Art as Activism: Engaging with Feminist Art to Spur Social Change

This post was originally written for the Canadian Women's Foundation, and can be found on their blog here: www.canadianwomen.org/blog/art-activism-engaging-feminist-art-spur-social-change/

Often times activism is seen strictly as people in the streets protesting with signs and chanting. Although protesting is an important part of feminist activism, it’s far from the only way to engage meaningfully in creating social change.

One of my favourite ways to engage with the fight for gender equality is through my art and through my work with the Feminist Art Conference, a Toronto-based showcase for multi-disciplinary art that touches on themes of rape culture, transphobia, racism, violence, environmental degradation, Indigenous issues, Islamophobia, and more. The conference aims to provide a space for discussion and the exploration of these issues in order to initiate progressive change.

When artists create pieces or projects that are boldly feminist, they not only bring attention to the issues women are facing, they also create a space for discussion to take place. Art can invite questions about social inequalities, and encourage conversation on how we can overcome it. That’s what I love so much about the Feminist Art Conference – it intentionally creates a space for women to feel safe to explore art that tells their stories.

The Feminist Art Conference has been running since 2013. It’s a two-day conference (with smaller art shows and events during the year) which aims to create a space that is celebratory, positive, intellectually engaging, and provocative. It provides opportunities for networking and future artistic collaboration that can inspire social change and empowerment. We believe that the ripple effect from this type of artistic sharing and learning can provoke positive transformations in both our communities and in our minds. In the words of bell hooks, a prominent author, feminist, and social activist, “the function of art is to do more than tell it like it is—it’s to imagine what is possible.”

In my art, I’ve often been quite subtle with the messaging – not painting anything directly political, but rather painting things which were inspired by something political. However, recently, I worked on some of my most outwardly feminist pieces (two of which can be seen above), and I found this to be a great way to engage more directly with social change through art. You can see more of my work, along with 5 other artists, in my first zine Vociferous and Valid

It was a great experience to push myself to make work that was more directly about women’s issues and it created an avenue for me to engage with other women doing the same. I think feminist collaborative projects are the best way art can be used as a catalyst for social change.

So what does meaningful activism look like for me? I continue to engage in the fight for social change through my art, through my work with Feminist Art Conference, by blogging for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, and by taking on other creative, collaborative projects that inspire me and get people thinking critically about social norms.

What does meaningful activism looks like to you? It can take many different shapes – if you’re interested in fashion it could be making, selling, or purchasing ethically produced clothes. If you thrive in a leadership role, it could be volunteering to organize a program with a women’s group near you. If you are interested in policy or have legal connections, it could be lobbying for legislative change.

I encourage you to be bold and use your skills and interests to spur social change. You might be surprised by the people you meet and the conversations that follow!

2017 Highlights

Wow… what a year. Globally and politically it has been a difficult one for many of us. In 2017 I think a lot of us were reminded that we need to get out and fight for the world we want. It was hard, but beautiful, and I’m so grateful to have been a part of the movement for inclusivity, human rights, and accountability.   

Personally, it was a year of growth, learning, adventure, and lots of fun. I spent most of the year living in Ghana and moved back to Toronto in early October. I think the best way to sum up 2017 is with a list of my highlights! 

in 2017 I:

  • Rode on the back of a motorcycle... many times!
  • Participated in the Women's March in Accra
  • Made lots of new friends (who I miss so much now that I am back in Canada)
  • Learned to make Ghanaian food (Well, I tried!)
  • Learned from some of the most brilliant feminists I have ever met at the African Women's Development Fund
  • Danced so many nights away at Purple Pub in Accra
  • Visited Maranatha Beach Camp (3 times!)
  • Traveled to Togo 
  • Spoke at the International Day Against Homophobia in Accra on behalf of the Humanist Association of Ghana 
  • Explored Ghana with two friends from Canada and Turkey (the only people who were brave enough to visit me in Ghana - thanks Amanda and Ece!!)
  • Visited the North of Ghana and met with some amazing organizations in Tamale
  • Attended the Chale Wote Street Art Festival (and marched in their first Women's Procession to demand safety for women in Ghana)
  • Spent my last weekend in Ghana on the Volta River with some awesome pals
  • Launched my first zine: Vociferous and Valid
  • Attended the CEDAW for Change course at Oxford University 
  • Explored London with my friend Anne
  • Moved home to Toronto
  • Was selected to be a volunteer on the METRAC Board of Directors
  • Began volunteering on the YWCA Toronto Advocacy Committee
  • Enjoyed being back with my family and friends in Canada

Click on the photos below for some pics that go along with these highlights! 

METRAC: Action on Violence

I’ve used this platform to highlight organizations doing great work in Canada before, but I am extra excited to share the work of METRAC. I’m excited because last week I was honored to be selected as a volunteer board member for a 2-year term! So you can expect to see lots more about METRAC in the coming months and years. 

For METRAC, the word "women" includes any persons who may identify, or may have once identified, as feminine, female, cis or trans.

For METRAC, the word "women" includes any persons who may identify, or may have once identified, as feminine, female, cis or trans.

Who is METRAC? They are a Toronto based organization that works to end gender-based violence across communities in Ontario and beyond. They do this through education, research, and policy change. They deliver boundary-breaking services and programs, and focus on education and prevention. To give you a better idea of how they do this, I'm going to highlight a few of the programs they run.

OWJN: Ontario Women’s Justice Network
The OWJN is METRAC’s legal information website. It aims to help survivors of violence and their supporters better understand their legal rights in Ontario. The website offers accessible legal information in a way that reflects the diverse experiences and realities of women.

FLEW: Family Law Education for Women
FLEW evolved from the advocacy efforts of the No Religious Arbitration Coalition. It was a coalition of more than 100 community agencies that came together to advocate against the use of religious arbitration in family law in Ontario. The Coalition’s position was that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteed all women in Ontario the right to access public family law to resolve their family law disputes. FLEW provides plain language legal information on women’s rights under Ontario family law and is available in 14 languages and in multiple formats.

Safety Audit Program
METRAC's Safety Audit Program is an action tool to build safer neighbourhoods, schools, campuses, workplaces, transit systems, living spaces, and public spaces. It combines best practices of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) with culturally competent, community development approaches, Participatory Action Research and a gender-based violence analysis. It is a catalyst to reduce sexual violence, assault, harassment and discrimination against women, youth and others at high risk and makes spaces safer for everyone.

ReAct: Respect in Action
The ReAct program builds youth leadership to end gender based violence and violence against youth. ReAct Youth Facilitators create resources and lead interactive after-school programs, workshops, and presentations for youth and educators. ReAct has even gone global and partnered with Girls Empowerment Clubs in Ghana!

It is perfect timing to begin my work with METRAC, as later this month, on November 25th, the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence begin.

From November 25th (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) to December 10th (Human Rights Day) the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign is run all over the world.

The theme of the 2017 Campaign is “Together We Can End GBV in Education!”. The Center for Women's Global Leadership has created a 16 Days Activist Tool Kit, which can be found here. Last year I wrote about ways you can get involved in your own community to help prevent gender-based violence. You can read that post here.

I am so looking forward to working with METRAC over the next 2 years and beyond!

CEDAW for Change

CEDAW: the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women

 

From September 25th to September 30th I had the pleasure of studying at the The Women’s Human Rights Institute (WHRI). WHRI’s home base is in Toronto, but they often take their course on the road making it available to a wider range of students. This year, they worked in partnership with the Women’s Solidarity Fund and the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall to bring the CEDAW for Change course to the University of Oxford.

It was an amazing experience to learn about something I am so passionate about with such a diverse group of women. We were a group of 28 participants, representing 21 different countries, and the course was run by 3 facilitators from 3 different countries. It was a great mix of experience, perspective, history, and feminisms.

