Art During a Global Pandemic
Continuing InkWell Workshops online
“A few folks have told us that our continued online programming has been life saving for them,” says Kathy Friedman, the Artistic Director and fiction instructor for InkWell Workshops. “I think people are really, really struggling [and] all statistics show that the public health crisis is affecting racialized people and persons with disabilities disproportionately.”
Founded in 2016 by Friedman and Eufemia Fantetti, InkWell Workshops offers free, drop-in creative writing workshops to people living with mental health or addiction issues, led by professional writers with lived experience of mental illness.
The workshops are popular, averaging more than twenty participants before the pandemic. “We were bursting out of our room, week after week,” says Friedman. After March 2020, like many other activities around the city, the workshops were moved to an online platform. “We really didn’t know how long we would be online for. We wanted to see what’s manageable.”
“We had to continue our work through this difficult period for participants who have really come to rely on us in the last five years. Folks are telling us our workshops are the highlight of their week, or they can’t express how much this space means to them.”
Disproportionate Impact of the Pandemic
According to a report titled COVID-19 and Suicide by the Mental Health Commission of Canada there has been a 16% decline in Canada’s mental health due to the pandemic.
The pandemic has also brought focus to internet inequality between regions and communities. According to Laura Tribe, Executive Director of OpenMedia, internet inequality is often thought of in terms of remote communities and urban centres. However, the problem also persists within many urban centres, including Toronto, as many people do not have high speed internet at home. Around 50% of households with incomes under $30,000 do not have access to high-speed internet.
“There is a lot of a systemic discrimination against people with disabilities to be able to access education, to be able to access an adequate income, to be able to live a good life, full of dignity and belonging,” says Friedman. This economic marginalization is reflected in the lack of access to high-speed internet. “That was a big issue when we first shut down. A lot of the participants rely upon public spaces such as libraries for internet access, but they were also shut down. There were folks who were sitting outside the local branches of libraries, or outside the subway station, trying to catch a Wi-Fi signal. That was really isolating for folks.”
In order to address this issue, InkWell Workshops allows its participants to join by phone. “People call in,” says Friedman. “We do a lot of screen sharing and presentations during our workshops, but we make sure that everything is read out, so folks can participate fully from the phone. We try our best to make everyone feel included and really make people feel seen; seen and heard.”
“I always think of safety and accessibility as the number one things,” says Friedman. “The disability community is really, really varied. There was one person in particular who contacted me prior to the pandemic and told me that they cannot come because they are not able to leave the house. They wanted to look at the possibility of participating online. But at that time, I had to say no. Similarly,
traveling on the TTC on a weekly basis for an hour and a half, or two hours each way, was tough for some of our participants. Even though our physical space is AODA compliant, scent-free, nut-free, it still is going to be inaccessible for some people.” Shifting the workshop to a digital space has provided InkWell Workshops with new possibilities and new participants, making their workshops more accessible in some ways.
“My ideal, when the pandemic ends would be to experiment, explore, and try both (physical and online workshops),” says Friedman. “Many of our regular participants really miss the in-person interaction and several have never joined us online. I think our online workshops are accessible to some for whom in-person workshops were inaccessible, and vice versa, which is why a combination would be ideal.”
Transitioning to an online space has not been the only challenge for InkWell Workshops. Funding during an unprecedented economic crisis triggered by COVID-19 has been challenging. “We’ve been super lucky, super grateful, we just got another grant from Toronto Arts Council, but there have been other funding cuts. So, we kind of rallied as a community. We did a bunch of crowdfunding. We did other kinds of fundraising, sponsorship requests. We were able to keep going as a result of that.”
“I will say, it would be great to secure slightly more long-term, more stable funding. Honestly, as artists with mental health issues, that financial instability is challenging. The pandemic has underscored the need we all have for connection while intensifying the social isolation many people in Toronto experience. Writing and sharing stories online is helping our participants continue to feel the sense of belonging that's so vital to good mental health. I think the arts will continue to be essential in helping us cope with the impact of the pandemic and heal from it afterwards."