Key questions and themes of Ask Jay Anything session

On Tuesday, Nov. 1, the City of Kitchener partnered with Ms. Jay Pitter with Jay Pitter Placemaking to offer community members the opportunity to ask questions about the recently launched Queen Victoria statue initiative via an Ask Jay Anything Instagram Live virtual event. The notes below are a summary of the key questions and themes asked during the session.

Has the outcome of this process already been determined?

Absolutely not. It has not already been decided. It would be disingenuous for us to have a conversation if we've already made a decision. As someone who has done a lot of work on this subject matter, I can tell you that different decisions have been made in different cities. I'm not coming in to impose a perspective. I do not have a bias. This is a process for your city, the people on the ground who've been shaping this conversation and everyone else who resides in the city. I want to acknowledge the Indigenous peoples who have been leading this conversation—the artists and the activists. We are not going to be speaking over them during this conversation. I am walking alongside those individuals and others who have not yet had an opportunity to join in the conversation. Everyone has strong opinions and positions on the statue, and I am coming in to listen to everyone.

In fact, I think that this is a great opportunity for us to listen to each other, for us to learn together, and then for us to come up with a decision that makes sense in this context, in this city, but also because my practice is equitable and equity-based, I will definitely be unapologetically looking for a solution that is equitable, that makes sure that we all belong, that we all feel safe and valued. Together, what I plan on doing is bringing forward practice expertise and precedents that are aligned with every single option that is on the table right now. And I will begin to unpack the pros and cons for each of those options and then invite the community to do that. As someone who's done a lot of work in this area, I will tell you that nobody gets 100% of what they're looking for. However, using an equitable placemaking approach, I’m striving to ensure that everyone feels heard, safe(r) and valued.

Could you tell us a little more about the process and how people can contribute and be part of this dialogue?

We’re developing an educational guide to support people in having this conversation. My team has put together some key educational points about this statue. And again, some local activists and artists have already started that conversation, pointing to when it was erected and the group that erected it. We're building on that work, pulling information together about this statue because it has different meanings and historical points for different groups within the community. We are also putting together some resources for how to have a conversation like this in a good way. I want everyone to understand that the way we have this conversation, how we treat people when we become uncomfortable, how we treat people when we hear a perspective that is difficult for us to hear, is as important as the outcome of the this process itself. I'm going to say that again, this process and how we treat each other in this process are as important as the outcome of the process itself.

Regarding the previously mentioned guide, we will include resources for folks who might be new to having conversations about race and not sure how to navigate it without deep shame and deep guilt because it doesn't have to be that way. Being accountable and being blamed are not the same thing, so we're putting together resources to help people prepare for the conversation. We also have resources for racialized folks for whom this conversation represents triggers and intergenerational trauma. We have resources for taking care of yourself as we go through this conversation. And then we also have some readings, TED talks, and podcasts so people can prepare for a productive and generative conversation. And let me be very clear about something else as well.

When I talk about having a productive and generative conversation, I am not talking about a conversation that demands a certain kind of civility that mutes emotion. I'm going to say that again for everyone. We are not having a conversation that demands a certain kind of civility that mutes or diminishes or crushes emotion. I know that in public conversations, we tend to be very nervous when people express righteous rage or when people express grief and sadness. But we can't have conversations like this without creating space for authentic and legitimate emotion. And while people are being emotional, I want them too also be responsible. You can feel righteous rage, grief, and guilt. You can also feel as though you're being left out, and those feelings are all legitimate. I'm not here to judge anyone's feelings; I’m expecting everyone to manage not mute their feelings.

How do you respond to people raising issues of safety in the park?

I think that's a question that is broader than this particular conversation. I have been to the park. I think that the safety issues are multi-layered and multi-dimensional. A lot of people do not feel safe when there are large groups of unhoused people outdoors. I would just say to people that statistically, you are less safe in your own homes and in your own social circles. Unhoused people are the vulnerable ones. I'm not diminishing that you have that feeling as you're walking through the park, and I’m aware that there are issues. No space is entirely safe or free of risks.