We covered so much ground in the week we were together and learned about many different programs running all over the world. I think the best way for me to write about this course, is to share a few of the things I learned and the ways I hope to use the CEDAW Convention moving forward.

The UN Structure

I entered this course with no background knowledge of CEDAW and almost no background info on the UN itself. Of course, I knew of the UN and I had read many different news articles about it, but I didn’t realize how little I really knew about the UN until I took this course.

The UN is so much more than what we hear about in the news. To get an overview, you can read the UN System Chart here. On that chart you will see the General Assembly, from there look to the Subsidiary Organs heading. Under the Subsidiary Organs heading you will see the Human Rights Council. It is under this council that the CEDAW convention is found. CEDAW is a Human Rights Treaty that is monitored by the CEDAW Committee.

Understanding which area of the UN fits best with your advocacy work is critical to making effective use of their tools and systems.

Engaging with CEDAW through Shadow Reports

We were given so many different tools and ways to engage with CEDAW as a living, breathing document. But for me, the most exciting thing I learned about was the the shadow reports. To explain shadow reports, I need to step back and explain a bit about how the CEDAW convention is monitored.

All countries who have ratified CEDAW are to be reviewed by the CEDAW committee every 4 years. When it is a country’s turn to be reviewed, they are asked by the CEDAW committee to submit a report on how they are upholding their commitment to CEDAW. Of course, governments often try to make themselves look like they are doing better than they actually are. This is where the shadow reports come in. Shadow reports are reports put together by NGOs, non-profit organizations, and organizations working in the areas of women’s human rights. This report puts forward the main issues that the NGOs and CSOs (Civil Society Organization) want to see addressed by their government.

During the review session the CEDAW Committee will consider both the government submitted report and the shadow report. From BOTH of these reports, the CEDAW Committee will develop its recommendations to the government being reviewed (called the State party in UN language).

Keep your eyes on the Feminist Alliance for International Action (http://fafia-afai.org), and the Women’s Human Rights Institute (http://learnwhr.org/) to learn when Canada is up for review next. It should be in the year 2020, however dates do change/get pushed back often.

Engaging with CEDAW year round

If you were getting excited to engage with CEDAW, don’t worry, you don’t have to wait until the next Canadian CEDAW review in 2020! There is so much more that can be done with CEDAW before then.

One of the main ways I hope to get involved with CEDAW before then is by working to publicize the convention itself. Once a government ratifies CEDAW, it is their responsibility to publicize the convention and let their citizens know about their human rights. Unfortunately, this work is very rarely done and often falls to the NGOs and CSOs.

Publicizing of CEDAW can be done through social media campaigns, art, community outreach, running workshops, and so much more! A great example comes from a feminist membership organisation in Scotland. They produced a short video explaining what CEDAW is and how it can benefit women in Scotland. It has over 10,000 views! You can watch that video here.

It is powerful when people learn that they have laws and systems set up to protect them. Ensuing women know that CEDAW exists and is here to protect them is important and urgent work.

It was such a great experience getting to learn about CEDAW with so many inspirational women. It is so easy to become discouraged when working in advocacy, but after hearing about so many unique projects and success stories, I feel energized and excited to keep making change!


What to learn more about CEDAW? I suggest you start by reading the full convention which you can find here.

CEDAW is based on 3 main principles: substantive equality, non-discrimination, and State obligation. If you want to learn more about these, UN Women has explained these principles in 3 short videos that I’ve linked below:

  1. Substantive Equality: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rI8lNB-XMIk

  2. Non Discrimination: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBdDB5PKrmk

  3. State Obligation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umETapJ4b8o

You can also check if your country has ratified CEDAW here: http://indicators.ohchr.org/

If you are curious about taking the course yourself, all the info can be found here: http://learnwhr.org


A few pictures from the week!