JAYU is a registered charity committed to sharing human rights stories through the arts. Their year-round programming includes the Human Rights Film Festival, The Hum human rights podcast, and iAM, an arts and social-justice training program for underserved youth in Toronto which leads to exhibition opportunities, employment, peer-to-peer leadership and more.

We asked Gilad Cohen, founder and executive director of arts charity JAYU, about the group’s evolution and focus on mentoring youth through innovative workshops and programming.

JAYU started in 2012 as a film festival and has since expanded to run many other programs devoted to arts and human rights. Can you tell us more about that evolution?

Education and community have always been at the heart of JAYU. The North Korean Human Rights Film Festival, which later became JAYU’s Human Rights Film Festival, was born in an effort to guide Torontonians through complex and distant issues using visuals, art, and dialogue. Our programming has always stayed true to this core belief: that art is an unbeatable medium to grasp, discuss, and address difficult questions.

The Hum podcast was a natural extension of the film festival as it offered a broader platform for the unique subjects of the documentary films we screened to tell their story in their own voice. While some of our programming exists on a macro scale and addresses huge international human rights concerns, we felt it was also our responsibility to face and actively address social justice concerns right here in Toronto. The iAM Program was a perfect complement to our other programming as it addressed social issues on a granular, local level, starting with the people who are at the heart of all social change: youth.

Participation in the iAM Program, which focuses on youth and mentorship, has grown in the last four years. How do you see this program evolving going forward?

It’s been inspiring to see our iAM photography program grow from a two-week summer initiative that benefitted 10 to 20 youth annually, to a year-round program that’s on pace to work with over 250 youth per year in multiple cities. Last year we expanded the program to Mississauga and we are planning to start running workshops in other parts of the GTA on a weekly basis, including Weston and Richmond Hill.

Last year, we introduced a new 8-week iAM spoken-word poetry program, and we’ve started to offer that initiative inside Toronto District School Board classrooms. This fall, we’ll launch the iAM filmmaking program, which will help connect youth participants to showcase opportunities at our annual Human Rights Film Festival.

I’m perhaps proudest of our one-week trip to Wapekeka First Nation in Northern Ontario earlier this year, where we brought our photography program to a community that has been struggling with youth suicide in the hopes of building confidence in the young people there. Our goal is to expand on this and to continue creating spaces where more youth can express themselves through a variety of art forms.

What has been the impact on the iAM Program mentors? How does it change their lives or careers?

We constantly get feedback from our mentors that they end up walking away from our workshops having learned more than they’ve taught. The youth we work with are inspiring and resilient; a majority of them come from underserved neighbourhoods and many others also identify as newcomers and refugees. I often find that what they lack is not imagination and creativity, but rather the space, resources and mentorship to channel those things in beautiful ways.

When we create an environment where they have access to those things, the art they create and the stories they share often provide us and our mentors with new perspectives and opportunities to grow. It also reminds our mentors that our responsibility as artists isn’t just to create, but to train, guide and teach our future generation of artists the importance of using the arts for social justice.

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

It means everything. Honestly, when we got the call informing us that we made it to the finals, the team became emotional. To grow our programming so organically over the years, our team has had to work so hard and often with very little resources to ensure that what we do continues to be so meaningful and impactful to our community. This nomination acknowledges our hard work. Being associated with such a high-profile award will also help support the youth who come through our programs by allowing us to connect with more hiring partners and more showcase opportunities.