Nova Scotia

El Jones

Written by Ryan Veltmeyer (WeavEast Fellow, Nova Scotia)

We all have heroes, role models and people we look to for inspiration in how to do our work and be good human beings. El Jones has always been one of these people for me (and many others), and I will try to briefly explain why I believe all of us looking to do ‘social innovation’ should get to know El’s work and learn from it.

eljonesheadshot_2.jpg

El Jones is a poet, spoken word artist, journalist, educator and community advocate living in Halifax. You may have heard her political poetry at grass-roots events, major conferences, political protests or in a court-room if you’re a judge in Halifax. El’s uses poetry, amongst other things, to communicate ideas, experiences, perspectives and struggles of people experiencing oppression by ‘the state’—especially political entities like government that exert power and control over human systems, such as provincial or federal justice departments, departments of community services, education systems, immigration systems etc. She also uses her capacity as a writer, journalist and educator to identify, explain, teach and take action on various forms of injustice. The way she uses various modes of creative and intellectual expression to influence thought leaders, represent community voices and make change is an important example for all change makers.

Although El works on what may seem like many different issues to an outside observer—successfully fighting Black youth facing deportation due to failings in the Canadian justice, immigration, community services and education systems that would result in their death [read about Abdul Abdi’s case here.] or addressing the racist police checks that show the clear racial bias in our justice systems [ more here], or the exclusion of Black women from the #MeToo movement [more here]—her work is guided by simple concepts. She explains “the problems with police checks in Halifax don’t emerge because of the police… they emerge because of the way Black people are thought about in society”. She credits the work of Robyn Maynard for articulating the pattern the criminalization of Black men in our society.

El thinks big picture about the problems she is tackling—she is clearly a thought leader—but spends as much of her time as possible on direct, community-based action with those she supports. “Activism is 90% listening,” she explains. 

I’ve been in many conversations about ‘talk vs action’ and ‘thought leadership vs action  leadership’. When this discussion comes up for any social innovator, I urge you to examine El’s example. Thought leadership requires action to be well informed, tested, and for those speaking about change to be held accountable to their ideas. El talks about how despair of our own capacity to make change, a lack of skill in holding each other accountable, and fear of making mistakes lead many potential social innovators and leaders to ‘take action’ through circular arguments on Twitter and Facebook, or in endless meetings, evaluations and academic studies of problems that never get into action. 

Where do we start if not in a well-vetted study or fully explored discussion on social media? El suggests that we can move straight to action, knowing we will make mistakes and will be learning, and that we have to start from a deep place of purpose and knowledge that all of us share—our humanity and capacity to love. If you have a family or friends in your life you love, that you would do anything for, then you understand where social change and action needs to start. She explains that after all “being human is the Black quest… if only we could be seen as human”.

Youth Community Connectedness in Cape Breton

Written by Lynne McCarron, (WeavEast Fellow Nova Scotia)

mammoth-youth-camps.jpg

Community looked very different when I was a child than it does today. School and church were within 2km, I walked to school, to Girl Guides, to choir practice and piano lessons. If it was raining, one of the neighbors would gather everyone into the back of a van or a station wagon and take all 10-15 of us where we needed to go (no seatbelts back then… I know, I’m dating myself lol). The rural kids took a school bus, but the city kids used public transit to get to school, or wherever they needed to go.

My same neighbourhood no longer even has a school or a church! Cars can only transport 5-7 people and children in the city are no longer using public transit to get to school - growing up without a sense for the ease and convenience of the public transit system.

What does that mean for our Cape Breton children today? Partners I work with at the United Way are telling us that it there is a loss of connection to community experienced by families without the financial resources to afford a car. This is made worse by the social stigma attached to our public transit system as well, which makes overcoming the barrier even more challenging for families with no alternative means of transportation. Young adults, who have never taken a bus before are intimidated by the process: How will I know where to get off? How will I pay & how much is it? All of this contributes to a pattern of behaviour that we seem to be locked in for the foreseeable future.

We thought it was important for children and youth to feel part of their community, to feel supported and embraced as the future of our communities, so we partnered with a number of businesses and organizations to make that happen.

