An Appeal to White People: Relearning our Concepts of Good Will, Intention, and Inclusion

Alissa Firth-Eagland
(This is an abstract. The full essay is available by clicking here.)
Cities need to be created and designed by people of good will. Exercising good will is hopeful. It expresses deep belief in reciprocation, co-intentionality, and a shared design of our future.
Canada has a 400-year history of assimilation and Indigenous resistance, which began with the legislated removal of the human rights of the Indigenous peoples living here and the claiming of their land by our ancestors: colonial settlers. Until Indigenous peoples in Canada can self-determine laws, education, community structure, and governance, the conscious, unconscious, and constructed racism that has subjugated Indigenous peoples will continue. People who self-identify as white can show good will towards groups subjugated by racism, economies, class structures, government policies, and systemic expulsion, but only without expectations for reciprocal gain.
This text is an appeal for self-determined co-intentionality. Co-intentionality is the willful exertion of energy by diverse parties in a shared direction undertaken with the belief that it can result in change: people with autonomy determining common needs. Self-determination is the right to live as one chooses. It is the power of a people to decide its own political status, independent from outside interference. It is not given, artificially assigned, or even offered. Indigenous self-determination is community action driven to respond to community needs and desires.[i] This right has been stolen from Indigenous peoples with deep effects on culture, spirituality, and language.
As white people, our responsibility is to radically restructure our colonial relationships to Indigenous, immigrant, and culturally diverse peoples. Our role is not to speak for others but to speak for ourselves. That can be our contribution to changing the system. The only way I know how to confront racism is to speak for myself, not for others.
I’m a settler and a curator. Settler colonialism is lodged in capitalism’s economic language of exchange. Curatorial practice is entrenched in a history of decision-making. Left unchecked, these histories assimilate collaborative, creative relationships. The word curator means ‘to care for,’ and previously this referred to caring for a collection of works by deceased artists. More recently the definition of curatorship has shifted to mean assembling temporary exhibitions in white cubes. My preferred definition of curators is that we create public dialogues about art and ideas that address the world in all its complexities.[ii]
How does the practice of a curator change when working with artists and communities who value self-determination above all else? To act as a chooser in this case can over-determine potential outcomes, but more seriously, it can verge on the assimilative. This can be a critical moment of learning for a curator because it requires more mediative and meditative skills: negotiation, relationship-building, reflection, embodiment, and presence. In cases like this, working co-intentionally can transform the individuals involved and the commissioning organization. This requires a different kind of care, and that means—in contrast to historical and even many contemporary approaches—that artistic intent supercedes curatorial intent. This co-intentional approach trusts that the intentions of both will be satisfied if the intentions of the artist are satisfied.
Co-intentionality, at its best, is destabilizing, especially to dominant parties. It’s not easily packaged with established processes like proposal-making, consultation, advising, and mentoring, which is typically how inequitable social hierarchies are structured. It requires for all parties to define what is needed for their communities, and then for one to let go. Both as an organization and as individual members of that organization, Musagetes is relearning our responsibilities and role as a cultural broker in Guelph and as an international producer of socially engaged artistic projects.
Because power structures of colonialism reproduce themselves still, our cities are in a state of deep disrepair, socially, economically, politically, and physically. Until we become curious about ourselves and our own subconscious suppressions, we remain part of the problem. For those in positions of power, like white people, we need to acknowledge our own privilege, and more seriously, our complicity. What motivates people to get involved in their cities? How do we co-intentionally define resilience with all voices? How can we not only include people and welcome them in, but co-create our intentions together? This must be done with eyes wide open, humility, and a conscious search for shared intent. We must open our hearts and minds to difficult conversation and we must be ready to change. After all of this, we might be ready to receive an invitation from Indigenous peoples to work co-intentionally towards a mutual objective, such as a more just, healthy, and resilient world. 
Featured image: Underground Railroad Quilt, presented to Guelph Black Heritage Society by Reta and Don Raegele of Guelph. Courtesy of the Guelph Black Heritage Society
[i] My understanding of this concept is informed by dialogue with artist Cristóbal Martinez.
[ii] Karen Love, Curatorial Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Curators, 2010. Accessed online October 24, 2104 at