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By Judy Chiao, teacher, Burnaby

Our team at Burnaby North Secondary often discuss the lack of visibility, opportunity, and meaningful engagement for individuals with diverse needs. While some students with diverse needs are included and celebrated in school events and extracurricular activities, it is often the result of advocacy from parents and teachers. And even then, the opportunities for participation are nothing compared to the cross-district opportunities available to student athletes and high academic achievers. This is not the fault of school districts, administrators, or teachers, but we all should bear the responsibility of moving toward inclusion, instead of it just being a word in our school plans.

These conversations led to an idea for a cross-district art exhibit where schools across multiple districts could connect, create, and build community around students with diverse needs. For the Access program team at Burnaby North Secondary, it is another step in our work toward intentional inclusion, which provides meaningful experiences for students, creates opportunities for students to engage with the community, and supports students and their families. 

Each artwork in the exhibit was created by a student artist. Together, we brainstormed and experimented with various household tools to ensure that each student artist was able to participate and create their artwork with minimal support. While some students required more support than others, we were able to maximize independence by modifying tools to support the needs of each user. The brushstrokes, patterns, and shapes were determined by the student artist—we were just there to facilitate their movements. 

Finding a community partner to host our exhibit was challenging. We needed a partner that shared our values around diversity and could provide a space large enough to accommodate twelve schools across three districts. Most of the venues we approached were not interested in holding a new event with no history of success. Others were only interested if we were able to bring in media coverage. A serendipitous opportunity revealed itself through a colleague who connected us to the team at the Roundhouse in Yaletown. Their vision and mandate aligned with ours in stretching boundaries, challenging perceptions, and, most importantly, building community.  

The team at the Roundhouse took this project on as a partnership for BC Youth Week, which meant they incurred all the expenses, from the cost of the venue, to the cost of the professionals involved and the staff that supported the exhibit. The team also understood the importance of providing not just a platform for our students with diverse needs, but also providing a curated, polished, and prestigious experience for the families and friends of our students and community members. They brought together visual artists, as well as professional technicians for installation and lighting, to transform their exhibition hall into an art gallery showcasing the works of 93 student artists from the Burnaby, New Westminster, and Vancouver school districts. 

Students who participated in this exhibit conveyed tremendous pride in the dis-play of their artwork. Xander Sanchez (Burnaby North Secondary) said that “a lot of fans have started loving and liking” his style. Ibolya Iakab (New Westminster Secondary) said that his family “invited friends to the show; there was a great opportunity to meet friends and spend time together.” And Lain Calfrobe (New Westminster Secondary) said “it was such a nice thing to know my art was at the Roundhouse Community Centre and my family is proud of me for making it this far.”

For many of the families, the highlight was the evening of May 6, which brought together hundreds of families, educators, and community members to celebrate the student artists. The evening was a celebration of all the work happening in each of the participating classes, and closed the exhibit in a polished and prestigious fashion. A string quartet from Burnaby North Secondary led by the talented Kyumin Lee provided music with performances by Ayat Abdul-Sahib (Burnaby North Secondary) and Ready Dance, an inclusive dance company that brings together artists with and without disabilities. Our wonderful principal David Rawnsley provided catering for the evening, and volunteer students assisted guests and ensured everyone felt welcome. 

The support of the team at the Roundhouse and their belief in this art exhibit ensured all the students and their families felt valued. The feedback we have received from this exhibit has been both heartwarming and heartbreaking: while all the families celebrated by taking copious amounts of pictures, giving us warm hugs, and showing genuine gratitude, we were also faced with the glaring reality that opportunities such as this are few and far between for students with diverse needs. 

The past few years have forced us to evaluate the injustice toward Black communities, the bigotry against Asian communities, and the enduring harm that has been the reality for Indigenous communities. Perhaps, as we continue to learn from our past mistakes, we can also reflect on our continued mistakes. Creating equitable opportunities for the most vulnerable is the path toward a better tomorrow for everyone. We must each do our part if we want to see change, because doing nothing should no longer be a choice.

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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine