Arts·Point of View

I spent my 20s working with Toronto youth, and today's gun violence conversations feel like déja vu

After "the summer of the gun," youth arts programs showed potential but fell by the wayside. Were we set up to fail?

After "the summer of the gun," arts programs showed potential but fell by the wayside. Were we set up to fail?

In this undated photo, Amanda Parris speaks at Life Movement Town Hall Meeting. Now the host of CBC Arts: Exhibitionists, she co-founded Lost Lyrics in 2006, an organization that served Toronto youth in the Jane and Finch and Malvern communities. (Courtesy of Taiwo Bah)

When I was growing up, my friends and I used to say that the streets are hot in the summertime. The temperature wasn't the only thing on our minds — we were referring to the rise in violent crime that would occur when the days got longer.

This summer is no exception. According to Toronto Police Services statistics as of July 22, there have been 228 shootings and 308 victims of gun violence (injuries and death) this year, including Sunday's mass shooting in Toronto's Greektown.

The violence has sparked a conversation that feels eerily familiar — from revived debates around increased policing in "high priority" areas to discussions about the roots of violence. And then there was last week's debacle when Ontario MPP Michael Tibollo wore a bulletproof vest to visit Jane and Finch, a frequently stigmatized neighbourhood.

In 2005, Toronto experienced a season of violence that was later dubbed "The Summer of the Gun." The name may have been hyperbole, but there were 52 gun-related homicides that year. The city needed an intervention.

As a result of the panic, there was a sizeable financial investment given to Toronto police. The debate around policing led to the creation of the controversial unit known as TAVIS, and research was conducted into the roots of violence. Those are the stories that got the most media attention. But there was another strategy, one that's occupied a lot less space in the public memory.

Public and private funders decided to back arts-based community programs as part of the solution. These organizations were informed and directed by young people working directly in neighbourhoods that had been identified as a "priority." The prevailing belief at the time was that since young people in these neighbourhoods were frequently at the centre of the violence, young people would best be able to curb its tide.

Similar suggestions are being made today — so I want to explore what did and didn't work 10 years ago.

We were the generation that would stop the violence

I spent much of my 20s in the middle of this social experiment. Alongside Natasha Daniel, I co-founded Lost Lyrics in 2006. It's an organization for young people in the Jane and Finch and Malvern communities.

We recognized a need for critical and creative engagement with middle school students and realized that art was an effective tool. We introduced our participants to concepts such as the prison industrial complex, third wave feminism and the practice of restorative justice using films, poetry, rap music and theatre. I jumped into this new, youth-led world bright-eyed and optimistic.

We connected with other young people working in neighbourhoods such as Teesdale, Flemingdon-Park, Lawrence Heights and Rexdale. Collaborating on projects, sharing skills and best practices, it was incredible to see our ideas manifest through the resources we received and to watch our young students flourish.

I truly believed we were going to be the generation that would halt the violence. We actually had resources; in the past, racialized communities had been offering these services without financial support. And I wasn't the only one with lofty dreams.

There was a serious need to create a safe space for us.- Muna Ali, Gashanti Unity

Kehinde Bah was a youth member of former mayor David Miller's Community Safety Panel and later co-created the multi-award winning non-profit organization The Remix Project. Over email, he articulated the optimistic mood of the time: "I remember having the support of the institution behind us and having the green light to dream up whatever we wanted it to be."

For a while, we did accomplish some incredible things. There were life-altering retreats, international learning exchanges (Schools without Borders), anti-oppression workshops (The People Project), inspiring intergenerational programs (Young Diplomats) and entrepreneurial meet-ups (Youth in Power). On the arts front, there were intimate open mics (Artistic Effusion), powerful photography exhibits (My City My Story) and creative writing workshops (Beatz 2 Da Streetz).

Muna Ali co-founded an organization for young Somali women called Gashanti Unity. She told me about the importance of just having space to connect and heal collectively. "What we noticed is that a lot of the time the young women we worked with, much like ourselves, were impacted by violence because our brothers, friends and neighbours were either getting locked up or killed. There was a serious need to create a safe space for us."

When it came to the people doing this intensive community work, most of us were in our early 20s. We didn't come into our jobs with much more than an idea and a connection to community. So we had to learn.

We learned how to write grants, create budgets, develop strategic plans, supervise staff, create HR policies, build governing boards, plan events and fundraise. We joined research committees and grant juries, attended consultations, organized protests and participated in research reports. There were also the court dates we attended, the support letters we wrote, the visits to jails and to hospitals. And there were the funerals.

While our wealthy peers backpacked through Europe, we spent our 20s grinding — working under the urgent reality of violence consistently happening within and to our communities.

They told us this would happen...

And today there is a conversation happening, very much like the one we were once at the centre of, as though none of this work ever happened. To say it's disheartening would be an understatement.

