Build self-esteem through art

The Toronto Star 
November 29, 2005

Build self-esteem through art
City lacks accessible programs to engage youth, says Lola Rasminsky

Ten days ago, I attended the funeral of Jamal Hemmings, a youth who was shot down on Eglinton Ave. earlier this month. I was there to support my many friends who live in York Square, where Jamal lived with his mother and sister.

Jamal’s best friend, Amon Beckles, was gunned down on the steps of the church. He had come to pay his final respects, despite warnings that it was not safe for him.

Until the funeral was so shockingly interrupted, it was a beautiful event. Not only was there a heartfelt, moving and articulate outpouring of sorrow and love for this loveable young man, but there was an inspiring display of talent from his many friends who had prepared tributes in song and verse.

At the moment, the grief feels as if it could last forever. Having run an arts program in this community for the last two years, I feel strongly that we need to learn from this horrific incident.

We cannot let it pass without trying to figure out how we can begin to break this cycle of violence.

Sadly, there are no magic solutions. The issues are complex and must be addressed on many levels.

One perspective is to think of the individual young person vulnerable to being lured into gangs.

If the youth in this city’s neighbourhoods are to stay out of gangs, something else must capture their imagination.

Today there are not enough accessible and appealing programs to engage them. In the past, the only thing that kept many kids in school was the drama program or the music program.

Thanks to cuts by the government of Mike Harris, that’s all gone now and the dropout rate has soared.

Most of the kids who get lured into gangs are good kids. If they were given the opportunity to develop their natural talents and prepare themselves for jobs, we would see far fewer children looking for bad ways to find a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.

We must focus on developing the assets of every child in this city.

Literacy and numeracy are important. Equally important are the life skills that come from participating in sports and other creative and recreational activities.

Training in the arts is one way to develop the qualities that young people need to prepare for the job market.

Self-esteem comes from the sense of accomplishment they get when they create their own unique work of art. Kids who succeed in an arts program develop the self-confidence to see alternatives for themselves.

One of my young friends at York Square is an accomplished artist, drummer and dancer who also writes poetry. Through his participation in the arts he has developed both his artistic talents and his abilities to stick with a project, to keep his commitments, to care about excellence and to collaborate with other people.

He works every day after school in recreation programs in five different community housing centres in Toronto’s West End. He doesn’t need to resort to stealing or joining gangs. At 16, he sees a bright future for himself.

Obviously, adding more arts programming in schools and community centres is just a small part of what we need to do.

We need to give our children many opportunities to shine, in many different domains. They all have what it takes to do that.

We can’t wait much longer. This is now a life-or-death situation.

Lola Rasminsky is the director of the Avenue Road Arts School and executive director of Arts for Children of Toronto, a charitable organization that provides arts programming in underserved areas in the GTA.