A better way to influence 14-year-olds

TheStar.com – Opinion/Federal Election – A better way to influence 14-year-olds
Oct 08, 2008, Lola Rasminsky

In last week’s English language debate, our political leaders squared off on the value of the arts. They also argued about what to do with young people who commit violent crime. But no one mentioned a possible connection between the arts and crime prevention.

The arts – especially high-impact after-school training in community settings such as neighbourhood churches and Toronto Community Housing buildings – can be a powerful tool for preventing violence. The arts keep kids out of trouble and counter the lure of gangs – numerous studies prove this assertion. Before Stephen Harper decides to lock up 14-year-old “criminals,” he might think about what this will cost versus the cost of programs proven to prevent youth from slipping into a life of destructive behaviour.

Harper’s approach to dealing with 14-years-olds who commit crimes is misguided. He seems to assume that young people who harm others are simply bad people, never considering that their disaffection and anger may make them capable of heinous acts.

It would make far more sense to think about why kids join gangs and whether there is anything we can do to stop or divert them before they get sucked in. Above all, gangs give kids at risk a sense of belonging and a place to feel valued.

Toronto boasts many organizations that give young people these same feelings of belonging, excitement and self-esteem. Kids who take part in artistic activity and express themselves creatively discover that they have a voice; they do not need to express themselves in anti-social ways. A teenager who finds her passion in learning hip-hop dancing from a professional, or works with an artist to make a graffiti mural, will be less likely to want to join a gang. She’ll feel good about herself and will probably not seek out the approval of delinquent peers.

This kind of experience enhances development, inspires passion, teaches skills and can lead to meaningful employment. In short, arts programs are a cost-effective way to prepare youth for participation in today’s creative economy.

This year, for example, Arts for Children of Toronto – a charitable organization that provides arts experiences to children and youth in under-serviced communities – employed more than 50 young people who created mosaic murals to grace their community centres, decorated Hydro poles, and made original works of art that now travel on the sides of TTC buses.

Many of them also gained enough competence to assist in AFC’s arts outreach programs. Not only did these programs give participants a huge boost in self-esteem, but they also provided some of them with their first employment experience. The cost of a truly positive impact on 50 kids? Approximately $40,000.

If this program deterred even one of those young people – many of whom are not in school – from joining a gang, it saved the taxpayers half of the $80,000 price tag to lock up one youth for a year.

Harper’s recent announcement of a $500 tax break for families who enrol their children in arts programming will not benefit those with the greatest need for this outlet. They simply don’t have the money to pay for arts classes for their children. Support for arts programs in marginalized communities could give these kids a better future – but that’s not where our money is going.

While education in the schools is clearly a provincial matter, there are many federal programs, including the National Crime Prevention Strategy and Human Resources and Social Development Canada, that could help to underwrite after-school arts programs for youth at risk. Many European countries are already reaping the benefits of this strategy.

The arts have always been a civilizing force in our society. Investment in the arts for children and youth saves lives.

Please, Mr. Harper, wake up and smell the benefits.

Lola Rasminsky is executive director of Arts for Children of Toronto.

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