City Appoints Next Poet Laureate, Inaugural Indigenous and Multicultural Community Storytellers

The City of Windsor is proud to announce Vanessa Shields as the next Poet Laureate, Theresa Sims as the inaugural Indigenous Storyteller, and Teajai Travis as the first Multicultural Community Storyteller.

Shields will serve in the position from 2022 to 2026, while both Sims and Travis will hold their posts from 2022 to 2024.

Poet Laureate Vanessa Shields has a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and minor in English from the University of Windsor, a diploma in Writing for Children and Teenagers from the Institute of Children’s Literature, and participated in a workshop series with Humber’s School for Writers. She has published six books of poetry, including 2021’s Thimbles, and has forty individual poems published in various anthologies. She has served as editor for twenty-five published books, and taught over one hundred and fifty poetry and writing workshops and classes. In 2021, Shields wrote a poem a day for all three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. She has served on sixteen juries, including the City’s Arts, Culture & Heritage Fund (ACHF) jury, delivered seventeen keynote speeches for the not-for-profit sector, and visited seventeen schools to workshop poetry with local youth. Shields is a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Ontario Poetry Society, and the Writer’s Union of Canada, to name a few of her memberships and affiliations. She received the Windsor Endowment for the Arts (WEA) award for Emerging Artist in the Literary Arts, participated twice in Battle of the Bards, and is an avid member of Poetry in Voice, where she has served as a judge for municipal and provincial recitation competitions. Her book Thimbles was included in CBC Books list of Spring Poetry Books to Read in 2021.

As an entrepreneur, Shields owns and operates Gertrude’s Writing Room – A Gathering Place for Writers in the Stable Yard at Willistead Park. This is Windsor’s first and only creative writing space, boasting desks, tables, comfy sofa and chairs, bookish gifts, loads of crafts, and a library with over 300 books of poetry – including many works by local authors. The space is fully accessible, fully inclusive, equality-driven, and safe. From readings and workshops, to one-to-one sessions, to the many new and exciting collaborations and partnerships created since its opening, Shields uses Gertrude’s to foster community through poetry.

As Poet Laureate, Shields says she is committed to reading, writing, and promoting poetry; to strengthening the public’s relationship with poetry and literature with kindness, inclusivity, safety, respectfulness, and enthusiastic engagement; and to being an ambassador to the written word at events near and far while expressing Windsor’s unique voices and stories through poetry. She says her role as ambassador will have its mission in community – community outreach, community collaborative sustainability, and community extension. She sees Windsor as a hub for the literary arts. Shields is committed to being open and engaging with the unique intersections of Windsor’s diverse communities, upholding heartfelt transparency in the gathering of words that reflect our lived experiences. She looks forward to working with the other poets laureate and the new storytellers through the program. In addition to applying herself to serve as Poet Laureate, Shields also received over thirty nominations for the role.

Indigenous Storyteller Theresa Sims is a traditional Indigenous Knowledge Keeper and Elder. She is from the upper Mohawk, Turtle Clan of the Six Nations Reserve. She has lived in Windsor since 1998, and worked in various capacities such as Elder and Culture and Language Specialist for Ska:na Family Learning Centre. For over twenty years, Sims has fulfilled requests by the public and Catholic school boards to provide opening welcome, stories, songs and dance for children from junior kindergarten to grade twelve. She has opened conferences and presented for the University of Windsor and for the City of Windsor, and often provided a local perspective on Indigenous issues to media including The Windsor Star, CBC Windsor, and CTV Windsor many times over the years. To honour her family history connected to Residential Schools and help provide calm and healing during trying times, Sims recorded and presented a special video of welcome, understanding and reflection for a difficult and complex Canada Day in 2021. As Windsor’s inaugural Indigenous Storyteller, Sims is committed to using her gifts of storytelling, songs, and dance to bring together our entire community while honouring and sharing the cultural traditions of her people, and working closely with Indigenous communities across Windsor and Essex County, and beyond.

