Brave optimism

Brazilian newcomer Mariana Garcia goes out every day into Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to empower women to belong

by Janet Nicol

Since emigrating from Brazil two years ago, Mariana Garcia has empowered others to belong — even though, as a newcomer, she was still trying to fit in herself. She has done this by working with an artists’ program for women in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood — Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

“When I came to Canada, I wanted to work for a non-profit,” Garcia says from her small studio apartment in Yaletown. “That was my goal. I wanted to work for social programs.”

The soft-spoken young woman, whose first language is Portuguese, was born and raised in Belo Horizonte, a mountain city in Brazil. She also went to university there, learning business and marketing skills. Hired as a corporate consultant trainee after graduation, Garcia travelled and worked all over Brazil. She advised oil companies, banks and telecommunication firms. In only eight years, Garcia had risen to senior consultant in a male-dominated profession.

“We helped the companies restructure, reduce costs and increase profits,” she explains. “There were about 1,000 consultants in my firm. I learned a lot.”

At the top of her career ladder, Garcia was ready for a different challenge. “I questioned why I was doing this work. It was all about profits for the stakeholders,” she says. “I did some projects for the government as well, in education and health. I liked this side.”
Garcia visited other countries while on vacation from her high-powered work, including Canada — where she travelled from coast to coast.

“I really liked Canada a lot,” she says. “It’s very easy to live here. People are super friendly.
Everything is organized. The country is beautiful. People are respectful. In Vancouver, people are very socially responsible. I like the way they think.”

And so Garcia quit her job in Brazil, said goodbye to her friends and relatives, and bravely immigrated to Vancouver on her own.

“It’s hard to be far from family,” Garcia says. “I talk to my mom every day. I telephone or email family and visit Brazil once a year. But I have made new friends here from Brazil and Canadian. I meet them through other friends, through work, going to the gym and socializing.”

Those friends also helped in her initial job search. “I had friends here so I was able to give personal references, but I did not have work experience in Canada,” she says. “I gave work references from Brazil.”

Garcia’s job hunt took two months. She met with success when she applied for a position at the Atira Women’s Resource Society, a non-profit group providing housing and shelter for women, many of whom have experienced domestic abuse. Atira offered Garcia a part-time position as co-ordinator of its program Enterprising Women Making Art (EWMA).

“The first thing I was asked to do was to write a business plan,” she remembers. “I didn’t have much knowledge at that time of the Downtown Eastside. I was being intuitive.”

When Garcia was hired, only three women were participating in the program, working in a small room at Atria’s head office at 101 East Cordova St.

“I started to get artists [in the greater community] involved,” Garcia says. “We had several workshops and artists volunteered to teach. We managed to get studio space in a heritage building [at 54 East Cordova St]. It has been renovated and has high ceilings and brick walls.”

The program became more popular as more women living or accessing services on the Downtown Eastside began to join the workshops. They learned to make crafts, knit, crochet, paint and sew. Eventually a few of the students became teachers.

“We help them to create products. And then we help to market them,” Garcia explains.

“Some of the artists are single mothers,” she says of the 30 or so regular participants. “Others have mental health issues or are older and on their own and lonely. They are all artisans. That’s what they have in common.”

While the primary aim is to make women self-sufficient, Garcia has realized this is not always possible. Sometimes the impact is smaller, but still valuable.

“They don’t all want to make an income. Some come to the studio to socialize, to have a community,” Garcia says.

“But I have noticed the changes in the women,” she adds. “Some who are very shy and very quiet are now talking a lot and are very comfortable. They often change their style, their clothes.”

Garcia also sees an evolution in their work as time goes on. “One woman makes beautiful jewelry for brides,” Garcia says. “She uses very expensive crystals, silver and fresh water pearls to make necklaces. She was making $10 earrings and now she is making necklaces that cost $200. So it’s also about confidence.”

Garcia’s marketing skills have also benefited the women and the program, which now has a store where the women’s art pieces are sold.

The EWMA store is at 802 East Hastings, on the main floor of a heritage building known as the Rice Block, with 42 apartments providing housing for women by Atira. The cozy retail space, neighbouring a corner grocery shop, is tastefully furnished with tables, walls and shelves and displays a variety of handmade crafts and art work at very reasonable prices.

“Before we got the store, I went to craft fairs with the women,” Garcia says. “We went all over the city. But when we got the store, it was much easier.”
And more successful.

“I was the only paid staff of the EWMA program,” Garcia says, “but now we have a store manager. Before that I hired volunteers to work in the store. That was challenging. Now the store manager hires volunteers to work on the days she isn’t there.”
Still, marketing the store in the poor neighbourhood was a challenge.

“It wasn’t getting much pedestrian traffic,” Garcia says of the store’s location, “so I started ‘East Fridays,’ an open house at the store on the first Friday of the month. This is my Brazilian nature. We have musicians and we have well-known artists show their work. Lots of people come and they shop as well.”

Garcia also has helped build partnerships with other local groups, too.
“We were part of the East Side Cultural Crawl last year,” Garcia says. “It costs $100 per artist so I talked to the organizers and asked for a sponsorship.”

The store’s website (ewma.info) is also the result of a partnership with students at the Emily Carr Art Institute. The site features biographies and product samples of 15 EWMA artisans.

Garcia has also connected artisans with corporate clients. A Vancouver accounting firm bought 300 pieces of jewelry to use as gifts for their clients. Other companies have bought pottery mugs for their employees.

“The artisan gets 85 per cent of the proceeds of the sale and EWMA takes 15 per cent. I am now trying to get clients for our sewing artisans,” she says.

Even though she’s accomplished a great deal, Garcia acknowledges helping women on the Downtown Eastside is challenging. “It is more complex than I thought,” she admits. “It is also very political and can be very tiring.”

What Garcia also finds shocking in Canada is the “disconnect” among families. “In Brazil, poverty is far from your own reality,” she observes. “But, here, it is close. It could happen to you.”

She says some of the women she works with have family members who could help financially, but choose not to. “In Brazil, family is very important. This wouldn’t happen,” she says. “I see people dying when I go to work. It’s very sad. They are in the back alley behind the studio smoking crack.”

Garcia says it’s important she remains optimistic. After work, she goes dancing, takes yoga classes and watches movies. “Every night I pray,” she says.

But Garcia adds her experiences working with extreme economic contrasts have led to an interest in international development work. She would like return to university and pursue graduate studies in this area. In the meantime, at press time she was entertaining a new job offer as manager of retail services and programs of Battered Women’s Support Services, a non-profit organization that helps women affected by violence.

“I am happy to be in Canada,” Garcia says. “And I am glad I am able to give back, too.”

Reprinted from The Canadian Immigrant, April, 2010

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