Creating Against All Odds: an interview with SKETCH Artistic Director, Phyllis Novak

DSC_4808Softchoice Cares recently had the opportunity to sit down for a conversation with Phyllis Novak, the Artistic Director of SKETCH, a Toronto-based organization that engages street-involved youth through the arts. Throughout 2015, numerous Softchoice employees have been raising funds for SKETCH through the company’s Power to the People program.

SOFTCHOICE: “Can you tell us about the history of SKETCH?”

PHYLLIS: “SKETCH is a Toronto-based community arts enterprise for young people, aged 16-29, who live homeless, street involved, or who otherwise find themselves on the margins. We have 7,500 square feet of ridiculous creative studio space in the cultural hub of Artscape Youngplace in Toronto’s west end.

“We have been operating in this city, building our framework for engagement with youth, for almost 20 years. We have our 19th birthday on November 6th of this year, and we’re going to move into our 20th birthday celebrations in the coming year. We have had over 9,000 young people participate in the organization that come from across Canada, and they have built the framework of what SKETCH is all about.”

SOFTCHOICE: “Can you tell us about your background and what drew you to work at SKETCH?”

PHYLLIS: “I worked as an actor in the city for years. In between theatre gigs, I volunteered at a drop-in centre in downtown Toronto, offering theatre workshops. I soon discovered this great need and desire for them to do more artistic stuff than just theatre – to be able to launch individual art and music projects, and all kinds of creative things. I ultimately gave up my acting job.

“I’m still completely inspired by their yearning to create against all odds.”

“Young people who live on the street are tremendously stigmatized and limited by what society thinks of them. Many of them unfortunately internalize and it believe about themselves. But everybody’s got a different story and a different background with trauma and a ton of challenges. There’s a common thread throughout of this raw, unpretentious creativity and this unique view of how we can create a vibrant and inclusive community together.

“So, 20-years later, I’m still completely inspired by their yearning to create against all odds. That’s what I believe SKETCH is all about. It’s this place that’s trying to reframe the conversation and reframe the response to youth homelessness and poverty. We’re not just servicing their basic needs and trying to get them off the street. We’re trying to reframe the conversation and help them to discover their creative perspective, their creative capacity, and allow them to lead us in reshaping our communities.”

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SOFTCHOICE: “How is SKETCH’s partnership with Softchoice helping to meet your goals for growth and development?”

PHYLLIS: “SKETCH is totally reliant on participation and partnership from community members, and we’re amazed at the creativity and the goodwill that different folks express. Softchoice is coming with this great energy and this great desire to give, to partner and to build opportunities for youth at SKETCH, especially technological opportunities. That really matters to us, because we’ve struggled to find a partner who will help us build digital media access for young people.

“Not only is it difficult to convince people to fund arts-related activities for street-involved and homeless youth, but we can’t believe how difficult it is to get funds to advance their access to digital media and to advance their digital literacy. It shocks me as it’s a great avenue to help them find jobs and participate in all kinds of things. But for some reason it’s seen as a frill.

“We have this great lab downstairs that we want to create as our digital media lab, and we are pretty excited about it! We want to work with Softchoice to build this space, whether we use the funds to simply set up that space or use your expertise to figure out what kind of inventory is needed and have you help us in the technical setup and design.”

Breaking the Silence

Breaking the Silence

“Break the Silence.” “Stop Violence Towards Women.” “Rape is Wrong.” Just a few of the slogans the Softchoice Cares team were asked to paint across the walls of Poprada Village homes.

Theese are messages that Jatan is working to bring to all of the villages in the Rajasthan District as part of its larger initiative to ensure change in the status of women in their society. And as we walked through the door to the women’s Gender Panchayat Resource Center meeting, we hear Jatan’s Yashodhara Bai and Manju Dwi passionately speak with the women in their local dialect.  Her message is clear:  there’s an election coming up and it’s imperative that every woman votes to ensure she has her say in what goes on in her local community.

[Read more…]

India: Finding Harmony Within the Noise

India: Finding Harmony Within the Noise

The end of the first work week got off to a rough start for me. The spicy and exotic Indian food that was so great the first few days was now losing its charm. The constant honking and swerving to get to the work site did not make for a pleasant morning. Even the worksite business of schlepping stones, mixing and pouring concrete, which at first, a refreshing break from the daily grind of life in NYC, was now just painful.

But after we took a break at the Jatan office and got some good news about the internet upgrade needed for the project, we loaded up the cars to head to the worksite and my outlook started to change. Our driver, who had come off as shy the first few days, put in a CD of some amazing Indian dance tracks and cranked up the volume. As we cleared the town, a beautiful song came on with a man singing over what sounded like an acoustic guitar and everything seemed to fall into place. The goats, cows, water buffalo, sheep, camels, pigs and wild dogs that roam freely in the streets all seemed to be right where they belonged and the honking seemed to provide a nice back beat to the soundtrack. We all felt a renewed energy as we headed back to the worksite.

