JAYU, 2020 Recipient

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

JAYU tells us more about their programs, activity during the pandemic, and how it feels to be a finalist for the Arts for Youth Award for the second year in a row. 

Original photo courtesy of Jadon Lem. Artwork by Amber Williams-King
You state that "Art breaks down barriers, builds trust, and has the power to create the safe spaces necessary to share personal stories.” How does the iAM program build on this philosophy? 

At JAYU, we strongly believe art provides a universal language of understanding, a common starting point from which we can overcome perceived differences. For this reason, iAM draws on art as a tool to facilitate conversations about social justice, inspire creative confidence, and foster a sense of community. Each week, mentors and guest speakers connect to iAM participants by telling their stories through art. By demonstrating vulnerability themselves, mentors establish a safe space, free of judgment. It is in this space that youth come together each week with their mentors and peers to hone their creative skill, practice vulnerability, and share their own stories.

iAM focuses on photography. Why is this important?

The importance of photography as one of our iAM art forms is twofold. Firstly, photography requires specific attention to detail and an eye for composition. By focusing on photography as an art form, we encourage youth to look at the world with intention while providing them with another form of language to convey what they see. 

Secondly, photography is typically an expensive and inaccessible medium, which inadvertently discourages a diversity of perspectives. We overcome these barriers by providing access to equipment and sharing technical knowledge, creating space for new perspectives and empowering youth to document their stories.

How does the iAM impact participants in the long term?

The iAM Program has long-term impact on participants by providing them with employable skills and a community of mentors and like-minded peers.

Each iAM program is led by an established artist mentor who helps participants cultivate their artistic identity and gain industry skills in photography, poetry, filmmaking, and design. With these skills, we connect iAM graduates to our external partners for paid employment opportunities. Not only do these opportunities provide income, they establish the precedent for young artists that they deserve to be compensated for their work. 

While iAM participants gain employable skills during the program, they simultaneously build relationships with their mentors and peers, creating a strong community that continues long after graduation from the program. The cyclical nature of the program in which graduates are invited to return as paid mentors continues to engage iAM youth and strengthen the iAM network.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic reaffirmed JAYU’s work? Are there new opportunities or priorities that have emerged? 

When social distancing requirements began in March, we immediately pivoted to a virtual version of our iAM Program. Across nine programs since March 2020, we've engaged over 80 youth, reaffirming the need for youth-focused safe spaces to connect and explore new skills. The importance of the program for emotional health and well-being has been reaffirmed as well; even during isolation, our iAM youth reported feeling inspired and less anxious:

“It’s really nice to be able to connect with other aspiring poets, and creative minds especially during these times. I was feeling very anxious at the beginning of the workshop, but with the kindness, warmth and honesty that I felt from the group - even through a screen - it helped me feel more at ease and excited to write and create.” 

- Virtual iAM Poetry participant, April 2020 

Surprisingly, online programming also provided new opportunities for iAM to expand and introduce a new program, iAM Collaging. Since April, we've engaged 19 youth in mixed-media workshops and created three entirely youth-created zines. Going forward, we're prioritizing our outreach to communities outside of our traditional locations — Toronto, Mississauga, and Richmond Hill — as virtual programs offer the opportunity to overcome geographical barriers. 

What does it mean to your organization to be nominated for the Arts for Youth Award for the second year in a row?

We are tremendously honoured to be nominated for the Arts for Youth Award for the second year in a row. We understand the privilege of being nominated in a vibrant and artistic city like Toronto, where many incredible organizations support young people through the arts. Having our community nominate us for the second time affirms the importance of our work and the impact of the iAM Program, but most importantly, inspires us to continue striving to reach more youth.