Visiting Kenya five years ago was enlightening and eye-opening in a few ways for youth activist and artist, Amanda Parris.
As an exchange student in the International Emerging Leaders program, Parris had an opportunity for three weeks to share the same living space with her hosts and interact with other incredible young women, including Peninah Nthenya Musyimi, who founded Safe Spaces, which is a female sports organization offering basketball, yoga, dance and artistic expression opportunities for disadvantaged girls and young women.
“I remember just enjoying all the wonderful things they were doing when they turned to me one day and suggested it was my turn to show them what I did,” said Parris, who was a participant at the United Nations Habitat conference in South Africa in 2008. “When I told them that all I did was create space for artists because I am not an artist, they looked at me as if I was crazy. They told me in no uncertain manner that if I could talk, I could sing, if I could walk, I could dance and if I could hear my heartbeat, I know rhythm. Their collective question was, ‘How could you say you are not an artist’?
“I felt stupid and silly and realized at that moment that I was locked into a very limited definition of what an artist was which really comes from Eurocentrism. When I returned to Toronto, I began to see things in a different light. I realized that my grandfather is one of the greatest storytellers that I know and that if he lived in a different space and time, somebody would have put him on a stage. His stage was his home with a glass of rum and coke and a great audience of adoring listeners.”
After graduating from York University with a degree in political science and women’s studies, Parris joined The Remix Project as the outreach and community partnerships co-ordinator and later, managing director.
Equipped with recording and photography studios, a creative arts lab, video editing suite and business development centre, the project offers programs and services for disadvantaged young people who have a creative passion.
It was while Parris was at The Remix Project that she met former Canadian Governor General Michaëlle Jean. The country’s first Black vice-regal visited the space in October 2011 and subsequently launched the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes citizen engagement through the arts and creativity with a special emphasis on young people from challenged, rural and northern Canadian communities.
Last month, the foundation in collaboration with TD Bank Group awarded $5,000 bursaries to Parris and three other recipients. They were among 100 applicants from across Canada.
“We are both very impressed by the calibre of this year’s winners,” said co-chairs and founder Jean and her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond. “Their projects are as creative as they are innovative and we look forward to discovering the fruit of their actions.”
Parris and Keisha-Monique Simpson are collaborating on a play, which they intend to turn into a documentary that explores the stories of women who support men that are criminalized by the justice system.
“We have been friends for six years and I have always admired her work as a spoken artist, sculptor, filmmaker, writer and photographer,” said Parris of her collaboration with Simpson. “She’s an incredibly talented individual and I am a fan of her work.”
Enrolled in the University of Toronto’s sociology and equity in education Master’s program, Parris is passionate about the arts.
“I have grown up with calypso and soca music, uncles who have amazing vinyl record collections and people who are natural storytellers that didn’t think they needed a theatre to be as dramatic and animated as possible,” said the William Walters scholarship recipient. “I grew up knowing what Grenada looked like before visiting the island because the people I grew up around were such good storytellers. They would describe things for you like if it was a road map.”
Six years ago, Parris co-founded Lost Lyrics, which is a multi-award winning alternative education organization and started T-Dot Renaissance, an artistic collective. She also wrote a one-woman play – 32 C (that’s the Eglinton W. TTC bus that she commutes on daily) – and played the lead role in the critically-acclaimed 2012 Summer Works festival production, Aneemah’s Spot.
An only child, Parris spent the first 10 years of her life in England, where she was born to parents of Grenadian and Venezuelan descent before migrating to the Greater Toronto Area.