Photo by Jackie Wong
After witnessing the scarcity of diversity in the arts sector for too long, Kristin Cheung and Megan Lau founded The Future is you and me, a program aimed at creating more opportunities for young women of colour aspiring to work in the art and creative industries—particularly in leadership roles. Over the course of a few weekends, participants of The Future will be provided with creative, professional, and practical skills to thrive in their respective art and creative fields through a combination of free workshops, mentorship, and networking opportunities. Speakers and facilitators of the program come from a wide range of backgrounds, including marketing, journalism, activism, business, and design.
As they wrapped up the second cohort this spring, Kayi Wong spoke to the two founders of the Vancouver-based project, who have taken it upon themselves to enrich the arts community by creating more spaces for more voices in Vancouver's cultural landscape.
ROOM: I understand that the idea for The Future started from a blog post that you [Kristin] wrote while you were at Toronto Pearson International Airport last summer, and the first workshop swiftly took place a few months later. Can you let me in on how the collaboration came together?
KC: I was actually on my way back from Ottawa; [I was] on a peer assessment committee for Canada Council for the Arts reviewing grant applications from literary publications from across the country. At the time of the blog post, we weren’t able to reveal our involvement as a jury member. But from reviewing arts organizations, I was surprised that there were a lot of great organizations like Room magazine doing amazing work with gender equality and diversity at the forefront of their mandate. But there were also a lot of organizations not engaged as much. I wanted to tackle this issue head on in my community of Vancouver. As I contemplated the issue of gender inequality and the lack of diversity representation in the arts in Vancouver, I wrote the blog post while on a layover in Toronto on my way back to Vancouver. I wanted to use social media to gather support with like-minded friends to take an issue that can be discussed online through tweets, memes, and posts, but actually engage it actively in person. Megan replied to my call to action and we met up briefly after over a coffee shop to discuss. We’re both familiar with each other’s work through the literary arts community in Vancouver and we were part of Ricepaper magazine, but at different times. My background is predominantly in the arts—working as a fundraiser for Contemporary Art Gallery, previously at Gateway Theatre, and as the managing editor at Ricepaper. Megan has complimentary experience with her education with a Masters in Publishing at SFU, and her personal mentorship experience.
ML: I have so admired Kristin since I met her in 2009. Her dedication to the arts is unparalleled—you can tell that she is doing what she loves because she does not stop working. She is always involved in something that pushes the arts sector forward. When I read her blog post, I was instantly inspired. It succinctly and directly addressed a significant gap in our community. We didn’t know what our project would be, but I knew clearly that I wanted to be involved in what Kristin did next, particularly if it was related to diversity, belonging, and inclusion. We started meeting regularly after she wrote the blog post, and the idea of a mentorship program emerged early in our conversations. We know so many incredible women in Vancouver, and the idea of mentorship and coaching for young women was something that excited us both.
ROOM: How was the programming process?
KC: Our first session in October 2016 was much more of a pilot program, meaning we were testing it out. Regarding the programming aspect, we invited our friends that we were most familiar with, friends that we admired professionally who were doing great work in the arts, that we thought of as the future women leaders of the arts in Vancouver. In Spring 2017, we expanded our speakers list and took into consideration suggestions from previous participants and the community.
ML: We developed the program in collaboration with our speakers. One of my favourite parts of planning the pilot workshop series was spending an hour or two with each of the speakers and learning about their stories. It was such a wonderful opportunity to connect as friends. Our excitement about supporting young women through challenges and experiences similar to the ones we had in our early twenties energized everyone.
ROOM: How do you select your workshop facilitators, and speakers?
KC: Speakers who work best in the group and vice versa. We want to connect speakers who are engaged with cultural diversity and addressing inequality as part of their practice.
ML: Our workshop topics served as an outline, and then we choose women who we work with and/or learn from who are experts in each of the fields. We were pleasantly surprised by how many accomplished individuals were game to be involved in this project. They, too, felt that this program was urgently needed.
ROOM: The question that all potential applicants would like answered—what are you looking for in your chosen group of ten participants?
KC: We want to make the best connections for the mentors and participants so Megan and I have thoughtful consideration for each applicant. We review their written statement (our few questions) and we also look up their work online through the links they provide (personal website, LinkedIn, Instagram, social media, etc). Or we just review the written statement if no links are provided. We want to get to know you through our application and get a good sense of who you are—what you want to achieve—how your current work connects with our program, which includes discussion of gender equality and culturally diverse issues—are you already engaged with groups like ours? Or perhaps you already have strong contacts in the field and actually this program might not be the best fit for you and you should consider something more substantive.
