Jamii, 2020 Recipient

Since 2011, The Esplanade – one of downtown Toronto’s most diverse communities – has been enlivened by the local arts group Jamii (Swahili for “community”). Through the production of over 120 memorable arts-based experiences that recognize and celebrate all people and genders while nurturing female leadership, Jamii strengthens community and lifts spirits.

Jamii gave us some insight on the community-engaged work they've been up to over the years. Read below!

Original photo courtesy of Laura Dittmann. Artwork by Amber Williams-King
Jamii serves The Esplanade neighbourhood. What makes this area of Toronto so unique?

The Esplanade is a downtown Toronto community purposefully developed in the 1970's as a new model for urban planning centred around people from socially and economically diverse backgrounds. In 2020, The Esplanade continues to be a "people" focused community that welcomes and embraces a rich mosaic of ethnic groups. This community is considered to be one of the most successful municipally organized inner-city redevelopments in Canada. The Esplanade (original site plan for the St Lawrence Neighbourhood) is home to about 15,000 people – people who represent Jamii’s primary audience and project participants.

The pioneering vision of diversity this community was built on encompasses cultural, multigenerational, socio-economical diversity while also embracing universal design for accessibility.  Our cultural diversity was nurtured through the specific offering of social housing residences to cultural groups that include eastern European, Francophones, East Africans, and Russians.

Our community is welcoming of people of all ages with 3 daycares, 2 schools, and 3 senior homes. People of all socio-economical status mingle with one another as neighbours from co-ops, social housing, private homes and condos. It’s conceived and developed with specific architectural intent so that socio-economic status would not be evident based on where one lived. As well, a specific percentage of fully accessible units were allocated to a significant segment of the residential buildings in the community. Accessibility is a main feature of our neighbourhood thanks to its promenade: a green artery along Crombie Park, connecting our community from East to West. The promenade is also the social hub of our community: when locals walk down the promenade, they can be seen regularly waving to one another.

The Esplanade, nestled between the Distillery District and the St Lawrence Market, steps away from the lake, is a gem surrounded by high-caliber artistic institutions. It feels like a village in the City. It feels like home. 

This inside knowledge, specifically on the design intent of the community, comes from Alan Littlewood, one of the architects of The Esplanade, who was on the board of directors of Jamii for its first few years, as well as former Mayor David Crombie, who was the first person to support the creation of Jamii. 

Your programming and events have an emphasis on being free and accessible. Why is this vital?

By removing ticketing, we are removing barriers of accessibility that would otherwise limit the ability of our diverse audiences to enjoy quality arts. Barriers can be financial, and simply put, attending the theatre is not an affordable activity for everyone, especially larger families. Providing free events removes that financial burden so often associated with quality arts experiences.

Our numerous outdoor events also provide greater comfort and accessiblity to children and adults with special needs. Physical accessibility is a key component of accessibility. Outdoor performances are not perfect, especially on grassy surfaces, but when planning, we always keep in mind strollers, wheelchairs, walkers and older folks who might need adequate sitting. 

Another barrier to access arts and that we don’t always think about is the social construct on how to behave, for example, at a theatre and in a theatre. What to wear, how to find our seat, the rules around accessing bathrooms, food and drinks and many more social rules we don’t even think of when we visit the theatre. This all implies a learning curve. By offering high-caliber performances in an outdoor setting where there is no set social behavior and where one can - respectfully - do what one pleases, can create a more accessible environment for many to enjoy the arts. Outdoors performances are a vital link in the chain of connecting new audiences to artistic venues. Enjoying arts in an outdoor space is often a relaxed way to connect to live performances, and for many, a first exposure to live arts.

This Summer, we presented a duet with an Indigenous drummer (Sue Croweagle) and opera singer (Jonelle Sills) - a first. By presenting different arts forms, sometimes in unexpected ways, we are exposing audiences to arts they might not have otherwise seeked out -  like going to the opera or an Indigenous event. These are important experiences. Some people might not buy a ticket to the opera, but they might stop by a local outdoor event and possibly stay with us through the whole performance enjoying Jonelle’s opera performance! 

In short, ensuring that our quality arts programing remains free and accessible for all to enjoy, is vital for Jamii.

You’ve launched a women in leadership initiative, LAINI, this year. Tell us more about the inspiration behind it.

In Jamii’s first year of existence, we partnered with street theatre company CORPUS, and invited one local young woman to accompany CORPUS on a tour through Cambodia, to view performances including one in a Phnom Penh orphanage run by an Esplanadian. Since that time, we have taken every available opportunity to engage in a very intentional way with young women in our community. 

LAINI is a Swahili word that means to flatten an area with the intent of making it accessible. It is a very similar in meaning to the definition of “esplanade”, which is a flattened path for people to walk on. LAINI is about giving every woman the confidence and tools to see themselves as leaders; it is about equal chances, and the ability for all to walk the path of leadership.

