Engaging the Community with Art: Dreams of a Community Art Project


When given the opportunity to work as a student research assistant on this study in 2011, I was very excited. While I would not have been able to tell you exactly what civic engagement meant at the time, the opportunity to work on this project has since shaped the way I perceive my own community.

In the beginning of my work term, I spent time combing through numerous scholarly articles so to obtain a better understanding of civic engagement. While doing that, I soon came across a concept that fascinated me to great lengths: Community Art. According to the Halifax Regional Municipality:

Community Art is any art form which focuses on involving community members, who contribute a variety of talents, to design and create a public art piece. (source)

While reading about this concept, a community art project I’d read about recently came to mind. It was titled “Before I die” by Candy Chang. Chang is an American artist whose focus is to better communities and neighbourhoods with thoughtful and interactive art installations. At that time she had recently installed a large chalk board on a decrepit home destined for demolition in New Orleans. Buckets of chalk were provided and passer-bys were invited to disclose one thing, serious or funny, they’d like to do in their lives. You can read more about the project here.

Doesn’t it make sense that engaging pieces of public art, like the one mentioned above, would have a positive effect on our community?

It’s been two years since my time as student research assistant and I’ve since graduated from CBU, moved away and moved home. Now that I’m residing in Sydney again, this concept still crosses my mind. As I spend countless hours walking my dog through Sydney’s downtown core and waterfront, I see blank canvases on every bare wall space and abandoned building. While many bare walls in our community are already tagged with thoughtless graffiti, it’s important to note that a community art project would be both meaningful and legal.

It may be true that many young people are still leaving Cape Breton to pursue further opportunities in bigger urban centres, but I feel we are also in a state of revival. Young people are making efforts to stay in Cape Breton and make the CBRM a better place. People are talking about why they love it here and what they would like to see here for the future. Wouldn’t it be awesome to work together as a community to install a piece of public art that captured this new and hopeful perspective?

Is anyone else interested or fascinated with the concept of community art? Let’s start the conversation!

Entry submitted by Grace MacNeil, 25, from Sydney, Nova Scotia. She can be reached by email at grace.macneil0@gmail.com.


The Elizabeth Fry Society Greenhouse Project

According to Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, two thirds of federally sentenced women are mothers, and women are more likely than men to be the primary care-giver for children. There are about 25,000 children whose mothers are in either federal prisons or provincial jails in Canada each year. Many federally sentenced women are diagnosed with mental health issues that are not sufficiently addressed in prison. In women, mental health disorders have been proven to manifest through unhealthy behaviours such as substance abuse, impulsivity and delinquency which can result in criminalization.

I believe that criminalized women are portrayed as dangerous or malicious, whereas the complexity of the issue is not always considered. For instance, socioeconomic status, mental health, domestic violence, history of abuse and many other factors are not taken into account. Society often blames the women for making poor choices or being irresponsible.

At the Elizabeth Fry Society we uphold philosophies of egalitarianism and humanitarianism. Our mandate is to work and on behalf of criminalized women and girls. We currently operate a residential facility, and offer programs, services, advocacy and support to all women.

Our Society is currently developing a greenhouse initiative involving a work release program. Our vision is to create a program that would offer women in prison the opportunity to engage in meaningful work at our greenhouse while enrolled in programming and residing at our community-based residential facility. Participants will work in Greenhouse maintenance, assist in growth operations, assist in getting produce ready for market, be involved in the packaging and marketing of products, sales and services, and assist in the sustainability of this social enterprise.

Horticulture therapy has been scientifically proven to have physical, psychological and physiological benefits. By placing individuals in the role of a care giver, participants are given a sense of responsibility and purpose. Self-esteem is enhanced, motor skills are improved, social interaction is encouraged, patience, and new interests are nurtured and a renewed sense of purpose is established. Offering the participants an honorarium would promote the achievement of pro-social goals such as attaining an apartment, and hinder poverty-related criminalization. As agriculture is a significant aspect of Cape Breton’s economy, this work release would provide participants with horticulture literacy which they may utilize and benefit from in the future.