With funding support from the Telus Community Fund and in kind support from Transit Cape Breton we did a six month pilot project building our communities and connecting our youth. Once a month, using public transit we took kids from six different communities (from outlying areas) to events in Sydney. Once a month we would partner with the organizers to provide admission to these events: a major junior hockey game, a professional basketball game, a live theatre show, the Scotties curling event, bowling, and Cape Breton University tour. We found leaders who were willing to chaperone the kids, some organized youth groups, and others simply found a champion in their community to make this all come together.

It was a fantastic opportunity for our children and youth to become part of our community, to feel valued by our community. It was also a great opportunity for local business owners to contribute to this program. It is our hope to make this an ongoing opportunity for kids to feel like they matter, that they are a valued part of our communities.

But what did we learn from this Pilot? That the situation of children living in poverty is so multi-faceted that when you control for only one factor, you may actually miss the target. In taking these kids on public transit to community events, we still needed other adults involved. Someone had to communicate to the kids what was going on, we needed chaperones at the various venues, we needed adults to make sure that they got to and from the bus. While we controlled for the expense of the events and the transportation, we made an assumption that all those resources were in place to support the needs of these kids leading up to and following the events. Unfortunately, the children in most desperate need of our services, those without easy access to a youth group or mentor or other means of support, are still unable to access these resources. By opening up access during this pilot we uncovered another gap, like peeling an onion the layers of the impact of poverty are unravelling for us in a larger way now. Ultimately, as we have become aware of the problem, we are back to the drawing board to find solutions that will lead to systems-level change.

But as Will Mcavoy says “The first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one”.

The Good Food Bus in Cape Breton

Written by Lynne McCarron (WeavEast Fellow, Nova Scotia)

Forty five years ago, my parents adopted an eighteen month old boy, a brother for their three girls. At that time, there were Orphanages here and children were placed into foster care on a trial basis for adoption. My brother Craig was with us only a couple of weeks and although my parents knew that there was something amiss, they couldn’t send him back to the orphanage. With no birth records, it took my parents seven years to have him diagnosed with an intellectual disability and their journey continued. They fought for support, created programs to address gaps in services and were the strongest advocates for children with disabilities. Their passion and dedication influenced me and I ventured into the nonprofit world fighting for the most vulnerable population. The longer I work in the field, the more I realize how important advocacy is to our most disadvantaged citizens.

advocate-page-all-hands-in.jpg

Fast forward a few years of working, attending conferences and learning, I landed at United Way to try to make changes in our communities. I was doing a presentation at our local council meeting about our public transportation system and how it needed to be revamped. During this presentation, I was talking about providing bus passes to individuals that needed to access education and employment opportunities not to mention basic needs such as food. We didn’t have passes at that time, so we needed to create a process for this to happen which included providing the financial resources to purchase the passes for those who could not afford it (which we did with corporate sponsorship). At this meeting, a number of councillors represented rural areas that did not have access to public transit, and wanted to know if there was a plan for those citizens. While I didn’t have a plan at that time, it planted a seed and now we are about to embark on a new adventure.

United Way began working with the Ecology Action Centre and the Island Food Network, Public Health as well as representatives of our municipality (transit & recreation). Through this process, we were needing to partner with an organization that could take the lead on executing and administering this project. New Dawn Meals on Wheels was brought in and we started the process of developing a Mobile Food Market in CBRM.

64841757_1072955692894145_3090782182734561280_n.png


We held our first information session and were excited to hear the community feedback. In August we plan to launch a mobile Food Market – “The Good Food Bus”. The bus will take healthy affordable food to those communities that are having difficulty accessing it. Not only do we have a strong group of individuals working behind the scenes on this, we are now in the process of researching who we can partner with in each community. Partners such as church groups, volunteer fire departments, service groups, etc. will be working to build a network in each community to host the market.

Murals for systems change: Paint The Park

Written by Ryan Veltmeyer (WeavEast Fellow, Nova Scotia)

Jeremy Williams

Jeremy Williams

Jeremy Williams grew up in Halifax’s North End Community of Mulgrave Park (MGP). As with many low-income communities in Nova Scotia, Mulgrave Park is often stigmatized by people and communities without personal connections to it.