For years, Jamii has been engaging young women in its programming through volunteering opportunities, participating in creative workshops, and working within the organization.

However, we have never had an official Women in Leadership programme. Between July and September 2019, Jamii invited 20 young women (past participants in Jamii events) to take part in a one-on-one discussion on the impact of the organization both personally and on the community.  Local scholar Tanjin Ashraf compiled a report based on these testimonies. The following quote from one of the participants encapsulates the impact of Jamii, and also emphasizes two aspects that Jamii will focus on in its future programming: building leadership skills, female empowerment, and the nexus between the two.

"To create leaders, you first have to foster community, then you bring on leadership skills and contribute shaping women as the leaders of tomorrow. Jamii has enabled The Esplanade's community's potential to be iconic: it has definitely raised the potential of our neighbourhood. Somehow, it brought its talents out. I am excited to see what future programming of Jamii will be about."

When the pandemic hit in March, we directed our energy towards keeping the social connection alive with our local young women. We fundraised and produced a series of weekly artist-led drop-in virtual workshops from mid-April to the end of June. Our intent was to create a safe space for our 22 participants where we could process the challenging situation on an emotional level while meeting inspirational artists: Domanique Grant, Jacquie Crombie, Arlene Paculan, Malavika Santhosh, Gillian Mapp, Takako Segawa, Anika Johnson, Britta Badour, Lua Shayenne and Devonna Munroe. 

While looking for funding to launch a more formal mentorship program, LAINI continues with one-on-one meaningful and intentional experiences and support to our local young women. 

Mentorship is a decade-long journey: the young woman who was able to travel to Cambodia with us, participated in several arts projects, volunteered at our events, experienced a Summer Job, and worked as an emerging artist. We wrote reference letters for her high school application, her University application and then became a reference for her first job. And yet, we are still at the beginning of the journey. 

How has Jamii continued to serve and stay connected to the community in 2020 through the circumstances of the pandemic?

In 2019, Jamii produced a mobile arts space called the Kisanii Hub (a cargo bike with trailer that transforms into a mobile theatre), which was supposed to be launched in the Spring of 2020. The launch itself was canceled, but when the pandemic hit in March, we believed that it was vital to find ways to maintain social cohesion within our community, fight social isolation while implementing physical distancing, and support artists. As a nimble organization, we explored new ways to bring live arts to our community with a new format for live performances and the Kisanii Hub was at the centre of it all.

After two weeks of social, programming, and economic chaos, on March 30th, we decided to produce what would be the first of a series of 20 performances in the streets and courtyards of the Esplanade community for neighbours to watch from their balconies, porches, and home windows.

Between March 30th and August 27th, we worked with 54 artists, and paid about $28,000 in artists’ fees. While theatres remained closed, Jamii reached about 2000 audience members - all at a safe distance from one another. 

Even though Jamii garnered unexpected visibility (national media coverage) by responding to the pandemic in an innovative way, most importantly, we received an enthusiastic and emotional response to our programming, with raving online reactions from residents and the public-at-large. We performed in front of local senior housing and had folks watching from their balconies, looking for eye-to-eye connection and waving at us in gratitude. Our actions and performances implied “we see you and we are here, hold on”. We also had whole families coming to their balconies, craving fresh air, live artistic experiences, and human connection (from a distance).

Each performance fueled the next one.

From fully mobile performances, we started to do itinerant performances and then pop-up performances, each time exploring new formats to see what worked and what didn’t. Each performance was organized on a week-by-week basis, while watching how the pandemic evolved and responding to the government’s changing health guidelines.

This was done thanks to the support of our Arts Councils and a unique partnership with our local theatre Canadian Stage. 

How does it feel to be nominated for the Community Arts Award?

By Isorine Marc, Jamii’s founder: 

“It started a few summers after I arrived to Canada. I moved into a co-op, and a neighbor told me I had to contribute 4 volunteer hours per month. I used my skills and organized a small arts event in our shared courtyard. This was one of the seeds that grew into the Jamii garden. 

We are now about to celebrate our 10-year anniversary (2011-2021) and this nomination feels like a recognition for and appreciation of the artistic quality, the depth of our social contract, and our commitment to the Esplanade community. It is also an energizing wind blowing our sails as we look ahead to the next 10 years. 

This nomination goes to the hundreds of artists who define Jamii; to the hundreds of Esplanadians who have participated in arts-making with us; to those who have worked with us through the years, paid or unpaid, including directors of our board; and to those who kept on encouraging us in their own way during our journey.

I hope that, today, everyone who has ever added a brick to the wall to build the Jamii house for our very large family feels the butterflies. I do.

May it continue shelter creativity.”