Stories

People have reached out and have shared their stories of experiencing harm.

Amanda Low

Former Community Activator

When Sharada’s letter was published, I immediately saw the reaction from the public. Our team then had a meeting with the then-interim Board Chair to explain the situation. He and my project leader brushed it off as lies, and told my team members to just leave the situation alone. I voiced my concern that this would affect our relationships with our collaborators, I was told that if they didn’t want to work with us, we could always find other people. I wondered how someone running a community engagement program could just ignore community concerns so easily.

In June I was ready to start a partnership with a queer Pride organization, but was told “not to get too political” and was cautioned so as to not make the gallery seem like a gay rights advocacy group. My project leader was only relieved once I told her regular programming wouldn’t stop.

I was also asked if I could provide a pre-recorded land acknowledgement to play at the beginning of virtual workshops because my project leader was afraid that my coworker would not be able to pronounce the Indigenous names properly (he has no speech impediment or learning disability that would prevent him from doing so). I told her that I gave him advice on what to search to learn the pronunciation properly, and that I wouldn’t be providing a pre-recording because 1) it’s my coworker’s responsibility as a non-Indigenous person on Turtle Island to learn it himself and 2) a recorded clip washes out the significance of a land acknowledgement.

The final straw was when the Board’s ‘accountability’ statement was released. Aside from calling their critics a “smear campaign”, they claimed their board was made of a culturally diverse group of people. The board is majority white or white passing- but I was told that at least two white board members have mixed raced kids. I wondered what their definition of “culturally diverse” is.

After my resignation letter was sent in, I received a phone call from the new Board President. During that 2 hour long call, I was told all about her work with BIPOC communities, and about her extended family who were mixed raced whom she loved and cared for. As if that equates to having the perspective of someone who is BIPOC. She insisted that the smear campaign was actively trying to “defund the gallery”. When I mentioned that there was a demand to rebuild the gallery’s structure, she simply said “No, they don’t want that”.

I was then asked to join their BIPOC advisory committee. I declined due to the fact that this situation caused mental anguish, and that I knew a BIPOC advisory committee ultimately holds no power if the governing Board makes the executive decisions. And, knowing that I wasn’t even able to speak equally in that 2 hour long conversation (I only spoke for a combined 10, maybe 15 minutes in the entire conversation), I had little faith that I would actually have my voice heard if I were to have accepted.


Artist, Emergence Participant

I was a participant in the AGM’s first cohort of the EMERGENCE program last year. I thought I would share a few of my experiences in the hopes of contributing to some accountability.

EMERGENCE, a program intended for emerging marginalized artists, ended up being led and facilitated by an older, white, cishet woman. Many of the artist participants (myself included) had uncomfortable experiences in the program.

During our very first meeting, when people were going around the table making introductions, the facilitator would insert herself into the conversation after each one and spoke more than all of the artists combined. After someone at the table spoke about being queer she interjected with a story about how proud she was of her son for shutting down a homophobic comment he overheard when he was in high school. I repeatedly overheard staff misgendering people even after they’d provided their pronouns.
I vaguely remember being at an AGM event and hearing secondhand from someone that the Director, while speaking with a Black woman, had grasped a handful of her hair and asked if it was real. I found it ironic that the gallery kept praising itself for being progressive and a “safe space” when it seemed like a number of staff had never done basic anti-oppression training.

In terms of the EMERGENCE program itself, there was little to no transparency on how much and when we would be paid until we were finally given our contracts. We had to fund the artworks we made especially for the exhibit out of pocket. Seven artists were all made to share the exit room of the gallery, approximately a 2m x 2m space.

In general, there was little to no professionalism or accountability when interacting with the gallery. We were almost never told ahead of time when installations were happening. My work was mislabeled at one point.

It didn’t seem like our art was being genuinely cared for so much as thrown together for the sake of optics and to keep the gallery’s funding, with no coherent theme besides us all being marginalized in some way. As emerging artists, being in a gallery was still huge for us, so I think we largely kept quiet out of fear of losing the opportunity or being shut out of arts spaces. Ironically, I doubt that the experience helped us much, if at all, in our career trajectories.


