Sync Leadership – leading online in Canada

By Joe on September 24, 2020

Sync Leadership is a disabled-led programme exploring Deaf and disabled leadership in arts, culture, heritage and media which combines leadership theory with one-to-one coaching. It was founded in 2008 by Sarah Pickthall and Jo Verrent, two disabled leaders based in the UK. Sarah Pickthall shares details of the latest Sync programme in Canada in partnership with British Council, Canada and Canada Council for the Arts, including how they’ve had to adapt the programme in light of Covid-19.

Singaporean man wearing a suit jacket sitting in a wheelchair
Past Sync Leadership participant, Won Young Kim performing in Love and Friendship Act by Zero(0)set Project, Seoul, 2019

“Learning there are many leadership stories, and that I can change the story, is the gift Sync gave me.”

Kelsie Acton, Sync Canada

Sync Leadership is nothing new; it’s a programme that at its inception in 2008, set out to develop Deaf and disabled Leadership in arts and culture.  It was the ‘break the glass ceiling’ programme that co-founder Jo Verrent and myself wanted to go on. It was a programme that didn’t exist – so we created it.

With funding from the Cultural Leadership programme in the lead up to London 2012, Sync began exploring the interface of coaching and leadership from a Deaf and disabled perspective. Since then, we’ve been supported by Arts Councils and British Council in different countries to deliver face-to-face programmes working with dozens of Deaf and disabled leaders at varying points in their careers.

The programmes support participants to forge ahead, considering and shaping their ideas, and confronting the complexity of barriers they face in bespoke Sync collaborative learning environments.

‘Sync Singapore 2019, was life-giving breath to me!’ 

Dr Dawn-joy Leong, Sync Singapore

For many countries, Sync was felt to be the missing ingredient in the personal and professional development of Deaf and disabled artists, producers and arts managers. Having run programmes in Australia, South Korea and Singapore, we were all set to roll out in Canada in 2020 – and then the pandemic struck.

I’m sure we can all agree this challenging time has laid bare the truth of the discrepancy and discrimination that Deaf and disabled people face to different degrees and across intersectional lived experiences.  And because of this, we know that there has never been a more important time to invest in and harness the innovation and leadership of Deaf and disabled artists, managers and their projects within their societies, to share survival tactics and techniques.

With funding in place to run two programmes in Canada, we reconnected via Zoom and made films with Sync Alumni WonYoung Kim (South Korea), Sofya Gollan (Australia) and Sally Booth (UK). We tapped into their Sync Leadership metaphors of old and new, exploring the impact Sync had on their careers as a way to promote the new programme to potential Canadian applicants.  We never imagined that a few months later we would have to consider the possibility of running the programme virtually.

Being in the same physical space with our cohort has always felt important for people to connect both in and outside of sessions and for the access to be tailored.  A virtual Sync, because of its access complexity, was something that Jo and I had to think carefully about. With the unwavering support from Carrie Hage from British Council in Canada, Canada Council for the Arts and David Bobier from VibrafusionLab, we started re-designing our programme online, alongside the creation of a new bilingual website for Sync Leadership. The only real proviso of the re-design being that those accepted onto the programme would need to have good internet connectivity. 

We were able to appoint a remarkable group of 8 people all with leadership qualities who we felt would really benefit from Sync in Ontario in June, designing a bespoke online programme with and for them.  We shortened the days, building in essential breaks to maintain energy, worked creatively individually and in plenary.  And as with any Sync course, we ensured stenography and ASL streams were available at all times and that everything visual was described.  Jo and I worked into the night facilitating five hours ahead of our new cohort in Canada. The essential coaching part of Sync has always been in part-delivered online and so this continued as before.

Two people reach out to touch Big Softie, a bulbous 12 foot soft sculpture monster, composed of soft and dimpled guts made from stuffed knee socks and nylon stockings, and examine the Unidentified Remains that are scattered amongst them. At the centre of it all lies Big Softie’s heart, a red patchwork soft sculpture with tendrils extending outward.
Body Farm by Valentin Brown (2019), Michelle Peek Photography courtesy of Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology & Access to Life, Re•Vision: The Centre for Art & Social Justice at the University of Guelph.

And with a huge sigh of relief, evaluation showed us that Sync online worked. One participant, Sean Lee is programme Director of Tangled Art + Disability in Toronto, and he has written about his experiences of the first virtual programme. Commenting on how the coaching techniques used in Sync can help curation from a disability perspective, Sean writes:

Rather than adapting disability to fit art, when engaging accessible curation, it is art that has to fit disability. In doing so, engaging disability arts creates a sensation of the political possibilities that nod to new frameworks of gathering and creating community. But in order to reach this potential, it is the artistic choices of the artists that ultimately drive our movement forwards. It’s here that I feel the ideas of coaching, as applied to frameworks of creative access, can tap into the political potential of disabled artists in ways that allow us to express a sense of interdependence in our worldly arrangements.

There’s more personal feedback, too, from choreographer, educator and artist Dr Jenelle Rouse’s blog about her Sync journey ‘from the hidden shadows into the light’.

We are now recruiting to run Sync in Quebec with applications accepted for eight places, six in Quebec Province, and two from across Canada, until September 29, 2020. This presents a further challenge that we are ready for, that of running the programme in both English and French with ASL and LSQ sign languages.

Several of those involved in the first cohort, including Alex Bulmer and Sean Lee, will join us online to deliver Sync in Quebec this October. On the back of this, we’re beginning to develop Sync modular learning through the new website designed by Surface Impression, who have offices in UK and Canada.

We are ready for the challenge – as we always have been – and whilst there is sadness to not be able to meet together in person for now, the support we have had this year to deliver virtually has meant that Sync can go anywhere, breaking ceilings and boundaries like never before and supporting our cohorts to go beyond what they felt was possible.

This still chimes beautifully with Sync’s original intention to break through, despite (and because of) the barriers to achieve Deaf and disabled-led transformational leadership and coaching environments for change.

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