“A Place of Sanctuary:” Cultural Safety & the Clothing Room

Apr 26, 2018

Leading up to this year’s BC Elders Gathering in Duncan, the Elders group has started work on crafting regalia alongside Indigenous young women and youth. Larissa (pictured at left measuring fabric) has been a member and volunteer at DEWC for almost 20 years, and has previously graced the runway at Herstory in Focus, our annual fundraising event at the Vancouver Art Gallery. She is also an acclaimed graffiti artist and painter under the moniker “Gurl Twenty Three” whose work has been displayed in the National Gallery of Canada as well as in various community murals in the Downtown  Eastside.

Larissa’s artistry relating to regalia is closely tied to the clothing room, where she salvages and sources materials for her work. She volunteers regularly in the DEWC clothing room, where women in the Downtown Eastside access essential items ranging from jackets, tops, dresses and pants to shoes, jewelry and accessories. More than simply facilitating and organizing, Larissa extends welcome through her methodical care and intuitive knack for style, affirming each woman as special. “Sometimes I know right away when someone walks in which items are meant to be theirs,” she says.

As a member of the Anishinaabe First Nation, Larissa is actively committed to traditional customs and dance, and collects special materials from DEWC’s donated clothing room to create magnificent hand-crafted regalia that expresses her power and identity. Her selection process is both meticulous and creative, befitting the intricate nature of her finished pieces: a leather jacket was transformed into mucks and leggings, a camouflage scarf added contemporary edge, and abalone shells from donated shoes were sewn into the regalia, as well as tiny mirrors to reflect negativity. Under her thoughtful hand, donated garments became treasures, cultural elements and practice honoured in their restorative and healing capacities. 

Dancer in regalia
Black & White Regalia
Larissa in full Regalia
Larissa’s regalia, showcased in Herstory in Focus (2016 and 2017)

“I feel connected to the community now.  I am involved in very important work; I teach restorative thinking and justice to youth, I teach them about options and alternative thinking. We do this through artistic creation, like graphic design, drawing and painting.”

In a 2014 community safety audit, women of the Downtown Eastside spoke to the need for places of safety, with more than half of them naming DEWC as the place they felt safest. One often-overlooked element of safety is that of cultural safety, which means places of service provision are specifically tuned to engage with the realities of colonization, oppression and intergenerational trauma. Cultural safety goes beyond cultural competence to prioritize Indigenous-led initiatives, re-connecting women with cultural practices, Elders, and knowledge keepers on the long road to collective, community-led healing.

Cultural safety, while usually contextualized in the marginalization of Indigenous people, doesn’t exclusively affect those who are Indigenous. Developing a culturally safe space means Chinese seniors watching Larissa measure and cut fabric, delight and curiosity transcending language barriers, and the scent of sage permeating the centre, where hundreds of women from various backgrounds and nations will enter, eat, and access resources like the clothing room the next day. As Larissa calls it, healing comes from “a place of sanctuary.”

For more about the donations we accept, check our Donation FAQ. We’re currently looking for fabric, which will be used in arts and crafts projects in the upcoming Women’s Summer Market! More details on the market coming soon.

For more information about sponsoring this year’s Herstory in Focus event, contact engagement@dewc.ca.

Portions of this piece were originally published in our Spring 2017 Report.