by Emily Skinner
On May 17th, Winnipeg youth shared stories of urban injustice and ideas for action toward a ‘just’ city that embraces its young citizens. For eight months leading up to this event, I worked with the Graffiti Art Programming Aboriginal Youth Advisory Committee (GAPAYAC) on a research project collaboratively designed to explore their experiences of urban space and inequities that affect youth health, behaviours, and overall quality of life.
Each GAPAYAC member worked with a professional artist mentor to create art and performances that represent the boundaries, borders, and frontiers that create their personal journeys in Winnipeg.
The event, “Voicing Youth’s Right to the City,” was opened by Her Honourable Flor Marcelino, Minister of Culture, Heritage, and Tourism who welcomed special guest and former Governor General of Canada, Michaëlle Jean. Madame Jean was deeply moved by the young artists and community members she had come to know in the North Point Douglas area. She kept her promise to return to GAP where she had first led an Urban Arts Forum in 2007 and the “Can We Talk” Youth Dialogue in August 2010. She commended GAP for their exemplary work in demonstrating social change through the power of community art, which many communities now model across the country and the world.
GAPAYAC members took their place at the podium to speak about personal experiences of urban injustice. Paintings, a mixed media installation, a rap song, a poetry book, a hip hop dance choreography, and a photographic slideshow exposed the obstacles and oppressors that circumscribe their journeys. Injustices related to environmental quality, access to green space, gang related violence, sexual exploitation, use of longboards and skateboards, exclusion from post-secondary institutions, and experiences of criminalization, discrimination and racism were revealed through their work. Their stories collectively reiterated Madame Jean’s message; that it is time to turn words into social justice action.
Madame Jean discussed the way in which marginalized groups around the world are finding a voice through the arts to express their needs, priorities and aspirations for their communities. She emphasized the importance of accessing community knowledge through innovative mediums and the need for grassroots strategies to affect change and build communities in a meaningful way. Through the recent establishment of the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, Madame Jean supports the use of the arts to enable young people to become agents of change in their communities.
Following the presentations, we opened the floor to audience members to suggest ways to partner with GAPAYAC to design a city that accommodates, acknowledges and represents the needs and desires of youth. One example of action is a project called ‘My MAPs’ (Manitoba Art Projects) where youth paint murals of their choice on designated buildings across the city. Youth living in urban centres often have a limited sense of ownership over the space around them. So projects such as ‘My MAPs’ provide them opportunity to appropriate these spaces through the creation of public art that represents their vision and cultural identity.