Celebrating 30 Years of Building Community Through Media Arts
and Empowering Individuals and Communities to Tell Their Own Stories
FOCUS Media Arts Centre (FOCUS) is a not-for-profit organization that was established in 1990 to counter negative media stereotypes of low income communities and provide relevant information to residents living in the Regent Park area and surrounding communities. We seek to empower marginalize individuals and under represented communities to have a voice, through the use of professional training, mentorships and participatory based media practices that enable the sharing of stories, experiences and perspectives on relevant matters and issues. In brief our mandate is to empower marginalized individuals and under-serviced communities to have a voice and tell their own stories.
A Brief History
FOCUS Media Arts Centre seeks to accomplish the above through the operation of a public access 24-hour digital radio broadcast station known as Radio Regent; a public access 24-hour closed circuit community television station known as Regent Park TV; and a community based, multi-media training hub known as Regent Park Focus, that provides professional, user-free training courses and workshops in new media, music studio recording, photography, audio arts, print media and video production.
As part of our 5-year strategic plan, the FOCUS Media Arts Centre is exploring ideas on how the organization can expand its work and share its expertise and learnings with other under represented communities.
The following is a brief history of the development of the FOCUS Media Arts Centre.
1. Countering the Problem of Negative Press
2. Involvement in the Coalition Against Neighbourhoodism (CAN)
3. RPTV: A New Strategy for Fighting Negative Press
4. Civic Print Journalism
5. Radio Broadcast Journalism
6. Music & Photography Journalism and Arts
7. Chronicling the Regent Park Redevelopment
8. FOCUS Media Arts Centre Today
9. Community Impact
Countering The Problem of Negative Press
Formerly called Regent Park FOCUS and initially funded through a pilot project of the provincial government, the FOCUS Media Arts Centre began its work in media literacy in response to the concerns of Regent Park residents who strongly believed that their community was being unfairly stigmatized in mainstream media.
Despite some positive and neutral articles about Regent Park, the overall impression was that the neighbourhood was a negative and dangerous place to live and raise a family. Lacking evidence or facts of any kind, underlying most of these articles about Regent Park, was racism towards the large number of people of colour and immigrants living in the area, coupled with a societal discrimination of the poor and low-income people.
In the early years, Regent Park FOCUS sought to counter this negative press by mobilizing residents to sign petitions and engage in letter writing campaigns to confront media publishers and journalists about their articles. The goal was to educate and inform reporters and editors about the “real” Regent Park. While acknowledging that there were problems in the neighbourhood, just as in many other downtown areas, residents argued that overall, the Regent Park community was safe and that reporters should show more respect for the tremendous work that agencies and residents were doing in the community. Rather than focus mainly on problem areas, residents felt that journalists should report more about the community’s strengths such as the work of raising families on low income, the appreciation of diversity and culture in the area and the positive community spirit. Community members reported that as a result of negative press their addresses were a handicap when they were job hunting, as well as in other settings, and young people felt humiliated by the reactions of outsiders and their peers to their place of residence. With the constant reporting about drugs, residents argued, the press only served to advertise where people should go to find drugs thereby exacerbating the problem. However despite passionate pleas, this grassroots campaign seemed to have had little effect on publishers.
Involvement in the Coalition Against Neighbourhoodism (CAN)
In addition to these mobilization efforts, Regent Park FOCUS also joined community groups in Toronto’s Jane and Finch, Parkdale and Warden Woods neighbourhoods, to create a network that worked to develop strategies to combat negative reporting of their neighbourhoods. The network came up with the concept of “neighbour-hoodism,” defined as prejudice against certain neighbourhoods that are perceived to be low income and occupied by a concentration of racial minorities, and called themselves the Communities Against Neighbourhoodism (CAN) Coalition.
One unexpected victory of the coalition’s activity took place at Ryerson Institute, a downtown Toronto post-secondary college. This occurred when the Ryersonian—the student newspaper of Ryerson, printed an article associating the cause of drug dealing on their own campus, to the college’s proximity to Regent Park. Outraged at this blatant example of neighbourhoodism, Regent Park FOCUS and the CAN coalition responded with a letter-writing campaign that sent over 100 letters to the college. Although the newspaper staff itself was somewhat defensive about the community response to the article, one journalism professor by the name of John Miller, was so impressed by the response that he designed a journalism course around the article, and the concept of neighbourhoodism. To Regent Park FOCUS and the other members of CAN, this was a breakthrough event that would contribute positively to the education of future journalists.
RPTV: A New Strategy for Fighting Negative Press
In addition to its participation in the CAN coalition, Regent Park FOCUS turned to other empowerment-based approaches to address the problem of neighbourhoodism. One of the first initiatives was Sunday in the Park, an annual community wide festival celebrating the talents, richness and diversity of Regent Park. Regent Park FOCUS continued Sunday in the Park for five years before the torch was passed to CRC, another community group in the area, to continue. Sunday in the Park is now Regent Park’s longest running festival.
In 1993, Regent Park FOCUS moved its two small offices, one in the basement of the Regent Park Community Centre (formerly located at 240 Sackville Green) and the other in the basement of Park Public School (now Nelson Mandela Park Public School), to a long-abandoned and decrepit boxing centre in the basement of a Toronto Housing Apartment complex, located at 600 Dundas Street (now the site of the Big Park). With over 4,500 square feet of space, Regent Park FOCUS now had a permanent home to pursue a new strategy for developing a better image of the community. Similar to the petitions and letter writing campaign this new strategy also involved mobilizing the community, but in a very different way.
The strategy began with the establishment of after-school video programs throughout the community in which young people were inspired to write scripts and produce videos that challenged media stereotypes and/or promoted the diversity and richness of the neighbourhood. At the end of each program these videos would be presented and screened to parents and the school community. One early video cleverly contrasted clips of typical negative media coverage of violence and crime of the area, with scenes of kids eating ice cream and playing happily in the water.
As the video project progressed, topics expanded to other relevant community issues and topics of interest to young people. The large space at 600 Dundas Street also allowed Regent Park FOCUS to equip the facility with an editing suite, studio lights and standing cameras and to run a daily, annual summer video production program and an annual community screening and celebration of the work (now considered the forerunner of the Regent Park Film Festival). Within a year all the video programming took place at the Regent Park FOCUS facility - and Regent Park TV was born.
Civic Print Journalism
Despite the flourishing of Regent Park TV, its reach as a communication vehicle was limited. The video dissemination platform known today as Youtube, would come into existence until twelve years later. Recognizing the potential of newspapers for communicating to a wider audience, Regent Park FOCUS became co-partners in publishing a local bi-monthly publication serving the neighbourhood, known at the time as, the Regent Park TO . As part of the partnership, Regent Park FOCUS produced a 4-page insert devoted to the promotion of community health and sharing positive views of the community. In 1996, when the Regent Park TO shut its doors due to financial insolvency, Regent Park FOCUS began engaging youth in writing workshops, and the design and lay-up of a new publication for the community. The newspaper known as Catch da Flava , a name chosen by the youth to represent the diversity of the neighbourhood, was published four to six times a year, and delivered door-to-door, to every Regent Park household by the youth participants themselves. With a print run of 5000 copies each issue, Catch da Flava was also delivered to libraries, agencies and community centres across downtown Toronto. Catch da Flava provided young people with an opportunity to speak out on a wide range of topics, including issues considered vital to the community. Catch da Flava also provided a platform for Regent Park youth to share their viewpoints and perspectives to the wider Toronto community. Catch da Flava newspaper was changed to a magazine format in 2006. Increased printing costs and a lack of funding ultimately forced Regent Park FOCUS to end the publication in 2011. Recently, an effort has been made to reformat Catch da Flava into an online digital format called Regent Park On-line . It is intended that all the articles produced by the FOCUS team of journalists for Regent Park On-line will be also be reprinted in the Regent Park Community News , a publication produced by Centre for Social Innovation-Regent Park.
Radio Broadcasting Journalism
With a video production studio and a newspaper publication under its belt, it only made sense to hit the radio air waves. After the submission of a successful application and weeks of training, planning and preparing, the very first weekly radio show of the Catch da Flava youth radio collective was broadcast in the Spring of 1998, on CIUT 99. 1 FM, a campus community radio station associated with University of Toronto. With access to radio, the voice of Regent Park youth and the radio guests they interviewed, were heard in cars and homes from downtown Toronto, to as far as Barrie to the north, Buffalo to the south, Kitchener to the west and Cobourg to the east. The one-hour, for-and-by youth radio broadcast on Saturday afternoons, aired religiously and successfully for a full two months! Soon after, lateness and absences began to impact on the quality of the talk radio show, resulting in less talk and more music. To meet this challenge a move closer to Regent Park was called for and an appeal was made for a time slot on Ryerson’s campus community radio station known as CKLN 88.1 FM. CKLN was located closer to Regent Park and had a similar broadcast range to CIUT. A Tuesday night timeslot was granted by CKLN in the fall of 1998 and Catch da Flava Youth talk radio show resumed programming. Unfortunately, the problems of the M.I.A (missing in action) youth hosts, continued to plague the radio show. Far to often guests had to interview themselves! In refusing to abandon the idea of a weekly radio show produced for and by youth, Regent Park FOCUS made a decision to invest in the construction and equipping of a radio studio on the site of its 600 Dundas Street facility. Why not? The facility had the space and the studio could be connected to the CKLN broadcast studio through a dedicated cable feed. The funds were well spent, Catch da Flava Youth Radio soon became the first and only show to be produce live outside the CKLN station. Catch da Flava Youth Talk Radio show still continues today.
