A microphone to amplify a community’s vision
August 19, 2019
Art on my Mind 2019, an open mic concert organized by the Jane-Finch Family and Community Center and the Art Gallery of York University at Edgeley Park brought professional local artists and local youth together to perform for their local community. Art on my Mind was part of a free workshop for local youth to learn how to write, perform and record songs. It is one example of incredible work happening through Arts in the Parks, a Toronto-wide initiative, bringing art to parks outside the downtown core.
And why perform in a park? Clara Stewart-Robinson from the Jane-Finch Family and Community Centre explains:
“The program encourages the community to come together in their local parks and see them as places they can use in different ways. It is a great starting point to talk about how our green spaces can be improved and how they can meet the needs of the community.” She goes on to say, “Art creates a platform for connecting with people”.
Exactly what the community needs
“This is an amazing idea. This is exactly what the community needs” This enthusiastic pronouncement by a Jane & Finch resident during the open mic concert embodies the power of this artistic collaboration.
The program created by Allyson Adley from the Art Gallery of York University aimed to reach out to kids from that community to help them establish new ways to express themselves through singing and spoken word performance. For Allyson, the collaboration with York University makes perfect sense since the University is just a few blocks away and is always working to foster stronger ties to the community. Her idea was simple: find local youth willing to learn songwriting and pair them with professional artists from the community with experience in the field. Because she has worked on art projects in the community for over a decade, Allyson built the program around direct insight into what would be most engaging and impactful for participants: “They’re surrounded and inspired by hip hop as an art form and I think a lot of them are very eager to perform,” she said.
Jameel “Jameel3dn” McPherson, grew up in the area and was one of the facilitators and hosts of the performance. He discussed the value of Art on My Mind to the community in a recent interview: “I know it’s not exclusive to Black children, but me being a Black man, in our communities they don’t necessarily teach us how to express ourselves and a lot of the expression we would have turned into anger,” he said. “What do you do with the anger that no one taught you how to deal with? Usually, it comes out in some sort of violence.” As a kid struggling with his emotions, writing became a good strategy: “If something was bothering me I just put it in my stories and it helped to release me from that issue. I wasn’t angry anymore.” (Toronto Star)
The performance as ultimate collaboration and celebration of partnerships
Art on my Mind was built on a strong foundation of community collaboration, leveraging the expertise of partners with deep connections to the community. Through the Parks, Forestry & Recreation Division of the City of Toronto, Toronto Arts Foundation and Park People, the Art Gallery of York University partnered with the Jane-Finch Family and Community Centre, a local community park group, who Allyson states is doing “very important advocacy work to make sure the community’s voices are being heard.”
Allyson worked directly with 5 local facilitators to deliver the free songwriting workshops. They included: Jameel3dn, Zakisha Brown, NamedTobias, Abdulkadir “Moose” Noor, Terrence Penny, Denise De’ion and Es Ef, all of whom grew up in the Jane & Finch area.
For Allyson, who received, with the Art Gallery of York University, the Animating Toronto Parks grant from Toronto Art Council, “the key to success was working with artists who have a strong link to the community.” This helped to build a connection between the professional and the local youth performers:
“As artists, they are supporting one another and through art, they’re building a community.”
The final partner in this initiative, R.I.S.E., worked with local musical talent that made up the performance’s pre-show. “We provided the cherry on the top,” joked R.I.S.E. founder & director Randell Adjei.
Randell Adjei, founder & director of R.I.S.E. talking about his organization to help local artists.
Being open to surprises
Soon after the program began, it faced some serious challenges: “This year, almost all the youth stopped to come after a local shooting, as they had safety concerns about participating in an outdoor program” Allyson explains. After the shooting, participation in the program dropped to only two youth performers.
It was initially devastating.
Allyson and her team had to quickly adapt the program. They decided to feature professional artists in the performance in order to hopefully inspire youth to jump up on stage and participate.
Allyson explains: “the program did not turn out to be what we expected. From a songwriting workshop with youth in the park, we created an artists residency, with extremely talented local artists who worked together to write 3 songs, and record them at York University and in Edgeley Park.”
The power of leveraging local voices
The work of professional artists was so inspiring that local aspiring musicians dared to take the mic to perform in their own community park.
Rachel Cunningham, a shy but extremely talented young woman in the audience declared before starting to sing: “I don’t normally do this, but you are all making me so comfortable, it’s like singing by myself.”
It was clear Rachel felt as if she was performing in front of her friends at home without pressure, judgment or fear. The performance morphed into a magical jam session where professional artists and local youth shared together in a powerful musical experience against the backdrop of a community park.
By the end of the performance, it was impossible to distinguish the professional artists from local youth who were often performing for the very first time. In spite of challenges along the way, Art on my Mind gave local youth the courage to raise their voices and express the art on their minds.
Park People has collaborated with Toronto Arts Foundation since 2016.
Learn more about the Arts in the Parks program.