With Black History Month upon us, we’re celebrating by sharing stories and voices from the Black community, highlighting the incredible work of some of our partners in the arts, music and food spaces.
This week, we’re spotlighting Paulina O’Kieffe-Anthony, the Executive Director at SKETCH Working Arts, a not-for-profit community arts organization that supports marginalized, racialized youth navigating the margins through the arts.
In addition to being SKETCH’s Executive Director, Paulina is an award-winning artist, curator, arts educator, creative consultant. She is a two-time national team finalist in the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, a TEDx speaker, and has been recognized by the CBC as one of 150 Black Women Making Herstory, for her contribution to building the arts scene in Toronto.
We chatted with Paulina about her current projects, the Toronto changemakers who inspire her, and what she says we need to do to advance Black leaders in arts + culture.
What are you working on right now personally and professionally that has you excited?
Anyone who knows me, knows that I am always working on multiple projects simultaneously. I recently moved into the position of Executive Director at SKETCH Working Arts in July of 2021 and after a really supportive transition process, I feel like I am ready to drive SKETCH forward into the future with new ideas. We are celebrating our 25th anniversary as an organization and I am very excited to be planning on how we can highlight the fantastic work that has been done at SKETCH alongside the community and shine some light on our future vision.
As a creative I am definitely excited to continue working on co-curating the East Hub in Scarborough, as part of ArtworxTO in celebration of Toronto’s Year of Public Art. One of the exhibitions I specifically curated, Scarborough Heroes: A History in Colour, will be featured as of February 1 and I am very excited to see that vision come to life. It was an honour to highlight and celebrate truly amazing people, both past and present who hail from Scarborough in this way. I will be working on curating a couple more exhibits for the hub until August and encourage everyone to check out what the Spoken Soul Collective (made up of myself, Dwayne Morgan and Randell Adjei) have in store for you on the East End of the City.
What change would you like to see in your industry when it comes to Black representation?
I think about this a lot in my daily work and I truly would like to see more Black representation at the leadership (Director, Executive Director, Board Director) in more organizations, especially non-profit and arts organizations. Not only would I like to see more representation at this level, but an increase in resources, training and mentorship for individuals moving into these positions to ensure that the support needed for them to succeed and carry out new and exciting visions within these organizations can be manifested. It would be nice to be able to enter rooms, conferences and sit on panels with folks who not only look like me but reflect the communities many of these organizations often serve.
What Toronto changemakers are inspiring you and why?
I am grateful to be in circles with many amazing creatives who are making change in this city. If I had to name a few, I would definitely have to say Rania El Mugammar, Alica Hall and Mahlikah Awe:ri. Rania’s work inspires me daily to look deeper into questions of equity, justice and generally how to dismantle systems that are oppressive to the very communities that I serve and am connected to and I appreciate her style of teaching. As the Executive Director of NIA Centre for the Arts, Alica has always inspired me in how to build communities of Black artists and support them. NIA is currently building the first professional, multidisciplinary Black Arts Centre in Canada with Alica at the helm. And Mahlikah, forever inspires me in deeply thinking about our community connections, collective responsibility and action towards caring for Indigenous rights, the land on which we live, work and play and how justice for Indigenous folks is critical to everyone’s future in this country. All three of these folks inspire me in my everyday work at SKETCH and as an artist.
What tools have helped you along your journey?
The number one tool that has been a huge help in my journey has and will always be good quality mentorship. I have been fortunate in the past few years to have developed deep and meaningful relationships with some fantastic mentors who have been generous in their guidance, skills sharing, support and just general encouragement of my leadership journey. I truly believe the right mentors can help you make leaps and bounds in your life no matter what you are looking to do. I personally felt much more prepared to take on the role of Executive Director because of the mentorship provided to me by the former leadership, especially Rudy Ruttimann.
Where do you believe we must begin to advance Black leaders in arts + culture?
To advance Black leaders in arts and culture we must begin by listening. It’s important to take direction from Black leaders who will tell you exactly what we need in any given moment to move forward. After that I would say there needs to be a serious investment in those same leaders. We have been doing work on the ground for years and we know what we are working towards in an effort to dismantle systems of oppression, create more equitable spaces and advance our communities forward. We are now at a place where we need our voices to be listened to, respected as expertise and our work adequately resourced so we can make the shifts we know are needed.
Find Paulina on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/paulinaokieffe/
Find Spoken Soul Collective on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/spokensoulto/
Learn more about SKETCH Working Arts here: https://www.sketch.ca/
Learn more about ArtworxTO Hub East here: https://www.artworxto.ca/hub/east-scarborough-town-centre
Find Rania El Mugammar on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/rania.writes/
Find Alica Hall on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/al_ik_ca/
FindvMahlikah Awe:ri. on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/mahlikah_aweri/