Jane-Finch youth use voices and art to inspire change
Suviana Burey, 17, Kareem Bennett, 18, and Destiny Henry, 17, are among a group of students from Jane and Finch who have created works reflecting their lives, struggles and dreams for their community.
On display at York University, eight young artists created works based on their own lives, struggles and dreams for their community.
At a new art exhibit at York University, the walls do talk — with the voices of eight youth from Jane and Finch, who speak about their personal tragedies as they counter ’hood stereotypes.
“People don’t understand that it’s not a ‘jungle.’ It’s not a ‘war zone,’” said Suviana Burey, 18. She’s eager to say that “crime” should not be the noun that defines her part of the city.
She and seven other young artists, along with mentors, have been working together since October on the second floor of Westview Centennial Secondary School to create If We Ruled the World — an experimental exhibit that opened earlier this month at the Art Gallery of York University.
After first connecting at Success Beyond Limits, a mentoring and youth outreach centre housed at the high school, the young artists wrote spoken-word pieces, turned them into videos, and created drawings and paintings inspired by their own verses.
Their work collectively draws a sharp, fresh perspective on life in their community, where they find strength in spite of trauma and are building a better future in a place they are proud to call home.
“Basically, don’t let the casualties that we live in turn out how our reality becomes,” says the quiet, introspective Kareem Bennett, 18.
His poem walks through the dark places, where youth have met violent deaths, and reflects on how those tragedies have shaped him.
Through these walls, I put emphasis on my character /
Surrounded by concrete, I speak only to survive in these areas
Last year, four teens were shot and killed just blocks from Westview.
Last week marked one year since 15-year-old St. Aubyn Rodney was shot and killed inside his own apartment; afterwards, the students at Westview arrived at school wearing R.I.P. T-shirts to remember the one they knew as “Tubby.”
Bennett didn’t know those young men well. But their deaths reminded him of others he has known, who have also been taken from the community.
“I carry the good memories of that person,” he says of the friend he wrote about, Stackz — better known as 15-year-old Jordan Manners, who was gunned down in a stairwell at nearby C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in 2007. “They help shape my attitude today.”
Within these tunnels, I see death in different perspectives /
People judge off misconception / Never offer to question / But I still feel his presence
Typically, the violence is the only story people outside this community hear about, the students said.
“They’d be surprised by the many capabilities and talents that the people have here,” said Destiny Henry, 17. “No one comes to look for the talent.”
Their new work is not only about struggle, Henry said.
“It’s things that we saw, things that have impacted us. Things that we want to change,” said Henry, whose piece shows an eagle and dove flying over a cracking heart. “You have to choose life over death . . . I choose to soar. I choose to rise.”
Abdul Nur — better known to most as Moose — said his piece speaks of making the most of the time you have.
He rhymes: ’Cause every day when you be dodging the coffin / It’s good to know you’re doing what you love when you drop in
Gabriela Aguilera, 20, needed to put her feelings about death into words, with a stirringtribute to her mother, who passed away after living with multiple sclerosis.
“I had a lot to say,” she said.
In the white-walled gallery space, where their names are now printed and their work in watercolours and pastels hangs around the room, they dance and bop as a song they wrote together plays over the loudspeakers. Their voices find the words again:
A hundred million miles / Take a step into my shoes / Take a breath in through my nose / Use my eyes to see my views / Thirteen years up in this ’hood / Take a look up in my life / All this struggle and the strife / Man it cuts just like a knife / So I try to find a way out
“I personally wanted to leave,” said Burey, whose own piece — a highway with the artists’ names piled into a bowl labeled “hope” — is about young people leaving to learn enough so that they come back and make things better.
“We are all the hopes of this community.”
So how would they make things better if they were in charge?
“We’re already doing those things,” Henry said. Recently the younger students taught a class at York University about spoken word — so they could learn to use their own voices.
“That alone can change the world.”
If We Ruled the World runs at the Art Gallery of York University until March 2.
The artists in their own words:
Suviana Burey, 18
Jane and Finch in one word: Diversity
Role model: The Bible — “Right now I’m reading about the prophets and stuff. They had a pretty hard life.”
Kareem Bennett, 18
Jane and Finch in one word: Connected
Role model: Malcolm X — “He’s the definition of struggle and gain.”
Destiny Henry, 17
Jane and Finch in one word: Diverse
Role model: The Bible — “The word itself is the most inspiring . . . It’s like an opening of the eyes.”
Gabriela Aguilera, 20
Jane and Finch in one word: United
Role model: My brother (a sergeant in the Armed Forces) — “I . . . look up to him for guidance and everything.”