Visit with Seema Jethalal

October 05, 2015

Seema Jethalal, managing director of Daniels Spectrum, a community cultural hub in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, visited our office on Friday, October 2. Jethalal graduated from McGill with a major in cultural studies and minors in international development, world religions, and music, after which she pursued a graduate degree in media production at Ryerson.

Jethalal was in town for “Urgent Imagination,” a two-day conference at the Western Front that examined how art and creative thinking can influence issues of urban planning and spatial justice, and was among the panelists who discussed the topic of Politics and Urban Spaces.

After a walking tour of the neighborhood with our Director, Am Johal, Jethalal spoke with a few of our local partners on the community engagement work being done within Toronto’s oldest and largest social housing project. Following the conversation, we asked Jethalal a few questions about her experience working at Daniels Spectrum.

What is Daniels Spectrum?

Daniels Spectrum is a place for creativity and social innovation and a place where we’re celebrating diversity and we’re supporting the incubation of new artistic works where we’re inspiring people who might not otherwise hang out and develop relationships to do so through arts and culture.

What kinds of programming do you facilitate?

At Daniels Spectrum there are eight tenants that are offering a whole slew of programming, and that’s everything from subsidized music classes, to West African dance classes, to afterschool mentoring for high school students, to incubation for new social enterprises. There is a social enterprise café that’s run by local youth, there are all kinds of stuff happening on a day-to-day basis by those groups. In addition to that, because of the event space that we have, there are always performances and celebrations and conferences and other daily events that are taking place.

What are the core values of Daniels Spectrum?

We always put priority on diversity and inclusion, it’s definitely a core value and I’d say one of our guiding principles. Celebrating artistic excellence and new artistic creations—and whether that’s emerging or professional—sort of all spectrums so to speak. Also, being sort of a place where we’re showcasing culture, and sort of showcasing a lot of art practices, and communities, and work that typically doesn’t get showcased.

Tell us a bit about your personal background.

My most formative learning experience was being the daughter of immigrants that came from South Africa. It’s an interesting diasporic tale, where my great grandparents are originally from India, [and] my parents came from South Africa in the seventies.

[I] really learned a lot about giving back and understanding my privilege, and understanding the role that I have the privilege of playing, which is really kind of creating more space for folks who didn’t have the opportunities that I had.

[While] I was [at Ryerson] I had already started volunteering with a non-profit called Manifesto community projects, and it was through my work with manifesto that I got interested in Regent Park. While I was doing my masters at Ryerson, as [part of] my production thesis, I shot a little film on the revitalization told through the eyes of two young people.

What are the greatest challenges you’ve faced in your position so far?

[The biggest challenge has been] making it feel accessible to the local community, [and] really genuinely making strides in creating a space that feels welcoming and inviting from many different standpoints—whether that’s the physical infrastructure or the programming that’s offered, or the subsidies that are offered, or the job opportunities that are offered, or whatever it is, and creating this sort of myriad of ways to inspire a sense of community ownership.

[Another challenge is] trying to successfully run a social enterprise. [We are] unlike most other cultural facilities in Toronto and most other community centres—we’re some sort of magical hybrid—where they’re often relying quite heavily on ongoing operational support we aren’t. Trying to create a model that allows us to remain accessible and allows us to cover the costs of running a very expensive facility is a very real challenge.

I think [a large] part of that is also having ample folks on the ground to manage all that. As with anyone in this sector, we all wear many hats and having enough of us to go around [is challenging]. [Ideally, we want to be] creating opportunities for us to not just always be so responsive, but also [to] create [a] space where we can also dream up more of our own dreams and find the funding to run with them.

What are the greatest successes you’ve achieved so far?

For me, one of the biggest successes has been when I come to work and I see folks who may be street-involved or transient playing the piano and collaborating with another random visitor who also frequents the building, creating something new together on one of the ‘play me, I’m yours’ pianos we have.

Seeing some of the opportunities that come by way of folks getting involved in our building [is especially rewarding]. We are so thrilled to be able to share [various] incredible works of art with the world, and then we’re so blown away when we learn about the things that have come by way of those people having the access and ability to expose themselves.

The tenants in our building are now actually coming together by their own volition and running collaborative programs that are pretty awesome. Obviously there is the qualitative stuff—the number of subsidized bookings we offer to the community, and the number of awards we get each year, and whether we are able to meet the bottom line for sure.

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