SKETCH: Supporting Youth to Thrive through Community Arts

 By Parul Pandya

Phyllis Novak has been passionate about propelling youth on the margins through the arts for over two decades. After working as a community-engaged artist in theatre and visual arts at Evergreen Centre for Street Youth from 1990-1995, she began to conceptualize the idea of what would eventually become SKETCH.

SKETCH engages diverse young people, ages 16-29 from across Canada who are navigating poverty, living homeless, or are otherwise on the margins. The initial development of this vision was collaboratively done alongside youth participants who were accessing the Evergreen Centre’s services.

She recalls, “our desire was to create more opportunities for more young people to engage in more of the arts more of the time.” At first the initiative was delivered as a series of short-term projects, until in 1999 a 900 square foot storefront space was secured located at Queen and Dovercourt in Toronto. This was a pivotal point, Phyllis says, as this set the foundation for a massive movement that would envelop diverse young people, artists, community members, educators and activists to explore ways of responding to youth navigating poverty.

When reflecting on the power of arts, as a tool for social change in the lives of young people navigating the margins, Phyllis thinks that implementing healing, rest, self-expression and encouragement are the initial step to creating a welcoming  environment to practice transformative justice.

She explains that from there, “uncovering true identity of the creative and resilient humans [the youth] each are, that can and must contribute to broader cultural narrative. This identity has been negated or squashed or tokenized by experiences of trauma, systemic violence, racism, erasure and gender discrimination.”

She continues by revealing that multiple complexities have to be considered for each young person, including mental health, in order to collectively be able to uncover how art can be employed to make their lives more enriched and bearable. That it is critical to listen to the voice of young people navigating various margins and integrate their experiences into the broader cultural narrative, which is constantly under threat of being homogenized.

“We do not exist to ‘serve’ young people but rather seek to ‘engage’ them in a bigger cooperative project that will be its best if they are/can be their best in making it happen.” 

SKETCH’s entire philosophy is embedded in a deep belief that young people have the capacity and cultural agency to be successful leaders. Phyllis shares that when youth are first welcomed at SKETCH they are addressed as co-creators. “We do not exist to ‘serve’ young people but rather seek to ‘engage’ them in a bigger cooperative project that will be its best if they are/can be their best in making it happen.” This model of a creative cooperative space relies on youth partnering with SKETCH to make programming accessible and relevant.

For example, SKETCH integrates youth leadership roles in all the work they do, even offering 4 young people one year paid positions to incubate their skills as leaders in the community arts and to develop their own workshops. SKETCH also offers an Organizational Arts Mentorship Platform, engaging youth throughout Ontario to gain the skills of future leaders.

2015, Emergence Symposium
 When asked what she is excited about in the upcoming year, Phyllis can barely contain her passion and excitement. SKETCH will be launching Weave and Mend a public arts project engaging young Indigenous women and artists to create outdoor sculptural furniture to bring attention to the impact of violence against women, particularly to those missing and murdered. Additionally Know Man’s Land is a movement based project engaging young Black men to (re) design masculinity and relationships.  

When engaging youth through the arts Phyllis’ advice is: “Address bias and assumptions, power and privilege, at the outset and constantly throughout engagement, ensuring the integrity of an equity seeking practice of engagement is interwoven in everything you do; Enter the work as a ‘learner’ and co-creator, and anchor the work in larger systemic issues so that individual behavior is less focused on and corporate responsibility is engaged.”

To learn more about SKETCH and the amazing transformational work they are doing to advocate and support youth visit their website: