It was while she was a reporter at The New York Times Magazine that Vinita Srivastava began developing a plan to help marginalized young people in Toronto.
The Toronto native first got into journalism to be a voice for immigrant and low-income communities, but she felt that wasn't happening in New York, where she had worked for a decade at the Times magazine, Harper's Bazaar, The Village Voice and Vibe.
"I felt like I was missing my own calling," said Ms. Srivastava, who has also reported from Mumbai, Port of Spain and Toronto, and published a children's book about racism. "I just wasn't doing what I really needed to do," she said.
From her desk in New York, she began researching organizations that worked with at-risk youth from Toronto's troubled neighbourhoods. In 2005, Ms. Srivastava packed her bags, moved to Toronto and accepted a position at the Ryerson School of Journalism. It was there that her Verse City initiative was officially launched in partnership with Young People's Press, Toronto's Violence Intervention Project, and Ryerson's journalism school.
The aim of Verse City is to give marginalized youth in Toronto's 13 priority neighbourhoods a voice that has been ignored by mainstream media in the city. As one Verse City participant from Malvern said, "The media only cares about our neighbourhood when somebody gets shot."
What is Verse City?
We go into communities and neighbourhoods that have issues with poverty, gang violence, and have an extraordinary police presence. Communities where people feel like they don't get a fair shake and that they've been left behind.
Verse City is a place where youth can tell their own stories about their own communities and have people listen to them. We help the youth pad their portfolios with some experience and some writing, and hopefully boost confidence levels. It's amazing to see what happens to young people who usually don't get to see themselves reflected in the media finally get their work published. I think they become empowered, if I could use that word, by the idea of seeing their names and stories online for everyone to read.
In our partnerships with East Metro Youth Services and Regent Park Focus, we hold monthly workshops at Ryerson University where the participants are taught the skills and given the tools necessary to produce journalism. For two summers now we've held a five-day camp where they get to put into practice what they've learned throughout the year.
How is it empowering?
I'd say about 20 per cent of the participants come out of the workshops saying they want to become journalists, and because of Verse City a few of them have applied to journalism schools and have been accepted. By being exposed to a university setting, most of the youth now see a university education as something that is possible, not something far off in the distance that doesn't belong to them.
Why is the idea of "producing" journalism so important?
The act of telling your own story can be therapeutic. The youth get to tell their stories to others who may not have heard or read stories like these before. They are going from a position of no power to a position of some power. The fact that you get to share your stories when there are no stories that accurately reflect your reality is powerful. If you pick up the paper everyday, or you watch the news and don't see yourself reflected there or you see yourself reflected but the images are inaccurate that can have a negative impact. If you don't ever see any positive stories or any complex stories about where you live that can have a negative impact on your identity and on your self-esteem. So the fact that you may play a role in helping to correct that stereotype or misinformation is incredible. Finally there is someone who gets to answer the woefully under-represented or misrepresented image, and the answer is coming from the youth themselves. For them, it's taking power away from those who have been abusing it and then using it for something good.
Why is a program like this important in Toronto?
In Toronto, poverty has increased for young people, and it has increased threefold for racialized youth. So we have this situation - poverty is increasing, services are decreasing and public space is shrinking. Young people have less and less to do, and have fewer ways in which their voices can be heard. They need to be active in civic life, and I've read a number of studies that say youth that are involved in the media become civically engaged. That's what we need in this city. Strong civic engagement by youth adds to the health and prosperity of our city. I mean, there's a reason why we're working with the Violence Intervention Project, because it's not just about "give me your gun," it's about showing these youth alternative pathways.
What is the future of the Verse City program?
There is so much potential in a program like this, but there are few funds. Everyone's forced to scale back because there is just not enough money to go around. But we have to keep going. We're looking at a partnership with the United Nations Association in Canada to work with urban aboriginal youth in Toronto. Ultimately, I want to start a conversation between these youth and marginalized youth in other countries, so they can share their experiences. I've done a lot of work in South Africa, so maybe that's the first place we'd go.
This interview has been condensed and edited.