There are clearly numerous issues in the park, which point to larger structural issues related to poverty, diminished mental wellness and lack of affordable housing. In my experience, when we're talking about fraught sites or fraught symbols, we are never only talking about one site or one symbol. What we are generally talking about is change and structural exclusion. That's what the broader conversation is. And as I humbly walk into this project, one of the things I will share with you that I've noted in terms of the City of Kitchener is that you're experiencing tremendous demographic and cultural shifts. You are experiencing a housing crisis like the rest of the province now. You are experiencing food insecurity like so many other communities. You’re experiencing a digital divide. I'm going to name that as we're having this conversation on Instagram, and I'll talk a little bit more about how we'll make sure that people will be able to plug into this conversation offline as well. And when cities start to experience all these things at once, conversations become really tense and polarized.

And while it's very uncomfortable for everyone, especially for those individuals suffering navigating these larger issues, we need to realize that we have an opportunity here. We have an opportunity to talk about the kind of city that you want to be. This is not just a conversation about a statue or a symbol. This can be a larger conversation about how we can create places throughout the entire city where everyone belongs, and how we can begin to address growing issues such as the housing crises and food insecurity. I'll give you an example. When I work on monument projects in the American South, naturally, I am bringing together African-Americans and European-Americans to talk about that particular historical legacy. But during those conversations, I also talk about the visibility or invisibility and safety of LGBTQ+ folks. I also talk about accessibility and mobility. I also talk about elders and isolation. The beautiful thing about place is that it extends beyond race. I'm going to say that again. When we are talking about place, we have an opportunity to have a conversation that includes, because we're not going to shy away from race, and extends beyond race. This enables us to bring our full selves to the process and engage all aspects of our identities such as age, class, ability and so much more.

So, let's not waste this opportunity Kitchener; let's talk about the changes that are happening in your city and how you can be the best possible Kitchener--- a city that embraces everybody.

What did you mean when you said you were going to engage with activists? What do you mean by activists?

All activists. I'm here to engage with everybody. This is a public process. I know that might be startling to people when I say that I'm going to engage with activists, but I'm unapologetic about that. When we are talking about equity, activists are often the people that sound the clarion alarm, whether we like the way they do it or their tactics or their tone is irrelevant. Everyone deserves to be heard.

Why are we doing this work? Where did it start? Where, when, and how did the question about the statue arise? Is that something you're able to comment on?

I believe that several activists sounded the alarm on some of the issues and the complex dimensions, not only pertaining to the statue but about the park and social justice challenges across the city more broadly. And so that's a part of why I acknowledge them in the opening because it often does take a few courageous voices to go out in front to say, hey, there's an issue here, and we need to have a conversation. I think that that's where it began, and I know that a lot of folks on the city's parks team who are on the ground working with and talking to people in the park, played a role in making sure that this came to the decision-making tables. I want to acknowledge all those individuals who played a role in starting this critically important conversation.

What are the three options on the table regarding Queen Victoria's statue?

The options previously established by the City of Kitchener are removal, contextualization and the commission another piece that would stand alongside the statue.

What has been the result of communities that have participated in a consultation process like the one you've laid out for us? And what kind of place has the consultation created because of that process?

That's a great question. All three outcomes on the table are all outcomes and processes I have led. And I'll tell you a fourth outcome that isn't currently on the table, which is moving the statue to another location. Sometimes statues get moved into a museum or a cemetery where it is historically contextualized. So that's the fourth common option. But the processes that I've led have had all outcomes that are on the table that the City of Kitchener currently has on the table. Other outcomes include creating grants for impacted groups and other people to do some animation at those sites as well that reflect our current values and that bring communities together and that heal communities. I love that kind of outcome where we create resources for the community to animate these sites and heal from these difficult histories. Other outcomes include daylighting Indigenous histories and Indigenous ecologies and redesigning sites (sometimes constructing visitor centers that amplify multiple histories).

How do we acknowledge some of the history through this process while also looking forward?

I know that when it comes to conversations like this, people really want to just move forward, past especially painful and inequitable eras. However, we cannot move forward until we reconcile with the past, until we have the courage to confront the past and walk through the discomfort of the past. An example of grappling with these histories emerges from my work on Confederate monuments. A white urban farmer, a young man with a wicked record collection, collaborated with an African American archivist. And they went through the archives and found the names of African Americans bought and sold at the site in question. They carefully gathered that information together, side by side in the archives, demonstrating that this is everybody's work and that we can all identify a productive role in reconciling with the past. So, these two men from very different experiences worked together, and then we had a witnessing circle where approximately 15 individuals from every background, every race, every age, every sexual identity and gender expression, read out the names of those individuals who were bought and sold at the site. We wanted to collectively pay tribute to and humanize the individuals while building relationships across differences among community members. It was a powerful process and beautiful experience.

