After working as the art facilitator at Art Starts, Nicole Peña naturally segued into the role of Program Director. By then she knew the ins and outs, and nooks and crannies of the non-profit organization and was ready to roll up her sleeves.
Nicole envisions the neighbourhood cultural centre becoming a mecca for bringing the community together while artistically expressing messages of hope and anti-oppression.
As a black woman (her mother is Jamaican and her father, Trinidadian) representing her community, and armed with the responsibility of aligning the Art Starts mission, she is now in a position to advocate on an even higher level to make sure residents of underserved communities, such as Lawrence Heights and Eglinton/Oakwood, take advantage of the various offerings the cultural hub provides.
“We believe art is the vehicle for social change,” said Nicole during a recent guest appearance on a call-in show on G98.7 (CKFG). “We use art as a means of educating people to work with interesting artists and to do programs that are fulfilling.”
CKFG is Canada’s first all-black and Caribbean commercial radio station that is not only known as the radio voice of Toronto’s Black and Caribbean community, but also a voice that speaks powerfully to urban issues.
“We don’t just do after-school programs, we do mentorship for female- and male-identified youth and programs for seniors and adults,” she said, pointing out one called Virtuosity of Blackness – where singers, dancers, spoken word artists and others are promoted and showcased.
“We also provide opportunities for artists to teach and be part of the community.”
Due to the pandemic, the organization pivoted to facilitating online workshops. The artistic expressions are taught differently but still attract participants who want to expand their knowledge.
Just six months into the new role, Nicole is already spearheading plans for a place-making project in the Lawrence Heights community, which will hire local artists and give residents an opportunity to help in the design of the space. Her team recently met with Councillor Mike Colle to help drive that initiative forward. Also on the agenda is Art Starts’ presence at the LHION’s (Lawrence Heights Inter-Organizational Network) monthly meetings to get firsthand knowledge of its operations, and how best to serve the communities they work with.
Spaces must be filled, and community awareness achieved — Nicole is making sure that mission gets accomplished.
You can listen to the interview with Nicole Peña and host, Royson James and Elaine Thompson here.