…The work we experience from Dominique, Josh, and the support we have received from Ve’ahavta, Toronto Writers Collective is reliable, professional, committed, creative, and every effort has been made to be culturally safe with our community. It is a welcome and generous addition to our group to our curricula and program, and clinically relevant to our Mission to improve the health and well-being of Aboriginal People in spirit, mind, emotion and body…within a multi-disciplinary heath care model. Several of our staff have been told what a great addition this is to our program by a number of clients, and one of my clients put it clearly and succinctly when he said, “I used to think I was just and addict, now I see that I am more than that. In creative writing today, I saw that I am creative, that I am writer, and that I just might have something to give back after all.” Ve’ahavta and the Toronto Writers Collective have my fullest thanks, and of course
Megwetch to Josh and Dominique for their generosity of Spirit and Gift. I look forward to our ongoing relationship as we work to bring healing and wellness to our First Peoples here at Anishnawbe Health Toronto, well into 2016.
Chris Pike Chayuuweytim (Team Lead)/Concurrent Disorders Counsellor Aboriginal Mental Health & Addictions Program,
Anishnawbe Health Toronto,
For the past year and a half, Ve’ahavta has had a partnership with the TWC, in operating the Creative Writing program, which creates the opportunity for the most vulnerable members of our community to engage in the creative arts, inspiring them towards sustainable and meaningful change in their lives. The Creative Writing Program workshops serves vulnerable populations in the GTA whose voice is often unheard including people who are homeless, youth at risk, women who have been in the correctional system, and individuals from the LGBTQ, mental health and Indigenous communities. Currently, 10-week workshops are being offered in shelters, community centers and social service agencies.
At the Creative Writing Workshops, participants share their stories, nurture their gifts and talents, increase their literacy skills and gain a stronger sense of self.
The programs have experienced considerable growth over the past 18 months. Recent additions include workshops at CAMH-Learn (for people struggling with psychosis), TEGH-REACH (a mental health program at Toronto East General Hospital), Unison and L.O.V.E. (Leave out Violence). In the past 1 ½ years the number of workshops have increased in numbers, from 3 to 12 ongoing workshops and six one-off sessions.
The program has a strong volunteer foundation. Forty-four volunteer facilitators have participated in presenting 1,500 client experiences, and 19 event volunteers participated in 2 public reading events and served on an advisory board. The program has also expanded in focus regarding diversity, e.g. workshops with LGBTQ, women at risk with the law, and First Nations communities.
Director of Local Programs
… Since Susan asked to host the Express Yourself program at Mustard Seed, I have observed some of our very “wounded’ participants. I have been entrusted with stories of parental neglect, rejection that make me marvel that the persons have survived at all! Some of them have opted to participate in Express Yourself. Each week when they finish I see a joy, a belief in themselves slowly growing. They love reading to me and others the writing that Susan’s prompts elicited from them. I was invited this month to the awards evening at U of T and was moved to tears by what the participants had written and had affirmed by the hearers.
Blessings on the great work!
Sister Gwen Smith, Director of Mustard Seed. 791 Queen St. E. Toronto.
…Toronto Writers Collective offered an eight-week workshop in creative writing for clients at our agency T.E.G.H Community Outreach Services. For some this has been their first experience in expressing emotions by pitting pen to paper and having their work so positively affirmed. The workshops are skilfully designed and expertly facilitated. Al participants quickly become engaged and participate with eagerness. My heart has been warmed in witnessing this creative growth in individuals who struggle to have their voices heard.
Toronto East General Community Outreach Services
…Over the last few months, members of the LEARN program at CAMH had the pleasure of attending the writers workshop facilitated by the staff of the Toronto Writers Collective. The group far exceeded our expectations and our members both blossomed and thrived by participating in the workshop. From the very beginning it was obvious that our members connected with the facilitator and the unique structure of the program. The writers group attracted several members who consistently attended the program during a time when attendance at LEARN programs was low. The facilitator was quickly able to form a bond with our members, by creating a safe space where they could express themselves freely without the fear of being judged or criticized. The sensitivity and understanding that the facilitators consistently showed to our members went a long way. The facilitators were able to identify the strengths of the clients and reflect them back to them. The program structure gave our members the chance to discover hidden talents or to continue to nurture their gift for writing. The prompts were offered in a way that allowed members to be imaginative and creative. It was obvious that the writing process was also therapeutic for participants, allowing them to share their personal lived experiences. Many of the writing pieces revealed the depth and inner wisdom that our clients possess. Some of our clients even had the chance to perform their pieces in the Words From The Street and Starry Nights events – opportunities that gave our clients the chance to reach new and exciting heights. We’re thankful for the care and support given to our members, and we are extremely pleased that we can continue to offer this program to LEARN members in the future. It has brought out the best in them.
The LEARN Staff
“…They wanted to hear from us and they didn’t want us to sugar coat it. I think I already had my voice, but this organization gave us the place to scream it from the rooftops. When you live in these marginalized communities, you carry such a huge burden on your shoulders. Writing is the healthiest way to express yourself. I’m so proud that I made it out alive.”
—Jillann Mignon, participant and the winner of the 2014 Words from the Street contest –
“… I was so proud of our Mustard Seed group and I know how thrilled they all were with their accomplishments. When I heard those voices yesterday and thought about what the writers have been through, I felt the real impact of what we are doing in TWC. It’s humbling to have a small part in this incredible healing process.”
