Published On: June 21, 2023By

I’ve had many opportunities to work on purposeful projects since starting at UpHouse. It feels amazing, but what really blows me away is how intentional our team is while working behind the scenes. Conversations about what we’re doing are often followed by who we need to engage with to get things right – whether it be consulting people with disabilities about the barriers society places in front of them or meeting with youth to learn how a community space can best meet their needs.

Working with UpHouse has taught me that representation isn’t just about showing diverse faces in the final creative.

It’s about listening and learning from diverse voices at each stage of the process.

Carmen and Terry preparing ingredients with Stacha

Recently, I had the opportunity to consult with Carmen Grey, a horticulturalist and Indigenous woman for our social media work with Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries’ DrinkSense division. In our brainstorms for what to post on National Indigenous Peoples Day, we came up with the idea of developing a pine and cranberry mocktail made with locally gathered ingredients traditionally used by Indigenous Peoples in Manitoba. So, knowing that authenticity would be one of our biggest concerns, we reached out to Carmen.

We met for an initial consultation and were immediately swept up in her knowledge and stories. Carmen grew up spending time with her family outdoors, collecting sweetgrass with her mom, helping her dad in the garden and chasing her brothers through the tall grass. During this time, Carmen’s parents taught her about respectful land stewardship, while nurturing her interest in local plant life. Carmen has worked as a horticulturist for 15 years now, and while sitting and listening to her stories I couldn’t help feeling that it just made sense. Learning about Carmen and her experiences became as much a part of the process as learning about local plant life and their uses. Her knowledge and personal stories were intertwined – one couldn’t exist without the other.

We left our meeting with Carmen bubbling with fresh inspiration and the excitement of learning something entirely new to us.

Talking to someone about something they’re passionate about is one thing, but speaking with someone with authentic experiences, someone who grew up immersed in that subject is entirely different.

Their personal experiences bring a new dimension to the topic that helps you view things from an entirely different vantage point.

If we hadn’t talked to Carmen (or if we had just relied on Google for our research), we still would have delivered on our client’s ask. But we would have missed out on an opportunity to share a full, authentic picture with their audience. The post wouldn’t have authentically celebrated the culture and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples, it would have just been an outsider’s depiction. Instead, Carmen was a staple throughout the entire writing and recipe-making process and was more than happy to answer our questions and share her suggestions. She gave us feedback on word choice, offered advice on where to ethically source tobacco for gift giving and connected us with her mom, Terry, who graciously agreed to join us for the photoshoot.

Carmen and Terry gathering sap

Our crew met for the shoot at Birds Hill Park on a Saturday morning. When Terry and Carmen arrived, they immediately got to work starting a fire. While we looked for pine sap together,

Terry and Carmen explained how to harvest from the tree and make offerings in thanks for what we were given.

When we stood around the fire waiting for the cranberries to pop, Terry began sharing her own stories – stories of growing up close to nature with her parents and grandparents, collecting plants for her grandmother and dog sled rides with her grandfather in the winters. Terry said she did her best to pass on her appreciation for nature to her kids. She taught them how to give back, about reciprocity and now, Carmen was passing on her knowledge and appreciation to others in turn.

Carmen and Terry cooking drink ingredients over the fire

After making an offering of tobacco, our crew wrapped the day feeling incredibly grateful for the experience we had (and with the sudden need to go camping). An experience we wouldn’t have had if we didn’t consult with a community voice, and an experience that enriched both our work and ourselves.

Moral of the story: working with authentic communities goes beyond exchanging services for invoices

(though it’s always essential to compensate people for the time – especially if you’re relying on their knowledge and expertise). Collaboration is ongoing, and don’t be surprised if what you hear sparks a new direction. What you learn will follow you, enriching your work and your life beyond the scope of the project.

 

In addition to seeking out new experts and collaborators, we’re also lucky to regularly work with our favourite creators, including photographers, like Kendra Penner of Kendra Hope Photography. She’s helped to capture these moments and countless others for the UpHouse team. You can see more of Kendra’s work here.

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