We look for participants who would most benefit from our program. We receive many applicants and most of them are doing amazing work already. They’re a mix of creative entrepreneurs who have started their own business or active performing artists or students who are still in school and still figuring out their paths.
ML: We aren’t necessarily looking for the most accomplished in the group of applicants. I want to offer the program to women who convey a willingness to learn and have a strong point of view. The applications that stand out most to me are the ones that are candid and full of personality.
ROOM: What made you decide to target the mentorship program to younger creatives?
ML: The idea was to reach women who were just beginning to explore their creative practice, and are still in school or recently graduated. We felt this was an age range where they are starting to develop important professional connections, and where support and guidance from a mentor could be especially formative.
ROOM: As Room wrapped up our inaugural literary festival earlier this year ourselves, I’m curious to know—what was your biggest takeaway from the first workshop series?
KC: I attended a few Growing Room Festival events and one of the parallel points is that there is always a need for young women to connect and collaborate with each other. Even looking back at Room’s history in the '70s with women coming together to promote feminist literature, we still have those priorities today and perhaps they’re even more prevalent given the current political and world climate.
My personal, biggest takeaway is that I originally conceived of this project to be targeted to artists and art administrators in the general art disciplines of literary arts, dance, music, theatre, visual arts, etc—the disciplines that grantors tell you to compartmentalize your art practice. But through this journey, we are seeing a younger generation of creatives and artists that are expanding their definition of artists to include Youtubers, podcasters, people who want to build a platform and integrate more digital media as part of their work. So what we have to do as cultural facilitators is to be nimble and work with the evolution of artists and cultural practitioners.
ML: I was so moved by the response to the program. The idea that Vancouver should have more intentional spaces for people of colour is something that I think about constantly. When we announced The Future to the public, so many people felt the same way. They were just as excited as we were to lift up young diverse women. Part of it may be that we are so anxious to have a conversation about race in Vancouver; this is a project that creates a safe space to unpack how race intersects with our work and lives.
ROOM: What has your personal experience been like working in the local arts and culture community?
KC: The community is small but largely very positive of your work and want you to do well as an artist/writer. It’s always exciting to hear about a new artist/writer who just launched a new project, magazine, or signed a new book deal. With social media there’s even more ways to quickly reach each other and share the good news.
ML: I love working in Vancouver. As Kristin said, we’re a small community and there’s very low tolerance for jerks and egomaniacs. At times—particularly in more professionalized spaces—you can be the only person of colour. That dynamic is hard, particularly when you’re young. I struggled to find my confidence and footing at times. That said, Kristin and I both worked at Ricepaper, and that was a place where, for decades, artists of colours found community and a stronger sense of community.
ROOM: As someone who has worked in arts organization in various capacities, what professional advice can you give to aspiring young creatives who want to excel in this field and/or lead an arts organization eventually (aside from applying to be a part of The Future)?
KC: Have a clear vision of what your goal in the arts community or professionally as an artist and find collaborators to make that happen or work with like-minded peers to build something together. There’s a lot of failure—getting things wrong—getting rejected over and over before you excel in this field. I’ve personally been rejected for numerous mentorship and professional development opportunities before I decided to start The Future is you and me. Even though being rejected is difficult, I realized they were not the right fit for me and my work in the arts so I decided to start this program. Also, it’s okay to change your mind and your vision, and goals. It’s okay to be interested in one idea or project and realize it’s not right for you, and move onto the next project or idea.
ML: It’s easy to be hard on yourself—especially when you feel like you don’t fit in. It’s way harder to stay the course and believe that you have something valuable to express. But I say, challenge yourself to be confident and follow your instincts. If you nurture your unique personality and act with integrity, you will be noticed.
ROOM: What are your plans for The Future? Are there any plans to bring this series outside of Vancouver?
ML: At the moment, we don’t have any plans to expand. We run The Future is You and Me off the side of our desks, and there’s an awesome quality to that. It feels very handcrafted and intimate. In the next year, we just hope to be able to offer the program to more talented women, and to produce a few events that will be open to a broader group of young, creative women.
Kayi Wong has been an editorial board member of Room Magazine since 2013. She is also the co-editor of 40.1 Food, and the editor of 41.2 (upcoming).