After an afternoon spent knocking out the last of the foundation and the pillars, our hosts took us out to a village near his home where we loaded onto some cow-drawn wagons and journeyed through some fields to an amazing thousand year old, lake-side temple. The beauty and tranquility at the temple seemed so much more intense after experiencing the entire week’s sensory overload. To end the day, the cofounder of Jatan invited the team to his home. We drank some some tea and learned about life in the upper cast and what inspired him to give back and have more meaning in his life.

However, the tranquility of the afternoon quickly wore off again on the crazy drive back to the hotel. As we flew down a “two lane road” that would be best described in North America as a poorly maintained bike path. Out of nowhere, a turn signal came out of the dark. I assumed this to be someone merging into the road, and what I thought would force our vehicle into a ditch. After no panicking from our driver, I quickly realized the signal wasn’t what he was attempting to do but was simply communicating to our driver to go around him. It suddenly became clear to me, the incessant honking I’ve come to know quite well in India isn’t drivers getting angry and telling people to get out of their way, but just letting each other know where they are so they can safely avoid them.

I still don’t think I will really ever understand the chaos in India. However, I certainly went to bed with a new appreciation and perspective on finding the moments of harmony in the daily madness of life here.

Access to Knowledge is Power

Access to Knowledge is Power

Access to knowledge is power. An easy thing to say but a difficult concept to grasp when we in North America live with a device attached to us at all times. We have the power to learn and to explore the world at our fingertips and we often forget how powerful that is – until you understand and experience life without technology.

Our group had the opportunity to take part in a panchayat (meeting) of all the regional leading women in the Railmagra Block.  These women meet to discuss social issues and present the grievances and challenges faced by the women of their respective communities. During the meeting, we had the opportunity to exchange questions and discuss the differences in our daily lives and cultures. We touched on household economics, education, gender, and even marriage. The contrasts in our lives are stark, and our knowledge of each others’ lives is minimal, but we all want the same thing – a better future for our families and our communities.

It was in this meeting that I truly began to understand the value technology will bring to imagethis community. These women had little knowledge of life outside their village and thus found it hard to imagine life outside the roles and responsibilities defined by their communities. Technology provides a vehicle to access knowledge, to explore places and people far from home, and a space to craft a better future.

We often hear the phrase, “knowledge is power”, but I would like to revise that to, “Access to knowledge is power”. After we left the meeting, I was able to use my phone, connect to the internet, Google all the issues we discussed and learn why they exist – a luxury not available to these local women and their families. Technology provides me the power to access knowledge from anywhere about any topic.

As a result of this project, women and children will have access to exponentially more information and technical skill development than they can even imagine. The speeds and feeds, the network design, the software, is not what matters. What’s important is providing a vehicle for knowledge and power that puts the ability to learn literally at their fingertips.  Technology will provide a vehicle from them to explore the world.

India – A Feast for the Eyes

Elephant in Traffic

Glances out the window reveal life in action. A bare-foot and bare-bottomed boy running down an alleyway using a stick to control a rolling bicycle tire. An old man wrapped in many layers of clothing to ward off the morning cold, lighting his morning cigarette. A young girl, maybe 10, carrying a toddler along the sidewalk on her hip. Begging. Filthy. Her hair matted with dirt. But somehow pretty all the same.

An elephant, painted for some occasion-or maybe just for an everyday show. A platform strapped to his/her back with a single large rope. Moving through traffic, horns blaring on all sides, the sound of bells clanging as the huge beast rocks back and forth on a stiff march through the centre of the city. What is the look in his or her eye?

A groom riding a white horse as part of a noisy procession. Making his way to his wedding. Not a young man. Women, girls, young men colorfully dressed. All dancing along throwing some sort of powder in the air as they followed a small vehicle playing music over a loudspeaker.

A man working in a building 6 ft square – a barber shop. A look of pride and recognition as we make our way past his shop for the second time today. We see him and he sees us as he flicks a sheet around the shoulders of his next customer.

A woman on the back of a motorcycle. Dressed elegantly and colorfully. Barely hanging on, just balancing – years of experience. She has her head buried behind the drivers back, looking down at her cell phone -texting someone. Oblivious to us or the cows her driver is snaking through on the tiny village road.

India is a study of beauty. And that beauty is found right next to or between the filth. Focus on the stench, the garbage everywhere, the cacophony of noisy car horns blaring and you will have great distaste. But make eye contact with people, see their beauty, see the smiles, see through the dirty exterior and you will find the beauty of the human condition. And then it is gone.

India is a feast for the eyes and paying attention is the only requirement.

Unleashing the Hope within Rajasthan’s Local Youth

Unleashing the Hope within Rajasthan's Local Youth

Children scare me. Why and when this fear developed, I’m not 100% sure. I do find them cute, and I do care about kids, but the thought of the responsibility to raise a child tends to bring out the fear in me. Therefore, I typically avoid situations that involve being around kids when I can.

So when I learned that we were going to attend a youth center in India after a long and exhausting day of lifting bricks, the last ounce of my comfort zone was drained from me. [Read more…]