(Written by Dana Yates - Ryerson University)
Like many Torontonians, researcher Lynn Lavallée was shocked and saddened by the death of Tyson Bailey. The 15-year-old was shot in the stairwell of a Regent Park high-rise apartment building in 2013, and while Lavallée never knew the Central Tech student athlete, she felt a connection to him.
"I grew up in social housing too, and I used to live in the same building where he was killed," says the social work professor. "Tyson was also a member of the same Boys and Girls Club in Regent Park that I belonged to as a kid."
Lavallée now serves as board vice-chair of that Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club. In fact, the impetus for her latest research project came from her work with the organization, and Bailey's tragic death reinforced the need for the initiative.
Lavallée's art-based project, "Telling a different story,” was done in partnership with Ian Edward, executive director of the Toronto Kiwanis Boys & Girls Clubs. The initiative, which involved youth, ages 14 to 24 from the club, battles stereotypes about Regent Park and confronts media portrayals of the neighbourhood. The project came with a twist: instead of being the focus of the study, the young people generated the research themselves.
"Regent Park has been researched so much," says Lavallée. "I remember always being asked to do surveys when I lived there and I decided that we needed to take another approach. We needed to take action and give back to the community."
With funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Lavallée hired two research assistants, Igor Abinun and Nas Amin, for the last phase of the research to work with the youth as they participated in the project. Abinun is a Ryerson social work student who works at the Boys and Girls Club. Both he and Amin have also lived in low-income areas.
Experts in various art forms were brought to the club to teach the youth how to express their thoughts using visual art, rap, spoken word poetry and photography. Some of the resulting pieces can be viewed here.
"The work is phenomenal," says Lavallée. "Their stories blew me away."
The presentations tackle a range of subjects, including interactions with police, the stigma associated with social housing, and the strong relationships that the youth have with each other and the staff at the Boys and Girls Club.
Delon Jemmott, for instance, used spoken word to explore the challenges of living in Regent Park and how he has worked to overcome them. The creative process and learning how to express himself artistically was eye-opening, says the Grade 11 student.
"Everyone has a different story and those stories are valued," he says.
Jemmott shared his story at a forum held in November at the Boys and Girls Club. He was also part of a group of 11 youth who travelled to Chicago last April to present their work alongside Lavallée at the Community Campus Partnerships for Health conference. Funding for the trip was provided by Ryerson's Office of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation.
Today, Jemmott continues to sketch and write out his thoughts. "I really enjoyed the project," he says. "I learned that once you find your groove, there's no stopping you."