The Spot (Where YOU(th) Wanna Be), is the programme targeting young people in Jane-Finch neighbourhood. It is part of the JFCFC and is located in the Yorkgate Mall, which is a shopping centre serving to the Jane-Finch neighbourhood. The programme is essentially a drop-in centre offering after-school programming and access to information on issues identified by youth. It’s more importantly ‘a safe and welcoming place for young people to just chill’ (Jane-Finch Community and Family Centre, 2009). In 2004, a group within JFCFC entitled Young Leaders of the Inner City, in partnership with the Griffin Centre, which is a Jane-Finch based, non-profit, mental health agency, conducted a community survey assessment in order to identify the needs of the youth in Jane-Finch community. The findings of the study revealed that the most important issues as identified by the youth are: First, lack of a space for youth; and second, interactive programming and services to engage youth on a profound level. The Spot was created in response to such needs. The programme officially started in 2006 when it received its well-known space by community youth in the York Gate Mall. While providing a safe space for youth has remained at the core of Spot’s programming as the over-arching goal, the focus of the activities has shifted from drugs and alcohol abuse prevention (in the early days) to settlement and youth programmes today.
The primary goal of the programme is to prevent violence and drug misuse as well as to promote healthy lifestyle choices for youth. This is done through social, educational, art and recreational programming, newcomer youth settlement, after-school programmes, leadership and mentoring programmes, drop-ins, outings, volunteer and employment opportunities. The programmes are further committed to increasing and building the leadership skills of youth, thus there is a strong focus on the social mobility of youth within SPOT.
The Spot is a very popular destination among the youth of Jane and Finch. The vibrant graffiti-covered unit at the York Gate Mall is always busy and the atmosphere is very relaxed and welcoming. The space has been very successful in terms of providing a safe hangout for the youth to gather. However, it is not just the space that has contributed to the impact of the youth centre on social cohesion in the community as the centre also provides a variety of programmes which help youth connect with one another and build strong social ties. A very interesting example is the Host programme wherein someone who either was a newcomer to Toronto previously or who has an interest in supporting others settling in the country, is paired up with someone who is new to the country.
“So, they were hosting that person. And it was not like they were taking them into their house, but they would take them to the mall or to the movies and copy-shop or school, just little things you know. Just to trying to help them. Yes. And to discuss like what they are going through.”
Our respondent further explained that the Host programme has resulted in the creation of strong and long-term friendships among youth from different backgrounds over the years. The social centre has further a very strong focus on economic development. For instance there is a strong mandate to hire staff of the centre from the community to help youth earn a salary while gaining employment experience. In addition the centre organises resume-writing workshops, summer job programmes, youth leadership programmes and referrals of youth to different employment agencies in the community.
The target audience of the Spot is defined as youth in Jane-Finch neighbourhood between the ages of 13-30 years of age. In addition to the JFCFC, other partner organisation working with the Spot include the Black Creek Community Health Centre and the Jane Street Hub. The staff at the Spot is comprised of two programme managers, four full-time and four part-time members. The sources of funding of the programme are Citizenship and Immigration Canada (around 60%), and United Way of Toronto (private foundation). The Spot further makes use of partnership funds, which provide the programme with part-time staff on temporary basis.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
The Spot serves a very diverse young audience including many newcomer youth. Our respondent identified addressing diversity as a major goal within the youth centre. Creating an inclusive space is an important goal in line with serving a diverse audience at the Spot. The programme manager was also assertive that the diversity within the audience also tends to change from time to time:
“When we first opened we had a lot more girls than boys, different groups of people. This last two years, black males […] So, even with the demographics of our space change, we have to change who is here depending on their needs”.
Diversity is thus perceived positively at the Spot as it is considered to contribute to the vibrancy and appeal of the space. The space and the programmes are kept very flexible in order to make sure they respond to the different needs and preferences of the diverse audience. The categories of diversity addressed by the centre include age, gender, sexuality, ethnic and cultural background, duration of settlement and status, interests, educational background and physical ability.
Main factors influencing success or failure
The Spot, as mentioned before, is very popular and well-received by the youth in Jane-Finch. Some of the primary internal factors contributing to its success are outlined as follows: (i) The location: The centre is strategically located at a mall, which makes it accessible for the youth. Further the proximity to other service providers (such as a youth health centre across the hall in the mall) is an advantage for the centre; (ii) The space: the physical space is very vibrant and welcoming. The youth are very much involved in designing and re-designing the interior of the centre. Generally there is a lot of attention paid to creating a space where the youth feel most comfortable in. For instance, despite outside pressure, the staff has strategically rejected the use of security cameras in the centre; (iii) Feeling like a family: there are strong ties between staff members themselves and also between them and the audience which helps build trust and keep the youth on board; (iv) Engaging the youth on a deeper level: since its start, the Spot has been very much focused on giving voice and agency to the youth by involving them in running the centre as well as designing and implementing the programmes; (v) Flexibility: the programmes and staff are highly flexible in terms of making change in order to respond to the needs and demands of the youth effectively; (vi) Creative ongoing outreach: the staff is very pro-active in using various creative tools in reaching out to the youth in the community (including street outreach, attending community events, and using social media). Moreover, access to a solid network of service providers in the community is also indicated as an external success factor. Meanwhile, precarious funding, having to compete with other youth centres (whose number is on the rise), and strict regulations from the mall (regarding working hours for instance) are the most important internal challenges faced by the Spot.
The Spot provides a fascinating case study for a successful bottom-up community based initiative with cross-cutting targets. The centre is pro-active in its programming as it aims to provide a positive all-inclusive space where youth can feel safe while engaging in productive activities. The space creates encounters for youth from diverse backgrounds; and directly or indirectly, creates recognition of many important topics like safe sex and sexuality, drugs, and bullying. It further tackles redistribution as it provides youth with access to computers, skill trainings and access to employment resources for youth. However, the approach of the initiative is not ‘preventive’ in a negative sense of educating youth on dealing with the possible problems. It rather follows a positive approach to respond to the creative side of the youth to engage them better in positive activities. Especially given the special characteristics of Jane-Finch neighbourhood (particularly the gang turfs), the Spot plays a vital role in the community by helping youngsters stay out of trouble through providing them with a better alternative. There are ambitious goals for the future of the Spot, as our respondent contended, the most important of which are getting access to more stable funding and a bigger space.