Multicultural Community Storyteller Teajai Travis proudly identifies as an Afro-Indigenous descendant of the Underground Railroad travellers that made a home in North Buxton, Ontario, following the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He is currently serving as Executive Director for Artcite Inc. in Windsor, and as an Artist Educator and Workshop Facilitator with Arts Can Teach Windsor-Essex. He was a commissioned poet and performer with the Omoluabi News Paper, produced by the Nigerian Canadians for Cultural Educational and Economic Progress as part of the Black Youth Action Plan. Travis facilitates workshops on poetry, hand drumming, meditation, and personal development. He is also the founder and administrator for The Bloomfield House – a Sandwich Town community collective dedicated to grass roots community-run outreach with a mission to provide a safe and accessible space for human growth through community outreach. 

Travis is a current board member with the Friends of the Court at Mackenzie Hall, and with Literary Arts Windsor and Artist-Run Centres and Collectives of Ontario. He previously served on the boards for the Windsor Youth Centre, and Windsor Women Working with Immigrant Women. He received the Windsor Endowment for the Arts award for Arts Leadership in the Literary Arts, and the Arts Infrastructure Award, and was presented with a Community Leadership Award by the Province of Ontario. Travis is a member of the Windsor Storytellers Collective, an alumina of the Sandwich Teen Action Group, and the Our West End Round Table, to name a few of his affiliations. 

As a spoken word artist, Travis turned his family’s story into a piece of performance art titled Born Enslaved: A Freedom Story. He later used that work as an educational tool, and continues to go into schools to provide workshops for both students and teachers. Over the years, Travis has worked as a storyteller with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, 4th Wall Music, Destination Ontario, the University of Windsor, Urban Farmhouse Press, Greater Essex County District School Board, Charles Wright Museum in Detroit, Freedom Museum in Amherstburg, and with Windsor Endowment for the Arts Changing the Odds program. 

As Windsor’s first Multicultural Community Storyteller, Travis plans to build on the work he is already doing as a storyteller in the community. He plans to collaborate with local and regional literary arts organizations, food entrepreneurs, educational institutions, and more, using his unique tools to bring our community together through shared stories. 

The selection committee members tasked with choosing the new Poet Laureate and inaugural storytellers said:

“Vanessa Shields had the greatest evidence of local outreach and event experience… ability to make connections within the community, knowledge of grant opportunities, awareness of the current issues facing the community. She focuses on reflection over response, is already so established in the community, has created an inclusive space at Gertrude’s Writing Room, and has made a huge impact. Her unique presentation is impressive – the whole engine is going and firing on all cylinders. We’ll see remarkable things happening in our community with Vanessa as our next Poet Laureate.”

“Theresa Sims is the epitome of a storyteller. She is an engaging individual, entirely sincere and committed to what she is doing. She speaks in images and metaphors, is knowledgeable in Indigenous oral traditions and histories, and is a respected member of the community. She has the ability to adapt her storytelling for any target audience including children, teens, and adults through various mediums. She shared her extensive knowledge of Windsor-Essex and its important place on Turtle Island. She also shared her personal knowledge of the generational trauma Indigenous peoples face today, as well as her own relationship with the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.”

“Teajai Travis is very focused, understands the requirements of a storyteller, and is the living-embodiment of what the role of Multicultural Community Storyteller should be. He celebrates diversity and storytelling for all ages and has lived experience in Windsor-Essex that details how he is already delivering in the role. He works in our schools, he has worked with other artists on our international border, and he understands the importance of tapping into the elders in our community who can share and pass on our rich history. He brings a multi-generational (youth, family, seniors, long term care) approach, passion, and new and innovative ideas. He understands the art of engagement and how to work with diverse community groups. Mr. Travis commands attention, and understands history is important as part of storytelling, and the education value that has.”

