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ALUMNI PORTRAIT

‘20 years of inclusive narratives’: Alum Gina Valle’s stories cut across cultures, languages to illuminate the human condition

By Natalie Neumann Butler
 

 

Diversity matters. This is a core tenet of OISE alum Gina Valle’s world.

Her two decades of professional and creative initiatives highlight the long road Canada must take to make education equitable, Indigenous communities whole, and gender more just. Gina has her work cut out for her.

But she has learned that the best way to ignite change—and inclusion—is through meaningful storytelling.

The OISE graduate, who speaks French, Italian and English, examined the best practices of committed inner-city French and English teachers during her doctoral studies. It was at OISE that Gina ‘found a part of herself’ and fostered a love of multicultural and multilingual stories.

Since graduating, she has searched for inclusive narratives through various art forms, including a photo exhibit that has travelled worldwide, an award-winning multifaith documentary on death and dying, and a beautifully illustrated multilingual collection of stories for kids and families.

Antiracism, feminism, multilingualism, diversity and inclusion run through her most notable projects.

“My hope is that these stories, rooted in Canada, remind us what we have in common,” says Gina.

Below, learn more about Gina Valle’s 20 years of creating inclusive narratives.


You've interviewed hundreds of Canadians. How do we realize the old Canadian adage ‘It’s what we have in common’?

Human beings are storytelling beings. We connect, share and learn by communicating our experiences. The starting point for all of my work is Canada. My inquiring mind wants to understand how other races, ethnicities, faiths, and socioeconomic groups raise children, grieve, age and honour the women in their families

My inquiry starts with curiosity. I listen, gather material, brainstorm and begin to weave a larger story that, in the end, provides a glimpse into the human condition.

All my projects have a beginning and an end in Canada. I try to grasp what diversity means for the people of this country.
 

How about in your documentary The Last Rite (2009)? There's a spiritual and religious angle, but really it's about death and the search for meaning. What is your take?

It’s an award-winning documentary about Canadian Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu rituals around death and dying. And it’s an educational tool in healthcare facilities, long-term care homes, hospitals and course curriculums.  

Janet Arnold, a professor at Mount Royal University, uses the documentary as a resource in her course on death, dying and grief.

In the documentary, we spend time in mosques, Buddhist temples, and ashrams to explore the meaning of death and how to prepare for it. We look at why we fear death and why, in the modern and western world, we try everything possible to prolong life, and hide the reality of death.

After my father died, I wanted to understand the last rites not only from a Christian perspective, which I was already familiar with, but from an interfaith lens. So, I spent time in holy places of worship to do that, and then produced and directed the documentary.

My hope is The Last Rite will give viewers the courage to think about their death and decide what kind of life they want to live.

With the support of the Rogers Documentary Fund, it is available in English, Farsi, Mandarin, Italian and Hindi. 


Aging is a theme in your feminist photo exhibit “Legacies (Héritage)”. What inspired this exhibit? 

I took the idea of role models and searched for different cultural and racial perspectives on how first-generation Canadian women experienced identity, family and mentorship.

As a first-generation Canadian, I learned to maintain and modify my Italian culture to make it valid and workable in Canadian society. As a woman raised in an immigrant home, I travel daily between my familial rural, southern Italian culture and the urban, mainstream Canadian culture I live in.

I asked myself, what does aging, feminism and family mean to Canadians? Who are our mentors and why? In 2004, I decided to find out by curating the photo exhibit “Legacies” and bringing together 24 cultural interpretations on these very topics.

 

A selection of photographs from Gina Valle's exhibit “Legacies (Héritage)” on women, grandmothers and everyday female role models of the world.
 

My photo exhibit travelled from Canada to Scandinavia, Asia and the Middle East thanks to the folks at Global Affairs Canada, who wanted to provide a practical understanding of what it means to live in a multicultural country.  

“Legacies” highlights the women who came before us, our grandmothers, who are strong, wise women, and who, against unimaginable odds of war, poverty and immigration, became extraordinary role models for their Canadian granddaughters. 

For first generation Canadians, grandmothers are often the gatekeepers of our language and culture.

Specifically, the photo exhibit and my book Our Grandmothers Ourselves: Reflections of Canadian Women (2005) focus on non-Western feminism, racial and cultural identity, inner strength and the power of perseverance. 
 

