Image Description: A participant in our Art of Me performance residency taps a drum in front of their peers. To the right, UA Teaching Artist Evie Digirolamo smiles and shakes a tambourine.
Upstream Arts’ first Art of Relationships class began in the fall of 2014. Since then, the work and curriculum has evolved and changed to better align with the needs of our disability community. As a result of teaching this class and listening to our community, Upstream Arts joined a coalition of organizations whose goal was to work on “upstream” prevention solutions that addressed the epidemic of sexual assault and violence perpetrated against individuals with developmental disabilities.
On August 8, 2020 following coalition work and testifying in front of both the Minnesota State house and Senate, Upstream Arts and other like-minded organizations were successful in our advocacy work to pass new legislation, which now requires all Direct Support Professionals to receive training on how to support individuals with disabilities in understanding their rights to bodily autonomy, consent and healthy balanced relationships. Our continued work facilitating our Art of Relationships classes is a part of our advocacy work, our mission, and our drive to undermine the sobering statistcs of sexual assault and violence experienced by our community.
Lindsey Samples and Evie Digirolamo are two of our Teaching Artists who have spent the last year revising and deepening our Art of Relationships curriculum. They sat down to discuss with Elle Thoni, our Development and Communications Assistant, over Zoom.
ELLE: So how do you describe our Art of Relationships residency to people in your life?
LINDSEY: I first say that it’s a Sex Ed Class, because that locates the types of topics that we might be talking about, but then I say it’s a sex positive class; it’s a class about healthy relationships, healthy boundaries. It’s a class about identity.
EVIE: That’s a great description. When we started to think about expanding and deepening the curriculum, we asked, “what are the core things that we are trying to bring?” And then we were like, “oh, the first thing that we should talk about is body autonomy.” That’s our groundwork, that’s where we start. And then expanding outwards to trusting your body, to listening to the signals it gives you.
ELLE: Thank you for fleshing that out, Evie. That was a question that came up, Lindsey, when you talked about Art of Relationships being a sex ed class AND a sex positivity class is – why is it important to say both of those things?
LINDSEY: What has been brought to my attention in teaching this class is how little information folks have received – myself included! It feels like this material is definitely fresh for participants in a lot of ways – it’s different for every individual, people have different grasps on different topics – but I’ve noticed that it’s also fresh for staff as well. So we’re all learning!
It shouldn’t be, but it does feel pretty radical to be talking about, “what do I want in a relationship? How do I communicate that?” It just feels like we’re cracking open a lot of possibilities of being in the world that have not been presented as possibilities to our participants before. They’re often seen as asexual or not interested. We’ve heard, “oh, they just don’t think about this stuff” and not like they have a right to this information.
And that’s definitely our approach, that everybody has a right to this information and can use it as they choose.
EVIE: Yeah, we’ve definitely seen that there’s a history and a culture around denying the sexuality of people with disabilities, and a denial of education. Most of us to some extent have had some sex ed, but a lot of times if you are recieving a Special Education service – you straight up don’t get a class at all!
Also I think there’s an attitude that the best way to protect against violence or harm is to just keep [people with disabilities] in the dark about anything having to do with sex.
ELLE: Oof, sounds like a lot of stigma. So I’m really curious what drew you to the program initially, or what’s really resonated with you since –
EVIE: I remember as soon as I heard about [The Art of Relationships], I knew that I wanted to be a part of it, partially because I believe that art is such a powerful tool for exploring all of human experience and that this was a really exciting way to explore something really powerful, deep, and impactful with art. And I agree with Lindsey that as soon as I started teaching the class, it started teaching me.
I would think back on my own sex education and be like, “I was never exposed to this. I never was offered the chance to say, ‘my body belongs to me.’” With that statement in particular, we’ve had so many staff – both of Upstream Arts and at partner sites – and participants being like, “that was so powerful – that changed me.” So these messages resonate in my own life and have helped me do a lot of self-exploration.
LINDSEY: Yeah, same. I’ve been on since the beginning [of Art of Relationships] and it has changed quite a bit since it began, but I have to say hands-down “my body belongs to me” is the most powerful thing that’s come out of it for me. It has changed the way that I teach – I use that phrase in every class. I really want youth and adults to hear it. It feels so powerful to tell someone, “op, no you can’t do that to their body, because their body belongs to them.” It’s just so clear.
It’s something that I use for everybody – including my child. (Laughs)
EVIE: I love the way that autonomy and consent have been infused into everything we think about at Upstream Arts. Like, I still have autonomy in the way that I want to be supported, even if I need physical support. Whatever kind of support it is, I have a say in how it happens. And it’s not just physical. We think about consent in terms of what kind of language is used about us, or what kind of things we want to share or not share – it infuses all the work.
To learn more about the Art of Relationships and more of our residency models, visit our Residencies page.
To learn more about our policy advocacy, read this blog post.