I believe that our clients would show great enthusiasm regarding our greenhouse initiative. Many of the clients I have dealt with have been enthused when pursuing new interests, and take pride in developing new skills. I have experienced clients coming to our Satellite Apartment Program who were enrolled in Pawsitive Directions Canine Program at the women’s federal prison. They lit up when discussing their experience and took such pride in their achievements with the canine program.

We are currently in the beginning stages of developing this greenhouse project, but believe we have already made significant progress in establishing the framework. We were able to secure a greenhouse structure and have gained letters of support from community members. We are currently focused on funding applications to get the project off the ground. We look forward to the challenges and rewards that may come in developing this new project and appreciate any community interest and support.

Entry submitted by Emily MacArthur, 22, from Sydney, Nova Scotia. To learn more about the Elizabeth Fry Society, click here.

I’m engaged! With my community, that is…

Peas for sale at the Baddeck Community Market in August, and an old still-working scale in use.

Peas for sale at the Baddeck Community Market in August, and an old still-working scale in use.

When I first heard about the Youth Engagement research project, I thought “Cool! I definitely want to write something for that!” I’m a youth, and I’m involved in my community. It’s a no-brainer!

I popped the researchers off an email to that effect and then I started to think about it. I was surprised that I felt overwhelmed. The questions seemed pretty big and there were so many angles I could take. I wondered, “What should I say? What’s important to me to say about youth and community engagement?” I thought about why I am engaged with my community, why I do things like volunteer and take part in community events. I wrote several drafts and nothing seemed right.

The menu for another vendor at the market, who is from Pakistan.

The menu for another vendor at the market, who is from Pakistan.

Then I thought about the word “engaged”. How we use it in the sense of “getting married”, too, and how much more exciting it is (to me anyway!) in that context. While to be ‘civically engaged’ to me sounds dull and dry (like so many academic, big words tend to), to be engaged to another person speaks of excitement, joy, happy + loving commitment, and celebration. 

So I thought, “What could be parallels between the two? What are things about being in a long-term committed relationship with a person that are also true of being civically engaged? How could seeing it this way make me see ‘civic engagement’ as more than just volunteering?”

And remarkably, once I started thinking about it this way, the ideas started flying. So, here they are: my tips for “making a relationship with your community meaningful and long-lasting”.

At the beach one of my favorite things to do is stare up at the clouds.

At the beach one of my favorite things to do is stare up at the clouds.

1. Do fun stuff together – go on a hike, go for a canoe. Take time to enjoy what the community has to offer, just because. In our busy day-to-day lives we don’t often make time for playing or goofing around, but that’s what makes us feel good and healthy. 

2. Accept them for who they are – they may not live up to all your expectations. That’s OK. That’s normal, and it doesn’t make them any less of a good community. 

3. And be yourself, too, even if that doesn’t always fit in with them! For example, I don’t like fiddle music. I mean, I do – just in small amounts and certain contexts. However, I love pop dance music, but that’s not stereotypically “Cape Breton”. But, it is “me”, and I do live here. I’m gonna let my freak flag fly. 

4. Hang in there through the hard times. It will not always be wonderful. There will be difficult times, times where you doubt your commitment. Where you wonder if you were crazy to be here, to have gone “all in” with this person/place. This is normal. Every relationship has times like this, and they pass. 

 Late August is one of my favorite 'seasons' and I love goldenrod especially.

Late August is one of my favorite ‘seasons’ and I love goldenrod especially.

5. Celebrate the good times. Go out to community dinners, weddings, fundraisers. Eat because it is tasty. Smile and laugh and joke. These things are all important, and underrated.

6. Appreciate the little things about them – the way the wind blows through a field of Queen Anne’s Lace in late August. The people in the grocery store, all the different shapes and sizes. The history in buildings and structures. The way the air smells in your favorite season.

7. Do things for them “just because” – like bring a coffee to a friend, or clean up an area, or volunteer your time. Do it out of love, not because you are expecting something in return. This will make them feel appreciated. And the love will be returned to you in a roundabout way.

8. Call them out on stuff they do that you don’t like or can’t abide. Talk to your municipal counsellors, your elected representatives. Speak your truth. Mutual respect is key to a long and healthy relationship.

