DONOR SPOTLIGHT: Kathy Moscou

By Jackie Black

To help celebrate the launch of SKETCH’s Spotlight Scholarship fund, we’re speaking to artist, educator and researcher Kathy Moscou! Currently an Assistant Professor at OCADU in the Faculty of Design, Kathy’s background is eclectic and unique – merging visual arts with equity-informed health policy. Kathy’s lived experience informs her art, focus on Black cultural aesthetics, and contemporary design for social justice.

Recently Jackie, SKETCH’s Resource Development Administrator, spoke to Kathy about her journey with the organization, how art can be used as a tool for building healthy communities, and the role of design thinking in every industry. 

Kathy Moscou

Jackie Black: Before we start talking about SKETCH, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about yourself, your pronouns, and what you like to do.

Kathy Moscou: I am Kathy Moscou and I go by she and her. I wear many, many hats that include being a visual artist and educator, a former health care provider, and researcher. And in my spare time, well I have none. But I do like to read, and connect with people. 

Jackie: Hopefully those things can show up in work as well. Beyond the title of donor, you’ve occupied many roles at SKETCH. Can you speak to your journey with the organization?

Kathy: Well, you know when I saw this question it gave me the opportunity to reflect on that. I’ve been a champion of SKETCH for more than a decade now. I’ve been a volunteer, a Board Member, and a donor. And in part, that was because when I was first introduced to SKETCH, I could see it understood implicitly, the role of the arts in contributing to holistic health. In other words, supporting mental health, physical health, spiritual health and emotional health. 

As a visual artist and as a former health care provider, that was very important to me. That’s why I continue to be a strong advocate for SKETCH and the work that it does working with youth, living on the margins.

Jackie: Are those intersections part of what inspired you about SKETCH in particular?

Kathy: Absolutely. You know, I remember when I was on the Board of SKETCH we talked a lot about being a space that could help to transform lives and communities – in part by empowering youth, who are living on the margins to be change agents.

And these are things that we discussed quite a bit on the Board- how it is that we could do that at that time. And I’m pleased that a decade later, not only did some of those ideas come to fruition, but they have grown in ways that I had no idea that they could grow. I continue to be inspired by youth-led social justice projects that are incubated at SKETCH. 

In the past, I have worked with Indigenous youth on research exploring what leadership looks like, how community gardening supports holistic health and how communities foster youth leadership and holistic health.  When I look at what SKETCH is doing now, they too are looking at how it is that SKETCH can engage with the greater Toronto community to create that safe and inclusive space for youth and I am inspired by the fact that SKETCH actually recognizes that the community is bigger than the four walls of its building, but rather it encompasses the surrounding local neighbourhoods.

I can tell you that I remember when SKETCH was at its original downtown location and then it moved out by Gladstone, and now it’s where it currently is now [Artscape Youngplace]. And in each of those spaces, because I was on the Board during all those moves, so I can attest to the fact that in each of the neighbourhoods that SKETCH has resided, that it has seen itself as being a member of that neighbourhood and in trying to contribute actively to the surrounding neighbourhood. All of those are the kinds of things that I think contribute to a healthy neighbourhood.

Jackie: And so recently you donated specifically to SKETCH’s Spotlight Scholarships for Black Artists initiative. Do you mind speaking to what motivated you to support that campaign in particular?

Kathy: Well I’m a Black woman and I have a lot of lived experience with racism and understand what that lived experience is all about. And so in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, many institutions decided “oh we need to create a statement in support of diversity and equity and inclusion”, and that’s good. But true support needs to be actionable. And so what I see is the Spotlight Scholarship for Black Artists as well as the NextUp! Leaders Lab for racialized youth are actual projects that are there to address social injustice and anti-Black racism by providing opportunities for Black leaders and Black artists. And so I want to put my support behind those projects for that reason.

Jackie: That’s great – I look forward to sharing more updates with you as both programs begin to launch. Moving onto your work specifically, which I’m sure you can describe a lot better than I, but it addresses the ways in which equity driven health policies can foster healthy communities. 

Similarly, could you describe the role that art plays in this process of community building?

Kathy: Well, my research has been examining the intersection of governance and health equity. And I’ve been doing that for more than a decade. And it’s so important because governance influences national and local policy choices, or the lack of policy choices, and things like allocation of resources that are necessary in order to achieve specific policy agendas. All of those have a profound effect on social determinants of health, such as housing, food security, racism, education and the like.

