Vancouver Foundation has approved a Field of Interest Systems Change Test Grant of $288,600 to Nelson Civic Theatre Society (the Civic Theatre) to partner with Ymir’s Tiny Lights Festival on a three-year project that seeks to address the systemic lack of diversity and inclusion in rural arts organizations, performance opportunities and audiences.

This issue is complex and touches on many sectors and systems including resource flows in our funding models, poverty, social justice and racism. This problem is amplified in rural settings, which face unique challenges that largely go unnoticed to urban audiences.

The project will begin with the creation of the Rural Arts Inclusion Lab (RAIL). Social innovation labs provide a way to allow many voices and sectors to explore complex problems and test novel solutions.

Existing policies for inclusion have often been developed outside of affected marginalized communities, then imposed on organizations serving them. This project will be built on principles of participatory collaboration engaging voices from all sectors and areas of our communities to first address issues of inclusion – then create possible solutions together where all voices are heard.

As many sectors that reach beyond the arts are also facing these challenges, the project’s work will be documented and shared as part of the Creative Commons.

The partnering organizations are highly complementary: Tiny Lights is small and agile, with a history of implementing changes in policy quickly and experimenting on the edges; the Civic Theatre is a large and established charitable arts organization with professional space and broad reach, able to host gatherings and amplify the stories and experiments that develop.

Tiny Lights Festival Executive Director Carla Stephenson will lead this project. On the importance and opportunity of this initiative, she said: “As arts presenters in rural BC we have not done enough work to make our venues, festivals and events accessible and welcoming to all people, regardless of race, gender, age, or ability. The majority of established rural arts organizations are not engaging younger, diverse voices. This is leading to an aging audience and a culture of art that is not vibrant in many of our venues.”

“Arts have always provided an opportunity to critique existing systems and push for change within them. By finding ways to make our spaces more inclusive and providing more opportunities for marginalized voices, we can change systemic behaviours.”

The Civic Theatre’s Executive Director Eleanor Stacey is excited about the potential of this project: “Neighbourhoods are built around arts events and venues. When we create spaces and programming that only appeals to a specific segment of the population, we are only reflecting our own views back to ourselves and excluding marginalized voices.

“Inclusion means ensuring equitable space for everyone. In our community, voices are marginalized for many reasons, from gender to income to age to ethnicity, and in other ways. Finding avenues to ensure accessibility is key, and we know that it is not enough to just go through the motions.

“This project seeks to have concrete outcomes for real people in our community, and success will require authentic engagement with people surrounding their lived experiences. We know that this is challenging and complex work, and we are honoured to have the opportunity to support it in our community.”

This project will begin in January.

– Nelson Civic Theatre Society