Driving over the Seal Island bridge in mid August, and loving the end-of-summer, beginning-of-fall weather.

Driving over the Seal Island bridge in mid August, and loving the end-of-summer, beginning-of-fall weather.

9. Tell your friends how much you love the person/community. Don’t be ashamed of who you’ve committed to – tell the world! Gush and be goofy. You’re in love! It’s OK!

10. Spend time apart sometimes. It will make you stronger when you come back together. It will make you appreciate them even more! 

11. Don’t be afraid of change – change makes both of you stronger. They will discover new habits and new interests, as will you. Communities grow and shift. New people move to town. Welcome them, and what they bring to the community. 

Entry submitted by Leah Noble, 29, from North Sydney, Nova Scotia. You can find Leah online at Dream Big Cape Breton.

Touching the Past.

IMG_0618I have always been fascinated by structures and spaces that hold pieces of the past.  As a teenager in the 1980s I lived on Cape Breton Island. One of my favourite past times was searching for and stumbling upon the remnants of old buildings and homesteads often reduced to pieces of wood or stone cellar walls hidden well by mounds of grass and shrubs. I could spend hours exploring these landscapes and imagining the peopleIMG_0615 for whom these spaces were home. What were they like? How did they spend their days? What were their stories?

While I love museums and historical sites that help answer these questions there is something so intimate and personal about the pieces of the past that have simply eroded permanently into the earth. They offer us small and subtle signs, such as a protruding STA_0623railway line amid a grassy harbour bank, that this space holds its history in its clutches.

Still today, when I sit quietly upon such historical markings I touch the ground, the leftover wood, rusted steel and stone. I think about the people who built the track. What were they thinking about as they hauled the rails, hammered the nails? What was the weather like that day? How old IMG_0614were they? Were they happy? What was going on around them? Who and what was important to them? It is in these silent moments I feel the most connected to the past. I may not have the answers to my questions but I feel as though the earth beneath me and old rail do. And in that instance that is more than enough to viscerally bind me to my island’s history.



As I write this I wonder, what stories of mine will future generations stumble upon and wonder about when they walk across the places and spaces where I work, play, run, build, dream, worry, think and imagine?



Entry submitted by Tanya Brann-Barrett, 44, from Sydney Nova Scotia.

I Choose Here.

My hometown, Sydney, NS.

My hometown, Sydney, NS.

I recently spent a weekend in Toronto. This was my first time visiting Canada’s biggest city, and while it was a fun place to visit, I honestly missed being away from home. Sydney is the place where I was born, and it’s where I’ve spent 95% of my life (my family lived off-island for a couple of years when I was a toddler). Sydney is also the place where I belong.

It’s been a long-running, well-known topic of conversation for a long time in Cape Breton that too many of our people are finding themselves having to leave the Island for work. Some, like my father, will leave for three months at a time for work, then come home for a bit, and then leave again.

Others, like a friend of mine, however, are choosing to leave the Island, and not come

One of my favourite places about Cape Breton, the radio station where I work.

One of my favourite places about Cape Breton, the radio station where I work.

back. In my opinion, this is a serious issue. Cape Breton is losing too many of its people, and I don’t see why this keeps happening. I’m sure we’ve all heard the expression that there’s “nothing to do in Cape Breton”, but I’d like to think that that simply isn’t true!

It is stated on the “About the Research” page of this blog that civic engagement can “mean ways you participate in any kind of activity that you think is in some way good for your local community or society in general. It can be something you do by yourself, with others, in person or through computers or the arts”.

In my humble opinion, one of the biggest (and easiest) ways to be civically engaged in your community is to just be in your community, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m a 23-year-old Cape Bretoner who has absolutely no intention to leave this beautiful Island. I live here, I work here, and I go to school here, and I intend to live and work here for the rest of my life.

Another favourite place of mine, Cape Breton University.

Another favourite place of mine, Cape Breton University.

I had an experience in Toronto where I was on a bus heading downtown. There were so many people on this bus that I was forced to stand near the front of the bus, to the point where the doors would hit the back of my legs whenever they opened. Whenever we stopped, the driver would have to close the doors in peoples’ faces because there just wasn’t enough room for them on the bus. All I could think about during this bus ride was how much I missed Sydney. I would honestly choose my little Island of just over 145,000 people versus the close to six million that live in the GTA any day of the week.