Jeremy, an all-star football player and alumni from Saint Mary’s University where he studied accounting and business, tells stories of growing up playing football — while and playing in dangerous conditions in his community riddled with rusty fences, no green space to play, crumbling walls and cement.

In 2015 Jeremy’s friend and mentor Tyler Richards was killed, and the community had a mural painted commemorating his achievements. Jeremy noticed that the mural was attracting people who normally would never step foot in his community, and his social innovation idea was born. What if he could fill his community full of beautiful murals that would attract attention from ‘outsiders’ to come and celebrate the beauty of his community, but also notice the poor and dangerous conditions his community had to live with. Could this attention lead to empathy and advocacy for investment in his community? Could it help address the unfair stigma that so many people hold for Mulgrave Park and communities like it?

Mural of Tyler Richards

Mural of Tyler Richards


In Jeremy’s Words:

“The social stigma around my community is huge. A lot of people in Halifax consider these communities, lower income communities, to be bad places. They consider people and residents in the community to be ignorant and threatening. They're scared of the areas we are from. By beautifying it with beautiful art, it invites people to come down to the community to socialize and enjoy the art, and when they get there they realize the stigma about the community is basically misinformation. It bridges the social economic gaps.

This is a community that is forgotten by people who live in it. Over time the community has fallen into disrepair. Paint the Park and my new organization The Bigger Picture offers a spotlight. Other communities in the city are focal points by people with resources. MGP is tucked away so people forget about us. With these unbelievable pieces of art a giant spotlight is put on us. Media, politicians and new people pour into our community to witness amazing art. When they're there, they realize social stigma is BS. Then they see the conditions people live in and say ‘how can people live in this community with the broken down walls?’ "

Screen Shot 2019-08-13 at 11.12.23 AM.png

How did Jeremy do it?

He began pitching his idea, and with the support of local organizations, the Mayor of Halifax Mike Savage, MP Andy Filmore, MLA Lisa Roberts, corporate investors, and professional mural artists from around Canada. In 2016 he brought all of these people together to have a series of incredible murals painted around his community, and threw a block party sponsored by his friend Alex MacLean of East Coast Lifestyle.

Within a year of his event, years of advocacy (including by Jeremy’s mother and community leader Elaine Williams) and help from the attention he brought to his community resulted in a $5million dollar investment in the crumbling infrastructure of MGP. Prime Minister Trudeau flew to Halifax for the announcement and met with Jeremy’s mother.

What have been some other results from his worK? Jeremy talks about how pulling off such an ambitious project has inspired his community to work towards more change. Seeing that it can happen fuels motivation and action in others in his community to work towards something better.

He says that the residents in the community, through art work are finding a new appreciation for their community. Especially the youth are proud of the art. They enjoy walking through their community, seeing different pieces of art all the time, It is inspiring the kids to go outside of the bubble they are put in. Since the project launched in 2017 he has been helping run art programs for youth in the community, with 20+ attending each time. Before they would not experiment and try something new, but now they are. Towards the end of my interview with Jeremy he mentioned that “If one kid goes to art school, it will all be worth it”. No doubt for Jeremy this is especially important since it was when the Saint Mary’s Huskies brought the Vanier Cup to his community, that he became inspired to play football. On a phone call last week I found out that a youth from Mulgrave Park had applied to NSCAD, and Jeremy couldn’t be happier.

Jeremy is curating the creation of 10 new murals in 2019, in close consultation with his community to continue growing his project. For his first round of work he collaborated with Youth Art Connection and the Michaëlle Jean Foundation to support him in his fundraising and community efforts, and Jeremy is now launching his own not-for-profit called The Bigger Picture so he can fully lead his efforts of using art to reduce stigma in communities like his, create a more beautiful environment for youth and residents, and to continue drawing attention and building the relationships and empathy his community needs to get the support to alleviate the challenging conditions of life in stigmatized communities in Halifax and Nova Scotia.

The murals will officially launch on Mulgrave Park Days, August 25th on Jarvis Lane in Mulgrave Park and everyone is welcome.