Mehdia Hassan co-established a visual arts program for youth living in St. James Town, Toronto, carried out research on that effort, and created her own artistic synthesis of her findings with youth participants. Hassan used the an innovative method to collaboratively explore how arts-integrated inquiry can foster mental wellbeing in five racialized St. James Town youth who experienced forms of marginalization. Feelings of belonging and self-esteem were two indicators of mental wellbeing that she explored through interviews, paintings, and artist statements. We spoke to Mehdia about her project and her work in St. James Town.
Hello Mehdia, thank you for the interview! Could you give us a little information about yourself and the work you are doing?
Hello! I hope everyone is staying healthy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A few years ago, I had left St. James Town and moved to Thunder Bay to complete my master’s degree at Lakehead University. For my master’s research project, I worked with St. James Town youth to explore how painting activities can foster feelings of belonging and mental well-being. I am very excited to be returning back to my home community of St. James Town this fall!
In September, I will begin my PhD in Social Justice Education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). My doctoral research will examine how Afghan-Canadian youth can use visual arts as a way of learning and making meaning of their cultural identities and experiences.
Can you give us some detail on the visual arts program you helped create in St. James Town and what you planned to achieve with the project?
In June 2014, my sister Maryam and I started a visual arts program together for youth living in St. James Town, called Serendipity Visual Arts. The program, which ran weekly at the Corner, was successful in receiving funding from Art Reach Toronto and the Toronto Arts Council. It involved facilitating a series of visual arts workshops for youth to experiment with different kinds of visual art media, including painting, print-making, drawing, shoe art, stenciling, and ceramics. Some workshops were also facilitated by guest artists in the community, who happily introduced their art form and shared their expertise with the youth. The funding allowed us to organize special field trips to art galleries and museums in the city, and we hosted a youth arts exhibition in the community. Therefore, funding was an important factor in sustaining the program. Maryam and I wished to create a safe space for youth to build capacity, feel more connected to the community, and foster well-being. In 2016, Serendipity Visual Arts received the St. James Town Appreciation Award: Grassroots Organization for its positive impact in the community.
Your project of integrating arts related activities with research is very interesting. Could you tell us what inspired you to take this creative path towards community and health-based research?
When I first learned about arts-based approaches to community-based health research, I was deeply fascinated. At this time, I was an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto Scarborough, double majoring in Health Studies and Psychology. I realized that it is possible for my research to be interdisciplinary and reflect my different areas of interest. I noticed how the creative arts can be a valuable way of understanding lived experiences and health.
How were you able to engage and draw in youth to this program?
The youth in the community were interested in visual art activities and made friends with other participants in the program. As each weekly workshop ended, we felt more connected to each other. It was a place for us to unwind, have fun, and learn from each other. The program was collaborative and welcoming, which allowed the youth to creatively express themselves in the ways that they wanted. Maryam and I also did community outreach by creating posters and sharing updates on social media.
What unique opportunities has this form of research offered in analyzing and understanding the experiences, feelings and mental health of the St. James Town youth you have studied?
Integrating the arts in the research process has allowed both the youth participants and I to better understand our experiences with greater depth and in unique ways that differed from more traditional research methodologies. The (Parallaxic Praxis) research model promoted collaboration and minimized power dynamics, which is why it was very effective for this kind of community-based research. The St. James Town youth were able to actively shape the outcomes of the research; they contributed to both the data and visual analysis, through their thoughtful and original paintings. Their artworks are more than just pretty to look at; this creative methodology encouraged them to think critically, self-reflect, and make meaning of their feelings of belonging to the community and self-esteem. Using visual art can also allow us to better communicate some ideas that could otherwise not be conveyed through words. It is a great way for the researcher and the participants in the community to learn and produce knowledge together.
What is the future of this project and have you been working on any other interesting projects recently?
It is special to me to be able to share the outcomes of this research project with the St. James Town community. Thanks to everyone’s support, my research is currently showcased at the Corner, including the beautiful artworks of youth participants in the project. I hope this project was able to highlight the importance and the need for more community arts programming with long-term, sustainable funding. These programs strengthen our communities and promote our well-being.
Maryam and I have also collaborated with my former professor, Dr. Laura Bisaillon, who is a sociologist of health and illness; she also lives in St. James Town. The three of us co-authored two academic publications together about St. James Town. The first piece is a photo essay in the Health Tomorrow journal, called“Committing Sociology: Being Healthy, Happy, and Up-High in St. James Town.”The second piece is a photo essay that will be available soon in Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies; it is called “Being from a Bad Neighbourhood: Confronting Bad Decision Discourses in the Impoverished Inner City.”
What made you choose the St. James Town Community as the area to facilitate and conduct research on the program you helped create?
The more I learned and explored St. James Town, the more I became fascinated about the neighbourhood that I call home. I have lived in the St. James Town community for my entire life and I feel a deep connection to it. My volunteer experiences and community involvement with initiatives like Serendipity Visual Arts have also inspired and informed my research. I realized that there was so much I wanted to learn about my vibrant community.
In your opinion, what would you say is the greatest strength of the St. James Town Community?
I think the greatest strength of the St. James Town community is that it is a place brimming with talented and creative people. I always enjoy coming to community celebrations and events, such as the annual St. James Town Festival, because I look forward to seeing everyone’s many talents and hard work being showcased. The community loves to share their talents with each other and that is wonderful to see.
Can you tell us a little about yourself outside your work? Hobbies, interests etc.
I have always been a creative person who loves to draw, paint, and make art about my experiences in the world. As you can see, this eventually became more than just a hobby for me! I also enjoy visiting historical sites, museums, and art galleries. And I’m a fan of the iconic TV show Friends!
From St. James Town to Thunder Bay and back to St. James Town, how would you describe your journey?
It really was such an incredible and memorable adventure!
I grew in so many ways in which I did not expect to because of how different the two places are, and I got to further explore my academic interests. Thunder Bay and Toronto are special to me in their own ways. Whenever I am in St. James Town, I think of Thunder Bay, and when I am in Thunder Bay, I think of St. James Town. I am grateful to everyone who has supported me along this journey.
What are your goals and aspirations after you complete your PhD?
I know that life can be unpredictable, so I remain open to the many possibilities waiting for me. I hope that my research can help advocate for the well-being of marginalized communities. My work will also continue to advocate for equitable arts programming in community-based organizations. I wish for my interdisciplinary research to be accessible to everyone in our communities, spanning beyond academia. I hope to be a professor, who inspires people to think critically about how the creative arts can be a powerfully valuable way of teaching, learning, caring, and sparking positive social change in communities.