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

Culture | Posted on November 2, 2015 by Nicole Cyhelka

Softchoice 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.”

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