Project ArtPowerment is exactly as it sounds: the program empowers youth to develop the confidence to express their thoughts, opinions and experiences as racially, ethnically, socially or otherwise marginalized individuals through various mediums of art. It also supports youth in developing leadership capabilities and educating them about critical social justice issues.
To meet its objectives, the program offers a series of 12 workshops utilizing art media and projects of the youth’s choice, including: ceramics, collaging, zine art, improv, sketching and pencil crayon, painting, and creative writing. In addition, the program provides a safe space for marginalized youth to access and express themselves through art forms that may be otherwise inaccessible.
The program was based on a 4-part pilot series conducted with youth in North Etobicoke, which offered clay-based contemplative workshops to youth. Zahra spoke to us of the importance of the program, “the grant made it possible for someone who is interested in mental health and well being to continue this work – to continue to experiment and discover what works and what doesn’t [in helping communities build resilience, express themselves, and unpack/resist mainstream damaging/ limiting stereotypes on marginalized groups]. This is significant [to test new interdisciplinary approaches to empowerment] because a lot of programs that we offer are grounded only in evidence-based practices.”
Zahra, the programs director, spoke with us about reshaping the spaces that youth occupy, “we hope to not duplicate the power inequalities youth face in society (IE. racism, systematic oppression), thereby giving them power and agency in the space (to navigate the direction of the program and their place within it).” Having the ability to choose areas of learning is a new experience for many youth, “they’re not used to being asked for their opinion. It can be a challenge for them to express what exactly they want to see, because they’ve never been given the power.” And that is where the beauty of art comes in.
The foundation of this program is that engaging in art has the ability to create a counterculture to the narratives being unpacked in each session. Project ArtPowerment uses grounding, meditation, breathing and gratitude exercises throughout each program, “we constantly check-in and ask, how are you feeling right now?”
Within the check-ins, youth have begun to express awoken feelings, “there’s been a lot of feedback around their social location as a minority and how that influences the way they feel about themselves.” Creating art pieces allowed youth to delve into this further, “they were expressing how their identity as a visible minority, influences the roles that they take up, and how they interact with other people in those roles in society. A major realization was that a lot of our experience as a person is what people label us as (daughter, student, employee, cultural group, etc.). It was an incredible and profound message.”
The team built from there- as the program progressed, the youth further practiced resiliency through art and mindfulness. “It’s great that we are able to bring an avenue for youth to develop these skills to our distant community (of North Etobicoke). The grant we received from ArtReach has made all this possible. It made dreams come true!”
She went on, “Sometimes, when we’re trying new things, it’s important that funds are made available to youth or youth artists who are getting off the ground and exploring how they want to contribute to the betterment of the community,” moreover, “getting to know ArtReach a little bit better and receiving the grant has opened the door to a lot of collaborative work with other artists and agencies. Plus, there were so many resources available on how to write a proposal and final report. A lot of times when you’re applying to different grants, you don’t have that. ArtReach made change accessible to young people.”
On Friday April 21st, Project ArtPowerment hosted its final exhibit, Voices in Color: An Exhibition on Resiliency and Resistance (photos here) by North Etobicoke Youth. The main level rotunda of Metro Hall displayed the work of project participant’s work, which featured a wide variety of the artistic mediums used throughout the project including masks, visual arts, photography as well as some live spoken word pieces. 4 project participants spoke to their experiences of being in the program and the impact it had on them. ArtReach Director, Paulina O’Kieffe, had the honor of handing out certificates to the project’s youth participants while speaking on the way in which arts programs deeply impact the lives of young people in communities where access to arts isn’t readily available- “this is evident in the young people who spoke to their experiences or took on leadership roles with this event, as well as in the art pieces you see hanging around us".
If you’re looking to check out Zahra and Project ArtPowerment work, you can catch them at their recently launched page: facebook.com/projectartpowerment.
Author: Cassey Andrews