Abstract: Arts Organizing As Antidote to State-Based Racial Violence: (Re)Building Community and Identity through the Powell Street Festival (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Arts Organizing As Antidote to State-Based Racial Violence: (Re)Building Community and Identity through the Powell Street Festival

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Izumi Sakamoto, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Jeff Tanaka, BA Hons, Research Assistant, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Emiko Morita, MA, Executive Director, Powell Street Festival Society, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Ai Yamamoto, BA Hons, Research Assistant, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Xin Jun Ng, MSW, Research Assistant, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background & Purpose:

During World War II, 21,000 Japanese Canadians (JCs) were uprooted, incarcerated, and dispossessed, due to Canadian government’s racist policies. In 1977, in order to rebuild community and reclaim space, a group of activists, artists, and community leaders came together to create the Powell Street Festival (PSF). Run largely by volunteers, PSF, now in its 44th year, is the most vibrant celebrations of the Japanese Canadian community in Canada, showcasing music, visual art, crafts, theatre, martial arts, pop culture, literature, history, scholarly work, activism, and food, attracting over 20,000 attendees every year. Arguably, PSF’s organizing body, the Powell Street Festival Society’s sustained grassroots organizing and arts-based activism have been crucial in facilitating space for JCs to define and revitalize their history and community in response to the multi-generational effects of state-sanctioned racism. While social work tends to conceptualize professional community organizing efforts, here is an exemplary effort by a grassroots organization and dedicated volunteers over four decades. What can social work learn from efforts like PSF that builds community and foster positive identity, which, in turn, fights against the lasting legacy of state-based violence within JC community and beyond?


This community-based case study has utilized key informant interviews, focus groups, participant observations, media analysis (e.g., the coverage of PSF) and archival research (e.g., JC newsletters). Community-based advisors have helped us identify key informants, including key organizers over the past 40 years. Also important has been a series of authentic dialogues among team members raising critical consciousness on our own social locations and relations to the community. The data have been analyzed in a dialectic, reflective approach where data were juxtaposed with each other, drawing from grounded theory’s constant comparison method (Smith, 2012; Charmaz, 2014).


Some of the contributors to make PSF as a long-standing, successful cultural festival were identified as: (1) the centrality of social justice principles passed down through long-term community volunteers influenced by the Asian-Canadian movement; (2) openness to embrace a wide range of cultural expressions and identities, including those with various gender expressions, generations, and immigration histories; (3) generosity to welcome the leadership of younger generations; and (4) outreach and collaboration with local residents who are experiencing extreme poverty and addictions. As an ongoing task, key organizers are challenging the complicity of JCs in settler-colonialism that continues to displace Indigenous peoples.

Conclusions and Implications:

With over 90% inter-marriage rate for past decades, JCs today are ethnically diverse. The artists PSF features have represented such diversity with a range of cultural and artistic representations, which, in turn, has pushed the boundaries of JC identities themselves. This case study contributes to social work knowledge by showcasing how the continuity of the community is paradoxically maintained by always embracing change, undergirded by anti-oppressive, social justice values. Social work research and practice with a cultural community must not simply rely on a conventional notion of community and pay close attention to the ever-changing practices within the community, and how art has a potential to facilitate such process.