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Behind the Glamour – Isabella GiaVulva reveals all ahead of Global Community Engagement Day

Isabella GiaVulva is a self-titled, ‘Community Engagement Drag Queen Participation Consultant Extraordinaire’, putting boring public participation training seminars to bed with her groundbreaking community engagement musical ‘The Highway 12 Upgrade’. Using satire and sass, the Queen of Community Engagement uses humour and empathy to open the conversation about mental health and the care P2 practitioners need to take when working in the community.

Her hilarious and thought-provoking approach to our industry has had an overwhelmingly positive response in both Canada and the USA. Her Educational Engagement Extravaganza, the ‘Highway 12 Upgrade’, is making its way to Sydney this February for Mardi Gras, and we can’t wait to watch her tear the house down.

To celebrate Global Community Engagement Day, BROOKS sat down with the Queen of Community Engagement herself, the one and only Isabella GiaVulva.

Angela: Your show is a dazzling departure from what people are used to seeing in typical community engagement training presentations. What sparked your creativity to concoct such a fabulous extravaganza like the Highway 12 Upgrade?

Isabella: “Darling, I wanted to shine a rhinestone spotlight on our industry and have a little fun. I am fascinated by how comedy and satire can be utilised better in education. Just like community engagement, a keynote presentation or training seminar shouldn’t be a dreary tick-box exercise. It should be fun. It should be exciting. An exciting spectacle that is filled with experience and laughter!

The Highway 12 Upgrade uses satire to pick away at the things that aren’t working in our industry, with a touch of glamour and humour. I wanted to use jaw-dropping musical numbers and melodramatic monologues to dissect the successes and failures of a tumultuous community engagement project. I wanted to create a training seminar that felt real, that was built on emotion… You know, case studies don’t make me feel anything, they aren’t funny, they lack drama, and they lack heart. They’re as bland as unsalted butter, and let me assure you darling, the Highway 12 Upgrade stars one salty mama!

Isabella GiaVulva giving the keynote presentation at the 2023 Seattle IAP2 Conference

Isabella GiaVulva performing her iconic Keynote Cabaret at the 2023 IAP2 North-American Conference

Angela: This year’s theme for Global Community Engagement Day is ‘Disconnected – Looking after our mental health in community engagement’. Isabella in your show you talk and sing about your mental health and the impacts projects like Highway 12 can have. What do you find are the biggest challenges facing practitioners in community engagement?

Isabella: “This year’s theme for Global Community Engagement Day is so on the money, girl! It’s something that I don’t think we as practitioners are talking about enough! Feeling disconnected.

Our projects have weight… There is an impact on the work that we do, not just on the community but on our own mental health.

Picture this: me, 3 am, head in the toilet the night before a workshop freaking out about what people are going to say, how they’re going to say it. Hoping that they won’t be mean because I’m afraid I’ll end up as a damn punching bag. All of us have to have balls, despite how tucked mine might be.

Community Engagement ain’t no lip sync, it’s real and it’s raw. It can be scary. We’re the maestros of feelings, the divas of dialogue, juggling the emotional sequins and feathers of public opinion. And let me tell you, that’s a crown that’s heavy to wear!

AI generated artwork of Isabella during Covid-19 stuck on the internet.

AI generated artwork of Isabella during Covid-10 stuck on the internet.

Angela: What are some of the strategies that you use to overcome or manage those challenges?

Isabella: “Ha! This is going to sound like a cheesy plug, but in the big finale of The Highway 12 Upgrade, I sing a roaring ballad, titled ‘Don’t Forget The Little Wins’. I guess you can call it my mantra, my battle cry for whenever I’m overwhelmed when I feel like things are getting too much. It’s crucial to not lose sight of the small victories that drive a project forward.

Yes, there is a weight to our work, and these projects do have impacts on people’s lives, including my own. But I also believe that if you keep listening, through all the noise, there will be a piece of feedback, or criticism, maybe even a glittering idea that sparks a positive impact in the community. It doesn’t matter how petite that impact is, a positive impact will make a difference, and that’s what keeps this Queen’s crown shining!”

Fernie Dragathon - Elk Valley Suicide Task Force

The Fernie Dragathon Elk Valley Suicide Task Force – The first time that Isabella GiaVulva saw how her love of drag could be combined with passion for community engagement and mental health advocacy.

Isabella Giavulva's Highway 12 Upgrade Presentation

Wednesday, 21 February, 2024


Eternity Playground, Darlinghurst Theatre Company