The STEPS Initiative

Background 

STEPS is a Canadian-based public art organization that develops one-of-a-kind art initiatives and engagement strategies that transform public spaces. We are responsible for Canada’s largest and most community-engaged public art initiatives. Our record-breaking portfolio includes over 100 complex projects executed within scope and budget. Together with our partners, we transform urban areas into vibrant public spaces, helping artists, community organizations, BIAs, and developers push creative and technical boundaries—breathing new artistic energy into our public spaces.

At STEPS, we believe that public spaces—as sites of community—are disappearing. It is our mission to validate diverse lived experiences, celebrate local culture, and foster inclusive spaces for people to gather, connect and participate in building vibrant cities. Art can not only aesthetically transform these spaces, but serve as a language with which citizens can create shared spaces that foster civic engagement. We provide a platform for citizens to lead initiatives that validate their experiences, their community’s cultures and histories, and their concern for social and environmental issues, all while transforming their community’s public spaces.

The City of Toronto has recently released the Toronto Public Art Strategy (2020-2030) that asks artists and art organizations to incorporate truth and reconciliation into public art as a means of celebrating Indigenous culture, educating the public about Indigenous history, fostering the agency of Indigenous creators and communities, and supporting Indigenous place-making. The strategy has outlined 21 actions to promote art in general across the city that are premised on increasing inclusivity and truth and reconciliation. Three of their actions speak directly to how arts organizations can best integrate truth and reconciliation into their work and how to boost Indigenous representation across the city:

  • “Action 1.5 Create new skills development and leadership opportunities for Indigenous artists, curators and art consultants in the field of public art“
  • “Action 2.4 Engage Indigenous communities to identify sites of significance across Toronto for Indigenous public art projects“
  • “Action 3.4 Advance Indigenous place-making city-wide through public art“

The efforts to incorporate truth and reconciliation stem from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) that provided a report outlining the history, the impact of the Indian Residential Schools system on the lives of the children, families, and communities involved, and 94 Calls to Action that the government, governance bodies, and the public alike should apply to help Canadians move towards a more united and just future.

For additional context see Toronto Public Art Strategy 2020-2030 and Summary of the Final Report of the TRC

 

Laird Station (PATCH) Mural July 7 2017 Alia Youssef-12Images courtesy of the STEPS initiative (Above: Laird Station; below: Riverside pollinator mural)riverside_pollinators4

Project Description

The STEPS Initiative is seeking to fulfill its role in advancing truth and reconciliation within the arts sector. While the Toronto Public Art Strategy outlined what it wanted truth and reconciliation in the arts to be, it did not provide strategies to guide non-Indigenous arts organizations in attaining these goals. Hence, the Toronto Public Art Strategy’s recommendations leave a gap and provide an opportunity for further research, development and innovation.

The primary focus of this project is to explore the role of public art in reconciliation, given the complex histories of stolen land and the processes of gentrification that characterize urban public space. The students are asked to evaluate public art and community engaged art programming’s potential to address reconciliation through the following means: research and engagement with the Indigenous community and the development of a framework which outlines best practices for STEPS to follow. This will ensure that our work supports and furthers the truth and reconciliation process within the public realm.

In this project, the client expects the students to design the following

  1. Identify:
    1. Identify and evaluate both the challenges and opportunities that arise when truth and reconciliation plays a central role in public artworks. How have consultants, municipalities and arts organizations integrated truth and reconciliation recommendations into their public realm projects?
  2. Research:
    1. Research current best practices, cross disciplinary approaches and innovative ways tocenter Indigenous voices, culture, history, and art within place-making strategies, and public art.
  3. Engagement:
    1. Identify and develop strategies to connect Indigenous artists, leaders and organizations and non-Indigenous art organizations, leaders and artists to identify gaps and opportunities for improvement and engagement.
  4. Develop a Framework:
    1. Consolidate findings into a guiding document that will help the organization and others like it to implement the truth and reconciliation measures. This document will include best practices, key considerations, and creative solutions to integrating truth and reconciliation into past, present, and future art projects and programming.

 

The STEPS Initiative Student Team

Yi Li is a fourth-year student double majoring in Industrial Relations and Human Resources, and Sociology. As a Sociology student and art lover, Yi recently took a course “Sociology of Human Rights” which speaks to the importance of acknowledging the past and culture as well as some of the shortcomings of the modern notion of justice and barriers of reconciliation; Yi would apply what they learned in the class to the STEPS Initiative project, as well as literature on the successful use of public art by minority groups as a tool in reconciliation. Yi formerly worked as a Conference Assistant at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Medicine, and currently volunteers as the External Communications Director for the University of Toronto Industrial Relations and Human Resources Student Association.

Tianyi Wang is a fourth-year student at the Rotman School of Management, pursuing a Specialist in Finance and Economics. Tianyi is interested in art and specifically the role of public art as the point of contact between different cultures. Their background as in Finance and Economics will allow them to assess the project on a cost and benefit basis, such as funding to support artists and public art engagement through modes such as transaction history and human traffic. Tianyi was a former intern at the Bank of China (Hebei, China), volunteered as a translator, and participated in a summer abroad program at the University of Oxford.

Rajpreet (she/her) is currently based in Tkaronto and is a fourth-year student in International Development Studies co-op and majoring in Human Geography (UTSC). She engages with alternative and community power mapping as research practice and currently working on her thesis on the public memorialization processes of the disappeared in Kathmandu, after completing a 10-month placement. As a spacemaker and builder, she values critical/feminist pedagogy, site-specific projects and community-based arts. Rajpreet would approach the STEPS Initiative project with the understanding of the symbolic and material value of public art and the centring Indigenous-led projects in fostering community discourse. At UTSC, she is the VP internal for the Geography and City Studies Student Association, a research and outreach assistant for the Women and Gender Studies Department and the community programs director for the consent culture campaign for the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union. 

Connect with Rajpreet on LinkedIn and Instagram

Randa Omar is a is a fourth-year student at John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, Technology Stream, and majoring in Urban Studies at Innis College. As a student of Architecture and Urban Studies, Randa analyzes and designs projects considering all aspects: social, political, economic, cultural, and aesthetic, which would be of asset to the STEPS Initiative student team Randa is the current President of the Architecture and Visual Studies Student Union, as well as a Research Assistant evaluating the intersection of slavery, colonialism, and gender in architecture. Randa is the recipient of the Jackman Scholar-in-Residence award, researching the use of classical architecture in slave-owning societies/colonies.