Artist, Emergence Participant

I was part of the Emergence program at the AGM. When I had signed up the program description had been quite promising. When the program started it seemed like the person running it, ( she had replaced the person who was originally supposed to be there) didn’t know what she was doing or was expected to do, it was supposed to be a mentorship program but we all felt that she looked to us for hints on what to do next. Several times she had said something along the lines of her being white so she hoped that was okay with us and that she was trying to understand what we needed, she didn’t have any idea of what to do further or which direction the program was supposed to go in. We were all so confused and started to feel as if this was a program just to justify getting funding for a BIPOC and other marginalized groups program and that we were just the token members to help justify the funds being used. But none of us really got any help. As the program went on there was still no clear navigation and our mentors did not keep in touch or offer much help. The two mentors were also both white and we felt that they had no idea on what to do with us and we didn’t understand how they could relate to our problems, we were expecting BIPOC mentors who would understand the obstacles we faced and share their expertise on how they steered through similar obstacles. Till the end none of us really knew what the program was, it certainly did not match the initial call. It did end with a vague exhibition, the theme was never clear we kind of worked that out on our own, but again that seemed like they were just justifying the funds. There was no outcome and no clear path.


Former Staff

As background, I’m POC, and the AGM was one of my first jobs.

My manager once told me that callers have complained that they couldn’t understand me on the phone because of my accent. (I was a newcomer to Canada at the time, but had spoken English my entire life.) My manager told me that I should speak slower and enunciate my words, to make up for my accent.

My manager also often asked me to stay late to finish tasks within timelines. I was working part-time, and they asked me not to include the extra hours on my timesheet, because the gallery couldn’t afford to pay for that. When I told my manager my workload was too much, they told me that everyone was also working really hard, and I just needed to manage my time better. They also told me that if I had any complaints/concerns, I should raise it only with them, because their boss “doesn’t like to be bothered.” This made me feel like I had no one to whom I can freely share my concerns about my manager.

I sometimes made suggestions to improve efficiency, but my manager often turned them down. They said that there was a reason for the systems being what they were, and even if I found the current system difficult or couldn’t understand the reasoning behind them, I should still make the effort to learn them.
I was once given an assignment when I requested X amount of resources to get it done. My manager said X was too much, and told me I would get Y instead. Except the Y resources had to be reallocated at the last minute, and resulted in more work for staff (including my manager and their boss) to get the assignment done. My manager and their boss met with me to demand why I had planned the assignment so poorly with only Y resources. They both said that my poor planning resulted in the gallery being put in a bad light, and that they shouldn’t have to “rescue” me as they did. I didn’t feel I could call out my manager in front of their boss, so I just said that I didn’t know the Y resources would be reallocated. My manager told me I should have planned for that contingency, and that my failure to do so called into question my suitability to be entrusted with such responsibility.

Looking back, I find it hard to come to terms with how I let myself be treated this way. As shameful as this is for me to admit, I didn’t realize my manager’s behaviour was wrong (I thought it was my fault for not doing my job well) until other staff (often interns) asked why I put up with this treatment. One of the interns pointed out that my compliance made gallery leadership think they could get away with treating staff this way, and I felt bad that I was partially complicit in why staff were treated so badly. 

Other staff also asked why I didn’t leave for a place that paid better / could offer me a more senior role. The truth was that I wasn’t sure another place would want me, or that I would qualify for a more senior role. I was also scared to go to a new place that may not be as forgiving of what I’d come to believe were my professional shortcomings.  

It was only when I moved to a different role, and someone else (also a newcomer and a POC) took my place, that I was able to start seeing things more clearly. I saw how unfairly my replacement was being treated and how quickly their good ideas were shot down for no good reason. I also saw that when my replacement did something well, my former manager took credit for the work. I stood up for my colleague whenever I could, but I also couldn’t help feeling guilty that my compliance made it possible for my manager to treat another staff member this badly. It took me years and a lot of hard work and support to rebuild my confidence.


Keisha Erwin 

I worked for AGM from April 2019 to mid January 2020. The majority of time was with the incredible Sharada Eswar who I still extremely admire and respect today. After Sharada left due to bullying and harassment perpetuated by the board I had to report to the interm ED on the border crossings project, which Sharada birthed and wrote and received a grant of $420,000 for from OTF. Afterwards, as a Black and Status First Nations person I was gaslighted, I felt undervalued, dismissed, micromanaged and extremely tokenized. One instant that stood out to me was when the interim ED wrote an email to all of the staff suggesting that we get someone “skilled in the art of sage burning” to “cleanse the negative energy” into the gallery and I voiced my discomfort as an Indigenous person with that and how it was culturally appropriative. I suggested an alternative of offering tobacco and an honorarium to a Traditional Knowledge Keeper or Elder specifically who was Anishinaabe or from the Mississaugas of The Credit First Nation. That was “too expensive for the gallery” and she went ahead with a non Indigenous person smudging the gallery after multiple accounts of trying to inform her. For Black History Month, I suggested doing a call out for local emerging and established Black Filmmakers to speak on their experiences, and was halted by again the interim ED because she wanted to check in with “someone on the board who was Black” as if my voice as a Black person who was hired to work on border crossings was not enough or too political. On multiple occasions, she implied that I was “too political”, I had suggested bringing newcomers and Indigenous folks together to talk in general about their experiences and stories within this settler nation state, to bridge understandings and speak on their marginalizations, which was deemed “too political” by her and another staff member working on the border crossings project, despite the intention written with in the grant of questioning colonial narratives. That same staff member despite being racialized was complicit in upholding white supremacy. 


