Op-ed: Making space for music in communities like Jane and Finch

Kids at Regent Park Music School in 2012. The school is rebranding and expanding to Jane and Finch

In my years working within non-for-profit groups, I’ve found that one of the most difficult things to define is community. And in our industry, it’s our bread and butter.

Community development, as defined by Gary Paul Green and Anna Haines in their book Asset Building & Community Development, is “the fostering of a sound infrastructure that will eventually lead to a healthy community.”

Community is something we are always striving to prioritize, foster and nurture. Every community has a unique set of assets, equally as complex as its challenges. Effective community development takes a creative approach to maximize those assets to help combat their challenges and bring forward positive change. When speaking with politicians, city planners, probation officers, even the Chief of Police, we are always adamant about including us maverick musicians at the table when it comes to dreaming big for a city. It is vital we help make them see this creative city from different perspectives. This is where music and community-building intersect.

We see it every day, taking shape in many ways: whether it is in a music lesson, a meeting with a parent, a neighbourhood committee, or a single musical note, played with deep meaning. A recent example of this is in the piece Lament: Bearing Witness by Russell Wallace and Hussein Janmohamed, two good-hearted music educators, who love linking music with people. Sung by 215 singers all singing the same note, this piece was created to honour those 215 bodies discovered at the residential school in Kamloops last year.

Music is not an after-thought to fostering a sound community – it is embedded, intrinsic, when done properly. Soon after the Syrian refugee crisis began, we were in touch with local hotels and shelters, making music education accessible and available to those young, displaced students who needed us more than ever. This is happening once again with the displaced Ukrainian students who are seeking the same support and after food, clothing and shelter. Access to meaningful connections through something like music, plays a pivotal role in our community development, especially around healing and reintegration.

Throughout the pandemic, we have realized our community has become so much more than what our name lends itself to. As such, we rebranded and turned the Regent Park School of Music into the Community Music Schools of Toronto.

We are approaching our 10-year anniversary in the Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park and, as a result, we are reflecting on over 20 years of impact we have made in the community where our vision for community music was born. We have seen many successes, such as Mustafa the Poet, Charlotte Seigel, FrancisGotHeat and hundreds of other graduates, who may not have gone on to study music, but are now leaders in their communities, in their own special way.

Currently, we are on the precipice of creating a new, permanent space for the school in the Jane and Finch area. This exciting prospect would mean that we would take all the learning from the last decade in the Daniels Spectrum and aim to share this with our friends and colleagues in this new neighbourhood. However, we know that every community is different, and our success in this area is built upon trust to help make even more impact on our current and future students. We have been working hard in building up our programs in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood for the last fifteen years, so this is a great chance for us to go deeper.

Of course, we could not have done all of this without Artscape, who has helped organizations like us in Daniels Spectrum learn to grow and support one another. We know that we are not working alone but instead, we are moving together in a unified way to help this building and the community we are so proud to be a part of.

The past two years may have cancelled a lot of our dreams, but we are now back in our space, making music, fostering connections, and partnering to share ideas and new dreams. And more importantly, we are growing goodwill into every connection to grow a happier community and city that we are proud to call home.

Richard Marsella, is the executive director at the Community Music Schools of Toronto. Learn more about our schools at www.communitymusic.org

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