And so governance is also important in fostering a healthy neighbourhood and determining whether or not that neighbourhood is inclusive, and can support holistic health. And I think that this is achieved in part through the support of creative spaces for youth. As I mentioned previously, I saw SKETCH doing its part to be an inclusive, safe space within a community. It’s important to have those resources in order to support youth in all of their intersectional identities.

We need safe, inclusive, and empowering spaces, where youth can gather in the absence of anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, anti-xenophobia, and anti-LGBTQ2+ biases. In my work, I have certainly used arts-informed research, like photovoice, in order to work with youth to identify what is important for them in terms of what makes that neighbourhood healthy and what shows an inclusive neighbourhood.

And so in that way, I’ve been able to merge arts-informed research with my own art. The piece that you see behind me is about COVID-19. You know, it’s called “Love in the time of COVID”. I managed to merge all of these things together, in all the intersectional identities that are me.

Jackie: And so you definitely touched on this already, but can you expand on how art can be used as a tool to address social justice?

Kathy: I think that importantly, art can both inform, and it can lead to reform. And so for me, art is a visual commentary to motivate social change. A lot of my pieces actually look at that. I hope that the viewers who look at my body of work will think critically about contemporary issues such as anti-Black racism, equity and gender identity and I have pieces around all of these topics. 

I look at Elders as knowledge keepers, and so you’ll see a lot of them in my work as well. I recently did a piece inspired by the late John Lewis. His final quote resonated with me. In the quote he says, it is this generation’s turn to lay down the heavy burdens of hate at last and let peace finally triumph over violence, aggression, and war. And so, I think that kind of message is really important. 

I like to use symbolism in my art. A lot of times I’m using hair, beads, things like shells, in my art to give cultural context, which is really important to me, but also to put it in multilayered complexity. So, I hope that each time someone looks at one of my pieces, that they’ll find something different that they didn’t see the first time. I think that art is the messenger in order to try and motivate change and that’s what I try to do through my art.

Jackie: That’s incredible. It reminds me of the quote by Toni Cade Bambara, about the role of the artist being to make revolution irresistible. I think art is such an accessible first step towards social justice for a lot of people.

Kathy: Absolutely. And I do that through visual art, but people can also do it through music. It’s interesting because when I was young, I listened to a lot of Hugh Masekela, and he’s done a lot of liberation songs. And I listened to those songs with great reverence, you know. But when I was in South Africa, I actually had an opportunity to see him live in concert, and what was amazing to me is that these songs that I listened to for the message out of context, were in context party music. Everyone was dancing in the aisles, and it is in that way in which you can touch the general population that is so important to inspiring a movement.

So, art can do that. Whether it’s music, whether it’s visual arts, whether it’s theatre, poetry. I listened to Amanda Gorman’s poem and how she touched so many people at the inauguration for Joe Biden. And so, art can do that in a way that other things can’t. I can do that through my art in a way that my articles in a professional peer review journal can’t. I mean that’s a different audience when I’m writing for an academic journal, and this is the audience I reach when I’m trying to reach other people. 

Jackie: The two sides of your brain must be so active all the time.

Kathy: That is very true because there’s the side of my brain that is a visual artist, and the other side which has a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences and global health. So I am definitely active in both areas.

Jackie: That’s actually the perfect segue into my next question, because I think SKETCH spends a lot of time trying to communicate the connection between art and capacity building. So where do you see art and design being applicable and useful in spaces that aren’t necessarily traditionally thought of as “artful”, like the health sector, and in which ways are these skills transferable?

Kathy: What’s transferable is art and design thinking, thinking about the possibility. It’s not the space where the thinking happens, but the design thinking itself. You know, I teach a lot about critical speculative design. It is about reflecting on the things that are designed, whether it’s a product, app, campaign, systems, environment, buildings, a painting – you know, that speculative critical design thinking needs to go into everything to ensure that number one, racism is not perpetuated, and that equity and social justice are advanced.

A good example is the spirometer, which I championed for years, and I still do, as a device which is used to help empower patients to monitor their breathing so that they know when they are having issues and can either take medicine or do things that are necessary. However, that very same spirometer was designed with racialized metrics – and in racializing those metrics they denied claims to Black individuals who had an asbestos exposure lung disease (mesothelioma). So, when you’re using design thinking, and speculative design and critical design, it implores us to actually think about those things.  If you put garbage in and get garbage out.

