Making Art & Community: Brianna Oversby’s Journey from Treaty 2 to the Ivy League
“Pay attention to the people that are around you and the lessons that they have for you, because there's so much learning that you can do from the people that are around you.” This wise advice comes from Brianna Oversby, an educator and queer person who grew up in Treaty 2 territory (their family are Metis, and German, English & Irish settlers).
Brianna comes by her obsessive desire to create through her family, explaining, “My dad is such a scavenger and is always like saving trash to turn into something beautiful. Learning that from him has been a huge part of the trajectory in my life.”
“You can't go far in my house without seeing something that I've made. I'm constantly learning new techniques and skills and building the things around me.”
Creating shaped her career. At the time of filming, she was a program coordinator for the N'we Jinan Integrative Arts Program, where she supported teaching artists as they facilitated creative learning for Indigenous youth.
Oversby holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art Education from Concordia university, is certified to teach art in high school and later went onto Harvard University to get her Masters of Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
She also prioritizes informal learning, saying, “There are a lot of ways to learn outside of school. And if you are interested in learning something with a little bit of effort and asking around you can find the resources to do that. Don't be shy to ask people for help finding stuff because it's available.”
“Learning new things and making things has always been such a freedom for me. When you learn how to make things, you're able to make any ideas in your head become a reality. That's why art education was so important to me.”
She worked through school crocheting jewellery, working at coffee shops, babysitting, nannying, and briefly as a hotel maid. Later, in New York, she worked for The Leadership Program where she facilitated creative programming for youth after school programs.
“Having the confidence that you have the ability to create the things that you need around you is has had a huge impact on me. Doing things with your hands can be really healing.”
She taught painting, crochet, jewellery making, tinkering, violence prevention and restorative justice programs. Working in schools in New York, she became frustrated with the education system, watching kids who were having difficulty in school getting suspended, expelled and pushed out of the education system there.
“I couldn't understand why the teachers didn't see that the kids were just kind of needing some more emotional support and needing an outlet to deal with some of the pressures that they were facing.”
That frustration led her to graduate studies, where she focused on developing training for teachers to allow them to understand kids’ behaviours and how kids are impacted by trauma and difficult life experiences. Their arts education guided their learning & process.
“Even in times when I was working in the education system and not necessarily directly connected to art, I was always using creative learning and saw that as a really good vehicle to help people process through the challenges they were facing.”
Oversby's own struggles with anxiety and depression supported her effectiveness in her work. She talks about how arts education guided her recovery.
“When I decided that it was time to kind of get healthy and take care of myself, I spent a lot of time learning about addiction and anxiety and depression and different ways that I could cope with those things in a healthy way. Creating and making things have always been the major things that I've used to deal to deal with that.”
Brianna has come a long way and flourished in her career. Her advice to youth looking to do the same is, “Don't sell yourself short. Opportunities that might seem kind of out of your reach probably aren't. As someone who came from a really tiny place and ended up [at Harvard], I never thought that they would let me in in a million years. It became really clear to me that what I had to offer to that community was really unique.”
When it comes to leaving a home community and embarking on an adventure like hers, she recommends staying connected to community and finding community where you are. Looking back, she has a special message for her younger self.
“You're okay. You're exactly who you're supposed to be. If you've done something bad or something bad has happened to you, those are really important parts of who you are. There's a lot of learning that you can take from those experiencesand they really help to make you more more resilient and more able to deal with situations that life may throw at you. So don't be ashamed of them, embrace them and be proud of where you've been.”
As a maker of art and community, Oversby is inspired by her surroundings. “I'm really inspired by raw materials. I just love seeing the potential in the stuff that is around me. I think being surrounded by super creative people just has me on fire all the time with like new ideas and new projects. I feel so grateful to get to just spend all the time watching indigenous youth make cool stuff.”
Brianna Oversby is a maker, a creator, a learner and a community leader. She creates and curates, transforms and transcends in a way that inspires. She came from a small community in Treaty 2 and while staying connected to home, she’s made a home for herself and others in arts communities.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for writing this article.
March 2023 Updates: Brianna is now back home in Manitoba. Currently, she works as an educational consultant supporting training for young emerging artists and other educational projects.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.