MASC sat down with Gerald Dragon of Sandy Hill Community Health Centre to chat about his incredible legacy of combining arts programming into his community development work. Gerald is also a member of the MASC Board of Directors and the host of CHUO 89.1 FM’s Raiders of the Lost Art.

You’ve worked with the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre since 2011, and you’re currently the Community Development and Engagement team lead. What motivated you to get involved with this organization, and what has kept you there?    

What brought me to the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre was an opportunity to work with the Community Development team as a Child and Youth Engagement Worker. What has kept me there has been the work that I’ve been engaged in within the Strathcona Heights neighbourhood in Sandy Hill. This is an Ottawa Community Housing neighborhood located at the intersection of Mann Ave and Chapel Crescent, and on the other end between Lees Avenue and Chapel Street. I’ve been fortunate to have seen many of the children I first worked with grow up to become young adults, going to high school and then moving on to university. It’s been an experience that has brought utter joy just witnessing their development.

Gerald with his arm around Noélia, MASC’s intern from Argentina

How did you become involved with MASC?

I became involved with MASC as an attendee of the first Awesome Arts Festival that took place in the Lowertown community in 2011. I was invited by another colleague who previously worked at the Lowertown Community Resource Centre to attend this event that they were involved with. I was completely blown away during this festival and afterwards sought out the person who was responsible on the arts side [Micheline Shoebridge, MASC’s current Executive Director] to understand how we might work together to bring this spectacular celebration to the community I was working in. The following year in 2012 the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre held the first Awesome Arts program and festival in our community and we’ve continued to do so ever year since.

Gerald and Micheline Shoebridge

As a frequent collaborator on MASC projects, how do you think the arts can help strengthen communities, including the various partner organizations involved?

The arts have the ability to strengthen communities by way of bringing people together. They offer an opportunity for those who may not usually sit side by side to be able to work on a project and see it through until the end and then step back and marvel at the achievement of what was accomplished by working together.

For myself this has been an insightful process to witness because, for an organization which has as part of its mandate providing equitable opportunities for people to participate in their own health and well-being, the arts help to play that role, allowing people to bring the strength that they each have to any particular project. 

Within the perspective of community development – working with neighbourhoods to identify their issues and challenges and then coming together to identify potential solutions – the arts offer another pathway for people to talk to each other about those problems and allows for a different method of coming to solutions.

How would you describe MASC’s Awesome Arts en folie program and festival to those who have never experienced it before?

It’s AWESOME and that’s just it. It’s an 8-week crash course in various artistic disciplines being guided by world-class artists who are on the artist roster of MASC.  Throughout the years we have done some amazing workshops such as: body shadow theatre; various dance forms including Bollywood, Afro-Caribbean, Ghanian, Bboy/Bgirl; creating music and poetry videos; animation; West African drumming, just to name a few. And the final week we put on a festival where all of the participants involved in the workshops get the opportunity to take centre stage and share their creation with their friends, family, and the larger community. The festival is reminiscent of a concert: the lights, the performances, and all the energy coming from the crowd.

Young performers at MASC’s Awesome Arts Festival

Could you share examples of community arts projects that have had a positive impact on the individuals involved or on the community as a whole? 

We’ve done several community arts projects that I feel have left a lasting impact within the community.  A few of those are at Viscount Alexander Public School where over the years we have created four large murals with MASC artist Claudia Salguero, which can be found on the outside of the school as well as on the inside of the school.

One in particular is on the very front of the building and is able to be seen as people go up and down Mann Avenue, which is a heavily trafficked street. It can also be seen when going between the O-Train station at the University of Ottawa to Lees and vice versa. It stands out due to the vibrant colors and is just so noticeable. I’ve heard from people who know that I was part of the project how much the mural brightens the streetscape simply by being there.  This is a perfect example of how beautification of the spaces and places within our neighborhoods can contribute to a positive sense of well-being. 

Viscount Alexander Public School mural, visible from Mann Avenue

We have also been involved in the creation of music, poetry and animation videos which will live forever on the internet and get to be viewed over and over again by not just community members and participants but also anyone else who happens to stumble across Awesome Arts. This is a very significant way of leaving behind a legacy with a project that you have been involved in.

Gerald Dragon stands behind music artist Le R Premier at work

What are your plans to keep the Sandy Hill community thriving, and what role do you see the arts playing in that?

I envision continuing to find opportunities to partner with various arts organizations, including MASC, where we can demonstrate the power of the arts and its potential to change individuals as well as communities.