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Creative Alternatives

15 May 2011 No Comment

The Story of Creative Alternatives

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Story and image from their website : http://www.creativealternatives.co/the-story/

Creative Alternatives is, at once, a network of inspired social innovators committed to deepening the relationship between creativity and interdependence & a platform from which Nisha Sajnani has provided training and facilitation on the role of the arts in healthcare, education, and advocacy. Check under the ‘repertoire’ for examples of past and present collaborations.

Creative Alternatives is a community partner with the Montreal Life Stories Project.

The Story

It was the Spring of 2001. Upon invitation and following an introduction provided by Celine Leduc, I arrived at the front steps of a cobalt stone doorway barely visible through the unruly ivy covered awnings of Lorne Street, Montreal. I knocked and She answered. Mildred Ryerson, or ‘Millie’, embodied a spritely rebellion which was only tempered by her own school-masterly steadfastness. I came to think of her as my very own Miss Havisham with the notable difference that “Millie’ had been married – and not just to anyone- but to Mr. Stanley Ryerson, a symbol of Canada’s Communist Party. Millie, in her navy polyester straight-cut dress and whispery halo of white locks, ushered me in to Stanley’s library. She apologized for the mess and explained that she had just been screening a documentary about the French Revolution for a few friends and some of Stanley’s old students.

Stanley Bréhaut Ryerson (1911-1998), a multidisciplinary intellectual, author and militant, had adopted a Marxist perspective of history. His reputation has continued to attract new generations of leftist historians and activists.

Mildred Helfand Ryerson (1913-2003), was a recipient of the Order of Canada in 1987 in recognition of her role as a pioneer in community engaged, occupational therapy amongst marginalized and indigenous communities.

Millie looked at me. I mean, she stared for about ten minutes. We sat in silence. I think I was drinking apple juice. A young woman descended the front stairs, introduced herself as Millie’s lawyer, and sat with us – also in silence. Finally, Millie began by telling me that our mutual acquaintance had told her about my interests in integrated approaches to social development and that she felt like I might be interested in a proposition of sorts.

“Would you consider taking over my Center?”, Millie asked.

I glanced over at her lawyer and then back to Millie.

Millie continued to explain that, at 88 years of age, she wanted to travel the world and sip cocktails on the French Riviera (that’s exactly what she said). She recounted how she had been recruited as a nurse during WWII and how her father had generously supported her combined artistic and social ideals when she returned to live in Greenwich village, NYC and later when she moved to Montreal. She had opened and nurtured community health centers in St. Henri and in the Plateau. Her vision was unique in that she endeavored to create spaces in which women who were attempting to re-enter the job market, those who had been homeless or socially dispossessed in other ways, could find community, financial stability, and recreate meaning. Meaning, for Millie, was deeply intertwined with one’s relationship to one’s own labour and therein lay her own Marxist leanings. Her work was at once occupational therapy, an arts-based therapy, and an example of a social economy enterprise.

I considered the number of times I might be in a position like this one and whether I could rise to the opportunity presented.

I returned home later that afternoon and called up my good friend and colleague, Amy Thomas. I told her what I could remember of this strange tale, emphasized the bit about the French Riviera, and asked her if she would like to co-direct this Center with me. Thus began a most memorable adventure.

Millie had a best friend named Eva. Eva was a wirey, determined, 97 year old woman with a sharp wit and a no-nonsense attitude. She would tell us stories about her adventures with Reuben Schwartz when he was setting up his now very famous Hebrew deli on St. Laurent back in 1928.

She was playful too and had a wicked sense of humour. Amy and I were facilitating a theatre workshop atSantropol Roulant, an inspired meals on wheels program down the street, and one of our games involved pretending to ‘die’ a dramatic death. Well, when it came round to Eva’s turn she just shook her head, stared disapprovingly at all of us, and proclaimed ‘ That’s not death! I’ll give you death!”

Then she gasped, clutched at her heart, clawed at the air, and fell to the floor.

silence.

None of us moved and neither did she.

I inched towards her as did a few of our participants. At the point where Amy and I were hovering right over her, she opened one eye and said ‘Now, that’s death’!

Eva and Millie liked to oversee the order of things in the shop and made sure Amy and I knew right away if we had moved the pencils or the yarn from their proper place. In fact, Eva would often come in earlier than both of us, along with her personal assistant ‘George’, to rearrange anything we had shifted the day before. The two of them could often be heard bantering, gossiping, laughing, and chiding each other.

Amy and I would often joke that we would be like Eva and Millie one day. Well, life unfolds in mysterious ways. Property values went up and our little Center fell victim to the gentrification already well underway in the Plateau. If you walk past Hotel De Ville and Duluth today, you will see a series of apartments. There are but traces of the intergenerational, convivial mish mash of women, teachers, artists, students, and activists that used to grace the front steps. Out of our desire to restore a space for hope and creativity to thrive as it had in Millie’s vision, we co- founded Creative Alternatives in December of 2002 and, together, convened many vibrant spaces of learning until 2006. Creative Alternatives continues today under the direction of Nisha Sajnani.


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