411, Not 911

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411, Not 911

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After what was Toronto’s first school shooting this week, the issue of youth violence is again on the lips of Torontonians. The first reaction in events like this is to establish blame—and blame comes quick. Fingers are pointed at a predictable checklist of reasons, most laced with classist and racist undertones that sully entire communities in our city, and the Star publishes a Google death map which points out exactly where you might not want to live. Nobody is denying that there are significant problems, but most people in our toughest districts are hard-working, productive families who love their children and fear for the very scary influences outside of their homes.
What the media rarely reminds us during an event like this is that there are hundreds of worried parents on the outside of a school police lockdown who feel helpless to reach their own children, physically and figuratively. Parents know when their kids are at risk, but there are too few tools to empower these communities to heal. The 411 Initiative For Change (411) is a youth-based non-profit organization that wants to help students drive positive change in their lives with arts-based violence prevention programs.


The 411’s Creating Music Together program is intended for elementary schools in Toronto who are hardest hit by violence, racism and social integration challenges. The project uses art and hip-hop music to open lines of dialogue for at-risk youth, underscoring the problems inherent in communities gripped by violence, racism and gang activity. The discussions include points on peace-building, community respect and tolerance, manifested through creative expression: students voice their feelings by writing and recording music, and designing and packaging their peace-oriented songs.
Creating Music Together was established in 2006 with help from the Ontario Arts Council, appearing last year in ten schools across the city, including schools in Flemingdon Park, Rexdale, Scarborough, and Jane and Finch. This fall, the 411 is looking for schools to join the free program again, with priority given to facilities where significant arts programming is absent, or those that can particularly benefit from violence prevention programming.
It’s fine to ask why many of our neighbourhoods are torn by violence, but the answers need to involve the voices from those communities. We’re all for arts programs that empower Toronto’s youth to effect change for their communities and their future, and improving how those areas are viewed by the rest of the GTA. The arts are often the first to get slashed from a school curriculum, especially in poorer communities, yet the arts are vitally important as tools for expression and self-esteem.
There are stories to tell about our troubled neighbourhoods, and they’re not always about guns and violence. Perhaps initiatives like the 411 will help to honour the people who live there rather than damning them to a 50-point headline.
Schools or students interested in booking this free program can email connect@whatsthe411.ca or call 647-438-9436 to make their request. Priority will be given to schools with the greatest need. Photo by ~EvidencE~ from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

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