Speaking of books, you once showed me your beautifully illustrated children's book The Best of All Worlds (2015). Can you tell us about it?

My multilingual children’s book The Best of All Worlds (Le meilleur monde imaginable) is written by Canadians for Canadians, with a focus on seven heritage languages.

A collection of stories, the book connects cultural and linguistic realities for children, their parents and their communities. When we published the book in 2015, I met with the Toronto Star to discuss its significance for Canadian kids. 

Written in Arabic, Farsi, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish, each story is translated into English and French and accompanied by vibrant illustrations. The book showcases the mother languages of Canadian writers and native speakers. It promotes diversity through snapshots of multilingual and multicultural communities and children.

 

In the 2019 video above, Gina discusses her book The Best of All Worlds – a unique collection of multicultural heritage stories that were created in Canada.


Since we spoke, I’ve done several book fairs and multilingual story times for schools and libraries. The Canadian Commission for UNESCO partnered with my publishing company At One Press to bring these stories to Canadian homes, schools and libraries. 

Each Canadian embassy around the world has two copies of the book in their libraries as a way to showcase linguistic and cultural diversity in Canada.

I’m very proud of this. 

I believe that kids need to see a part of themselves in curriculum, schools and literature. I know from experience that when a child reads her language in a book, the child’s heart dances!

To me, this simple image reminds me that diversity is important and possible.
 

After learning about these three pillar projects, can you walk us through your creative process?

I begin with a broad human experience, such as aging or female identity, then speak to Canadians from diverse faiths, languages, cultures, ages and ethnicities.

Usually, it is only once the creative project is complete that I see the universal themes. When that happens, it is that famous "a-ha" moment, and I know I got it. I find meaningful answers to what is common in all of us: the cycle of life (family, raising kids, role models, aging, grieving, rites of passage).

Without a doubt, OISE taught me to stand up to the status quo, believe in my ability to ask the right questions and push my boundaries. In doing so, I hope to contribute to society and address the blurred nuances of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.

We often hear those words – diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) – in our workplaces, classrooms and policy briefs but many Canadians struggle to grasp what exactly they mean, how to be engaged citizens, and how to incorporate DEIB into our lives in a meaningful way.

Most Canadians are not sure how to begin this challenging self-inquiry. My work intends to help.
 

Our diversity in Canada is strong, but what does that really mean? It's a good time to ask you to elaborate on this question.

My creative work stems from closing my eyes and envisioning a truly diverse world. What does a diverse, thriving democracy look like? What does Canadian diversity mean for those with accents or those who are historically left behind?

I co-produced and curated a mini YouTube series called Strong & Free that documents the lives of Canadians – old and young, first and second generation, immigrant/refugee parents and Canadian-raised children.

We interviewed Lynette from Guyana as she describes a guardian angel she found after moving to Canada who shepherded her through trying times. She spoke about the challenges of immigrating with no family.

There was Heena from South Korea who said in Korea she felt like being in "someone else’s clothes." Now in Canada, she feels like her authentic self.

 

In one vignette from Gina Valle's series Strong & Free, Tawheed from Sudan speaks about morals, values and the freedom she found in Canada.
 

I will be honest with you: I began this series as a counter-narrative to the far right-wing and anti-immigrant rhetoric that I felt was undermining the progress and dignity of decent people, as they tried to insist that by believing in multiculturalism, immigration or equity, we would create fault lines and weaken our country. I felt helpless and restless.

I decided to amplify the immigrant story as one way to provide alternative voices to our democratic dialogue. I found that Lynette, Heena and many others related to each other in surprising and unexpected ways.

Their willingness to trust me and share their stories reminded me that with patience, we can learn from one another and be better.


3 ways to learn and connect with Gina

  1. As a diversity trainer, speaker and educator, Dr. Gina Valle offers training to organizations, governments, communities and schools. Find upcoming workshops at www.Diversity-Matters.ca.
  2. If you would like to showcase the “Legacies” photo exhibit or the documentary The Last Rite in your community, or if you would like to add your voice to the Strong & Free video series, contact Gina!
  3. Interested in Gina's international children's book? The Best of All Worlds is available for purchase.