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Advancing BIPoC students and others into arts leadership positions

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: May 25, 2021 1:00 p.m.

MAP faculty member Taiwo Afolabi is the co-founder of a program that aims to increase the number of BIPoC arts leaders in Canadas.
MAP faculty member Taiwo Afolabi is the co-founder of a program that aims to increase the number of BIPoC arts leaders in Canadas. Photo: U of R Photography

Recent movements such as Black Lives Matter and Idle No More have brought to light the urgent need to fully embrace JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, inclusion) in today’s society. For Taiwo Afolabi, an assistant professor in the University of Regina’s Department of Theatre and representative for the ITI/UNESCO Network for Higher Education in the Performing Arts, JEDI is equally important in the world of Canadian arts leadership where there is often little to no diversity.

Afolabi is on a mission to change that. 

Afolabi, along with Michael Shamata, the artistic director of Victoria’s Belfry Theatre, are the co-initiators and co-coordinators  of the BIPoC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) arts leadership program. The initiative brings together members of the BIPoC arts community with art organizations and educational institutions in Victoria and Regina for mentoring, teaching and learning opportunities. Afolabi’s hope is that through efforts like this, one day, throughout all levels of the Canadian arts leadership, there will be more equitable BIPoC representation.  

“The BIPoC community has been very under-represented in arts leadership in Canada,” Afolabi says. “In theatre in Victoria, for example, when it comes to artistic direction, board governance and executive leadership, it’s really difficult to find representation, beyond tokenism, from the BIPoC community. 

The leadership program got its start at the Belfry Theatre where Afolabi was working as the theatre’s manager of Artistic and Community Connections. In 2019, Afolabi and Shamata organized consultation sessions with BIPoC arts community members to find out what they needed and, more importantly, what they wanted for career advancement.

“We were really asking them questions about what we need in order to make this ecosystem more inclusive and what we need to put in place,” says Afolabi. “They were overwhelmingly looking for leadership training, and learning and mentoring opportunities.” 

Afolabi and Shamata brought several Victoria arts partner organizations on board including Dance Victoria, Victoria Symphony, Pacific Opera Victoria, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and University of Victoria. The list of partners was expanded to include the Regina arts organizations Common Weal Community Arts, University of Regina Faculty of Media, Art and Performance and Globe Theatre. 

When the call went out to the BIPoC arts community for applications to the program they received a total of 23 applications from a wide variety of artists and administrators involved in such diverse artistic pursuits as theatre, opera, galleries, dance and visual arts. Lending their expertise to the project, the applications are being reviewed by some of the finest BIPOC art leaders in the country. 

“For example, we have a visual artist who's really interested in how she can manage her own gallery and playwrights who want to learn how to produce their own plays. We have applications from performers who want to learn about producing their own work and managing their own production companies. There’s really a wide range of interests reflected in the applications.” 

The partners, in concert with applicants, are developing curriculum based on the interests of the applicants. As well, a series of workshops on cultural sensitivity, safety and JEDI in the workplace will be delivered. The program kicks off on July 12 and runs until August 20, 2021. During that period there will be twice-a-week virtual lectures and seminars featuring leaders in the Canadian art sector. In addition, 10 applicants will be paired with partner organizations for paid internships for four months beginning January 10, 2022. 

“I'm hoping that it will be a beginning of a long-lasting conversation about how we practically affect arts leadership in a culturally sensitive way and that we bring voices from the margins to the centre,” says Afolabi. “A lot of these organization partners are really asking serious questions about inclusion and I'm hoping that the opportunity to be part of this program will help them to start thinking about the things that we need to do differently. Ultimately, in the next 5-10 years, I want to see change in arts leadership. I want to see the true representation of our community.” 

Afolabi says since they launched the application process that interest from arts organizations from across Canada continues to grow. He remains optimistic that in the second year of the program they can double the number of applicants and art organizations partners. 

The University of Regina has committed to creating a healthy campus community and learning environment in its 2020-25 strategic plan All Our Relations, or Kahkiyaw kiwȃhkomȃkȃninawak in Cree. Well-being and Belonging is one of the five areas of focus in the strategic plan, and includes objectives related to strengthening the University’s commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Healthy Living, and Mental Health Literacy and Research.

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