When Isorine Marc immigrated to Canada from France for an internship in 2006, she had no idea how her decision on where to live would have such a profound effect on her life and the lives of those in her community. That internship was located near The Esplanade, a culturally diverse neighbourhood of nearly 10,000 people, with a beautiful park and recreation space along the central waterfront of Toronto.
Isorine rented an apartment in The Esplanade while completing her internship. A few years after moving in, some of her neighbours organized a movie night in the park. The success of that event — neighbours coming together, families sharing quality time – had a profound impact on Isorine. “I realized how little you need to create a connection with other people, and it planted a seed,” she says. Isorine and other neighbours started organizing events for those living in the neighbourhood, but she soon realized that the culture was too small.
In 2011, Isorine founded Jamii, a not-for-profit organization that initiates and produces arts-based community engagement projects that are free and open to all. The mission of Jamii, which is Swahili for community, is to connect people through the arts that happen in public spaces. “We invite people to come down and use the public space,” says Isorine. “Not in a theatre or recreation center, but to reclaim public space. We connect people together to find a sense of community.”
Isorine put her performing arts management degree to work, with cherished help from her colleague Zoie Browne, and aided aided by a team of volunteers who lent a hand with planning and promotion. “With the help of these people, knocking on doors, making arrangements, we grew from a grassroots organisation to one with an annual schedule of events,” says Isorine. Events range from movie nights to concerts to art exhibits and more. “This program instills a sense of belonging and people recognize the beauty of it and are truly supportive.”
Even though Jamii’s events typically draw crowds of hundreds, it’s the small achievements that Isorine is most proud. “We had a 17-year-old who was part of a dance project who told me that this program helped build her personality and helped her become her,” says Isorine. “That’s quite powerful.”
Since inception in 2011, Jamii has organized 159 workshops, directly engaged 496 people in a creative process, produced 60 public events and presented to an audience of more than 45,000.
As a non-profit whose funding is mainly through local grants and government support, the group does not have a big budget for things like accounting. “Audited financial statements are essential for us to be able to apply for grants and other funding,” says Isorine. “Sloan Partners has helped us by making it affordable to have those financial statements. They are super patient and help me avoid making mistakes, and in helping to fix mistakes we do make,” she laughs.
Isorine cites last year’s FORTY-ONE project as the organisation’s biggest accomplishment to date. With more than a dozen sponsors and partners in the community, and co-producer CORPUS, the FORTY-ONE project started with a book written by 53 students from Market Lane Public School and St Michael’s Catholic School. “FORTY-ONE Neighbours” is a portrait book that features 41 people, each one living in one of the participating countries of the 2015 Toronto Pan Am/Parapan Am Games and having a personal link to The Esplanade neighbourhood. Those stories were then the inspiration for a dance performance, public mural, photo exhibit and unveiling event. The logistics of pulling off such a large-scale project were daunting, but the results are remarkable.
When discussing Jamii, Isorine’s passion is evident and contagious, and she encourages others to follow their passion. “It is not easy, but it is worth the sweat – every drop – when you make a difference and impact peoples’ lives. It gives meaning to my life because I do something meaningful to other people.”
To see more of Jamii’s good works or to get involved, visit their website at jamiiesplanade.org.