EMMA Talks with Rebecca Solnit

EMMA Talks held their third event in partnership with SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement!

On February 17th, Rebecca Solnit  gave an inspiring talk to a sold out crowd at SFU (the Talk sold out in 7 hours!). Rebecca’s Talk was titled: We Could Be Heroes, and she cleverly weaved together many themes of her breathtaking and seminal work on hope, feminism, uncertainty, climate change and all the ways that ordinary folks create heroic change daily. She spoke on how heroes (we/you/us) act in face of the horrors we’re up against — and all the ways we show up with joy and passion to make a better world.

EMMA Talks’ fabulous MC Tahia Ahmed began the night asking us to reflect on the land and water where we live:

“Tonight, as we create a space for the un-silencing of women’s voices, let us also engage in mindful reflection of how the indigenous stewards of this planet are deliberately silenced and that these struggles are not distantly related but rather twin sisters in our pursuit of justice and liberation.”

The EMMA Talks directors are interested in the ways in which a thoughtfully curated community based art event can actively transform conventional audience/speaker dynamics by enabling different kinds of engagement. The EMMA team collaborated with the brilliant and talented community engaged artist Vanessa Richards, who led the audience in participatory song before and after Rebecca Solnit’s talk. The singing was an action that encouraged a creative, participatory and immersive engagement, which allowed us to begin to explore the possibilities of collaborative art-making as a community response to important issues and ideas.

Vanessa asked us to unsilence our voices: “We made mention of our voices being silenced. There’s cultural silence, and then there’s our internalized silence. If anybody ever told you, you shouldn’t sing, I give you an opportunity this evening to reclaim your voice.”  

Rebecca began by asking the audience to share some of their Heroes, because as she said:

Where do we get that belief that ordinary people can change the world? From the past. And from the present — from the kind and quality of stories around us. Not because I want heroes so much as I want intervention — but in a way I do want heroes, I want people to experience those emotions we don’t talk about much, the emotions of public rather than private life, of hope, solidarity, joy, power, voice. Those emotions are themselves transformative; they bring you into a new sense of self or reward a self that’s transformed itself by entering the public realm”

Some of the most playful moments of Rebecca’s talk brought a lot of laughter, and joy — especially when she compared happiness as being the “wall-to-wall carpeting of the psyche.

And of course, feminism was a strong thread that ran throughout the talk — with the most tweeted quote from the night being: “everyone should take a moment to be incredibly grateful to feminism, and then extend that moment for the rest of your lives…”

It’s been just a few weeks since Rebecca’s talk and we are still hearing from folks about feeling inspired, and thinking about all kinds of new ways to engage. Rebecca is undoubtedly an important writer and seed-planter extraordinaire and we were thrilled and honoured to host her for EMMA.

And if you missed the talk, no worries — you can watch here and along with all the previous talks on the EMMA Talks webpage!


The night didn’t end there, though:

Vanessa returned to the stage, brought us all to our feet and called on us to take in fully all that Rebecca was asking us to do — because after all it’s not up to Rebecca to get us moving, it’s up to us!  We began with a song that is inspired by the Buddhist compassion practice of Tonglen:

Breathe in the pain
Breathe on out the love
Let my heart be a place
Where this world is changed forever.

Vanessa continued to lead us with grace and ease in singing a few more short songs, ending the night singing a shortened version of David Bowie’s song Heroes, which the title of Rebecca’s talk was inspired by.

After Rebecca’s talk and our group singing, folks gathered in the World Art Center, where we shared food and stories and purchased Rebecca’s incredible books. The books were sold by the awesome Pulp Fiction crew, and Rebecca was on hand to meet folks, share stories and sign books.

These final words from Tahia continue to resonate weeks after the event, and so we’ll leave you with them:

“Both Rebecca and Vanessa have demonstrated the power and necessity of shedding our silence, and that our collective voices are not only powerful but instrumental in embodying the heroes we are. They have reminded me of some words from Arundhati Roy,  “There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” I encourage us ALL to carry the words and songs that we have heard today in our hearts and in our activism.

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The core purpose of EMMA Talks is to bring important stories by women identified* writers, activists, thinkers, storytellers, makers and doers, from the periphery to the public. For these speakers, whether they are new to their work, or seasoned professionals to come together and share the stage.

*including two spirited, trans* and gender nonconforming folks.

EMMA is an acronym for Engaging Monalgoues Mutual Aid. Central to our mandate is a radical autonomy for the speaker to choose what they wish to talk about and for how long — and there are no Q & As — the speaker is given the stage to have the first and last word!

Mutual aid works in a couple ways:

We solicit donation for each talk and they will be divided in two:

1. 50% of donations at the door goes to the speaker’s choice of cause/project/individuals:
For the past event we raised $300 for the Unist’ot’en camp

2. 50% will pay all the tech and support staff
Speakers will be paid by partnering institutions and grants
We will produce terrific, high-quality video shorts of each EMMA talk for our website so that folks can share widely, and thus amplify the speakers’ voices and ideas

For further information about EMMA Talks and our up and coming events, and to view videos please visit our website

This EMMA Talk was generously supported by Simon Fraser University’s: Vancity Community Engagement, Faculty of Communication Art and Technology, BC Arts Council and a handful of wonderful volunteers.

photos by EMMA Talks event photographer Vivienne McMaster

Post by guest writers carla bergman and Corin Browne, co-directors of EMMA Talks.