Angela Britto is Equity, Diversity, & Accessibility Coordinator at the Ontario Arts Council where she works at the intersections of arts management, grantmaking, advocacy, outreach and communications. She previously held roles in non-profits and government public service and has a B.A. in English and Diaspora Studies from the University of Toronto and an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania. Her interests in race, gender, diaspora and culture are shaped by experiences of migration, being Tamil, growing up in Toronto, a deep love of literature and writing, and the strong women of her family. Angela last visited Sri Lanka in 2016.

Angela will be placed in the position of Grant Writer for one month under the Associateship Program with the Women’s Education and Research Centre.

We asked Angela to share some of her thoughts on her upcoming experience ahead of her placement.

In October 2016, I visited Sri Lanka with my family. Travelling from Colombo to Jaffna and then to Trincomalee and Batticaloa revealed a quickly changing landscape – burnt fields without crops, palmyrah trees beheaded by shells, bereft lots without homes, bereaved families without daughters, and smooth new roads. All was absence made visible by what it left behind.

I moved with a diasporic returnee’s hesitation, consumed by a self-consciousness of privilege and a stiff tongue that could not properly bend to Tamil, while knowing that even if I could articulate my own complicated feelings about this experience, what could that mean to the people I met? They were figuring out how to dream without justice, how to persist without liberation, how to find joy without truth and how to sustain families without some members. I’ve thumbed their stories over in the year since coming back to Toronto, like beads on the rosary an aunty pressed into my palm.

I’ve also since thought about the different ways that diasporic communities can connect with a place of origin. How to develop relationships other than those remembered, familial, touristic or imagined. These are modes of engagement for many people, and certainly the kinds that I have taken up or still do. But what could it also mean to do some work there?

I am wary of the development or empowerment model and I recognize that any meaningful work must address the structures that result in inequity, marginalization, lack of resources, and oppression. I also believe it would mean respectfully supporting and amplifying the efforts of people and organizations from affected communities who are already doing this work collectively – those advocating for justice and human rights, providing mentorship and vocational training, ensuring access to mental health support, documenting and archiving experiences of the war and personal histories, and those creating opportunities for arts education and artistic expression, for example – without replicating unequal power dynamics, re-victimizing people or exposing them to more violence, or taking opportunities and resources away from local needs.

Reflecting on this particular form of diasporic engagement and the ethics of doing so, I look ahead to volunteering as a grantwriter with the Women’s Education and Research Centre in Colombo from December 2017-January 2018, recognizing that I have much to learn before I go.

As I take the next few months to prepare for my placement, I recall a moment on my trip last October when a friend living and working in Sri Lanka said to me, “Our greatest resource is each other,” as we hurtled down the Trincomalee-Batticaloa highway in a shambly trishaw. I stared at the back of his curly head, moved by that sentiment. I took his comment as an important reminder of context in diaspora – that one has a simultaneous there that could matter as much as the here – a reassuring and compelling idea. It was like staring at a shape for a while, and with a shift in the eyes, realizing it is tessellated in a larger design. Or following a long blue fishing net drying in the sun on the street in my father’s oor and turning the corner to find that it is connected to another down the laneway, and joined to another down the next alley – and on and on.

Stay tuned to this blog to follow Angela’s work in Colombo and elsewhere in the North and East of Sri Lanka.

Please consider supporting our vision to create more opportunities for the diaspora to contribute knowledge and expertise to the North and East of Sri Lanka. You can make a donation to our 2017-19 seed fund at https://www.gofundme.com/comduit.