Art as an agent of transformation for youth — Interview with Phyllis Novak and Rudy Ruttiman of Sketch

SKETCH, based in Toronto, is a community arts enterprise engaging diverse young people, ages 16-29, who navigate poverty, or live homeless or on the margins. The ultimate goals are to transform lives and communities. This interview with founding artistic director, Phyllis Novak, and executive director, Rudy Ruttiman, has been edited for length and readability.

Can you tell the story of SKETCH’s evolution, from offering services mostly on a drop-in basis, to creating programming that leads participants more intentionally on a pathway to transformation? How did you come to believe that this evolution would work, and what have you learned?

Phyllis: Prior to moving into this space on Shaw Street, we learned from youth themselves about the engagement they wanted. The first was a casual level of engagement — getting exposed to the arts, having a meal, and enjoying being part of a community and making friends, etc. Another level of engagement was for youth who immediately wanted a workshop and set goals for themselves to learn certain artistic skills. The other level of engagement was amongst artists who were already building artistic practices of their own and were at a leadership level.

The surprising discovery has been to what extent an engagement with the arts opens up possibilities and opportunities for young people to address issues in their lives, to develop relationships, and to pursue career paths. Our belief is that a transformation will take place — among the individuals, and in wider society, as their artistic contributions are valued and they become involved in organizing and leading in their communities.

Rudy: The decision to move into this space was important — that our work was going to be place-based. There was a period of time before moving into Shaw Street where we didn’t have our own space and so SKETCH brought arts based workshops into other spaces, which was really great and was an effective outreach opportunity, but we felt that without a dedicated arts space we couldn’t create the kind of impact we wanted.

Can you explain in concrete terms how participants experience SKETCH on a longer-term basis now compared to in the early years?

Rudy: The demographics of participants has changed. Initially when we moved to King Street in 2002, participants were mostly white young men, navigating homelessness, and usually the women who came were connected with those men in some way. When we began to expand the programs offered, we saw an increase in the diversity of participants. Our programming started to focus on skills they were looking to explore and develop.

Phyllis: As racialized people started using our studios, we learned they had different needs than non-racialized participants. They requested specific skills and capacity-building that could help them build careers. We moved beyond being a drop-in arts space to a full program of facilitated workshops and projects for skill development. We built the Community Arts Leadership Program, which has now been offered for seven years. Some of the youth from that program stay on and contribute to SKETCH. A lot of our activities now are led by young artists who were former participants. In our last quarter alone, over 20 youth were involved in hosting, coordinating and leading activities.

Rudy: We’re learning the beauty and challenge of how to support people in making the transition from being a participant in the program to becoming leaders — as facilitators at SKETCH but also in the broader community. They are being hired to teach and run workshops in many settings as well as developing their own initiatives in their communities.

Sketch believes in transformative power of the arts

How do you make decisions on what potential new programming will best amplify your impact?

Phyllis: We look at the National Survey on Youth Homelessness, which tells us who is encountering homelessness, poverty and marginalization, and who is impacted the most by these problems — that’s often Indigenous people, LGBTQIA2S+ communities, and racialized groups, and so we tailor our studio programs, mentoring and projects to their needs. 

We don’t exist as a service provider, like an agency, and we don’t have core funding. Most of the funding we get is tied to certain projects. This requires us to use innovation and creativity and a clear articulation of priorities. It’s a live conversation for us all the time: what do we have the capacity to do and what do we not have the capacity to do? 

We created our Theory of Change to guide our planning, not be blown and tossed by the wind, but there is a lot of space for flexibility within that. We look at how our programming aligns with those offered by other providers and systems. For example, if more funding is becoming available in health services, we’ll evaluate our programming and see what we can offer that can align with health outcomes. Some of the funding, while helpful, comes with the requirement of performance indicators that can be quite demanding on us and our time. We sit in the centre of several systems — health, education, community supports — that intersect with young people’s lives, and we don’t fit specifically in any one of them alone.

Rudy: The upside of not being a service agency, is that we have more flexibility to do what we want, and our focus on the arts provides clarity on what our core mission is.  We take care to not slide into becoming a service provider doing traditional case management. We know that’s valuable but we want to focus on supporting their creative and artistic pursuits.

You’ve said that you seek to change the lives of not only individuals but also communities. As a small example, one of your participants, Jason, created a “fantasy map” of Toronto transit — imagining the subway and rapid transit system as if race and class were no barriers to mobility. How do you advocate for and describe that part of your work?

Phyllis: I wish that it was easy for everyone to see and understand. We believe everyone has imagination and everyone can contribute to making their community better. We wish there were no barriers to making those contributions. That’s unfortunately not how it is.

We believe that if young people engage and develop in the arts they increase their resilience and capacity to participate in larger societal concerns. We find generally young people want to be involved in solving societal challenges, and they have incredible ideas on how to do it. We want to support their creative capacity to overcome the barriers they face, and we want to advocate in the broader community for their perspectives to be considered equal to other citizens. We know their art is radical, it illuminates what has been hidden or suppressed. We know their creative leadership is necessary for communities to realize their full potential to be vibrant, inclusive and thriving. 

Rudy: It’s said that for the length of time you are living homeless, it takes twice as long to get out of the cycle. It is not a quick-fix process. So we need to create time and space for people. We also need to define what success looks like. One of our participants  is now working toward a medical degree. It was a very long journey to get there. But that’s not the only definition of success. For us, success is: someone who comes in every day still seeking to explore and create, and doing work they want to do. 

The key elements to achieving this are providing a dependable space in which young people aren’t told what to do, but rather one in which they can develop and grow at their own pace, and have access to great resources and highly skilled people. Our core commitment throughout this is to ensure people are mentored by other artists.

Phyllis: What we’ve added to our mission over the years is a commitment to inclusion through transformative justice. That’s what it takes to build a community in which all feel welcome, in which systemic issues are recognized and confronted for the harms they’ve created. We work together with young people to face those harms and rework conflicts and challenges that lead to harm in the first place. It’s young people here that help create this space. They have a sense of ownership over it. They co-host it with us. That makes all the difference.