Shrinking the distance between Isolation and Opportunity

 Community Engagement in Mulgrave Park

Source: Psynopsis | Winter/Hiver 2016 Volume 38 No. 1

The community of Mulgrave Park in Halifax is unique, diverse, and welcoming. Created as “residual housing” in the 1950s, it is the largest social housing community in nova Scotia. The residents are primarily ofAfrican, nova-Scotian decent. The community was originally designed to be temporary housing only and was not intended or built to support long-term stable residency. As a result, the Mulgrave Park community has faced substantial challenges and barriers both socially and economically. However, these challenges and barriers have not stopped families from making “the Park” their home; a place in which everyone is safe, a place to be proud of, and a place where lifelong friendships are created and valued.

The Phoenix Youth and Community Centre (“PYCC”) is as much a part of the community as our program is a service for it. PYCC is housed within Mulgrave Park itself, in facilities provided by the Metro Regional Housing Authority.

Africentric theory informs our practice in Mulgrave Park on every level. Africentricism “stems from the strong expressed desire by members of African Canadian communities to have a greater voice, and indeed control, in conceptualizing, developing, implementing, and monitoring programs that address the unique needs of African Canadians. Underlying this position is the belief that without greater control over the types of programs and services that are developed and delivered, African Canadians will continue to be confronted by the same social and economic issues” (Este & Bernard, 2003, p. 319).

Each of our programs, events, and educational opportunities are planned, coordinated, and informed by the community. We have put in the effort and time it takes to build a trusting relationship within Mulgrave Park, with profoundly positive results. By carefully collaborating, consulting with, and listening to the identified needs of the community, we have been able to both identify and respond to the service gaps that exist. Our relationship with the community is facilitated by hosting monthly Community Advisory meetings; employing a Community Facilitator (a position designated for a Mulgrave Park resident); connecting and building relationships with parents; and by being a predictable, accountable, and consistent service provider.

We aim to fold the Africentic theoretical perspective into everything we do; however, we have three equal and interacting aspects that inform our overall practice:Africentric theory, community development, and intentional programming. Our approach to community development and intentional programming will not be discussed explicitly in this article but doesinform how we facilitate meaningful programming that fosters youth and community development and leadership.

When a program such as ours puts in the effort to build trust in a community, the impact can be immeasurable. Through the investment of time, patience, and process we have succeeded in shrinking the distance between isolation and opportunity. in the last year, we bore witness to numerous examples of achievement, from young people creating an anti-stigma campaign for their community, to having the opportunity to personally interface with the Premier of nova Scotia. The young people of Mulgrave Park break down barriers at every turn. PYCC aims to help youth realize their potential, but it is the youth themselves who are reaching their goals and making their dreams a reality.

By way of example, youth led “Spread the Love,” an antistigma initiative where they descended on the community dressed in bright shirts and gave out positive notes affixed to candies. Youth wanted the opportunity to share something positive about their community with the city of Halifax, and thereby reduce the stigma and fear associated with Mulgrave Park. As one youth said, “if the community doesn’t yet have something positive to say about us, let’s give them something positive to say!” PYCC provided the platform and the youth did the rest in terms of event planning, organizing, and execution. Local media picked up the story, the Mayor came out to greet the youth, and each community member with whom they interacted left with a smile stretching from ear-to-ear. Changing public perception is no easy feat, but this demonstrates the profound impact that empowered young people can have when they are well supported.

Creating opportunity allows youth to access and influence environments otherwise denied to them. A recent example occurred at our Centre when the Premier of nova Scotia, the Honourable Stephen Mcneil, came to visit. Through this interaction both our youth and our Premier were given the opportunity to learn from, listen to, and influence each other. The impact of this visit was evident when the Phoenix Community Choir performed at the Legislature during the Order of nova Scotia investiture Ceremony. Upon entering the reception room, one youth who had not only met the Premier during his visit, but had also had subsequent correspondence with him, noticed all the elaborate photos of previous Premiers of nova Scotia and said, “i am going to hit two birds with one stone. i am going to be the first woman on this wall, and i am going to be the first black person on this wall.” We all believe her. She is a leader in her own right, with ambition and intelligence, and with the right opportunity and support there is no limit to what she can achieve. We believe that this is true for each and every youth living in Mulgrave Park.

Our approach, has led to informed, relevant community engagement in Mulgrave Park. Engaging youth within their community, their school, other organizations, peer groups, and families in a manner that is productive, constructive, and culturally-relevant is a best practice in community work. We are able to recognize and develop strengths in each individual, promoting positive outcomes for individuals and providing opportunities for youth and their community. We hope that the work we have done together with the youth of Mulgrave Park will be a model of success for other communities that can help marginalized youth break through barriers and achieve great things.