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Introducing Elevate & Amplify, Canada’s first virtual conference centred on BIPOC voices within design and social change! Mark your calendar for June 3rd, 2021 from 1-5pm EST and read on for a conversation between our Co-Organizers, Jenn Chan and Vanessa Toye, about reflections on their process and vision for the conference.

Jenn: For years, as a practitioner in the design and social innovation space, I felt like something was missing from the conferences I attended. I started getting increasingly frustrated when I attended the Spark Conference in 2017. That’s when I reconnected with Vanessa Toye. 

Person wearing a baseball hat and red plaid shirt standing in front of a screen.
Spark Conference 2017

Vanessa: Shortly after Spark, I asked Jenn to get a coffee with me so that we could talk about a conference experience that left us shocked and shaking our heads. It had been a few years since we last saw each other, and while it was a moment to reconnect, it was also validating to hear that someone was noticing the same things that kept getting swept under the rug or firmly rebuked. Over the years, the incidents at conferences and gatherings kept piling up and we longed for something different — somewhere we would feel heard and seen.

Jenn: It was so validating to know that all the “ick” feelings I had been having about how social innovation practices were really deepening colonization and upholding white supremacy were shared by others. For me, it was a session led by two white women talking about “Land-informed academic practices.’ They were speaking about Indigenous ways of learning when an Indigenous Woman in the session spoke up to inform them that they had misunderstood the cultural roots of what they were sharing. Rather than stop themselves and listen, they got defensive and attempted to validate their perspectives. At that session, and many conferences after that, I felt like there must be something better. 

Vanessa: Jenn and I had never wanted to organize a conference, but now here we are excited to tell you about Elevate & Amplify. We have been working on the first conference in Canada centering BIPOC voices in design and social innovation for a few months, but it has been years in the making.

At other conferences, any kind of colour was often paraded out at the openings and closings and in music and artistic flourishes strewn between, but what about the faces on the main stage? Our industry always talks about our work being person-centred and collaborative, but we only get to see a single person on a stage telling a shining heroic story about their impact. We always found ourselves wanting to know what the process was really like, what failures did they learn from, and what impact did they really make? In particular, what negative impact might they have made without their own lived experience? How would the story have gone differently if it were being told by someone racialized? 

Jenn: How would the project have been different if led by the community, or if power and ownership were shared? What if the success metrics weren’t locked in place with a funding application, but instead co-designed with the community? How is the work shifting away from dominant and mainstream narratives towards alternatives that are culturally and community appropriate? All of these questions were so very present for me as I continued to work within the social innovation field. I struggled to find a conference that answered these questions for me. 

Vanessa: Every time we shared our experiences with other BIPOC, we’d hear that we weren’t alone. They were seeing the same things we saw and feeling the same things we felt. We knew something had to be done, we just didn’t think we were the ones to do it. And then the aptly named Restorative Design conference by Greater Good Studios in Chicago came along and we were uplifted! The speakers, the topics, the short format, and the little touches to make the experience more inclusive inspired us. 

Jenn: The Restorative Design Conference was everything I wanted from a Design Conference at the time. In 3 panels, I learned about trauma-informed design, social justice and the built environment, and decentering whiteness in design. These 3 panels offered their own food for thought and after participating, Vanessa and I decided instead we could model our conference after this one with our own perspective on equity in design and social innovation. We knew we could —and had to — take action and plan this conference. 

The Equity Principles of Elevate & Amplify are: 

  • All-BIPOC presenters to show the wealth of diverse talent and experiences working across Canada
  • To expand the definition of who is a designer or a social innovator to folks working to actively make the world a better place 
  • Demonstrating that to truly learn from failure, reparations and new approaches are needed 
  • Providing ASL interpreters without anyone having to request the service 
  • Paying speaker honorariums before the conference happens 
  • Building a sliding scale ticket pricing based on privilege and power 

Based on these principles, we have curated 3 panels. 

In the first panel, Navigating Systems that are not Designed for Us, we will hear stories from 3 organizations who would typically be seen as the “recipients” engaged in design processes who are now charting their own paths and designing alternatives. 

In the second panel, Beyond Broken Promises of Co-Design, we will hear from 3 designers who have adapted their practices and approaches to their work as they learn from failure. 

In the third panel, Now what – how do we do Systems Change?, we will hear from 3 folks leading systems change work and how they grapple with the day-to-day tensions of solving immediate and urgent needs versus investing in long-term change. 

Yellow background, black text. Text reads: Elevate & AmplifySave the Date: Mark your calendars for June 3, 2021 for Elevate & Amplify. Tickets go on sale on May 13th, 2021. For the most up-to-date info, follow us on social media on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. 

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