—Maxanne Ezer, TWC facilitator
… Snap on your seatbelts! Stereotypes of homeless women are about to experience a fender bender! Lori Luther and Sandy Padmore from the Toronto Writers Collective—experienced facilitators who offer a supportive writing space to people deprived of a voice in our society—are providing writing ‘prompts’ to a group of 11 residents of Fred Victor Women’s Hostel.
There’s a buzz of conversation to start but the room soon quietens. Participants are reminded of the rules for giving feedback. Each of the women have pen and paper and wait attentively to hear the prompt, a poem or quotation that helps them make the leap from listening to writing.
On one Tuesday evening in March, prompts included a quotation about feeling beautiful to yourself, another quotation about the experience of writing, and a poem about being assertive.
While the women were writing in 15- to 20- minute bursts, the room was filled with concentrated silence. What flowed out of the women’s written reflections was nothing short of a stunning sea of honesty, resilience, and beauty.
The Writers Collective is in the planning stages of publishing workshop participants’ written pieces on their website and organizing collaborative public readings of participants’ work. This is the Collective’s way of promoting civic engagement and social transformation.
—Excerpt of an article in the Fred Victor newsletter by Carol Watson, Communications and Fundraising Manager
“Finally people are listening to me…
… It’s a chance to write. It’s a chance to be heard. It’s a chance to be critiqued without having to be worried about being cut down… It’s very important to encourage someone – to get them to start and get confident and get more and more and faith in themselves and their words… It’s new to me to have the confidence to go out – to write – to share my writing. Writing is what I want to do – Writing is what I seem to do well. It’s what I enjoy.”
—Ken Rosser, workshop participant and newly trained TWC workshop facilitator
“…I never imagined that the participants would benefit as much as they did. Their realization that they are ‘good’ and are appreciated was wondrous to behold.”
—Joel Sacke, Words from the Street contest volunteer
“…I left the workshop with some great tools on how to give positive feedback to a writer. Thank you for that. Sometimes, as writers, we are so critical of our work to the point where we have this fight or flight instinct about it and any negative feedback could put us in either mode. Whereas positive feedback transforms that fight or flight into something (yes I will say it) magical … and uplifting so the writer isn’t beating themselves up over their own words.”
—Workshop participant, The 519
At Fred Victor Housing’s 145 Queen Street East location, we provide harm reduction housing (“meeting people where they’re at” without judgement) for those who were previously homeless and who face multiple barriers to housing as a result of sex work, substance abuse, or mental health issues. We collaborate with our tenants to reduce the harmful effects of stigmatization. We support a community composed of extremely marginalized social groups often violently excluded from mainstream society. The people we work with are “de-voiced” and their lack of a voice in society allows the larger population to avoid confronting the violence, traumatization, exclusion, and sometimes profound alienation and dissociation our tenants have experienced.
The creative writing group at Fred Victor is very small and intimate. It is the start of an ongoing need to resist this “de-voicing” and dehumanization. By focusing intensively on the fundamental act of dialogue, by warmly supporting self-expression and listening, the group serves as a healing and growing space where participants can re-encounter, sometimes painfully and, it seems, always with varying degrees of struggle, the powerful and definitively human act, of telling their story and connecting with others.
It is important to contextualize this magic. The writing group demonstrates what is possible when we cross social borders to collaborate with and listen to groups who are usually ignored. It kindles moments, in a little over an hour each week, of dialogue that can transcend the barriers that usually divide us. It is an inspiring and incredibly positive experience for participants and staff. It should inspire our city to not only support this program but to listen more faithfully to the groups our society stigmatizes and demonizes, especially when we find it most challenging. The writing group demonstrates a way to honour dignity that applied more broadly –in our workplaces, our government, our culture, and our communities, could reduce the need for places like Fred Victor.
Community Development Housing Worker
…The Toronto Writers Collective has afforded me the opportunity to facilitate writing sessions throughout our great city. Women’s shelters, a youth drop-in center, the 519 in the heart of our city’s LGBTQ community with Marshal Reinhart, and along with co-facilitator Joey Isadore Haar, most recently to Fred Victor, a low income housing and co-ed shelter in downtown Toronto, are among the variety of sites I have been a part of through our TWC workshops.
Each writer’s session, through our TWC philosophy, creates an opportunity and establishes an atmosphere for reflection, honesty, growth, safety, a sense of strength, and belonging. What has struck me during each and every individual workshop has been how humbled, how fortunate and honoured I feel to be a part of this powerful experience, to write alongside our writers, and share and listen to their work. Being able to provide a dynamic where our writers are comfortable enough to express themselves is without a doubt the highlight of my week.
TWC often talks about bridging gaps in our community. Recently one of my regular Fred Victor writers went missing for over a week. I am glad to say a happy ending prevailed. Still, while waiting for the news, I had visions of the worst. It was the first time in my life I had a connection to this kind of street community tragic reality. It is difficult but I am richer for all these experiences.
Weekly writing sessions present new challenges as our writers grapple with the connections our prompts and inspirational strategies offer. The result each week is of personal growth, a sense of strength, calm and hope.
Our Fred Victor Housing group is new and growing. Each Monday evening begins with regular and new men and women. As Pat Schneider wrote, “…everyone who writes is a writer.” I know all my fellow TWC facilitators can relate when I say, “I cannot wait until next Monday.”
TWC Facilitator – Fred Victor