PEACH (Promoting Education and Community Health) is a community-based organisation, which provides transformative, youth-centred, social and educational programmes for marginalized youth and their families in the Jane-Finch community. Established in 1993, the organisation was originally created with an anti-drug focus, which shortly changed into community economic development. Following the introduction of the Safe Schools Act in Canada in 2000 and in response to a dire need in the community to support youth whose education would be jeopardized by these policies, PEACH once again switched its core focus to education or “alternative modes of engagement” as our respondent called it.
PEACH programmes work on the basis of an integrated model which incorporates education, positive mentoring for youth, and social programmes for youth and their families into a supportive environment from which they can bounce back from setbacks with their education, safety and mental health issues associated with the poverty they are facing. Thus, the primary aim of the organisation is building relationships and partnerships that guide youth in crisis and their families to the supports they need to re-imagine their future and achieve success. Thus the main target audience is defined as at risk youth (14-24 years of age). The components of the integrated programme according to our respondent are as follows:
School Away from School: A collaboration with the Toronto district School Board and the Toronto Catholic School Board which provides a supportive space where assigned teachers supervise youth at risk of falling out of the school system, while PEACH provides a web of other supportive programming such as life-skills and conflict management to reconnect youth to schools and re-establish their trust in institutions.
Wraparound: A programme for building a supportive network of caring adults (such as youth advocates, family members, friends, even people from the church) and service providers which wraps around the young person at its centre creating trust and support.
Music Studio: a weekly drop-in programme containing a 3-hour workshop based on theory of music and engineering and entrepreneurship which aims at developing youth’s artistic expression and ties which help break down negative ‘turf affiliation’ that undermine youth’s mobility and safety in Jane-Finch.
Youth Outreach: An initiative, which builds on organisational partnerships to fill gaps in existing services by connecting youth programmes in the community.
Building social ties and supportive networks are core elements in the integrated model adopted at PEACH. Given the special characteristics of the Jane-Finch community in terms of its turf boundaries and gang-related issues, one of the important objectives of PEACH has been to facilitate contact and interaction among youth from different geographic areas of the community. Jane and Finch community, as our respondent explains
“[…] is so diverse in terms of street by street nature and so young people find it scary and unsafe to walk and they really plan their routes out so they are not walking into somebody else’s territory.”
Thus, through provision of a neutral space wherein youth from different territories can come together and build meaningful contacts, PEACH continues to have an important impact on creating a safe and cohesive community. Although the organisation has shifted focus from economic development to education over the years, PEACH programming still has a strong positive influence on the economic conditions and social mobility of its participants by helping them finish high school education and train in specific employment areas related to their interest. Moreover the programme offers youth with life-skills and conflict management training, which help them deal with behavioural issues that may be halting their performance at school-work. The programme also has a specific focus on helping incarcerated youth bounce back out of criminality and into education and employment.
PEACH has six permanent staff members, including two part time youth advocates, which are supported by the Youth Outreach Programme of the government of Ontario. The funders of PEACH include Ontario Works (municipal government), governmental programme-specific grants (such as the youth outreach programme), private foundations, Rogers telecommunications (private corporation). PEACH collaborates broadly with other organisations and services in the community in providing services to its participants (i.e. arts programmes, school boards, mental health services, the police, community centres).
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
Although the target audience addressed by PEACH is precisely defined as at-risk youth, there is explicit attention paid towards to the multiple characteristics and needs of the participants. Thus, there is a focus within all programmes to pay attention to individual interests and capacities of youth while addressing wider systemic issues facing them, such as inter-generational poverty, criminalization and racial stereo-typing of youth (Afro-Caribbean in particular), gang structures in the neighbourhood, and poverty-driven mental health issues. The programmes thus address different categories of diversity, namely age, gender, ethnicity, personal interest, mental and physical health. Moreover, our respondent asserted that PEACH has experienced increasing diversification of its audience especially in terms of gender given the recent influx of female participants in the past two years. PEACH has further experienced increased diversity in terms of the ethnic groups it served:
“The programme used to be predominantly Afro-Caribbean, but more and more nowadays we are finding that there is a Somalian community coming, there is a Spanish speaking community so we are seeing whoever is living in this community is getting referred and is coming. We don’t have a policy of supporting only one ethnic group.”
While PEACH adopts an asset as opposed to deficit-based approach as our respondent claims, by emphasizing on youths’ potentials, the programme is overall designed to tackle barriers and negative aspects of the diversity in Jane-Finch (referred to as ‘systemic issues’ above) by helping youth move out of incarceration and gang affiliations and (back) into education and employment.
Main factors influencing success or failure
One of the key internal factors contributing to the success of PEACH in terms of moving towards its vision for a healthy, inclusive and empowered community has been establishing personal connections and collaborations. Dedicated staff has over the years been able to create strong friendships with youth as well as among themselves. This has contributed to the building of the foundation of trust and a supportive environment as well as keeping the youth on board with the programme. Establishing collaboration with other services and agencies in the community has as well helped the organisation fill gaps in services and cope with recent cutbacks in terms of funding and organisational support. Another internal success factor is the attention paid within the programme to the diverse needs of youth identified in a bottom-up manner in re-engaging them with education:
“The school system that is from the industrial age with a very colonial curriculum is not responding to the changes in diversity and multi-culturalism that are here to stay in Canada. So the young people we see are disengaged from it… We try to swing that around a little bit and say how else can we engage them so that it is still education but they are learning what is relevant to them”.
Meanwhile, capacity, and space where identified as the biggest internal barriers the programme is currently facing. Our respondent contended that while it is not so hard to find grants to fund specific programming, administrative costs and maintenance are areas wherein lack of financial resources is most pertinent to. Moreover, having a very specific focus, the programme staff admittedly does not make a pro-active effort in being involved and visible in the community (i.e. organizing public events, attending community meetings, and engaging in community outreach), which could potentially connect them to additional sources of funding and support. Furthermore, external factors such as limited funding and the underlying systemic issues outlined earlier continue to pose a serious challenge to the success of the programme. Such issues vastly contribute to the quick dis-engagement and even re-incarceration of youth once they are out of the programme.
PEACH is an interesting example of how a programme with a very specific focus can incorporate hyper-diversity by paying attention to the different and complex needs and capacities of its participants while recognizing the complexity of the problems faced by them thus contributing to recognition. The programme also creates encounter opportunities among youth who may otherwise not interact due to turf boundaries in the area. These encounters contribute a great deal to easing tensions and improving safety in the community. PEACH also enhances redistribution through providing youth with access to skill trainings and assistance in finishing their education, which impacts the economic well-being of youth. In terms of future development, there are aspirations within the programme to grow in capacity and become more involved in the community. PEACH further hopes to engage schools in its ‘alternative engagement model’, which places the needs and potentials of youth at its core. Meanwhile, there is still great concern around the future development of youth in their post-graduation life as broader inequalities in the community continue to reproduce patterns of cyclical poverty, mental illness, criminal engagement and incarceration among young people of colour.