Charitable Choices: Sari Zon, Director of Development at Art Starts

Art Starts is a Toronto-based non-profit organization that uses art as a driving force to inspire social change. By running workshops for free, Art Starts is able to create a healthy, supportive and inspiring environment for vulnerable people to come together, be creative and share in their art. What is more, Art Starts understands that through community, freedom of expression and creativity, healing can begin. We spoke with Sari Zio, Director of Development at Art Starts to learn more about them.

Art Starts

Describe your charity/non-profit in a few sentences.

Art Starts inspires social change through community-building arts initiatives. We bring together professional artists in all disciplines with residents of low-income neighbourhoods to create accessible and dynamic art that reflects the identities and aspirations of each community. We run free workshops for all age groups in dance, visual arts, music, theatre, creative writing and more. We also support youth through arts-based mentoring, employment and leadership programs, and we provide local artists with resources and support to champion their communities through their work.

What problem does it aim to solve?

Art Starts understands that art, within the right framework, is a powerful tool for healing communities. Our programs are designed to help people of all ages become more rooted in their personal power and better able to thrive in spite of systems and circumstances that can marginalize them. Within the arts are the tools for individuals to find and hold their own space, and also the tools to give space to others. There are no other forms of learning that offer this range of opportunities for effective and authentic social, emotional and community development and empowerment. Through art making, we learn about ourselves – our fears, and our strengths -, and we can find outlets to express and regulate our emotions, relieve stress, test limits, build relationships, communicate, collaborate, and empathize with others. Social and emotional well-being are always our end goal because we know how great these things impact life outcomes – improving mental health, nurturing resiliency and empowering the disempowered. Through art making, people of all ages develop friendships, forge relationships with neighbours and local artists, nurture feelings of belonging and build social cohesion in their communities.

When did you start/join it?

I began working at Art Starts in 2015 but the organization was founded in 1992.

What made you want to get involved?

I have a multidisciplinary arts background – I have worked professionally in music, theatre and visual arts. I am also a fundraiser and have worked non-profit for over 25 years. Art Starts allowed me to bring these two things together.

What was the situation like when you started?

Residents in the neighbourhoods we worked in were experiencing myriad barriers to accessing opportunities for creative participation and learning. Art Starts was providing free, inclusive, high-calibre arts programs that came directly into the community, so participants could easily access safe spaces to learn and explore. We provided free food and child care so everyone could attend, and we hired artists and facilitators from within the neighbourhood to ensure programs were relevant and meaningful. Neighbourhood demographics were constantly shifting due to immigration and rising housing prices so people often did not know their neighbours which can be very isolating, and there were high rates of unemployment. Many young people lacked healthy adult role models and were often unsupervised during after-school hours which left them vulnerable. Art Starts programs filled that gap with mentors and access to a wide range of creative engagement opportunities in a variety of artistic disciplines. Around this time we were also seeing people who had been children in our programs become successful as professional artists and come back to teach our programs in the neighbourhoods they grew up in.

How has it changed since?

The pandemic made everything worse. Many of our participants did not have proper digital access so it became difficult to run online programs. Feelings of isolation grew, as economic uncertainty, unemployment, health fears, and high rates of COVID in the neighbourhoods we serve. All of these things made the need for community and for creative self-expression even greater but we faced a lot of barriers in providing it. We are just slowly getting back to in-person programming now.

What more needs to be done?

So much. People have been really isolated and are struggling. We know from experience that this can lead to declining mental and physical health as well as an increase in crime and neighbourhood tensions. We need to bring people of all ages back together in healthy ways. Creating together, sharing experiences, increasing feelings of belonging and self-worth, increasing exposure to other people’s stories and feelings of being supported in sharing experiences and ideas. These are all things that build healthy and resilient communities and support individuals to grow into their best selves. We remind people that you don’t have to be an artist to express yourself through art. Creativity is not exclusive, it is in and for everyone. Inclusive arts programming offers a place for everyone to be heard, to connect and feel validated. Meaningful artistic engagement can go a long way towards helping people see themselves as talented people who matter, as people who are creating and contributing and working towards making their community a better place.

Art Starts

How can our readers help?

Donate to Art Starts! Your gift will go towards hiring local artists to deliver workshops, equipment like musical instruments and sewing machines, materials like paints and clay, and our youth mentorship and leadership activities.

Do you have any events coming up?

This summer we facilitated a huge community painting at the Afro-Caribbean farmer’s market in Little Jamaica. We will be hosting an event to donate the painting to a women’s shelter in the neighbourhood. You can follow our social media for the dates of these events as they become available.

Where can we follow you?

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Youtube | Twitter

PAY IT FORWARD: What is an awesome local charity/non-profit that you love?

This year I gave to Raising the Roof, a Toronto charity doing amazing work in support of the prevention of homelessness.