letter to TDSB trustees | 30/12/19 | by Benjamin Kamino

I have sent this letter to the Toronto District School Board trustee board chair, Trustee Robin Pilkey, with a request that it be forwarded to all TDSB trustees.

information and contact for Robin Pilkey can be found here: Robin Pilkey

I wanted to share this letter with a larger audience in hopes that more people will participate in staging their voices and thoughts on this issue.

A letter to the TDSB trustees

Please re-consider your decision to cut funding to specialized schools

Please restore funding to specialized programs

Some questions:

Why are you cutting a program that does so much good?

Why are you cutting funding to the Etobicoke School of the Arts when there is so much evidence that its graduating cohorts excel in their practice and take on leadership roles in their fields and communities?

Why are you turning your back on work that is working?

Dear Trustees at the TDSB.

My name is Benjamin Kamino. I am a dancer who grew up in Toronto. I attended Howard Public School and Hilltop Middle School in participation of the French immersion program, and I attended the Etobicoke School of the Arts for my secondary education specializing in Dance. I was then able to attend New York University’s TISCH School for the Arts studying Dance on scholarship and have now recently completed my MA in choreography at DAS Graduate School in Amsterdam.

Immediately following my BFA at NYU I attained a company position at one of the oldest and finest dance houses in Canada, Dancemakers, which jettisoned my career as a dancer and artist in Canada. I am proud to say that I have worked with and maintain a strong collegial relationship with some of Canada’s “TOP” dance artists: Marie Chouinard, Peggy Baker, Ame Herderson, Michael Trent, Aszure Barton, Jennifer Mascall, Robin Poitras, Tedd Robinson, Clara Furey, and Daina Ashbee to name a few. I have also maintained a strong international presence working with the likes of: Martin Spangberg, Xavier LeRoy, Christine De Smedt, Lars Jan, Edisa Weeks, Keith Hennesey, and Collectivo AM. Furthermore my own dance works have been presented and continue to circulate across Canada, Mexico, Europe, and South America. I consider my position as a dance artist who is privileged to show work at internationalized arenas as an ambassador of the Canadian dance ecology. I devote a significant portion of my time and attention to the study, development, and amelioration of the Canadien context for making dance. I love my country for all of its privileges and problems and it is a continuously active choice to stay here and work.

This all began at ESA where my mother taught dance and mathematics. When I was a child my father would bring my brother and I into the dance studio where my mother was rehearsing with her students. I was fascinated by the loud sound of the boombox, the aroma of sweat, the exciting energy of the moving bodies, and the sweet and gentle care offered to me by her students when rehearsal calmed down.

While attending high school at ESA I was given confidence in my body. Colleen Friedman taught me to improvise and by doing so taught me to be myself. When I won the Toronto Arts Foundation’s Emerging Artist Award in 2016 I asked our Mayor, John Tory, to demostrate support for ESA and arts education as I gave the special award plate to Ms. Friedman as a token gift for all she had given me.

The friendships forged at ESA remain my dearest pals and colleagues and are artists and professionals at the top of their field: Noah Reid attended the Emmy Awards this year for his work on Schitts Creek, Brittany Allen (my first girlfriend, and still dear friend) won a daytime Emmy for her work on All My Children and continues a thriving career in film while she breaks out onto the music scene in Los Angeles. Joshua Barndt, my favourite painter, converted his artistic practice into efforts of social justice and now runs the Parkdale Community Land Trust, I truly and honestly believe he will soon be one of Canada’s greatest Prime Ministers.

As trustees you must know the importance of high school. It is the most challenging time of a young person’s life because it is the most formidable — not yet adults while no longer children. During high school I witnessed hatred, racism, and bullying within the student-bodies of Malvern Collegiate, Northern Toronto, and Oakwood. Meanwhile a solidarity of mutual respect and care were values I felt in the halls of ESA. Don’t get me wrong, ESA was no eutopia, we had disputes, fights, police were called, problems were real. However at all times somehow I felt we all knew and recognized each other not as “artist students privileged by special funding” (as I can imagine a criticism from the outside may be formed) but freaks, queers, and weirdos fortunate to find a brief 4 years of relief in which together we would thrive in good company.

