation, benefits and job security should not be a source of discomfort; artists working in our sector must assert the value of the work they do.

What are your thoughts and concerns about personal security for people working in community-engaged change work? Do let us know.


What’s next?

Join in this ongoing conversation by attending The Art of Changing the World (ACW) 2017 gathering in Ottawa, November 3rd to 5th!

Browse the program & register now >>


Hold your own Kitchen Table Chataqua and let us know! It’s easy and simple! Kitchen Table Chataquas




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