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The buildings with the blown-out windows at Dundas and Parliament Streets could easily tempt jaundiced assumptions about the neighbourhood.

If anyone is used to the cynical judgments of outsiders, it's the 7,500 residents of Regent Park, Canada's largest public-housing project and a steady supplier of news about poverty, drugs and violence.

Still, only the uninformed would have drawn dark inferences from the shattered glass yesterday. It was no act of vandalism, but Day 1 of Regent Park's billion-dollar redevelopment as a better-designed, and it is hoped, healthier community.

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It's interesting how a few extra facts and a shift in perspective can turn a symbol of decay into a sign of hope, but that's pretty much what Adonis Huggins has been helping young residents to do here for more than a decade.

Mr. Huggins, 45, runs Regent Park Focus, a program that lets young people dabble in print and radio journalism, photography, filmmaking and music production. His work has just been recognized by "face the arts," a campaign by the city and Toronto Life magazine to acknowledge people who enrich Toronto's cultural life.

Mr. Huggins's program engages young people in the affairs of the community by having them portray theirs as they see it from the inside.

It's about "being able to represent yourself, rather than be represented," Mr. Huggins said yesterday, surrounded by participants' framed photographs in the program's headquarters, in the basement of a Regent Park apartment building. "It marries creativity and imagination with being able to have a voice."

If they say anything at all, young people in struggling neighbourhoods aren't always heard over the sirens, headlines and political promises that signal the latest shooting. And the community shown back to them by the mainstream media is often more caricature than realistic portrait, Mr. Huggins said.

"Marginalized, low-income young people tend not to be represented in society as much," and are beset with "the feeling that they're somehow outsiders," he said.

Documenting their lives not only gives them power over their own portrayal, but the chance to put tough questions to politicians and police, all the while picking up skills that can help launch adult careers.

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The program's website, at , offers a parade of participants who went on to formal media studies, and in some cases, related jobs. While he seems loath to take the credit, Mr. Huggins, a tall man with a quiet voice, is the one they have to thank.

He arrived at Regent Park Focus in 1991 with memories of how the after-school programs of his youth helped forge his future.

Born in Toronto in 1960, Mr. Huggins grew up in Kensington Market, the son of Caribbean immigrants whose jobs meant long hours away from home. His mother was a nurse and worked shifts at a hospital, while his father worked on CN passenger trains.

"There was no running around in the streets for me," said Mr. Huggins, whose father, a former police officer, enrolled him in a youth drop-in at St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Church on Bellevue Avenue.

"That's where I got my first insights into working with youth."

When the family moved into a house on Clinton Street in Little Italy, they were the only black people on the street for years. For that reason, young Mr. Huggins would often return to Kensington, "to what I perceived to be a safer community" because it was more diverse.

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He studied community work at George Brown College, then spent three years in Halifax working part time and studying at Dalhousie University before returning to Toronto in 1991.

That's when Regent Park Focus was born, out of a provincial initiative to improve health and reduce drug problems in nine communities across Ontario.

When Mr. Huggins arrived there as a youth worker, he had trouble getting young people to attend meetings and discuss issues. But when he gave them a video camera and let them record themselves, a funny thing happened.

"We discovered that youth can make the lousiest videos, but they'll watch it forever, because they can see themselves," he said, laughing at the early results.

He seized on the kids' enthusiasm and enlisted volunteers to help teach them production and editing skills.

A Regent Park community newspaper, meanwhile, had just folded, so Mr. Huggins started a group for young journalists and launched Catch da Flava, published every two months.

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A radio station, photography program, music studio and Internet lab followed, all housed in a former boxing gym in the basement of 600 Dundas St. E.

The project has not been without its challenges. Two participants have been lost to violence in other parts of the city -- one shot, another stabbed. Recently, a young videographer was robbed of his camera while filming, and a computer went missing from the music studio.

Still, in the context of a continuing program involving hundreds of young people over more than a decade, these were exceptions, not defining moments.

Having their own media has not only allowed the young people of Regent Park to more fully reflect life to themselves, but "we provide a mirror for outsiders" who might jump to conclusions, Mr. Huggins said, "to look at themselves and their own perceptions."

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