We sat down with Natalia Martinez Nagles, Administrator & Policy Researcher, Perry Phalla, Program Coordinator, and Toni Cater, Design & Communications Coordinator, to learn more about UforChange and their work with youth.
The UforChange motto is “Creative culture. Better world.” Can you explain what that means?
Natalia: UforChange is different in the sense that we provide arts education for youth and our intake process is not based on previous experience or talent. A lot of times organizations ask for a portfolio, or if you’ve gone to school before, samples of your work. We don't ask for any of those things. We just want to know the person is committed to learning a new skill, if they're committed to contributing to our community, or to their own communities. We're providing youth with the skills so they can develop a bright future regardless of their circumstances. We believe that every young person has the opportunity to grow even if it's just providing them with mentorship or a creative and nurturing environment. It’s about nurturing young people so they can grow.
Toni: I think the whole point of our program is to reach out to the community and give them opportunities to indulge in the arts. It’s important that our youth is able to fully be indulged in the arts.
Your programs focus on fashion, photography and DJ’ing. Why does your organization focus on these art forms?
Natalia: When we started in 2009 we offered over 20 programs in every art form you can imagine; we did theatre, we did dancing. As time went by we collected a lot of feedback from our youth and they expressed that they wanted to focus on some things for a longer period of time. Our programs are currently eight months; we thought by focusing on the long term in each one of these areas it will be a more quality program. The reason why we focus on these areas at the moment is because these are the ones that are in the highest demand. Another reason why we offer these programs is the environment of Toronto. Freelancing is basically the way people work now, rather than 9 to 5 jobs, and DJ’ing and photography can really speak to that. I think we are preparing our young people with these programs for the jobs of the future. As you may know, the Canadian fashion industry is booming at the moment and in Toronto there aren’t many programs that tackles that.
Toni: In terms of mentorship, it’s important that we connect our youth to industry professionals. So definitely as they go through the programs, they have the opportunity to learn something new from people in the field and I think that sets us apart of from a lot of different programs in Toronto. We promote the attitude “you go out in the field, you do it” instead of more textbook approaches to teaching.
Natalia: As I mentioned before, freelancing is something that is really big right now so we have developed a social enterprise. What I mean to say is that those we teach to DJ and photograph are able to be hired through our social enterprise. It’s great, because it’s a long term process. You learn the skill, you practice the skill in class, you go to networking events with our mentors, and then after that you could be hired through the social enterprise.
Toni: The alumni as well, they're able to give back, that’s one of the most important things. They are able to to connect these opportunities to give back to youth who are in the program. They’re able to see examples and provide testimonials about what UforChange has done for them.
In 2016 you launched the “Workshops in the 6ix” program to reach out to those who couldn’t commit to the regular 8 month program. What impact have you seen with these workshops so far?
Natalia: We launched these workshops because everything that we do is really driven by what the youth want. We often do consultations in the middle of the cycle, and at the end of the cycle. What we hear is that they have multiple interests and they don't really know where to go from there.The point of the Workshops in the 6ix is that they can figure out what they want to. One of the effects is that they're able to explore on a short-term basis these different topics and then figure out what they want to do from there.
We also started focusing on a lot of professional development in terms of creating and running a business. The workshops are, in a sense, actually becoming the first step in their career and their business career.
What direction would you like to see UforChange take in the future? What’s next for the organization?
Natalia: There is a lot next! As I said before, we really listen to the youth but we are also aware of what's happening in the city of Toronto. We listen to the trends in the non-profit sector. We see that the cost of living is going up and we just want to make sure that no one's left behind.
We want to make sure that everyone has the right tools to actually succeed in a freelance career, that and they get paid a fair wage. We want to focus or Workshops in the 6ix into more business related topics in the future. We've noticed that the graphic web design industry is booming, but there's little female representation. We have actually been looking and there aren’t really programs that are affordable for low income youth and visible minorities, particularly females in the city of Toronto. We want to do a program that is at no cost for female-identifying individuals for web and graphic design. We have also noticed that one of the biggest issues for artists in Toronto is space. Space is really expensive. We have a big studio in Regent Park and what we’re going to try to do is make it a cultural entrepreneurial hub for people to get a start. Besides bringing in people to a hot desk situation, we also want to rent out the space for photo shoots, for people to make music. We really want to fight that space barrier that young artists are facing.
Why is it important to give youth access to the arts?
Toni: As a graphic designer and illustrator, the arts is such an untapped network and untapped source of careers for a lot of people. I think people underestimate where the arts can take them. Providing these programs shows that you have so many options for yourself, and that there's a lot more to offer within the arts for you to be independent. I think that's really important for our youth, to get that get across that they have the tools to be independent within their craft. It's such a growing stream and the expectancy for it to grow in the next 30 years is huge compared to a lot of other different sectors. So to communicate that to youth that you're in a sector of work that is growing a lot is important
Natalia: The 9 to 5 is not working for everybody. There's people who are just not comfortable in that environment, so we need to acknowledge that and I think the arts are a good sector for someone to explore a different career path. Another point as to why we focus on youth arts is that we serve low income youth. They’re visible minorities and they have multiple challenges. Sometimes they don't have the money to pay for this programming or any other type of programming. Sometimes they suffer a lot from mental health issues; they suffer from anxiety, depression and so this kind of leads them to doubt themselves and they don’t really believe that they can go somewhere. We think that through the arts they can really become resilient and confident individuals because we see this every single year through the cycle. We see them they come in and they're say “I don't know anything about this,” then, they learn the skill and think “I actually can do this.” By the end of the cycle every single year we do an annual showcase and in that showcase they see they are capable. It's something that they can take pride in. It's giving them the confidence for the arts. That's why we do what we do.
How does it feel to be nominated for this award?
Natalia: Feels great! We had applied before in 2016. UforChange will be 10 years old next year and we have been doing a lot of growth, so knowing we actually are the finalists now makes us feel like we are doing something that really matters in the city of Toronto.
Perry: It still fees surreal. I think it’s going to give us more opportunities to provide to the young people to grow UforChange’s program to make it something that we want to see for the future.
Toni: Definitely, approaching 10 years is a keystone. An award from the Toronto Arts Foundation is a huge deal and to use that great momentum for the next 10 years of UforChange.
Natalia: I feel sometimes UfoChange is kind of a hidden gem in Toronto, not a lot of people know what we do and then when people come in, they say “wow I had no idea this was here.” So, I feel like being given this recognition will help a lot of people realize that we're here. Obviously through our outreach we try to talk to everyone but it's impossible to get to everyone. I think this will be a great opportunity for us to spread the word about what we do because we are unique, and everyone should know!