My father, mother, and uncle, devoted their professional lives to the TDSB. I marched on Queens Park with them as a child when Mike Harris cut education. I believe I was attending Howard Public School for grade school at the time. It was soon after that I began attending dance classes on my personal time. Thoughout middle school I was frequently beat up for being a “faggot dancer” and yet somehow I managed. Those beatings stopped the day I began my high school education at ESA.

I have been so fortunate to return to ESA annually to teach in the dance department. This year due to budget cuts I offered to teach in-gratis as a support for the faculty and students during a difficult time. I will do whatever I can and as much as I can to support the efforts of ESA. That school saved my life, that school gave me my life, and I will forever be thankful.

I urge you dear trustees. To reconsider your decision to cut funding to ESA (and all specialized programs across the TDSB). I urge you to imagine the care and compassion provided by the specialization of ESA as essential to a system of education. Could you expand your range of specialized programs in a generous recognition of the diverse needs of your studentry instead of cutting funding for specialized programs under the aegis of disarming privilege?

If anything, I ask, could you please slow down and give yourself the time to study more closely the effects of these programs and the projected consequences of their erasure beyond the financial gains in savings.

I thank you for your time.
With love, and action.

Benjamin Kamino

  • Susan Bourne

    January 1, 2020 at 1:28 am

    This heartfelt letter has clearly and comprehensively articulated the heart and soul of one young mans experience of life as a hardworking, brilliant artist. It has outlined in specific detail the benefits of and his gratitude for his excellent, nurturing education at ESA and his parents deep understanding of the importance of an arts education.

    I taught in the theatre department of this very special school for 22 years. I have known Ben for many years, directed him in a theatre production (great actor!) and taught many of the successful artists that Ben has mentioned and hundreds more who reach across the globe with their creativity, ingenuity, compassion, integrity and remarkable influence.

    It was a pleasure and a privilege to teach and practice my craft at such an amazing institution. I am profoundly sad about what is happening at a place I consider my second home, an incubator of amazing talent and good will, a place where I have seen students involvement in their art literally save their lives.. It is hard to write this as I feel my heart heavy and tears behind my eyes. It is hard to believe that such shortsightedness is possible.

    I will end with repeating Ben’s question: Why are you turning your back on work that is working?

    Susan Bourne
    Educator and Theatre Artist
    Etobicoke School of the Arts

  • Annie Chen

    January 1, 2020 at 3:56 am

    Dear Trustees at the TDSB,

    I am an alumini of The Etobicoke School of the Arts 2006. I was a dance major at there and it is also the hub where I officially began my dance training. My parents immigrated from Taiwan in 1994 and did not have enough money to pay for extra curricular dance classes on a regular basis.

    It is here where I was offered a safe space for creative expression, nurtured to become the artist I am today. A space where I felt completely accepted as is, a place where students were encouraged not only by the wonderful educators but also each other to “let their freak flags fly” I have never felt more at home and seen than I did in the halls of ESA. Fourteen years after graduation and I still consider those halls my home.

    I didn’t start training until I was accepted into ESA. Because of this I have had the privilege to dance professionally for the MMVAS for Lady Gaga, and later on PSY, close for the Pan Am Games, and open for the Parapam games at The Roger’s Center.

    It is also through dance that I found my love for acting and was cast to play Frenchy along side a stellar cast at the Winter Garden Theatre, Designated Survivor with Keifer Sutherland, and Schitt’s Creek with comedy legends such as Catherine O’hara, Eugene and Dan Levy. I am also a member of two professional performing unions ACTRA and EQUITY.

    I would not have been able to have the career and confidence I’ve developed without ESA nurturing and guiding me at the very beginning. This seed was planted in the dance studio of that school.

    So you see, it’s not JUST an arts school. It has given so many young students an outlet to be who they truly are. A vessel for emerging adults to find their voice. It certainly has given me mine.

    So please, I strongly urge you to reconsider cutting funding. At the least as Benjamin had graciously requested- take some time to really get to know how these programs provide aid in navigating a young human being through a precarious stage of their life. I and many other professional artists would not be where we are without this school.

    Thank you for your time.
    – Annie Chen

  • Ann Porter

    January 4, 2020 at 1:42 am

    As mother of a professional dance artist and grandmother of a thriving senior student at an Arts school in Toronto I applaud your letter.