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2020 UP Award: A Virtual Celebration

Charles Baldwin, Program Officer

Abilities Dance Boston performance featuring Artistic Director Ellice Patterson. Photo: Bill Parsons.
Abilities Dance Boston performance featuring Artistic Director Ellice Patterson. Photo: Bill Parsons.

Last week, our Universal Participation (UP) Initiative proudly presented the 2020 UP Award to Abilities Dance Boston. The UP Award is a $10,000 prize presented biennially to an organization that realizes the four core principles behind the UP Initiative in an exemplary manner.

Instead of a traditional, in-person awards ceremony, this year we celebrated the UP Award via five-part, livestreamed event generously hosted by HowlRound. The sessions honored UP Designated Organizations, included musical performances, and modeled Universal Design practices within virtual spaces.

“The irony is not lost that at a time when all of us are denied access to our cultural treasures because they’re closed due to COVID-19, here we are celebrating access. But, maybe this is the best time. Our field is facing recovery and rebuilding. And when we rebuild, we have the opportunity to redesign our programs and our spaces for inclusion. To leave behind once and for all the legacy of white privilege that is the birthmark stamped on so many of our organizations, and to invite the unheard voices to speak and to design the change we seek,” said Anita Walker, Mass Cultural Council Executive Director.

Over the five sessions, we celebrated the following organizations for their excellence in access and inclusion:

Community Asset Award
Open Door Arts

Council Recognition Awards
Barrington Stage
South Shore Conservatory

UP Award Finalists
Abilities Dance Boston
Arts Emerson
The Discovery Museum
Tower Hill Botanic Garden
Wheelock Family Theatre

UP Award finalists were nominated by their peers and each received a $1,000 prize.

Our UP Award winner, Abilities Dance Boston, was chosen because of the passion and drive of its Artistic Director Ellice Patterson, its amplification of the vocabulary of aesthetics and movement, its just treatment of audiences and artists through communication enhancements, and its commitment to community building through social partnerships, training forums, and artistic collaborations.

“This organization was founded in this hard moment that I was facing in my life of not feeling that I had the space to be able to reach and grow and have the opportunities that my other artistic colleagues were embracing in the greater Boston area. From that has grown this amazing organization. There’ve been setbacks and challenges and even today we’re realizing that we’re still struggling, The identities of the members within our company are struggling. But we hope that through this work, we’re able to foster understanding. And we’re able to say intersectionality rights means black rights and human rights. We’re hoping to push that forward to show access is possible in all of our spaces, and that given the platform we are able to do anything,” Patterson said.

Additionally, Open Door Arts (formerly VSA Massachusetts) received a Community Asset Award for their years of commitment to Universal Participation.

“I was struck by how timely receiving this award is. For our team, for the organization, but also for the community at large. The last couple of months, and particularly the past week have given us stark reminders of the deep inequities and systemic injustices affecting our communities. We continue to see how systems of oppression intersect with one another, we know that disabled people of color have been disproportionately affected by the COVID pandemic. And we know that about half of the people who are killed by police have a disability. So where do we go from here?” said Nicole Agois, Open Door Arts Executive Director.

Barrington Stage Company and South Shore Conservatory each received Council Regional Awards.

The goals of the UP Initiative are two-fold:

  1. To help organizations understand their responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  2. To activate systems change and inclusion practices on this foundational work in effective and innovative ways.

To achieve these goals, the UP Initiative provides peer learning opportunities for cultural organization staff and seed grants for their new accessible endeavors, while centering people with disabilities as artists, leaders, teachers, and consultants.

“UP is a direction, not a destination. When we launched this program, we saw the ADA not as the pinnacle, but the platform on which we advance our work. It’s not about tolerating and accommodating. It’s about bringing forward the voices of the unheard. And making change. Persistent, relentless, urgent change. These past two months have been wrenching. We grieve for the sick and dying. We feel for the millions who have lost their jobs. And we’re angry, because people in our own communities must live in fear because of the color of their skin or because they look different,” said Walker.

The aspirations behind the Initiative are adaptable from within the context of each organization but are critical to mobilizing change:

  • Vision – of leadership, of mission, and woven into the fabric of procedures and practice
  • Education – of staff, boards, volunteers, and the field and/or discipline
  • Representation – people with disabilities are consultants, teachers, artists, leaders in both site evaluation and program design
  • Innovation – the need to try new accessible methods and think creatively about barrier removal in physical, cultural, and digital environments.

The power of the UP Initiative is realized not just in applying principles of Universal Participation but through its community of practice. It is the people … in amongst the makers, the practitioners, the archivists, the audiences, and the teachers… who are leading this movement. We are grateful to be able to work with and serve these stewards of change.

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