Written by Ryan Veltmeyer (WeavEast Fellow, Nova Scotia)
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.
MGP is one of the communities where in 1969 the City of Halifax moved former residents of the Black community of Africville after evicting them from their community and razing it.
MGP has been one of the spots newcomers settle in thanks to lower rents
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?
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?’ "
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.