So, we need to think in advance about what it is, what’s the purpose for why those things are being designed in a certain way? Consider another example. I’ve been in washrooms where they have those electronic faucets and I put my hand up there a dozen times and I can’t get the stupid things to turn on. My research led me to the reason I can’t get them to turn on is because the light sensors respond better to fair skin people. All of that is built into design. So again, that’s where design thinking is a transferable skill from art into health, into every aspect of our life.

Jackie: Those were such powerful examples. I think a lot of people think of art as a product when really it’s a process.

Kathy: Yeah, that’s a good way of looking at it.

Jackie: Through your work with OCAD University, I read in your bio that you want to work towards transformative education. I was wondering if you could expand on this concept. What does it mean, what does it look like to facilitate transformative education?

Kathy: I think it ties in a little bit to what it is that I was just mentioning about in terms of critical design thinking. Transformative education requires us to think critically about our underlying assumptions. And so when we talk about transformative pedagogy and talking about decolonizing education and institution, we’re doing this in order to get future leaders to think about what their own underlying assumptions are and then also to help develop those skills in order to make them socially conscious, ethical leaders that want to work with local and global communities to design a more just society.

And so what I see is my role is in guiding students to then examine their personal assumptions, and to examine their own world view and to think as I mentioned before, about what it is that they’re designing. It’s not just about aesthetics, okay? We’re making real choices about what’s designed and I hope they’re designing things in order to create that more just, equitable future. And all of this is really important because how it is that we conceptualize design and design problems, influence power and privilege.

And so for me, transformative education is helping me to play my part in helping others to understand that connection between power and privilege. How do we empower or disempower? Who do we empower? Who do we disempower in that process?

Jackie: And so you’re involved in academic institutions such as OCAD University, but do you think that this kind of education can take place in alternative educational spaces such as SKETCH?

Kathy: The answer to that is absolutely. So, when we talk about transformative education, it requires us to think critically and question our assumptions. So, our assumption is that education only happens, knowledge sharing only happens in the academy. Other cultures will certainly tell you that’s not true. In an African context you learn from Griots, in Indigenous cultures you’ll learn from Knowledge Keepers, in African-American culture you’re going to learn from Elders. Even you, I mean you learn from your parents. So, education does not just occur in higher institutions of learning.  

So, providing education in non-traditional spaces challenges those assumptions of where learning actually occurs. And it’s all part and parcel as far as I’m concerned, in this whole idea of decolonizing spaces of knowledge transfer and removing barriers to education.

It’s an acknowledgment also that lived experience is really important. And I hold a PhD, so I think that education in colleges and universities is important, so don’t get me wrong. On the other hand, I know that that’s not all I am. And I know that there is learning that I have to give and learning that I can get from spaces that have nothing to do with my PhD, and from people who don’t have a PhD. So, I’m not throwing the baby out with the bathwater as the proverbial expression goes, I believe that education occurs in both kinds of spaces.

So, absolutely knowledge sharing can occur in all spaces and you can get it through credentialed and non-credentialed types of work. I encourage people to get the credentials, but I respect education which occurs outside of an academic institution. And in part that’s what keeps me going and what motivates me to stay engaged with the community.

I believe in the African philosophy of Ubuntu. Essentially it means I am because we are. And so, in essence that’s what keeps me motivated to do my part in trying to construct the change that I want to see. And that if my neighbour is experiencing anti-Black racism or my neighbour is experiencing xenophobia and somebody down the street is experiencing anti-Indigenous racism and the like, we are all poorer because of it.

And it’s quite exciting because what gives me hope is I now see a coming together of different groups of people motivated by diverse issues, coming together now in order to try and create change and social justice. And that’s important, because I understand that anti-Asian racism is also going to affect me as a Black person and the like. And this coalescence of movements is really important for social justice. And it keeps me motivated because I’m doing what I can do to make my community, which is our global community, stronger and better and more inclusive through my art, through my teaching, through my education, and by making donations to SKETCH. 

Jackie: Well, thank you so much for sharing your unique practice, view and professional background with me today.

Kathy: No problem at all; and thank you.