Arts programming benefits neighbourhoods in many ways, one of which is working to improve the health of a specific place. While health is often thought of in physical and social terms, mental health is often disregarded due to stigmatization. 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, but only 50% would tell friends or coworkers that they have a family member with a mental illness (CAMH).
Elevated Grounds is an arts group working to bring attention to mental illness, serving youth in Steeles/L’Amoureaux (otherwise known as S.L.A.M.), Toronto. On February 19th, Robyn Shyllit spoke with Elevated Grounds founder Kaje Johnson about some of these ideas.
What is the motivation behind Elevated Grounds?
It started when I was working with an organization in Steeles–L’Amoreaux (SLAM). A community that in spite of its spirit, was also plagued with poverty and violence. The youth I worked with were and are extraordinarily talented. They sang, danced, and role played to address their personal issues. One of the most memorable dancers was 15. He wanted to perform, and many of the other young people also wanted to bring their artistic skills to the next level. So we created a talent show for the community. Right in the midst of our planning, the young man passed away, by jumping off a balcony. Later we found out he had suffered from mental illness, and was also abusing substances. It was devastating for the entire community. We continued to organize the event, but the organization I was working with pulled out and we no longer had their resources. We put on the event in memory of this young man to keep his flame for young people in the arts. We were also able to secure the participation and guidance of an elder, Leyland Gudge, who helped us lay down a strong foundation to bring Elevated Grounds to fruition.
Why did you choose performing arts as the medium to deal with mental health?
I think it chose us. The performing arts are an effective tool for young artists to engage with their peers, by meeting them where they are. We use arts to engage in discussion about mental health, through creative and theatrical means, as opposed to talking from a clinical, “you are the patient” approach. We adopt “you are an artist” because that is how they self identify. We use theatre as a weapon for oppressed people to change themselves, and their social reality. So, I guess, you can describe our process as a rehearsal for self-revolution.
We use arts to engage in discussion about mental health, through creative and theatrical means, as opposed to talking from a clinical, “you are the patient” approach. We adopt “you are an artist…”
How does Elevated Grounds interact with the local community?
We respond to the need of increasing mental health awareness by understanding the feelings of youth about mental health and its manifestations in their day to day lives. We want to eradicate barriers to treatment and reduce stigma through a creative, culturally sensitive, and non-institutional approach that it is youth friendly. By using these approaches, we can speak about something that has been taboo far too long, and bring it to a platform where we are not taking on the role of experts, or clinicians, or physicians, but as people.
How has the community responded to your work?
So far, we’ve been a mainstay, and are recognized as the only arts based, youth-led, elder-mentored, organization in SLAM. The response has been quite positive from the community and stakeholders, including partners, educators, parents, and politicians. Most importantly the young people have been very supportive and engaged in our initiatives. I guess the only limitation is that we are without a physical space, where the members can actually come to. It’s something we are working on.
How do you work around not having a designated space?
Because our projects are so detailed in terms of what our needs are, we can’t run our productions without a facility that has a stage. In terms of how we deal with it, we are grateful that we have been able to generate funding over the past years, so we rent facilities. The school boards are loosening their strings in terms of community organizations accessing their facilities.
What’s been most successful at Elevated Grounds?
Most importantly, seeing the growth and evolution, and healing of our young artists. No matter how much funding we get, we are committed to pass on to the next generation who will carry on the legacy of Elevated Grounds.
Having an elder present on board has allowed us to be the beneficiaries of his wisdom and understanding. From time to time we are able to put a remix on it, but he helps us stay grounded. Also, developing mentors such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Across Boundaries, Steeles L’Amoreaux Youth Empowerment, Involve Youth: Tropicana Community Services, Toronto Catholic and Public School Board, and the Royal Conservatory of Music.
Also, we have been trailblazing through the growing pains of not embracing a traditional approach in social services. We are in the process of creating a model that hasn’t been used, developed, or invented.
Do you mean inventing a model for dealing with mental health issues? Or a model for community arts programming?
More speaking about our governance model, how we make decisions, and how we perform tasks. It’s not easy. Think of a board actually sitting in the role of the Executive Director, or the level of a front line staff worker, while at the same time making decisions that forecast the longevity of the organization. We’re kind of doing everything all at the same time, but there are a few kinks that we need to work out. It has been successful, and we have been recognized from our funders that it is something we should continue to develop.
Do you feel there needs to be a stronger presence in Toronto of groups working to destigmatize mental health issues?
My biggest pet peeve in life, not just in relation to the work that I do is recreating the wheel. And I think we definitely need to identify the type of work we are doing as community workers and look at how we can build alliances, and sharpen each other. If we can build forces, bring resources and wisdom together, and leave our egos at the door, that is a better way of servicing the needs of the community.
If we can build forces, bring resources and wisdom together, and leave our egos at the door, that is a better way of servicing the needs of the community.
What’s next for Elevated Grounds?
Right now our road show ‘Stressing Out’ is on tour. The primary focus is youth mental health, and recognizing overall wellness. The secondary message is destigmatizing mental health through understanding the various causes and effects. The workshops are facilitated by young people themselves, and we leave materials behind for teachers, students, and audience members looking for additional information. The great thing is that it is a fee based service, so the young people generate an income, and we as an organization start putting in place a savings, building on the sustainability of the organization.
To learn more about Elevated Grounds visit http://www.elevatedgrounds.com
Robyn Shyllit is a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and a student in the Cities Centre Community Development Program at the University of Toronto completing a Masters degree in Planning.