Project: Humanity celebrates one year of online arts mentorship with youth-on-the-margins

On August 5th, Project: Humanity (PH) – a socially engaged theatre company based in the General Toronto Area, is celebrating its one-year anniversary with a virtual birthday party that brings together past artist-mentors, mentees, shelter staff, donors, and other community partners and stakeholders. The event will feature performances from some of PH 1:1’s past and future artist-mentors, a presentation of some of PH 1:1’s highlights, and key learnings over the past year. The event also marks the kick-off of a gift-matching fundraising campaign to help Project: Humanity secure funds for 60 unique artist-youth partnerships for the 21-22 season.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, two of the company’s core constituent groups, artists in the community and youth shelter residents, saw their employment and arts education evaporate. In response, Project: Humanity created the COVID-19 Artist Partnership Program to help youth retain space in their lives for creativity. It has been an unqualified success, and the program is being rebranded as PH 1:1 to reflect its permanence beyond COVID-19. Some artists that graciously participated include Peter Katz, Khari Wendell-McClelland, Mike T. Kerr, Justin Broadbent, Stephanie Bellefleur, and so many others.

The COVID-19 Artist Partnership Program (CAPP) started as a 6-person pilot with Youth Without Shelter (in Rexdale, ON) that offered 12 weeks of 1:1 online creative mentorship in an artform of the youth’s choosing, be it drama, music, or visual art. In 12 months’ time, the program has developed a roster of over 200 prospective artist mentors and is now on offer at 7 shelters and community organizations from Scarborough to Etobicoke. Since its inception in summer 2020, CAPP has created 48 partnerships between artists and youth for a grand total of 478 hours of online art mentorship in everything ranging from spoken word to mural art, from leatherwork to web design. PH has developed lending libraries of tech and art supplies to make these mentorships even more accessible to youth.

Over this past year, PH has observed that among exit-survey respondents: 87.5% of youth participants and 91.6% of artist-mentors reported feeling less isolated as a result of the program, and 84.3 % of artists and 75% of youth reported feeling more confident in their creative skills and artistic practice following the program.

On its anniversary, here’s what Executive Director Daniel Chapman-Smith had to say:

What does it mean for you to be providing a safe space for youth to be creative during the times we’re living in?

I love this question. Safe, creative spaces are so valuable–essential even–for any human. Many of the youth engaging with us were in high-pressure situations before the pandemic hit and those have only been exacerbated. In challenging life moments like these it is easy to neglect feeding our creative selves, instead falling into reactive ways of being or just imploding. This is when the opportunity for creative outlets are critical and should be available to everyone. So providing these spaces feels necessary. The fact that so many youths are actually engaging is inspiring and really affirms the notion that creative practices are an important part of our humanity and can ground us during the most difficult times.

Why is promoting the arts for youth important at a time like this?

I believe the arts play an important role in our development and growth as humans. I think this is becoming a common belief and there is a lot of research being done about the mental health benefits too. However, I was surprised to discover how many of the young people we encountered had been actively searching for artistic engagement before this program was available. One youth, who received drama mentorship and wrote his first script in the program, spoke to me about continually asking the shelter staff for drama programming before we came along. A frontline staff at another youth centre was leading painting sessions herself (with no particular experience as a painter) to meet the obvious needs of the youth. It’s also worth saying that I am frequently blown away by the creativity, intelligence, and passion of these young people. While our goal is not to turn each of them into a professional artist, there are certainly cases where individuals are driven and talented and a connection to a professional artist in their field can open new pathways forward.

After a year of the program, what do you hope this next year will bring?

Well (exhale), while it’s been exciting to see PH 1:1 emerge at warp speed this past year, I am hoping the year ahead can be a bit of a stabilizing year. We hope to continue a trend of new supporters of the program. I’m excited to take our learnings from the past year and to make the little adjustments that will deepen the experiences within mentorships. I also expect this year will provide an opportunity to create community with the growing number of youth and artists who have been through the program. We are looking to host a couple of live meet-ups or art nights as such things become possible again.

What is your hope for the program post-pandemic?

PH 1:1 has revealed several incredible strengths such as its adaptability, the meaningful 1:1 relationship between youth and mentor, and its accessibility to those with social anxiety, which is prevalent among the youth we engage. I hope to see the program continue delivering in all these ways, which will be significant outside of pandemic conditions. I also see this program as a bridge to the in-person drama workshops Project: Humanity has led in shelters for over a decade. Perhaps most exciting is the potential for this program as a connector. Youth are developing meaningful relationships with their mentors which often outlive the structured program. Those mentors often introduce youth to artistic communities that they know of or belong to. PH is a community in and of itself and we are in relationship with many amazing organizations and communities doing like work in the city. These connections are the kind of thing that can turn a 12-week arts mentorship into a fork in a young person’s path and the possibility of a different future.

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