Getting Past the Stereotypes: The Inside Story on the Jane-Finch Community

Paul Nguyen, my guest blogger and founder of Jane-Finch.com. Here, he has received the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada Award.

The Jane-Finch area has a bad rep for gangs, drugs and gun violence. It’s a community north of Toronto and a place many immigrants call home. Residents have fought hard to change the public’s perception by working together to show the positive reality of the neighbourhood.

I grew up there and, as a kid, I was unaware of the media stereotypes. For me, the community was an exciting mix of diversity, culture, and occasional mayhem. It was normal to shoot firecrackers at each other during Victoria Day, shop for brand names inside someone’s apartment, and witness the 6 o’ clock news reporting a murder on your street. I’ve seen SWAT guys, police, and gangsters walking around with sawed-off shotguns. It’s not your typical suburban upbringing, but those unordinary moments help give you a different perspective on life.

What many people don’t see are the hard working residents that line up at 5 am at the bus stop to go to work. The sharing and caring, the multicultural harmony and people accepting each other regardless of race and ethnicity. Things that stand out in Jane-Finch are how real the people are. People’s intentions are clear-cut — whether they like you or not, you will know. And because you deal with so many different characters growing up in the area, you learn the strengths of tolerance, understanding and an open mind.

Paul with his best friend and executive producer of Jane-Finch.com, Mark Simms.

I was a shy and quiet kid, so I communicated through the cops-and-robbers and action movies I would make in the neighbourhood. My friends and I got a local following. Kids in the area would pass around our VHS video tapes and give us props for our homemade flicks.

One day I got curious about the history of my neighbourhood. How did it become what it was? Who made it? who designed it? Unfortunately, there was no resource online, but only the news reports of crimes and other bad things.

So I decided to create a website to share the videos I made about the Jane-Finch neighbourhood. It was a volunteer project with the modest goal of sharing the videos and artwork of my friends, mostly musicians and rappers. My site grew and received national attention. For decades, the only things you would hear about Jane-Finch were the frequent crime stories on the news. For the first time, the public was getting the Jane-Finch story from within.

Click to get an insider’s perspective on the Jane-Finch neighbourhood (after you read this post!).

My small website grew into a movement, attracting many local youth and volunteers. We were soon asked to appear on television and participate in all kinds of community events. It was not my goal to volunteer, become an activist or to be labeled. For a shy kid, being in the spotlight was a daunting task.

After the sudden surge in public awareness, I saw the opportunity to use my site as a way to give a voice to other residents in my community. I developed a local news team and covered positive events that the mainstream media wouldn’t cover. I realized the power of my site and how it touched people. I would get countless requests from students, teachers and reporters trying to learn more about the ‘real’ Jane-Finch.

It’s been a long journey, but it soon became a way of life. Being involved with the community as a volunteer has so many benefits. You get to meet all kinds of people and learn about the different challenges facing your community. Being involved has helped me grow and mature as a human being.

I would encourage you to volunteer for a cause or effort that you’re passionate about. It could be cleaning up trash in your neighbourhood or dealing with the local pet population. There’s so many important issues out there that need special attention and people to create positive solutions. Giving back doesn’t cost a thing, and what you get in return lasts a lifetime. If a kid from Jane-Finch can volunteer, so can you!

Jane-Finch.com receiving the 2011 Ontario Volunteer Service Award.

Thanks to Janice for the opportunity to share my story of volunteering.

- Paul

Reading Paul’s story, I was reminded of my own experiences volunteering in a jail to provide prisoners with info to connect them to things like housing programs, addictions treatment, and so on. I felt fulfilled in doing this because so many of them need this kind of help (and hope) to turn their lives around.

I was also reminded that negative stereotypes against whole communities and the people who live in them can be extremely damaging. One of my earlier jobs involved interviewing youth from so-called “priority neighbourhoods” in Toronto, including Jane-Finch. Many of them said that the negative perceptions about their neighbourhoods have affected their own beliefs about themselves. If you tell someone enough times that they are something, they will eventually internalize it.

There are negative stereotypes about all groups of people, and nobody would want those stereotypes thrown at them by others who haven’t even taken the time to get to know them personally.

Do you volunteer or would you like to volunteer for a cause? Have you ever been the subject of a negative stereotype because of the way you looked or where you lived?

Don’t forget to visit Jane-Finch.com! ;)

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13 thoughts on “Getting Past the Stereotypes: The Inside Story on the Jane-Finch Community

  1. I live in a town with a pretty negative stereotype. I’ve never seen anything bad happen. I think it’s mostly domestic and drug related crimes like in all areas. I think the biggest thing here is that Paul did this as a younger man. The young people (I sound so old) usually are the problem. If one younger person can set a good example maybe it can cause a chain reaction, possibly, or maybe. Good for him for getting out there. Is this the one little part of Toronto that isn’t “safe?” I know there’s a very tiny piece where I was told not to go.

    • It’s probably the area in Toronto that gets the most negative press, although there are other neighbourhoods here that have that “don’t go there” kinda reputation.

      I agree, I think for young people, having other young peers who can act as role models is a great thing for them.

  2. The hat of for everyone that works for changes … and making our world to a better place – we can’t change the whole world, but we can start with our own neighborhood. A Very interesting post, thanks for it. Were in Toronto a couple of years ago and had my breakfast at Eaton Center everyday – stayed across the road – haven’t heard anything about this shooting. Have to look it up with help from google.

    • Hey Viveka, thanks for your comment. Yeah, I guess it was big news around the time it happened but for the most part, the Eaton Center won’t be known for that. It is true what you said, we can’t change the whole world and sometimes I think it can be frustrating when we see so many injustices happening out there. We can feel like our efforts towards the bigger picture aren’t making a difference. But before we get discouraged, we can look at the immediate impact we’re making and know that everything we do will contribute to making that change over time :)

  3. I have never been in the Jane-Finch area, it had always been too far and no one I know lives in that area, but honestly, too for those exact rumours about it’s social profile. It’s fantastic that you are sharing and changing that image, and it means so much more to see it coming from local residents! Thanks for working towards making Toronto a better place!

  4. It is amazing what media either positive or negative can do to a community or a people. My own experiences with volunteering within the US prison system come from a very different place, working through my perceptions and anger as a victim of violence and then recognizing my offenders were as much victims as I was. The only way we change our future is by changing the perception of others, it gets back to that simple question; “when you look at me what do you see”.

    • Valentine, I think your story is amazing and how you have chosen to move forward from all of your struggles. It is not an easy thing to do, I know. You have a lot of courage and strength.

      It is true that many in the prison system have been victims themselves. Many of them have gone through the worst of the worst. It’s not to excuse or condone it if they’ve hurt someone else, but to understand that those behaviours and way of thinking come from somewhere. But you knew that already ;)

  5. I love how you mention about the people getting up at 5 a.m in the morning for work. The entire neighborhood doesn’t live off drugs and robberies, in fact many of these people bust their butts much harder because of the color of their skin or where theye from. When people hear Jane and Finch they think of all the negative things that the media has associated with the area. In reality, it is just another area. Violence, gangs, drugs, abuse, welfare. It happens no matter where you are, whether we’re aware of it or not.
    I absolutely love the cause and the work you’ve been doing! You’ve definitely got another follower!

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