Toronto youth campaign to resurrect a beloved arts program

Photo: Jeannine Pitas

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Young residents of Toronto's Jane and Finch community have spent the last two months engaged in a struggle to bring back the Palisades Media Arts Academy (PMAA), a music and media arts program for youth that was unexpectedly shut down on April 30. "Bring back what was once ours," read a sign at a youth-organized rally held on June 27 outside the San Romanoway Revitalization Association (SRRA), a community organization which houses the now-closed Youth 'N' Charge music studio, where the PMAA program ran for two years. During the rally several young people took to the microphone to raise their concerns.

"I moved to Toronto from Jamaica last September and spent the whole winter coming to the Palisades Media Arts Academy," stated Kris Gayle, a young jazz pianist who has participated in the program since landing in Canada. "Even when it was 16 degrees below zero outside, I always came to PMAA -- I felt like a fish in water. But then one day I was greeted by a sign on the door, changed locks and no information as to why the program had shut down. This is utmost disrespect, not only to me, but to all of the people who have been involved for the past two years."

This particular program, which was funded by a grant from the Trillium Foundation, provided free music and media arts classes for youth aged 14-29 in the Jane and Finch region, which is still one of Toronto's most stigmatized communities. "There are so many stereotypes about this neighbourhood," says Joel Kamalando, a 16-year-old rapper and spoken word poet. "But really, this is a vibrant community filled with singers and musicians -- ambitious, positive people who are learning to become future leaders. All we want is some communication about why this has happened."

According to Stephnie Payne, who is co-founder and executive director of the SRRA, the program -- which had been completely free and included a business component in which participants created and distributed their own albums -- closed for one simple reason: the funding ran out.

"We were awarded the grant from the Trillium Foundation in May 2011. The program was supposed to run for three years, and it did," said Payne. "Right now there is simply no funding," she added. 

The youth, however, have a different story.

"The funding was received in 2011, but the program didn't start until January 2012," said Kamalando, "I'm not sure how $344,500 just disappeared from the budget."

Payne, who retired from her position in April 2013, states that she came back to her job five months later after her replacement resigned and found that the records were disorganized. "It blows my mind that there was no accountability while I was away." She alluded to some conflicts among staff members and admitted that she did have to return some of the grant money (which had been earmarked for equipment costs) to the Trillium Foundation. "I informed the staff last January that the program would be closing in April because of a lack of funds, and I advised them to inform the youth."

However, the young people say they were not informed, and they have not found Payne to be forthcoming with an explanation.

"Our emails and phone calls have gone unanswered," states Kamalando. "At one point I was offered a meeting, but it was cancelled at the last minute. All we want is some communication and transparency."

The youth have launched an online petition to save the SRRA, asking for four things: dialogue and clarification as to why the program was closed after only two years of operation; a process to ensure that the mandate of Youth 'N' Charge is met, making it a "youth led, youth driven" initiative; an effort to bring back the Palisades Media Arts Academy program; and a youth seat on the Board of Directors of the San Romanoway Revitalization Association.

"Outreach is the main thing right now," says Kamalando. "We're going to hold more events, and we hope to get more support. And we hope to bring this program back. It was a second home for so many of us -- a place to learn life lessons from others. It also included a business component -- all participants emerged from the program with their own album and a good sense of how the music business works."

"PMAA gave me a second chance," states Steven Rafael Gómez Salguero, a spoken word artist known as Heavy Steve. After a car accident in 2006, he lost his speech and his ability to move. After a long recovery, he became involved in the arts and eventually in this program. "The arts gave me a second chance, but unfortunately, not everyone is so fortunate to have the kind of chance that PMAA provided."

Payne, meanwhile, says that she is currently seeking funding to reopen the Youth 'N' Charge studio. "I've worked with these youth for my whole life, and I will fight for them to have a safe haven," she says.  

The youth, however, are concerned as much with process as results, and their concerns have drawn notice from the surrounding community.  

"This kind of program is extremely important, and transparency is the most important aspect of it. It's not just about teaching music, but also responsibility and self control," said Errol Young, an activist from the Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty. "To teach self-control, you can't be controlling of others. We need to resist this top-down decision-making and get rid of the colonialist control over this community."

Jeannine M. Pitas is a freelance writer and a PhD candidate at University of Toronto's Centre for Comparative Literature.

You can support the initiative to save PMAA by signing the petition, visiting the website and connecting via Facebook.

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