Quotes:

“Poetry is the voice of the people; it breaks down barriers and holds up mirrors to every facet of our diverse experiences. I value the integral role of poetry in our world, and I believe that Windsor’s poetic voices are extraordinary. It is an honour to foster and support these voices. I believe Windsor is a place of shifting identities, that the arts community continues to thrive despite the challenges of the pandemic, and that Windsor’s literary community is as robust as it has ever been. There are thirteen publishers in our city! Three that continue to win national and international literary prizes! We need to take pride in this. I certainly do. Windsor is a goldmine of literary excellence – and we need to be known as such beyond our city limits. I will dedicate my ambassadorship to making Windsor known as a literary legend at home, in our province, and across our country. Like those who have come before me, I believe in the power of Windsor’s creative voices.”
- Vanessa Shields, City of Windsor Poet Laureate

“My role is to teach using my gifts, of oral history, songs, and dances. The Three Fires Confederacy of the Odawa, Potawatomi, and the Anishnaabe people have a rich and abundant collection of stories of the elements, land, water, and the animals to teach the Seven Grandfather Teachings of courage, love, truth, wisdom, respect, honesty, and humility, and to entertain and educate along the way. It will be a journey we can take together of Mino Bimaadziwin (The Good Life) of the Anishnaabe culture and way of life.
- Theresa Sims, City of Windsor Indigenous Storyteller

“Coming from, and being raised within a tradition of storytelling, I carry a responsibility and passion for collecting, inspiring, and encouraging the community to identify and celebrate their unique stories. I’m privileged to have been able to dig into the roots of my family story, excavating the layers of my ancestral diversity and complexity, but more enriching is the opportunity I’ve had to share it with others. The great ancestor Maya Angelou wrote, ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ We live in a beautifully diverse community that represents the many cultures of the world, but to this day we are mostly siloed and surrounded by the familiar. We don’t listen to the stories of our neighbours and so we don’t always know how to relate and respect them. Storytelling is the key, and that is what I will bring to the role.”
- Teajai Travis, City of Windsor Multicultural Community Storyteller

“The City’s newly expanded and rebranded Poet Laureate & Storytellers Program helps to record and share the stories that shape our city while teaching us the value of unique voices and new perspectives. Time and again, we see how this program is a vehicle to increased inclusivity, and a greater understanding and appreciation for our diverse, multicultural community. Particularly now, as we emerge from beneath pandemic restrictions and impacts, I am pleased to welcome these new artists into the fold. I’m proud of Council’s endorsement of this program’s evolution. With that decision, coupled with our commitment of $20,000 annually to help the program thrive, we are continuing to deliver results for the creative community.”
- Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens

“These three leaders in the arts, culture and heritage sector all have something in common – they are already doing this work in our community, and we have taken this opportunity to formalize what it is they’re doing by bestowing these titles on them. They all have unique strengths. Through this program, they will be powerful ambassadors for the City of Windsor, as well as the individual communities they represent, including our Indigenous and rich multicultural communities. They will do very well individually, but as a group – Marty Gervais, Vanessa Shields, Alexei Ungurenaşu, Theresa Sims, and Teajai Travis will be embraced and supported by the community, and they will draw so many people in.”
- Councillor Jo-Anne Gignac, Windsor City Council

The City of Windsor’s Poet Laureate & Storytellers Program aims to be a model for Canadian communities for what is possible with a truly innovative, responsive, and engaging program to celebrate the literary arts through the written and spoken word. Creators appointed to posts in the program will share stories through poetry, literature, spoken word and oral history, and even music and the performing arts with a wide and appreciative audience, thus strengthening the public’s relationship to the literary arts, storytelling, culture, and heritage. In addition Shields, Sims and Travis, the program includes Windsor’s Poet Laureate Emeritus Marty Gervais, and current Youth Poet Laureate Alexei Ungurenaşu.

For further information, please visit the City of Windsor’s Poet Laureate & Storytellers Program web page.

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