And to me, that’s what it means to be civically engaged in my community. I choose to live here. I choose to earn my education here. I choose to work here. I choose here. I have the option to choose anywhere in Canada, even anywhere in the world if I really wanted to, but I choose Sydney, Nova Scotia as my home.

Entry submitted by Joshua Keller Horton, 23, from Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Keeping Youth Home.

nextgenWatching my brother drive down my parent’s long driveway with a cloud of dust behind him, I wipe my eyes as he sets out to work in the province of Ontario. Like many people in Cape Breton, I await his return for the next holiday or occasion. Saying goodbye to young and talented Cape Bretoners is not something that I will ever get used to.

One of the world’s most treasured beauties, Cape Breton is a lovely and welcoming place to grow business, development and families. Due to lack of industry and employment many people that call Cape Breton home have had to pack their bags and make new opportunities elsewhere, leaving behind family, friends and memories.

However, young people living in Cape Breton have a new resource to turn to. NextGen Leadership Society seeks the retention and attraction of young people in Cape Breton. NextGen’s goals are centered on young people both from Cape Breton and new comers to the island becoming passionately involved in issues, events and opportunities in the community.

NextGen aims to bring together young talent in Cape Breton for the prosperity and development of the community. With the intention of uniting and connecting young people, NextGen provides information on employment opportunities, social engagement and networking opportunities. The hope of NextGen is that more young people will be able to plant their roots at home, here in Cape Breton; finding a successful balance between work and life.

Making Cape Breton an island of choice for our young people to stay and prosper is crucial to the economic and cultural development of the place we call home. While people will always be drawn to explore the adventures of other places, NextGen is a strong partner in engaging young people that wish to see our island reach its full potential; a place rich in history, culture and development.

No longer able to see the tail lights of my brother’s car, I decided that it is here in Cape Breton that I want to invest my life of work and leisure. It is my hope that he will someday be able to join me. Through organizations like NextGen Cape Breton, we can work together for the prosperity of our beloved island.

Entry submitted by Kelsea MacNeil, 24, from New Waterford, Nova Scotia.

Films for Change – Cape Breton

photoIn many cities around the world you see film screenings followed by thoughtful discussions as a staple to the community culture and up until recently I was envious of these places. I thought it would be great if there was something like that in Sydney, and now there is! I must admit I am a bit of a documentary junkie; as a Political Science graduate, and now student of Community Economic Development, I get it honestly. So when I was told about “Films for Change Cape Breton” I was pretty excited! This film series is a brain child of New Dawn Enterprises and was established to get people talking about issues that affect us on a local and global level. The committee is made up of seven ladies (myself being the newest edition) coming from different backgrounds, getting together to discuss what social and environmental issues are prevalent in the community, and what films can best be used to get the conversation started.

Films for Change takes place the second Tuesday of the month at the Island Arts Café (The Cape Breton Fudge Company) and runs from 7:00 to 9:30pm. With each film comes a different host; helping facilitate conversation following the screening.

This is the first season for Films for Change, and there has been an out pour of support and interest for a film series like this in our community. Two films have already been shown, both very different from each other and both generating fantastic discussions about what the next step is in addressing these issues.

photo (1)

For me, I have found this to be a very eye opening experience thus far. Personally, I often turn to documentary type films to help explain and to further research my thoughts on a topic and it is really cool to see the community doing the same thing on a larger scale! In Cape Breton we often hear that there’s nothing we can do and that people are apathetic but this series proves that we are hungry for change. We are willing to come together and watch something that might be a bit foreign to us and allow ourselves to be honest and open about our hopes and fears for the future. And I can happily say that the latest screening brought with it many youth in the audience – ready to talk about these issues.

There are two films left in the series for this season, the next one taking place Tuesday May 14th at 7:00pm. For more information you can visit the Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/#!/events/507777635947094/

The arts, as we have seen in the study that created this blog, are a very important vehicle for expression and communication and I believe that this film series exemplifies that idea.

Entry submitted by Brittany Erickson, 24, from Sydney, Nova Scotia.