Community Leader “In-Focus” – a candid interview with Karina Cardona Claros

by Aaron Franks, CEHE Research Associate

Karina Cardon Claros1Q. Congratulations Karina, you are featured in Eco-Parent Magazine. In this article you talk about growing up in an environment watching your parents help newcomers to Canada settle in. Is there a specific memory or time that really stands out for you?

A1: My best memories of this time involve running around the periphery of a huge church basement! It might not be what you would imagine of how I learned about people helping people. I was only four, when we came to Canada. My parents became involved with a local church where they helped to establish a service in Spanish. The committees and work that followed stemmed from refugees and Canadians spending time together talking, gasping, laughing and crying. As kids, we would play hide & seek and listen to the adults communing around tables, sipping coffee. We would prepare performances of folkloric dances and we had a mime troupe! The adults had a band and they would also recite poetry to us in traditional clothing. There was a big stage in the basement and it felt like a place where people would say real things.

At the time, it seemed like the ‘work’ the adults were doing was so easy. In some ways, it was. It meant being there for other people and building conversations about what it was like to come to a new country fleeing war. It meant making plans for how to help one another to grow. It meant working through disagreements and continuing to establish a home.

I now realize it required dedication and sacrifice. We had to travel on three buses to get there. There were three kids aged 3-10 in my family. My dad was studying for his degree in social work. We did it because it affected our collective well-being and supported the refugee community that we belonged to. Many families got their start in Winnipeg in this environment just like I did.

2Q. We know you as both an artist and community arts worker and as an emerging researcher, but you have a slightly different relationship to each of those. Can you describe the different roles both play in your life and work?

2A. I guess it’s that distinction between making a life and making a living. But, in many ways the two have begun to merge. I decided a few years ago that my most valuable assets in life are my energy and time. So, I pursue activities that matter to me. Some of it pays and some of it doesn’t.

Above all, I am a curious person. Art is a great tool for exploration as is research. My love of art is in the process of creation more than in the final product – expression over skill. I have many interrelated interests, but environmentalism and social justice are at the forefront.

I have found ways to integrate art into my work in community economic development, philanthropy, environmentalism and research because art is a language that has a place everywhere. I look for opportunities to infuse this perspective into whatever organizational culture I find myself. The goal is to develop creative thinking as a skill for collaboration.

3Q: As well as being a student, you’ve clearly taken a variety of leadership roles in Winnipeg. How do the two inform each other? Are there conflicts in these roles at times?

3A. School and volunteering both fuel, renew and shape me. In participating in scholarly conversations, I come away with lessons to share in the community. As a critical social geographer, my perspectives are useful in evaluating programming. Returning from meetings and events in the community, I have more experiences to reflect upon for my studies. It has taken years to build the relationships which facilitate and benefit from this networking. Having established trust and capacity with organizations allows me to ebb and flow between the two spheres in a meaningful way.

I’ll give you two examples of how this works. In my class, Disability and Social Policy, we used the exercise of “listening for silences” to consider what is missing in a policy. At Art City, we are building our community outreach programs and this exercise has helped the Board to vision how to be more inclusive. Another task that I am relentless with is sharing information that I gain access to as a researcher. I never know exactly what will resonate with someone but I try to learn people’s interests so that I can be effective with this. I share so that I help others to build capacity in their own roles. An example of this is in supporting other students that conduct environmental outreach projects with local youth. I encourage them to approach their work collaboratively and to engage in professional development. I support them with ideas for funding, introduce them to my own contacts and offer my own experiences so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

I would say that the greatest conflict between these responsibilities is in how best to distribute my time and energy. I wish I could do more at either end but I am learning to set healthy limits on each.

 4Q. We recently heard you speak at the University of Manitoba’s Speaker Series, co-sponsored by Disability Studies and Education, (Re)Visioning Inclusion and Access: Blazing Innovative Disability Research Trails, on March 21, 2013. You spoke very eloquently about learning to live with dis/ability following your spinal cord injury. But, your academic interest in ableism and disability seems very recent. Why is that?

 4A. Thanks to all of my CEHE colleagues for coming and for spreading the word!

When I met Jeff Masuda, I was working as the Project Manager at Children’s Health and Environment Partnership of Manitoba but planning on pursuing graduate studies. His work on children’s environmental health (in)equity piqued my interest and he agreed to be my advisor. As he and I discussed possible research topics, I sent him a link to my blog which focused on my urban experiences with mobility and disability through poetry, photography and sound art. Jeff encouraged me to explore those inclinations. By the time I was writing scholarship applications, I was proposing research that confronted the ableist city by working with mobility-impaired youth to create living sculptures in urban greenspaces.

It was incredibly liberating to speak my deepest wishes. The blog was recent but my understanding of the impacts of exclusion in society had been developing for years. Through past research and friends’ experiences, I had learned about challenges to income, housing, transportation and identity that accompany chronic illness, disability and aging. Their stories spoke to larger issues about societal expectations upon people’s bodies and the deleterious effects of our current ways of life upon our livelihoods and well-being.

Despite my enthusiasm, in September 2011, I felt unable to undertake the project that I had initially proposed. That year, I had suffered four falls resulting in a concussion and a knee injury that left me recovering for months. I walk, cycle and use public transportation to get around so I had to find ways to be gentle with myself. The idea of confronting the ableist city was like asking myself to face my greatest fear without the necessary tools.

I have since been on a journey to building these tools by living authentically and embracing my dis/ability pragmatically. I am finally ready to do the research I am most passionate about. I believe that grad school has been the most incredible opportunity to ask the greatest questions that I have ever had. I am thankful that I have received the supports necessary to make it work, and proud that I have built a renewable resilience through disability research.

Karina’s biography:

Contact: cardonak(at)

Photo by: Luis F. Cardona

Recent interviews:

EcoParent – Spring 2013 – Page 40:
Manitoba Teacher – March 2013 – Page 17:

Community News Commons – March 2013:

Current research:

Mobility in the Ableist City:
Community Voices Project:

Community involvement:

Art City Inc.:

Children’s Health and Environment Partnership:

Environmental Art Mentorship:
Manitoba Environmental Youth Network:

Karina is a student at the University of Manitoba and student researcher with us at The Centre for Environmental Health Equity – we rarely have the opportunity to feature one of own.


  1. Karina personifies what it

    Submitted by Jeff Masuda on Mon, 01/04/2013 – 10:36am.

    Karina personifies what it means to be an “equity-focused” practicing academic and is a role model for graduate students who wish to apply their own intellectual development in ways that directly engage with and benefit communities. It’s lovely to see how her work on issues of ableism and social/environmental justice is garnering such interest among such a wide variety of media and academic outlets!

    Jeff M.

  2. Sharing what we learn

    Submitted by Karina Cardona Claros on Mon, 08/04/2013 – 7:39pm.

    Thanks Jeff – it’s also been important to share these approaches with CEHE’s other grad students and to learn how they apply equity-focused practices in their own work. For example, Cheryl Sobie’s work on Aboriginal Women’s Foodscapes, Dominc Alaazi’s research on Aboriginal Therapeutic Landscapes and Emily Skinner’s project on Aboriginal Youth’s Right to the City. Together, we’ve grown a great deal. Can’t wait to see what Jenna Drabble comes up with for her thesis work on food justice in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Trevor Wideman’s contributions to the Revitalizing Japantown project. Quite the fun crew!

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