Remixing urban education

In my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star, I discuss the legacy of a little-known urban arts program that developed a number of Canada’s finest hip hop and Rn’B artists. 

Rappers Kardinal Offishal and Saukrates, singer Jully Black, and video director Lil’ X may not be familiar names to Torontonians over the age of 40, but anyone born after 1969 who loves hip hop and R and B is aware of these artists’ foundational roles in Canada’s urban music culture.

Beyond their shared talents, what these names have in common is a little-known initiative of Ontario’s NDP government: a program called Fresh Arts. Fresh Arts was developed under the umbrella of JobsOntario Youth, part of the larger JobsOntario training and employment program the NDP government introduced to address the labour market fallout of the early ’90s recession.

Fresh Arts attracted young people of colour from areas the City now designates as ‘priority neighbourhoods.’ Then, like today, these neighbourhoods were characterized by large immigrant populations, racialized poverty, and high unemployment; most strikingly, youth unemployment.

Staffed by dedicated community activists, Fresh Arts paired mentors from theatre, music and the visual arts with ambitious young artists whose styles and talents were marginalized both by their lack of economic resources and an arts sector that failed to reflect Toronto’s cultural diversity. It was in Fresh Arts that Toronto’s budding urban talents accessed the funding, education, and networks necessary to propel them to successful careers and years of ambassadorship for the city.

Part of the impetus for Fresh Arts was the Stephen Lewis Report on Race Relations in Ontario. The report was commissioned by then-premier Bob Rae following the Yonge Street Riot of May 1992, when simmering tensions between black youth and Toronto police reached a boiling point. According to Rae, the riot “served to remind everyone that there were systemic problems that were not being addressed.”

Lewis documented the social exclusion faced, particularly, by black youth in Toronto and throughout Ontario. Yet like other efforts to address systemic racism that stemmed from the Report (such as the Anti-Racism Secretariat), Fresh Arts fell victim to Mike Harris’s ‘Common Sense Revolution.’ Harris ended JobsOntario Youth, and with it, Fresh Arts.

The spirit of the now legendary program lives on in the Remix Project, a community arts hub which provides space for Toronto’s new generation of urban artists to flourish. Remix participants come primarily from the City’s Priority Neighbourhoods.

Once accepted into Remix, participants are matched with an established mentor who guides them through an intensive program which helps them earn credits toward a high school diploma, apply for post-secondary education and scholarships, or access start-up money for small business projects.

Remix ran on a modest budget until 2005, when Toronto’s ‘Summer of the Gun’ led to increased funding from both the federal and municipal governments, and various foundations. Since then, however, government funding has been minimal, and Remix has had to rely on the goodwill of individual donors and foundations to survive.

With over 200 graduates now making their way in the urban arts sector, Remix has improved the lives of some of the city’s most vulnerable youth. As one recent graduate told me, “Remix showed me the right path when I was in a dark place…the program gives us the opportunity to see another way for our lives. We’re not treated like charity cases, but respected by our peers.”

As the dominance of market logic eclipses social citizenship, programs like Remix are forced to depend on private and charitable sector partnerships to survive. Ultimately, this is what separates a program like Remix from one like Fresh Arts, and charity from social justice.

Although it had minimal funding, mostly from the government, Fresh Arts was grounded in the belief that young people from marginalized communities should have access to resources that better their lives—by virtue of social rights, not the tenuous goodwill of private individuals and corporate philanthropy.

Remix’s funding is neither stable nor predictable, which makes long-term planning difficult.

Indeed, as policy wonks trumpet the idea of the ‘creative city’ and the economic benefits of a vibrant cultural sector, it’s confounding why projects like Remix should have to struggle for every dollar. The city and the province must do more to support such proven successes.

Yet visions of what we can achieve collectively through government are threatened by promises of cutbacks and ‘tax savings’. As the latest city budget demonstrated, cuts to services are the order of the day, with our new Mayor promising more in the near future.

This is short-sighted. Fresh Arts demonstrated the potential of community-driven programs partnering with government to improve the lives of the city’s marginalized youth. Remix is now doing the same. Programs like these are not part of a “gravy train”; as the success of Fresh Arts and Remix graduates demonstrate, they are smart social investments that benefit us all.

Moreover, they are central to building a strong, socially inclusive city that is creative, prosperous, and just.

Published in The Toronto Star Jan 30 2011

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