Music & Photography Journalism and Arts
Regent Park has always been the home of talented rappers and aspiring music artists. Having built a video production studio and a radio studio, it didn’t take long before local youth in the area began advocating for the construction of a music recording studio. The Focus Underground Music Studio, along with a sound booth, was built in 2005. Coordinated by two professional sound recording artists, the music studio provided youth in the community with free mentorship and training in desktop music recording and lyrical development. By this time, the organization became known as the Regent Park Focus Youth Media Arts Centre, and the expansion into music led to DJ workshops and an instrumental drumming program. This in turn led to the development of a house band (the Youngstas) and Last Fridays, a monthly performance evening held in various locations in Regent Park on the last Friday of the month. Last Fridays became a regular gathering for community members to socialize and experience the talents of the Youngstas and other local youth, poets and professional musicians. Last Fridays would continue until the Daniels Spectrum Arts Centre was built, greatly diminishing the need for FOCUS to continue hosting a community performance event.
In addition to the music arts, FOCUS established the Zapparoli Photography Arts program, named after former resident and professional photographer, David Zapparoli, who also served as a program instructor for several years. The program featured an on-site photo darkroom, an exhibition gallery and a projection wall, all dedicated to displaying the work of participants.
One of the first photography project was, the Journey Home
, an exhibit featuring residents and audio stories of their journey to Regent Park. Other photo projects involve documentation of daily neighbourhood life, a co-project with Manifesto Arts and documentation of the demolition of the neighbourhood. Two years later the gallery would host a visit from the Governor General of Canada, Adrian Clarkson.
Chronicling the Regent Park Redevelopment
In 2006, Toronto Community Housing (TCHC) announced the Regent Park revitalization. The Regent Park neighbourhood would be redeveloped into a mixed use and mixed income community. In anticipation of the importance of communication during this time of development, Regent Park FOCUS advocated for the building of a closed-circuit community television station that would provide information and keep residents informed of the process. Although TCHC agreed, the actual channel would not be installed until the Spring of 2013. In the meantime, FOCUS journalism activities in video, radio, print and photography, chronicled the revitalization process and the concerns of residents. For example, the Myths of Regent Park (RPTV 2008) was a very popular video that subtly argued that the revitalization project was more a gentrification project. Another much loved video was, Detective Jones and the Case of the Missing Buildings (RPTV 2009), a video about a bumbling detective’s efforts to find out who is stealing the buildings in Regent Park. In the process of Detective Jones investigation, the viewer learns all about the revitalization. In addition to videos, many Catch da Flava radio shows and newspaper articles were devoted to examining the revitalization. In 2011, the much beloved 600 Dundas Street facility, was demolished and Regent Park Focus took up tenancy in the bowels of a City of Toronto owned building on 38 Regent Street. Although Regent Park Focus Youth Media Arts Centre was given significantly less space and faced an enormous increase in rent, studios were rebuilt and its media arts programming continued to evolve and in many important ways expand.
FOCUS Media Arts Centre Today
What began in 1993, as an after-school video project about stereotypes has today evolved into Regent Park TV, an innovative 24-hour community access television station serving the Regent Park neighbourhood. Regent Park TV broadcasts an array of community produced work that can be viewed by Regent Park households on Rogers Cable 991 and by the general public on the Regent Park TV YouTube channel.
Catch da Flava Youth Radio show which began its one-hour broadcasting debut in 1998, has today evolved into Radio Regent, a community access digital radio station with a listenership that extends to 143 countries, 25,000 monthly listeners and syndicated shows that are re-broadcast in Florida, New York, and across the Ethiopian Diaspora.
The Last Friday’s monthly performance event ended in 2013, and FOCUS no longer provides an instrumental music program nor has a house band. The Focus Underground Music Studio however, continues to employ profession music artist to mentor and engage young people in desktop music recording.
Although the Photography Arts program has been reduced to a few workshops yearly, a gaming design program has been established and is slowly growing.
Catch da Flava newspaper and magazine program which ended in 2011, has been resurrected in the form of Regent Park On-line and articles written by young people involved in the FOCUS journalism program, will be re-printed in the Regent Park Community Newspaper, an on-line publication produced by Centre for Social Innovation -Regent Park.
The FOCUS Media Arts Centre was born out of a need to counter negative stereotypes about the Regent Park Community. The neighbourhood suffered from a portrayal that relied on racist and classist stereotypes that were detrimental to the mental health, self-esteem and well-being of community members. FOCUS sought to counter these negative stereotypes by: engaging community members in petitions and deputations; mobilizing residents in grassroots letter writing campaigns; working with CAN and other low-income communities; creating opportunities like Sunday in the Park and Last Fridays, for residents and young people to come together to celebrate and showcase their talents; and by engaging community members in various participatory media practices involving the sharing of their experiences, perspectives and stories not only among themselves, but also with the broader community. All these efforts have over the years contributed greatly to an empowered community - a community with a strong voice and strong sense of itself.
Building on this past, the FOCUS is preparing for the future and has recently changed its legal name to the FOCUS Media Centre, with the hopes of not only continuing its work in Regent Park, but to also engage individuals and groups in other neighbourhoods in participatory media practices that FOCUS has honed over the years.