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The Unifying Leadership of Laila Pires VCLA Winner for Arts and Culture

As Laila Pires, 2020 winner of the VCLA award for Arts and Culture, and one of the founding members of the Philippines Bayanihan Community Center, explains, the word Bayanihan is “a Filipino word meaning working together.” The word comes from a time when people would come together to move houses. The men carried bamboo houses on their shoulders, while the women cooked, and the children followed.

Pires orients her efforts around this Filipino philosophy of working together. She is also a strong believer in the unifying power of the arts, which can be used to connect cultures. All leaders know that it can be tough to pull a wider community together to find a single focus - Laila found a way to do so using the arts for her community, this is how she did it.

“For us, the arts is a universal expression of feeling,” says Pires. “You don’t even need to have language. With dancing, not only is the folk dancing entertaining, but we also tell stories about the traditions in the Philippines. Art, I think, is a friendly way to reach other cultures; a friendly way to introduce ourselves to the Canadian community. It’s also a way by which our own members are able to share their talents.”

Under Pires’s leadership, the Philippines Bayanihan Community Center has focused on promoting the arts. It is, she explains, a fantastic way of breaking down barriers. “Sometimes when somebody is different from you, there is a kind of defense mechanism. With our getting together in an environment of, let’s say, music, and we start singing, it’s not hard for people to shed their inhibitions when they hear a familiar tune.”

This strong sense of community, that Pires and others have achieved through fostering the arts, has meant that the Filipino community are also able to unite behind other causes. For instance, the Bayanihan Community Center has run a number of successful fundraisers to help victims of natural disasters.

Pires learned these leadership skills at an early age. She comes from a large family in Manilla. As the second oldest of seven children, Pires was expected to help care for her siblings. This was one of Pires’s earliest leadership experiences. She was also a patrol leader in her Girl Scout group. Pires developed her leadership skills while they were camping. She facilitated fireside songs and dances. It was in this group that Pires had a leadership role model. Sister Alena, one of the nuns at Pires’s convent school, focused on strong character formation.

Then, Pires met her husband during the first week of university where they were involved with an international club. Although, Laila was from the Philippines and Ben was from India, after getting married, they decided to live someplace different. Canada was the country Laila and Ben chose because of its peace loving reputation. They have been here since 1969. “And we never looked back,” says Pires with a smile. “We’re so happy we chose Canada.”

Part of this joy comes from being a leader at the Bayanihan Community Center and sharing Filipino culture. However, running the center is not without its challenges. One challenge facing leaders are splinter groups. They can, Pires says, “cause a dissipation of energies, instead of you being able to get together to get to your goal.” Pires advises addressing this head on. “You have to deal with it,” she explains. “Win their trust and be accountable for everything you do. That’s how I slowly built up the community and stayed on course.”

Pires’ efforts to maintain the cohesion of the Baniyahan group have certainly paid off. “We are the envy of Vancouver,” she explains, “who have over 120 associations of Filipinos, that we are able to concentrate the energy of a single group.”

Reflecting further upon how to encourage unity within a group or organization, Pires notes that, “first you will have to communicate to each other exactly what you are thinking and find a common ground.” She adds, “how motivated you are for the common good comes in. People around you are going to see through you, if your motivation is personal. If your motivation is for the good of all, everyone is going to be willing to sift through all these issues and try and work out what is best. Those who have a personal agenda will eventually fall to the wayside.”

Pires is motivated by the support the association receives from the community. They recently received assistance from the Victoria Foundation and support with an arts program from the City of Victoria.

“We are so fortunate to be living in a society that is working towards making multicultural policies,” says Pires. “There are small groups like us that are supported by groups like the Victoria Foundation, non-profit groups and the government. The fact that we have a multicultural policy that is a part of the Charter of Rights is a very hopeful sign that Canada has actually taken a step to show the world that diversity can enrich a country.”

You can learn more about the Philippines Bayanihan Community Center by visiting their website:

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