Can you explain the timelines or life cycle for the project?

A community discussion: witnessing circle is being planned for Nov 24, 2022. We are going to have an in-person witnessing circle inclusive of a light meal. There will not be hundreds of people yelling into the room; that’s not how we get down here. We will open the circle by hearing just from a handful of folks. And we're not hearing their opinion on the options; we’re hearing their experience in relation to the statue. Afterwards, everyone will be able to share their experiences over a meal and we’ll have moderators at each table. We're going to practice listening and sharing our experiences in relation to the statue. The ways that people are framing this conversation in some ways are incredibly black and white. Or some are suggesting that there is an Indigenous perspective or a Black perspective. That doesn't exist. No community is monolithic. Even within communities, we have tensions, we have differing viewpoints. We're going to listen to all those tensions and those differing viewpoints at the witnessing circle.

After the witnessing circle. I will then be doing another engagement where we bring the three options forward. I will talk about some of the pros and cons of each option. I will bring forward some precedents for each option, and then the community will get to unpack the pros and cons, add to the list, talk about the precedents, and then after that convening, understanding that not everybody is going to be available for that or even feel comfortable in these municipal settings, what the city has done is compiled a list of community organizations who will have small conversations with their clients or their membership groups so that they can weigh in on the options as well. So, we're having larger sessions and then many small sessions to make sure that we reach as many people as possible. The City of Kitchener will have some online engagement as well.

How do you plan to protect Black, Indigenous, and racialized people during this consultation process?

Wow, that's a very big question. What I can tell you is this I cannot protect anyone. I have to be really clear about that. In this practice, I never reference safe spaces; I talk about safe(r) spaces. And I'm very specific in my language because I do not believe that anybody can guarantee absolute safe space, even within racial groups or groups where people share a similar sexual identity, people can experience diminished safety. Again, sadly, I cannot protect Black and Indigenous peoples in this conversation. But what I can guarantee is that I am taking all the proactive steps to make sure that it is a safer space. So, putting out those education and supportive materials on the front end of this process.

When will online options be available?

Community members will have a chance to learn about some of the options for the statue online and to share their feedback. And that'll be around January 2023. If you're interested, please subscribe to the Engage Kitchener page and you’ll get a notification when online opportunities are open.

What is the scope of this project? Will it include a plan to deal with other monuments?

That's another great question. This conversation will point to approaches and potential policies and resources that would implicate other sites and monuments. But the main conversation is indeed about the future of this Queen Victoria statue. I will be working with the City of Kitchener on the staff report, and I tend to think structurally and spatially, so I’ll also have my eye on the bigger picture. The short answer is somewhat.

Is there a danger in trying to erase and/or hide history?

There's absolutely a danger in erasing history or sanitizing history. That's a real concern. We don't want to erase or sanitize history. The parts of our histories that are painful or that don't reflect contemporary values shouldn’t be erased. There's a danger then of history repeating itself. Regardless of how we move forward, this is an important principle. Adding context to history and including the histories of people whose histories have not been valued, embraced, formalized or honoured is not erasing European history. I want to be very clear: there is enough space and justice for all of us. And in 2023, when we are leading placemaking processes, we need to be thinking about daylighting Indigenous histories and place names and ecologies, workers’ histories, migrant histories, disabled peoples’ histories, women's histories and more.

Why are the discussions happening on Instagram?

We are ensuring that in addition to online conversations, there will be several opportunities to have offline conversations. There will be flyers distributed around the park and the statue. There's also the option of registering for every event via telephone. We also have a list of 60 community organizations to whom we're reaching out to, to host some smaller community conversations in smaller, intimate, safe(r) spaces.

Is it possible that the final solution doesn't actually look like any of the three options that are currently being considered?

I think that that's something I would have to consult with the City of Kitchener on because I have inherited three options from what was passed at council. I'm picking up at this point in the project's lifecycle. However, if I do feel very strongly about a fourth option, I do tend to put forward those types of ideas with a strong rationale and leave it up to the municipality to decide what’s best. At this point, I’m truly focused on listening and learning.

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