Culture among street youth

Rudy Ruttimann was recently awarded a Vital People grant from the Toronto Community Foundation for her work with Sketch, where she is the executive director.

Spacing: Why is the arts an important tool in engaging young people and addressing poverty and homelessness in Toronto?

Ruttimann: Young people are very resilient in being able to use services as they need them. They have to go down to an office and tell their story, and then they hopefully get what they need from it. When they walk into Sketch, they just are who they are and they choose when to enter into their story. Or maybe we never know their whole story, but we get to know who they are individually and what they need. Art in any medium allows people to go into a conversation, sometimes without speaking. It allows you to voice something in any way you feel safe enough or comfortable enough or passionate enough to do it. It can be raw and crazy and it can be very gentle and healing. The arts is really the only thing that we feel really allows people to go through a personal, transformational process. The way we see our role is just to facilitate the process. Once you offer those tools and offer a way through, mistakes and all, then they begin to create whole new stories and directions for themselves.

Spacing: How has Sketch evolved and adapted to Toronto's changing social and economic landscape?

Ruttimann: I think what we're seeing now is that in these times, when the economy impacts us the way it does, that it's actually the culture-makers who come forward. I joined Sketch in 2000 as their General Manager at the time, and we were very small. I've watched over the years this trickle of young people coming in, exploring, grow to a solid community where we see over 600 youth a year. There's about 50 or 60 youth who are community leaders in that group, who are now literally writing grants with us and figuring out how to develop their own programming and offering those programs in Toronto.

Spacing: How does Sketch facilitate at-risk and street-involved youth to engage in Toronto's cultural community?

Ruttimann: We've become involved in Nuit Blanche, the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, we have a permanent street vending post on Queen Street. Or just giving workshops to other initiatives or organizations that want to engage youth through the arts as well — social services inviting our youth to give workshops on silk-screening, for instance, or painting, or music. And the biggest transformation that's happening in the last couple of years is this growth that's being offered to us through the Toronto Community Foundation to be able to take the young leaders who are now ready to facilitate workshops into the communities from which they came, perhaps, or are connected to, and offer what they have built in their own lives within their own communities.

Spacing: What opportunities do you see in Toronto right now to better address poverty and community engagement?

Ruttimann: I just think we'll see a growth, actually, in cultural activity. It's so important that people maintain some sense of celebration in their lives, and a sense of engagement with the community that they live in. When you're touching on any of those issues, whether it be housing, or food security, or employment, we have to get creative. I think that, in fact, it's a time when people need to really break out of the norms.