Sharada Eswar

This is a fairly long post, so thank you for your time. Until December 2019, I was leading a community engaged arts project at the Art Gallery of Mississauga (AGM). A project that I conceived and birthed, and was nurtured lovingly by the racialized and marginalized communities of Mississauga. A project that received funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation (a grant that I wrote) to the tune of over $420,000. A project that used stories as a common denominator, to bring together the diverse cultural groups and the racialized communities in Mississauga and beyond, engaging with ideas of self-representation to question colonial narratives. A place to share stories, laughs and the heartbreaks associated with them. There were plenty of laughs alright, and heartbreaks a plenty. A project that consumed my very being, every single day for over three years. A project that I had to abandon because the then Treasurer (and I believe, currently the Chair) decided that he had the right to be a bully, an obnoxious and aggressive force that undermined this initiative. An aggression so toxic that to this day, I fear going to Mississauga, lest I see him again.

it began as a pilot project in 2017. It was a runaway success. The community wanted their voices heard, their stories told and I decided to expand the project. In 2018, things began to change. A number of events dramatically transformed the working environment at the AGM. We were told that the Gallery was financially unhealthy and the very existence of the Gallery was at risk. The one silver lining was receiving the Trillium funding for my project. However, things escalated in 2019. I witnessed, along with my colleagues and many members of the arts community, an alarming deficit of clear communication, leadership and respect from the board and the directorship of the AGM. But all of this paled in the face of patriarchy and white supremacy that was rampant in the Board. The then Director was asked to leave and the predominantly white governance Board decided to become an operating board (there was no public announcement about this shift, nor was the membership informed). A Board that had no clue on how the arts world functioned, let alone how community engagement and relationships are built and nurtured. With no Director to act as buffer, the staff were at the mercy of the Board. Staff were constantly micro-managed and belittled. Things came to a head when the last remaining full-time staff’s position was suddenly and mysteriously dissolved. I say suddenly because despite the position being part of the new 5-year strategic plan approved by the Board and the then Chair & Interim ED, it was dissolved soon after.

At first it seemed as if I would be spared but how wrong I was! Within weeks I was subject to aggressive emails demanding why the artists I had contracted for the project were paid so high (mind you this was a funder approved budget and were being paid as per industry standards); why are there no European voices in this project (one of the main objectives of border crossings was to make room for communities and voices that were until now absent); and then some questions that were beyond the scope of my job description and expertise, though I tried to the best of my ability to answer them all. Emails, so aggressive that I began to dread logging into my computer. I was made to feel incompetent, incapable of doing minor tasks correctly and peppered with questions that felt more like inquisitions. Then there was the gaslighting behaviour. On one occasion I was asked about a missing camera that had “supposedly been bought” for the project – in spite of me insisting that there was no camera bought, I was repeatedly interrogated, making me feel like a criminal. Finally, I was told that if the camera couldn’t be traced, it was my job to lodge a complaint with the police for insurance purposes. It reached a point where I began to question my own sanity, my memory, my actions, my thoughts. After much heart wrench and soul searching, I resigned. I left the project and everything that I had worked towards to that point behind.

Until today I have chosen not to make a broader public statement of the toxicity that my colleagues and I walked into every single day. So why am I speaking now? I, like several others, left space for the funders (specifically the City) and the community members to voice their concerns about the organization. But I realize that to remain silent out of respect for our community may be taken as complicity in an erasure of agency, which was in no way my intention.

Two things happened that galvanized me into action — the first of the two was on June 3, 2020. There was a post from AGM as part of the #BlackOutTuesday in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. I saw the post and laughed. The hypocrisy I thought! A “leadership” that treats its BIPOC staff with utmost disregard and disrespect now expressing solidarity! I was tempted to comment something nasty but desisted. Then there was a post on Twitter that for me was the tipping point. A podcast (a podcast I had produced and hosted) with the Treasurer as guest. I haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to it. It has brought back all the toxicity to the fore, everything I thought I had under control, the fears, the anxiety, the shame, the rage, the guilt at abandoning the community members, who had time and again made themselves vulnerable, trusting me with their stories. The fact that I had to let go of my project, my creation that was second only to my own child, and this bully is still about exuding power!

 

Thank you to our allies who have reached out with their experiences and with messages of support. At this time, we are prioritizing stories from marginalized communities, and will be posting these experiences first.

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