Creating Art and Social Change in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

Article excerpt

In the heart of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES), a group of women are discovering how the creative process and act of art-making are powerful forces for social change. Through art and creative entrepreneurship, women in the community are working together to improve their individual and collective circumstances, and challenge the discrimination that has denied them rights and opportunities because of personal background, disability, or social status. Indeed, their art-making strives to create social change at every level of society, starting from the personal (self-affirmation and healing) and gradually moving to the more political (highlighting issues of women's economic insecurity).

Supported by Enterprising Women Making Art (EWMA), a harm reduction and social co-operative development initiative of Atira Women's Resource Society, women are creating visual art and handmade products such as candles, garden stepping-stones, jewelry and accessories, and Aboriginal crafts, and collectively selling them at local craft fairs and markets. More importantly, they are doing so on their own terms, as members of a democratically controlled co-operative enterprise called Creative Women Craftworks (CWC). In contrast to the oppressive social climate in which their lives and struggles for survival in the DTES are situated, the power and freedom of artistic and creative expression, of democratic member control, and the opportunity to supplement their, or their family's, livelihoods through product sales, is extremely liberating and empowering. By embodying their desire to create and express themselves freely, their artistic expression, as well as their entrepreneurship, creates conditions for their independence and autonomy.

Enterprising Women Making Art

Faced with increasing social inequality and the oppression these inequities create, many women in the DTES struggle to survive. As in many distressed urban communities, they face multiple barriers to accessing training, employment programs, and other social resources. For example, a woman who has limited work experience, and is in poor health or has a disability, may have difficulty finding appropriate programs or forms of employment that offer her support and flexibility. In addition, she may also experience actual and perceived discrimination based on social identity or the stigma attached to being "from the DTES." Add other barriers, such as low literacy or English-language proficiency, lack of social networks, a criminal record, history of homelessness, and complicated social assistance policies, and women's vulnerability to economic insecurity and low self-worth increases. As a result, due to their marginalization, women in the DTES are often unable to secure mainstream employment.

Prompted by the lack of meaningful economic options for women in the community, Atira Women's Resource Society proposed the idea of developing an artisans' co-operative as a strategy to build women's economic and social engagement. Launched in 2003, Enterprising Women Making Art (EWMA) aims to improve women's personal and economic well-being, and support their full participation in the economy and community. Structured as a flexible training and co-op development program, EWMA provides hands-on workshops and entrepreneurial support to women interested in arts and crafts production. The program also manages the day-to-day operations of CWC and collaborates with co-op members on the enterprise's governance. With the program's support, co-op members are increasingly building their leadership capacities and taking on more responsibility within the co-operative. For instance, members actively recruit women interested in joining CWC; members have developed their own membership process and orientations sessions.

To date, women's participation in the co-operative has increased their supplemental income anywhere from a few to several hundred dollars a month. In addition, EWMA and CWC have together increased individual and community capacity-building (skill development), expanded social and peer support networks, and, most notably, improved women's individual welfare and sense of self and belonging. …