An Ottawa arts program that brings opportunities to low-income neighbourhoods is winning praise south of the border.

MASC Awesome Arts connects professional artists with young people so that they can explore issues in their neighbourhoods and create works of art, from music videos to spoken word poetry and theatre productions.

The finished works are then shared at regular festivals. 

On Thursday, MASC Awesome Arts was honoured with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. The awards program is run by national cultural organizations in the U.S., who each year recognize 12 outstanding American youth programs as well as one from outside the country.

MASC Awesome Arts

Leaders and participants in the MASC Awesome Arts program travelled to Washington, D.C. to receive a prestigious award for youth programs. Akuol Luala, second from left, has been participating in the program since she was 14. (Pam Breaux)

Awards handed out in Washington, D.C.

MASC, the charity that runs the program, has for years worked with the U.S. Embassy to bring American artists to Ottawa, according to executive director Audrey Churgin.

Akuol Luala, 22, began participating in the Awesome Arts program when she was 14, and was part of the contingent that travelled to Washington, D.C. to receive the award.

Luala became involved after seeing posters at a community centre. It struck her as a unique opportunity, different from the sports and homework programs that are more abundant in low-income neighbourhoods.

"[It was] something new and exciting that gave me an opportunity to have access to professionals and professional equipment," Luala said.

One of her first projects was a video about racism. 

"It was a time to explore what was happening in society, and happening in my neighbourhood," said Luala, adding that she'd been bullied herself. 

'Speak with a stronger voice'

Her time with the program has given her opportunities to work with professional artists including Jamaal Jackson Rogers, Ottawa's poet laureate, and Craig Conoley, a filmmaker and video producer.

"Awesome Arts has given me that space to kind of evolve as a young woman, and grow into myself, and speak with a stronger voice and confidence through the arts that I work with," Luala said.

These days, she juggles coursework for a degree in philosophy from the University of Ottawa with mentoring the next generation of youth participants. 

"Awesome Arts is one of those things that I'll always have with me no matter how busy I am."

With files from Susan Burgess