Using community arts to build youth social capital

Using community arts to build
youth social capital

By Mugoli Samba (MABELLEarts Intern, 2019)

Farah, Leah, Omar, Osama, Tauhid and Tasmeen, 2011

Farah, Leah, Omar, Osama, Tauhid and Tasmeen, 2011

One day, the children MABELLEarts had been working with for nearly 11 years woke up as teenagers who were seeking volunteer hours or employment. And while this was an opportunity for MABELLEarts to acquire some helping hands — it does get chaotic at times! — founder and Artistic Director Leah Houston saw it as an opportunity to transform our programming and expand our mission.

Farah, Leah, Omar, Osama, Tauhid and Tasmeen, 2018 (photo: Liam Coo)

Farah, Leah, Omar, Osama, Tauhid and Tasmeen, 2018 (photo: Liam Coo)

“Building social capital is actually the purpose of the entire program,” says Leah, who created the MABELLELeaders program for this new generation of participants. “Youth who are racialized and come from low-income backgrounds often aren’t accessing the same opportunities as white affluent or middle class Canadians.” As a community arts organization, Leah believed MABELLEarts could help fill that gap.

According to a study by the University of Windsor’s School of Social Work, social capital is a “determinant of the successful transition of youth into adult society.” Through relationships and networks, social capital can “provide access to valuable resources and information (…) that youth may not have access to through traditional means.”

The MABELLELeaders program has become one of the backbones of our programming because we believe lasting work does not end with workshops. Here are some tips and examples to help you consider ways your own organization could intentionally help foster youth social capital.

1) Identify skills that can be useful

MABELLELeaders and youth understand the realities of being a newcomer or an asylum seeker in Canada. “They know what it’s like to leave a place and begin a new life in a new country,” says Leah, “because for many of them, that is an experience they or their family members have lived first-hand.”

Take some time to consider how your youth’s lived experience can translate into employable skills and assets, regardless of what their background is or where they would like to work in the future. In the case of MABELLELeaders, this often included:

  • A sensibility and openness to people from all walks of life

  • Intergenerational communication skills, that often comes with the experience of acting as an interpreter for one’s own parents

  • Multilingual skills

  • Caring skills, that often comes from family responsibilities

  • Ability to adapt to new environments and to learn quickly

  • Budget managing skills

2) Turn participation into volunteer opportunities

In 2017, youth Volunteers came together with MABELLE artists & staff to play a key role in planning and hosting Iftar Nights in Mabelle Park.

At MABELLEarts, we are happy to provide youth with volunteer opportunities whenever they arise. The skillset we’ve outlined above is particularly relevant and useful to the work our organization does. The volunteer opportunities we offer range from general help during workshops, to on-site translation during public activities, working closely with senior participant who may have mobility problems, or helping us with community outreach.

We try our best to provide opportunities that allow program participants to go out into the community and meet new people — people who might become new friends, new contacts, or even new mentors. Don’t be scared to get your youth involved in programming that involves some travel, as this is one of the best ways for them to meet people from schools or organizations that may be new to them. However, do make sure that you can provide travel, or travel stipends, if possible.

3) Offer meaningful job opportunities

“Employment programs are a mechanism for providing youth with workforce exposure and skill development in the absence of market opportunities. These programs are also a potential source of social capital, through the exposure to new environments and the development of relationships and networks that can provide resources that youth may not have access to through traditional means.” - School of Social Work, University of Windsor

Tap into resources like Canada Summer Jobs funding for paid youth employment opportunities. Try and find interesting ways of turning the roles into meaningful employment opportunities that help them expand both their networks and their resumes.

Last summer, MABELLEarts launched Welcome To This Place — a national project that used arts in public spaces to promote social inclusion for newcomers. Our project took place in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax, and we took some of our MABELLELEaders along with us for the ride! It was an opportunity for them to see new parts of the country, expand their networks, challenge themselves, and apply their skills in new environments.

4) Keep adapting your program

One day, the teens who were seeking volunteer hours and summer jobs started sharing their post-secondary dreams. As an organization that grows with the community it serves, it felt like a natural progression of things to offer support to students who were interested in applying for post-secondary education.

Youth are invited to drop by the office or set-up meetings for anything ranging from advice to sit-down sessions, where we help them apply for scholarships, prepare them for interviews, or help them with their application package.

Another challenge, Leah adds, is that “they’re not always meeting people in professions they’d be interested in, and not always getting a sense of all the different ways there are to have a job.”  

Community arts professionals often come from a wide range of backgrounds. Leah, for instance, has a background in environmental sciences. Our Managing Director, Karen Kew, has a background in community radio, accounting, and management. Former interns have been journalists (like myself), teachers, and much more. Don’t be scared to tap into your networks and see if there are people who’d be willing to offer advice, go for coffee, or even drop by your office to meet with some of the youth.


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Guest Author: Mugoli Samba

Mugoli recently graduated with a BA in journalism and African studies from Carleton University, and spent some time in the world of communications and media. Her storytelling skills have taken her from coastal Haiti to spending ten days sailing across the St. Lawrence River for Radio-Canada Québec. She has interned with the Windsor Star and most recently worked as an assistant digital editor with the United Church Observer Magazine. She spent time with MABELLEyouth while completing an internship with MABELLEarts in 2019, thanks to funding from the Cultural Human Resources Council.