Performers pose as part of a moving statues sequence in The Art of Me performance

Image Description: A split Zoom screen. To the left, Julie Guidry, a dark-haired Italian woman, gestures expressively as the sun streams through her window. To the right, Board Chair Steve Anderson, a white-haired man, grins widely from his home office.

JULIE: Let’s talk about the online Open Enrollment class you just observed. What did you think? How was it?

STEVE: I really enjoyed it. Everyone was engaged! You could see it in their faces and their bodies. One thing that surprises me the most about Upstream Arts classes is that you make the effort for everyone to feel like they’re a part of the class. If a question is asked to participants, there is no rushing the answer. 

And as a person with a disability, I know people make assumptions. We live in such a “hurry up world,” that when someone asks a person a question who maybe can’t formulate the answer as quickly as they want, they will A) go on to the next person or B) answer for the person assuming they know what they’re going to say. And if you have that happen to you over and over again, it’s no wonder some folks are hesitant about saying something – and so they don’t say anything at all. 

I’m sure you’ve seen participants who at the beginning of class are like, “nope, no way,” but by the end, they’re making moves towards self-advocacy. And believe me, that will carry over to other parts of their life. 

JULIE: Yeah. I mean, we always talk about the assumption of ability being a really strong tenant; everybody can and will participate provided there are the right tools to show, share, and say who you are and how you wanna show up in the world. I also want to say that that variable of time is an underutilized point of access, right? If we allow time to be released a bit, people can choose when they want to engage and participate, and I think it ensures people feel like they’re in a space that is welcoming, where you can show up in a time that makes sense for you. I love that you always notice those really elegant details that are so important to our work.

So let’s talk a little about the experience we’ve all just gone through in the past year, right? This global pandemic. Degrees of isolation depending upon your experience. And I think that what we know is that folks with disabilities, particularly those with developmental disabilities, have been more impacted by the pandemic than many: more isolated, and more at risk from the effects of COVID than many. And so I want to hear what you think: what’s significant about now and the work we’re doing?

STEVE: After a year going through this, I find myself looking back and for the large part – you don’t hear about people with disabilities. You hear about a lot of different groups [COVID] is effecting, and I totally agree, but they’re leaving a huge segment of society out. The statistic I’ve seen is that 25% of the population has some sort of disability. In my current role of Director of Disabilities at Hamline [University], I hear how that is drastically affecting students at school and in their life daily. 

It is vitally important to keep those creative juices flowing. Even if it’s through Zoom. 

JULIE: Absolutely. I think that what we know is that our adults with disabilities are being isolated from the community and their peers. And in that isolation I have great concerns about how people’s everyday experiences have really diminished over time. And the practice of engaging in the arts, engaging in being in community, even if it’s in a new environment like Zoom, is critical. We don’t have to like it, but I think that we can still get value out of it. It doesn’t have to be our preferred modality, but it can absolutely still change us from the inside, to help us feel just a little bit less isolated. 

And now, we’re seeing our community come together in these spaces in ways that I think will continue after the pandemic is over. Because boy, won’t it be a nice choice to be like, “I can choose to engage in-person or online,” Like, we just opened up a whole other layer of choice! I’m excited about that. 

OK, so let’s talk a little bit about our spring theme of ReFocus. What does that mean to you, what does that mean to Upstream Arts, what does that mean for us collectively?

STEVE: I really like that idea of “ReFocus.” As horrible as the pandemic was, there are some good things that are gonna come out of this. So as you do with a camera, let’s refocus, and see what picture now comes into focus. And see what that means in terms of what Upstream Arts does, and what pictures our participants have. How has the picture they had pre-pandemic changed? Or has it? And I think that’s fabulously exciting. To see what can come out of that.

Even my work at the University. Pre-pandemic, if I were to go to a faculty member and say, I have a student who needs to take this class remotely for a certain number of weeks, the faculty would be pulling their hair out, like “this can’t be done.” But one of the things this pandemic has done is show all our faculty that it can be done and it wasn’t as horrible as they thought it would be.

I think the assumption was that to make adjustments, you’d have to move heaven and earth, and you really don’t. Post-pandemic, you can’t unsee what you’ve seen, and you can’t undo what you’ve experienced. 

JULIE: Yeah people are realizing, oh we could’ve been doing this all along. When there was enough momentum, the collective will ultimately changed. And I wonder if there’s a way for us to bottle that wisdom and apply it to other experiences that may not represent the majority. Whether it’s 12% or 25% of individuals in our society living with a disability, I don’t know if a percentage needs to be so significant to hit a tipping point to make decisions for change, or if we have to flex the muscle of creativity on an ongoing basis to ensure that people can feel welcome, to ensure that people have a choice to be able to participate, engage, work, socialize, in a way that most aligns with them. 

And I want us to develop some more flexibility. I think ReFocus is about developing a flexibility of mind, for me. A flexibility of thought. A flexibility of really leveraging the creative practice. This is why I think artists are the best, most well-suited, not only to do our work, but I think to do the work of some really complicated systemic practices that we have. Because there is a creativity that is used as the primary lens to coming up with solutions to complex problems.


You can learn more about our Open Enrollment classes on our Take A Class! page.

And Save the Date for The Art of We: Re•Focus, our Annual Fundraiser and Photo Exhibit, and join us in celebrating how we’re refocusing our work to be its most accessible and far-reaching yet.

The Art of We: Re•Focus
Thurs, April 29 6-7pm CST 
Online over Zoom with Audio Description, Closed Captioning, and ASL provided