The Artists Mentoring Youth Project

The AMY Project is a free performing arts training program serving young women and non-binary youth. AMY breaks down barriers to participation by providing meals and transportation; accessible, queer and trans inclusive and anti-racist environments; and more. With the mentorship of professional artists, AMY participants learn to tell their stories with honesty, integrity, and artistic rigour.

Photo of The AMY Project by Sean Howard


We spoke with Nikki Shaffeeullah, Artistic Director of The AMY Project, to learn more about the organization. 

Describe the work you do.

The AMY Project is an arts mentorship and education program for young women and non-binary youth in Toronto that seeks to eliminate barriers to participation that might happen in other arts training programs. We work with a great team of professional artists in the city to support participants to learn to craft their stories and tell their stories with artistic rigour, integrity and honesty.

What impact does The AMY Project have on the youth it serves?

The impact that AMY has on the youth that we serve shows up in a lot of different ways. Some of our participants go from the training that they receive through AMY into developing arts careers of their own. Many of our past participants have professional arts careers, and many also take the skills they learned through AMY - including confidence, storytelling, a strong social justice lens and community mindedness - to go back and serve the communities that they live in and work in.   

Why is it important to engage youth through the arts?

It’s so important to engage youth through the arts. The people that we work with at AMY are women, non-binary youth, a lot are youth of colour, queer and trans youth, and youth from other communities who face structural barriers to opportunties. It’s really important for people - particularly people from these communities - to have an opportunity to learn how to articulate their stories, and have a platform to share it. The performing arts in particular are such a fantastic platform for that. We’re really proud to be able to build a creative community for people from a diverse array of life experiences, identities, beliefs and practices.  

The Arts for Youth Award is supported by a number of individuals, including Martha Burns, Jim Fleck, and Sandra and Jim Pitblado. They support this award because they believe in the power of engaging youth through the arts. What would you say to these individuals if you met them today?

I have so much gratitude for the people that support youth arts initiatives, because you can’t put a dollar value on what it means to invest in the arts and to invest in youth. You can’t quantify the importance of equipping people at a young age to be able to work together creatively and to collaborate, and tell their own stories on their own terms. That permeates through society for years to come. I think it’s so important for everyone to have access to the arts. I have so much gratitude for people who decide to put their energies towards youth arts.

What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Arts for Youth Award?

It is such a huge honour for AMY to be nominated for the Arts for Youth Award. We’re a pretty small organization. There’s just two of us on staff, and we have a team of really passionate artists who work year to year to do this work. Our work is so relationship centered, so it’s nice that our work can be seen in a wider creative context, in the context of the city, and in the context of other great organizations that are doing this kind of work. It’s been really nice for us to step back and to realize: hey, what we’re doing is really high impact, and we’re really proud of it.

While The AMY Project’s original mandate was to serve young women, you have expanded to include non-binary people in your constituents. Why was this an important move?

The AMY Project started as an organization to support young women in arts mentorship and storytelling. When I joined the organization 2 ½ years ago, we reflected on our mandate and thought that it was really important to expand that mandate to include non-binary youth. It's part of looking at how organizations that have a gender specific mandate can really be inclusive and dynamic. When we’re dealing with gender-based barriers in society, those aren’t limited to young women. They include young women - both cisgender and transgender - and  genderqueer and non-binary youth. They’re part of our community, and we wanted that to be explicit in our mandate. We had a really positive reception to that, because there’s not a lot of organizations that put that out there explicitly in their outreach.

Every year, your Spring Theatre Creation Program participants showcase an original work to audiences. Describe the process, and how these works are developed.

Our flagship program is our Theatre Creation Program which takes place in the spring and culminates in a workshop presentation. That process is led by a team of directors and assistant directors, and we bring a roster of great guest artists and mentors to introduce different ways to theatre creation. We think it’s valuable to introduce the participants to lots of ways of creating, through physical theatre, writing, clown, music, so that they can have the opportunity to see what sparks for them. About 2/3 of the way through that process we begin to reflect on the material that they’ve made, and find what themes are emerging. This year there was a lot of excitement and energy around ancestry, including what we do or don’t know about who came before us, who came after us, and thinking about our names and the names that were given, and the names that we choose. Once we’ve picked a theme, then they start refining the material, and shaping it into a show. After they do the bulk of the creation, we curate it into a show, and we share it for an audience of friends and family and the wider community. 

What’s the value of the mentorship relationship?

The AMY Project’s mentorship program is one piece of what we do that really sets us apart. Every participant in our program has a one to one mentor that they work with. Our mentors are some of the most exciting artists that are doing really innovative and interesting things. We choose them because they’re flexible, empathetic, interpersonal loving and caring people who really invest in the relationships that they’re building with these young people. It’s really important for young artists to be able to see themselves in established artists who they’re working with, so our mentors often come from similar lived experiences and life stories as the participants. When we talk about barriers to participation, there’s a lot of things, like physical accessibility, or economic accessibility. Another barrier to accessing the arts is not being able to see yourself represented in the art being made, and we find that the mentorship, although it’s skills based, it’s also a connection to an industry that might seem foreign otherwise.

What are you most proud of?   

One of the things that we’re most proud of at AMY is how people who are involved in the program want to stay involved. We’re a small and mighty organization, and we have a fierce sense of community. One of the things we use arts to do, is to take care of each other, and our past participants want to keep investing in that. As much as possible we try to hire past participants, especially ones who are building their careers in the arts, as assistant directors, or graphic designers, or mentors, or directors. Seeing the love for AMY, that continued commitment to AMY is kind of what it’s all about.  

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