Snabba frågor till Seema Jethalal

Foto: Linda Stella

Seema Jethalal besökte Göteborg i september för att tala på Kultur i Västs konferens PRIO 0TILL18. Hon har lång erfarenhet av att arbeta med kultur som verktyg för att nå och engagera barm och unga. Nu arbetar hon som regiondirektör på Canadian Heritage i Kanada. Vi passade på att ställa några snabba frågor till henne.


Using Culture as a tool to engage youth

Why engage youth?
We all know that investing in youth is investing in the future however, I would argue that there is far more to youth engagement than simply developing skills and opportunities for the next generation (which is undoubtedly important).  The most ground-breaking initiatives I’ve been involved in have been transformative and unique because young people were at the heart of designing and executing them.  For me, the best ideas surface when people with different life experiences and perspectives – including youth – generate ideas collectively.  The process can be slower, messier and more complex, but is worth investing in.  I’ve found youth less jaded and more daring and their higher tolerance for risk is a key ingredient to the innovative ideas they generate.  More and more organizations in Canada are engaging youth in the co-creation process, providing resources and support to create the conditions for their ideas to thrive. I’ve found both the process of engaging youth and the end results deeply inspiring.


Is there any support system for engaging youth in Canada?
There are several opportunities in Canada to support youth to get involved in programs and to run their own programs or initiatives.  An interesting trend I’m thankful to see in our cultural sector is an increasing volume of opportunities for youth who have traditionally had less access to affordable, meaningful creative opportunities.  Over the past decade or two there has been a healthy influx of opportunities by foundations and granting bodies that fund children and youth, and in particular young people in greater need whose incredible potential is often unrealized.  

The Ontario Trillium Foundation’s “Youth Opportunities Fund”, for example, provides grants and capacity-building supports to youth-led grassroots groups that have faced multiple barriers to economic and social wellbeing.  This fund prioritizes projects involving newcomer youth, racialized youth, youth from low-income families, youth in rural / remote communities, etc. Canadian Heritage (a federal government department) has a program called “Youth Take Charge” for 7-30 year-olds interested in running youth-led projects pertaining to arts and culture, civic engagement, economic activities or history and heritage. The Laidlaw Foundation is respected for its focus on systems-level change: they engage in research and advocacy, and provide funding for training and for developing youth-led projects thereby investing in the development of the youth sector.  There is also significant formal and informal organizational mentorship between youth-serving organizations in Toronto. For example Sketch (a studio for young people aged 16-29 living homeless or on the margins to make art, perform and record music) is an established organizations works closely with a grassroots organization, ArtReach Toronto to co-produce an annual ArtReach Pitch Contest– a contest that provides up to $10k in funding for young people to run creative business ideas and community arts projects.

This trend towards investing in systemic change and youth empowerment (not just engagement) is important not only because of the skills it helps young people develop or the impact it has on the communities they engage.  It is also important because programs are designed in way that is relevant to the communities they aim to serve.  As a result, stories that are often left under-represented in the public sphere that are incredibly relevant emerge and make for deeply impactful creative content, which in turn, inspires people to engage with art that actually reflects stories they can relate to. 

So designing programs for youth is a good start, but the real change happens when programs are designed with youth and ideally, driven by them.  As my friend Alicia Rose says, it’s one thing to invite them to the party. It’s another to invite them to set the table and plan the party.


How do you keep youth engaged? Which is the biggest challenge?
Hiring young people to engage youth has been a key to the success of many youth initiatives I’ve led.  Hiring people who ‘speak the language’ of the communities you want to serve, who can relate to the life experiences of participants is essential.  In fact, if I have to choose between someone who is a trained artist/ facilitator / coordinator with the appropriate professional experience and someone with a comparable lived experience to the youth participants (with little artistic or administrative experience), I will choose the latter and plan to set them up for success in their role with the appropriate resources and mentorship. 

The biggest challenge I’ve found is keeping youth interested and engaged, so hiring people who can listen deeply to their needs (and barriers) and design initiatives accordingly, is half the battle.  It’s easy to overlook some of the barriers they face – especially under-served youth – so be sure to develop an understanding of what makes it hard to participate.  For instance, if they live far away and come from a low-income family can you provide bus tokens or arrange a car pool to facilitate them participating?  Do their parents approve of them being involved in your program, given that it may be perceived to be of little value and take them away from their school work, or prevent their child working a shift at the grocery store?  If so, can you meet with their parents and help them understand how engaging them can have a positive impact on their schoolwork and in developing transferable life skills. Can you provide an honorarium so their child can participate in your program without missing out on generating money that their family may rely on?  My work has traditionally involved working with under-served young people that have far less privilege and access than I grew up with, so I sometimes overlook the barriers to their participation. This is where hiring young people who listen deeply to run the programs can be your greatest asset.


What importance do cultural hubs like Daniels Spectrum have when it comes to engaging children and youth?
Daniels Spectrum has been quite revolutionary in terms of youth engagement and community development.  This 60,000 square foot cultural hub is situated in the heart of one of Canada’s most ethno-culturally diverse communities.  Historically, the majority of residents are first and second generation immigrants.  Approximately sixty languages are spoken in this 69-acre community to give you a sense of its diversity. 

Daniels Spectrum is a mash up of a performing arts centre, an incubator for social innovation and a community centre. It is an incredible platform for young people from Regent Park and beyond to perform and showcase their art, engage in training and leadership programs, gain employment opportunities, run the social enterprise café, host and attend inspiring events, and develop relationships with collaborators and mentors. For example, young Muslim women create an annual group visual arts exhibition called “(Mus)interpreted” that explores complex identity issues and demystifies stereotypes. Other youth drop in and play the community pianos at their leisure, or take photography workshops and learn to document and share their own stories visually, or work with industry mentors in a particular field, or attend outdoor film screenings (sometimes in Hindi!), or participate in committees where they can shape the design and use of the building and generate ideas for programming.  It’s a very inspiring atmosphere where young people feel welcome because they are involved in virtually every aspect of the organization – from the designing building policies to running open mic events in the café.