Interview with Ayla Lefkowitz of CANVAS Arts Action Programs

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This week, we talked with Ayla Lefkowitz who works with us at Mixed Company Theatre, and is also Co-Founder of CANVAS Arts Action Programs. Check out the interview below:


1) When did CANVAS begin? What was the impetus behind starting this organization?


My good friend Miriam Selick and I co-founded CANVAS Arts Action Programs (CANVAS) in September 2014  ( Back then it was just an idea. A small one actually. To run an after school arts-based program for middle school students that challenges gender norms and homophobia and educates on consent and positive relationships. Back then we didn’t picture creating non-profit organization. We now have over 10 facilitators and dozens of programs at different schools, camps and community centres, reaching over 1000 youth and over 900 youth workers/camp staff members in the first year.


While we definitely didn’t plan for it at the beginning, starting something like this was something I always dreamed of. In Undergrad, I became very passionate about combating sexual violence and discrimination based on gender and sexuality. I volunteered for the Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Student Society, educating high school students on consent, sexual assault and supporting survivors of violence. I knew then that this was what I wanted to do as a career, though when I left school, it was clear that the kind of work I wanted to do and felt was essential did not exist.


My interest in arts-based learning grew through my training with Mixed Company Theatre (MCT). In summer 2015, I trained as a Facilitator/Joker during the Professional Development workshops at MCT, learning the creative strategies of Forum Theatre. Simon and Kristin from MCT continue to be amazing mentors to me in my development as an arts-educator and social entrepreneur.


2) How did you and your co-founder Miriam Selick meet?


Miriam was at my 4th birthday party. Yup. Though we weren’t friends back then. Our mom’s are in the same book club. We went to school together from kindergarten to grade 12, but only became friends in grade 9 when we coincidently switched to the same large public school outside of our area.


Now both of us in our mid-twenties, she is a teacher with experience in arts-based education and I have a Masters with a focus on health promotion, gender and sexuality. Our talents and interests complimented each other’s perfectly, and we share the same values and work ethic. I could not have found a better co-founder if I tried.


3) Tell us a little bit about your upcoming programs.


We have a lot happening this upcoming school year! We have received 2 grants from Ontario Trillium Foundation. Trillium’s Youth Opportunities Fund will be funding our two-year project called “Celebrate! Body Positive Storytelling”, which is a 10-week accessible arts and theatre program for youth with disabilities. Through the program, participants will creatively explore identity, body image, gender, sexuality, consent, and positive relationships. We will be running 7 of these programs at several different schools and community centres across the city.


We also recently received Seed funding from Trillium to run a 2.5 hour arts-based workshop called Speak OUT on gender and sexuality in middle and high schools in the Peel District School Board, which challenges homophobic and transphobic bullying. We also run a 6-week Photography program with queer and trans youth at The 519 and an 8-week Spoken Word Poetry program at Antibes Community Centre. Too many more things to write here!


4) Is there interest in adding new workshops on your horizon? In an ideal world what other programs would you delve deeper into or begin including?


Yes, definitely. We are always full of new ideas. We started offering our programs to youth workers and teachers as well and that has been going great. They seem to love the interactive nature of our programming and we would love to run more of programs like these. In an ideal world every teacher and youth worker would have a mandatory training on Consent Education and Gender & Sexuality, so that they can make sure that their students are celebrated for their diversity of gender and sexual identities and that they have the knowledge and passion to combat sexual violence.


5) What have been some challenges you’ve faced?


Though financially, like most non-profit start-ups, it’s very challenging to get enough money to do all the work you want to do, my biggest challenge is navigating how the work affects me. On top of it being pretty exhausting work, it can be very emotionally draining. It is also not uncommon during our consent workshops to have participants come up to me after to tell me that they were raped. In these situations, I make sure they have somewhere to go for support. As a facilitator, walking out of an emotionally taxing workshop, it can be hard to leave it all in the classroom. And I sometimes find it hard to not feel overwhelmed by the problem I’m working tirelessly to combat. But we have created a network among CANVAS facilitators to regroup and reflect together so we can support each other if needed.


6) Who are some of your mentors? Who inspires you?


While there are many amazing feminist change makers out there who inspire me, I think my mother inspires me most. It’s easy to idealize leaders I don’t know, but I connect with the complexity of what it means to be a leader that I see in my mother. She is an Endocrinologist and the Principle Investigator of several clinical trials. And she works HARD. To the outside world she is one of the leading physicians in the field of Diabetes in Pregnancy in the country, but I get to see her when she comes home and stresses and worries. And what makes her so amazing is that despite her inner worries, she always continues to challenge herself, overcome roadblocks, and work non-stop to achieve her goals. In some moments I worry and question myself too, but watching my mother inspires me to continue to challenge myself and dream big.


7) What’s your favourite aspect about the job?


I love that I’m constantly learning. Miriam and I have to do everything. Facilitation. Program development. Evaluation. Sales. Website design. Grant writing. Project management. Volunteer coordination. Partnership development. Finance. Human resources. I’ve learned more in the past 2 years than I ever have in school.
CANVAS has been a fast track to experience. And that experience helps me in my work at Mixed Company Theatre. I don’t think I would have been able to do the work at MCT as well as I do without experiencing trial and error learning with CANVAS.


8) Do you have any outstanding stories you would like to/are able to share with us since beginning your work with CANVAS?


At a consent workshop we ran for high school students from different schools in London, Ontario, the students were extremely engaged and had amazing ideas. Though this wasn’t completely out of the ordinary for our workshops, what stands out to me about this workshop is that during the wrap up of the workshop when we ask, “does anyone have any last questions or comments?”, two participants shared with the whole group that they had been raped and sexually assaulted, and then thanked us and the whole group for this work and believing survivors. Following this, one participant after another responded saying how strongly they now felt about fighting rape culture and spreading consent. I was completely blown away and couldn’t hide that I was becoming emotional by the incredible support and trust that was filling the room. Having such confirmation of our work from young survivors of sexual violence was the most affirming and motivating feedback I have ever received.


For more information on Canvas Programs, visit them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram: @canvasprograms