Charitable Choices: Emel Tabaku of RCAD Initiative

Emel Tabaku, the Founder & Executive Director of RCAD Initiative, leads a nonprofit helping young people use art and design to tackle social issues. RCAD started during the pandemic, giving tools to youth for community work. Tabaku’s own immigrant story inspires RCAD’s focus on diverse identities. The organization has grown, partnering with artists and addressing issues like gender equity and climate justice. As RCAD expands to in-person activities, it seeks support for communities and the arts.

RCAD Initiative

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

RCAD Initiative is a community-based non-profit organization empowering underrepresented youth to collaboratively address pressing social issues through art + design. RCAD Initiative equips youth changemakers with the critical tools and resources needed for them to boldly advocate for their own community needs through a range of programs including storytelling, digital mentorship, community networking, and entrepreneurial skills training.

What problem does it aim to solve?

RCAD Initiative is designed to inform, educate, and empower young people, merging art + design with grassroots education, community organizing, and policy research and advocacy. Our goal is to advance the socio-economic conditions and collective well-being of underrepresented youth communities throughout Canada. Recognizing youth as our future leaders, RCAD Initiative is dedicated to promoting youth development and social change by offering them the platform to voice their concerns, collaborate and mobilize for transformation.

When did you start/join it?

I founded RCAD Initiative during the COVID-19 pandemic to address the unprecedented challenges faced by youth. As our lives were increasingly migrating into the digital realm, I wondered how we could continue building community amid isolation. Having previously explored the convergence between counter-archival practices, alternative place-making, and restorative justice for historically marginalized peoples, I realized that the digital space could be leveraged for connection and interdependence. That is why RCAD Initiative initially started off as a digital organization. However, we have since expanded to cover traditional methods of community building. Over the past couple years, I have been privileged to witness the resilience and evolution of our #byyouthforyouth non-profit. It has been deeply fulfilling to facilitate tender, curious conversations and cultivate a thriving youth community centred on meaningful engagement, social justice, and a sense of belonging.

What made you want to get involved?

My engagement with social issues has been longstanding. Over my undergraduate years, I became interested in the contemporary discourse of multiculturalism and diaspora studies. This interest in migrant resilience emerged from the moment I left Albania and immigrated to Canada in 2010 with my family. As a first-generation immigrant-settler, and Muslim woman cognizant of the underdeveloped social policy in Canada, I sought to raise awareness about the lived experiences of hyphenated identities through my creative practice, and thereafter, by leading community arts programs tailored to newcomer and refugee youth through RCAD Initiative. Our first ever program was the Digital Storytelling Mentorship for Tkaronto-based newcomer and refugeed youth from the Downtown East area. We were grateful to have Sania Khan, an award-winning human rights scholar, filmmaker, community organizer and cultural curator lead our mentorship sessions as her interdisciplinary practice is rooted in systems change and liberated futures.

What was the situation like when you started?

Many of the policies and initiatives that were implemented in response to COVID-19 inadvertently perpetuated existing disparities among disadvantaged populations across Canada. Communities faced significant barriers in accessing a plethora of essential social services and resources during the pandemic, exacerbating pre-existing inequities. Unfortunately, the situation has not notably improved, particularly within the arts sector, which holds the potential for healing justice for many individuals grappling with post-pandemic challenges. In Toronto, specifically, the arts sector witnessed limited opportunities and funding constraints, leading to the closure or significant downsizing of numerous arts organizations.

I hold immense gratitude and love for our communities that, despite being under-resourced and underserved, demonstrated remarkable steadfastness, justice, and resilience. It is a profound privilege to be able to create a nurturing space for underrepresented youth, primarily from low-income communities across the city, where they can gather to dream and shape their desired futures.

How has it changed since?

After two years of extensive online activities, many folks ended up experiencing digital fatigue. Given that RCAD Initiative exists for the communities we serve, we decided to expand our programming to facilitate in-person creative collaboration and networking. This aligned with the evolving needs of the youth we support.

Reflecting on the remarkable impact we have achieved in recent years – we’ve successfully nurtured partnerships with approximately 35 emerging artists and launched highly sought-after programs exploring storytelling in alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and various social issues. Additionally, we’ve delved into critical intersections such as gender equity and climate finance, bolstering our extensive climate justice portfolio. I’ve found that every step along the way has been a testament to the power of community belonging, creativity, and fruitful collaboration.

RCAD Initiative

What more needs to be done?

Despite the progress made by RCAD Initiative in nurturing arts partnerships and launching impactful community programs, there is still much work to be done in addressing the ongoing disparities exacerbated by COVID-19. We need to intensify our collective efforts to advocate for increased support and resources for marginalized communities, as well as for the arts sector at large. Additionally, as we expand our programming to include in-person collaboration and networking, we must ensure that these initiatives are accessible and inclusive, reaching those who may have been disadvantaged or overlooked. We call on the non-profit sector to continue prioritizing youth engagement and amplifying the voices of our youth as we work towards creating a more equitable and resilient future for all.

How can our readers help?

Here are five ways you can support us (mainly) for free:

1. Follow, like, and share our posts on social media platforms! Help us spread the word about our community work and impact with your friends & family.

2. Engage with our posts! We love hearing your ideas & feedback.

3. Listen to our podcast, RCAD Initiative, featuring inspiring guest artists! It’s available on both Apple & Spotify.

4. Leave us a review for our podcast or community programming. Share your thoughts and suggestions for future content.

5. Lastly, support our creative youth programming by making a generous donation through our website here!

We thank you for choosing to grow with us! Our work is made possible by the unwavering support of our amazing team, partners, donors, and every individual who believes in the transformative power of the arts for social change, collective liberation, and radical joy. Stay tuned for what’s to come in 2024!

Do you have any events coming up?

We’re excited to announce an upcoming arts exhibition at Charles Street Video (CSV) in mid-March. This event aims to provide a platform for emerging youth talents nurtured through our inaugural Global Storytelling Incubator (GSI) Hub program. The exhibition will feature a diverse range of artworks spanning paintings, sculptures, digital media, and installations, all exploring the theme of shaping sustainable futures by weaving narratives with the United Nations SDGs. Each piece offers a unique perspective on critical issues such as climate action, gender equality, and poverty alleviation. Our goal is to highlight the urgent need for collective action to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges. Through this immersive experience, we aim to foster dialogue, cultivate empathy, and catalyze positive change towards a more equitable, just, and sustainable future. More details to be shared on our social media platforms!

Where can we follow you?

Website | InstagramLinkedInFacebook

PAY IT FORWARD: What is an awesome local charity that you love?

One local organization that I wholeheartedly support is the Green Career Centre. They are dedicated to preparing underrepresented youth for careers in the green sector. With a focus on supporting BIPOC individuals, newcomers and women, they strive to bridge the gap between equitable, accessible and transparent social and environmental employment opportunities.

Additionally, I highly admire the work of Community Foundations of Canada (CFC). As the national leadership organization for Canada’s over 200 local community foundations, CFC collaborates with these foundations to drive local solutions for national change on the issues that matter most to communities. CFC is building a movement that connects community foundations, people and partners to create a just, sustainable future.


About Emilea Semancik 105 Articles
Emilea Semancik was born in North Vancouver. Emilea has always always wanted to freelance her own pieces and currently writes for the Vancouver Guardian. She is also a recipe author working towards publishing her own series of recipe books. You can find her recipes on Instagram. @ancestral.foods