Art helps youth in Canada and Jamaica open up about violence

The Centre for Research on Latin America & the Caribbean (CERLAC) at York University launched a research partnership this summer that uses the arts to explore violence among youth in Canada and Jamaica.

The project, Youth and Community Development in Canada and Jamaica: A Transnational Approach to Youth Violence, popularly known as “Project Groundings”, opened with two youth forums in  York Professor Andrea Davis addressing a youth forum in JamaicaKingston and St. Mary, Jamaica on July 28 and 31. At both of these events, black youth from Jamaica and Canada confronted the systemic violence that marks their lives and initiated a conversation about how they might interrupt these complex patterns of violence.

Right: York Professor Andrea Davis addressing a youth forum in Jamaica

Andrea Davis, deputy director of CERLAC and the project’s principal investigator, says, “Many youth lack the language and cultural awareness necessary to respond to their environment in a critical and transformative way, and often end up perpetuating forms of social violence themselves.” By bringing Jamaican youth into a conversation with Canadian youth, Project Groundings “seeks to facilitate critical national and transnational dialogue that can open up avenues of collaboration among youth across their shared cultural boundaries,” says Davis. This transformative dialogue seeks not only to change the behaviour and action of youth, but also to increase public awareness, affect public policy and contribute to the ongoing body of research on youth violence.

In the project’s opening National Youth Forum in Kingston, Jamaican youth grappled with the unique challenges they face, including sexual violence against women, victimization based on sexual orientation, access to education, unemployment, socio-economic disparities in the administration of justice and the absence of effective platforms from which to voice their concerns.

Peolpe acting and dancing
Above: New research uses art forms, such as drama, to explore the effects of violence on black youth in Canada and Jamaica

The second youth forum in Woodside, St. Mary, examined the specific concerns faced by rural youth. Here, youth identified a lack of facilities and resources, including poor roads and inadequate transportation, as their greatest challenges. While they recognized the necessity of agricultural pursuits, they also pointed to the lack of crop diversification and financial compensation as major deterrents leading them off the land.

The question of violence was also central to the Woodside forum, which closed with an impromptu commemoration of the life of Shauna Kaye Shaw, a community youth leader murdered earlier this year. In defiance of the fear brought on by her death, Woodside youth committed to resume youth activities.

Jamaica Youth Theatre performing The Pickney Dem a DryRight: Jamaica Youth Theatre performing The Pickney Dem a Dry

As Peter Cumming, coordinator of York’s Children’s Studies Program and president of the Association for Research in Cultures of Young People, says, “The most exciting development in the research team’s first sessions in Jamaica was the moving demonstration of Jamaican youths’ eager and serious engagement with issues of violence through their sharing of their own experiences, their animated discussion about possible solutions for societal violence, and their strategic use of the arts, particularly theatre, to represent and confront the enormous pain caused by violence.”

One example of the use of the arts was Jamaica Youth Theatre’s (YRT) performance of the skit The Pickney Dem a Dry. The skit explores the grief of a mother who learns of the death of her daughter on the streets. While it begins as a personal mourning, it quickly mounts into collective suffering, a disturbing yet inspiring memorial to young people who have died violently. This performance powerfully deployed a poem, a clothesline on which the names of murdered youth were hung and chants based on street graffiti to acknowledge a shared humanity among youth – “We all bleed red”. It also challenged everyone as individuals and nations to “Live up! Live up!”

Toronto youth Ebthihal Nabag (left) and Nabi Shash from Nia Centre for the Arts participate in a youth exchangeLeft: Toronto youth Ebthihal Nabag (left) and Nabi Shash from Nia Centre for the Arts participate in a youth exchange

“I was humbled by the honesty and courage of these young people,” says Davis. “Being able to see the transformative elements of the research and the way young people from both countries embraced and empowered each other was enormously fulfilling.”

This innovative approach to youth violence is funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada and brings together researchers from York, McMaster University, the universities of Guelph, Ottawa and Waterloo, as well as the University of the West Indies (Mona campus). It also includes three community partners – JYT in Kingston, the Woodside Development Action Group in St. Mary and Nia Centre for the Arts in Toronto,

The project will host a second youth forum, workshop and photo exhibit in Toronto Oct. 28 and 29.

For more information, visit the CERLAC website or e-mail Andrea Davis at

By York graduate student Jan Anderson