We were warned that this would happen. Older activists told us that this is a city notorious for having a short memory. They told us about the 1992 Stephen Lewis Report on Race Relations and the creation of Fresh Arts and other community initiatives that suddenly found support in the wake of the Yonge Street Riots. They also told us how it all fell apart when Mike Harris came into power. These activists issued vague prophecies that this youth-led thing was just a trend. These priorities come in waves, they told us. "Make a contingency plan!"

I wish they'd also told us that the government loves setting up consultations and town halls which rarely do more than waste our time. I wish they'd told us that the recommendations and demands that we put forward would almost never get implemented. I wish they'd told us that the grant applications we spent countless hours working on were set up for social service, not social transformation. I wish they'd told us that the funding parameters would only allow us to make an impact on a case-by-case basis. We faced strict limitations: projects had to be completed on three-to-five-year maximum timelines, and our funds could only be used to rent space, meaning we'd never own a venue. There were limitations on our political engagement. Working this way, we could never change things structurally or systemically.

The end of an era

By 2013, the vague prophecy that the youth-led sector was just a trend was beginning to become a reality. Violence was still happening in our communities, but the Rob Ford era had ushered in a disdain for what he infamously called "hug a thug" programming.

Many organizations were struggling to stay afloat as funding programs came to an end and the resources began to dry up. I remember consoling a friend, a man who had done life-saving work. That day, he realized his organization's lease was up. He couldn't find another venue within his budget willing to house a program for racialized youth. Not long after, it was my turn to shed frustrated tears when I realized that I had applied to every funder I could think of and still didn't have enough money to pay my incredible staff.

Burnout was running through our ranks. "Imagine working so hard to improve lives, just to lose them on the days your shop isn't open," Bah recalled. "I saw that happen to colleagues and I don't know if they've ever been the same because of experiences like that."

Julian Campbell worked for years with a gang exit program called Breaking the Cycle. Over email, he described the burnout he felt as "the fatigue that sleep never remedies." 

For Andrea Zammit Laing, a former staff member of non-profit organizations like For Youth Initiative and the Grassroots Youth Collaborative, the burnout was a repetitive occurrence that finally led to her leaving the sector. "Living grant by grant is just not sustainable," she writes. "Having witnessed violence, worked in hospitals, courts, jails and planned crisis intervention events and wakes, the trauma from the loss of community is all too familiar. I can no longer handle the losses."

The organizations that survived this era largely ditched their grassroots practices and turned to more corporate models. The consequence of this strategic move was the inevitable loss of their intimate and creative magic.

What we did in those years may not have completely stopped the violence, but it was undeniably effective on an individual level. We went beyond the conventional goal of keeping young people busy and instead provided them with skills, developed their critical analysis and introduced them to creative outlets. The young people that attended my programs didn't leave. They stayed with Lost Lyrics from middle school until they graduated high school. We built weekend programs and summer camps, in-school workshops and self-development series. To support their growth, we hired many of our kids to work on those programs.

Some are now in university and some are creating businesses. Some are working in their community while others are running music studios. A few of my former students are now parents. Many identify as artists. All of them know that their stories are important and they look at the world with a critical and creative lens.

Let's do something different this time

Last week, writer Amani Bin Shikhan tweeted this poignant observation: "Toronto is a city notorious for trying to arts grant and diversity/inclusion program structural violence away."

I'm proud that I contributed a small part to the growth of some incredible human beings, but within that pride is also a knowledge that none of what we did lasted long enough to make a transformative difference. None of it changed the levels of rising poverty, the rates of unemployment, the displacement of communities, the structures of power or the systems of inequity.

And so I'm here, in the middle of another summer of violence, faced with the devastating question: were we ultimately set up to fail?

Already money is being made available to once again address gangs, guns and violence in Toronto. Why did the [original] funding stop?- Julian Campbell, Breaking the Cycle

The conversation today has shifted, but it doesn't feel very different for me or for many of the people who I worked with a decade ago. Bah believes the conversation is largely the same. "There will be funding for new approaches, but that funding will run out eventually and those ideas won't get the chance for refinement and to be scaled and supported over a generation," he said.

Campbell is also skeptical. "The talking points are pretty much the same as 2005. Already money is being made available to once again address gangs, guns and violence in Toronto. Why did the [original] funding stop?"

Arsema Berhane, who at the time co-founded the Eritrean Youth Coalition and the Toronto Community Housing group Youth in Power, believes there are some important shifts that have happened in the conversation. "The leadership and activism of Black Lives Matter TO is a major difference. They have better identified the issues and have named anti-Black racism as the root to many of the issues our community faces. I believe this has led to more meaningful conversations, strategies and system changes. "

It's often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. 

Before this next wave of research begins, here's a list of reports that have already been written and don't need to be written again:

This is a challenge to the city: let's do something different this time.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.