Aged just 29-years-old, Amanda Parris is already making an impact that exceeds what might be expected of someone her age. Born in England to a Grenadian mother, Amanda’s move to Canada as a young adolescent opened up a new world of opportunities.
If her impressive string of successes is anything to go by then it certainly seems that she’s made the most of the advantages, and embraced the challenges, that have arisen in her New World environment.
She is the co-founder of Lost Lyrics, an innovative and revolutionary education programme that ’empowers young people to create a bridge of knowledge between the streets and the classroom’. Amanda Parris is also a celebrated actress and has written a number of plays that have been staged at festivals and theatres across Toronto and in 2011 she founded the T-Dot Renaissance artistic collective.
After graduating from York University with an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree, Amanda has since been awarded both the William Waters Scholarship and the Joseph Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship and is currently studying for an MA in the Sociology of Education.
How relevant is your Grenadian heritage to how you see yourself?
My grandparents retired in Grenada when I was 15 years old and since then I have been able to go back more frequently than when I was a child but I still have not spent as much time there as I would like.
I grew up with a family that told stories of Grenada at every single function over glasses of Rivers and those moments of debate, laughter, reminiscing and of course gossip, have helped to shape me in so many ways. In the writing of my one-woman play 32C, the Grenadian diaspora in Toronto play a major role and the Revolution is a crucial backdrop to much of the story.
I am not a huge nationalist in any sense of the word, but I am proud to come from this tiny island that I think is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Kevin Hood, my fiancée, is also Grenadian and when we marry in a couple of years we plan to have our celebration there and take that time as an opportunity to share with our chosen families this beautiful island that has such a rich history and layered culture.
To an uninformed outsider Canada might have the reputation of being a liberal social democracy but what is the reality for people living in communities like Jane-Finch?
In 2008, I participated in an exchange program with young leaders and activists from Nairobi, Kenya through an organization called Schools without Borders. When they arrived in Toronto, we took them to numerous spots across the city including Jane-Finch. They were confused when they got there because it didn’t look like a hood in the way they understood the term to be.
We had to explain that poverty and struggle in Toronto is often hidden. These giant buildings that to them indicated wealth and development conceal the danger of dense populations in tiny geographical spaces.
Homelessness here is not just people living on the street, but also those who couch-surf, those who have no stability, those who live from a backpack. We do a good job of hiding our dirty laundry in Canada, whether through the myth of meritocracy or the illusion of multiculturalism.
However we are also good at concealing the beauty that exists within the places we do choose to stigmatize and criminalize. Jane-Finch is a neighborhood that has truly taught me about community and where I see some of the strongest bonds between neighbors and generations. This complexity is difficult to understand not only for the uninformed outsider but also for the misinformed insider.
Why did you feel the need to create an initiative like Lost Lyrics?
I co-created Lost Lyrics with my best friend Natasha Daniel. Although we were both relatively “successful” in school (we had graduated high school and were undergraduates in university) we were unsatisfied with our experiences.
As self-proclaimed nerds, we spent much of our time learning outside of school, analyzing life experiences, exchanging reading lists, reviewing films as though we were the Brown and Black Siskel and Ebert and using the overdraft of our debit cards to travel to Venezuela and Brazil.
We quickly realized that this outside independent learning contributed as much (if not more) to our development as the learning we did in school. In creating Lost Lyrics we wanted to develop spaces of learning that would value the various kinds of knowledge that people bring with them into the classroom.
We wanted to hold their lived experiences as equally important as the academic knowledge provided in the school system thereby creating a bridge of knowledge between the streets and the classroom.
When we met the young people who inspired us to create Lost Lyrics, their stories, enthusiasm, personality, talent and brilliance pushed us to take these lofty ideas and make them into something tangible.
What do you see as the unique power of drama to engage audiences on challenging social issues?
The thing about social issues is that they often have personal implications and this means that when you attempt to address them head-on, you challenge people in very intimate and often fundamental ways and this can provoke defensiveness and the erecting of barriers.
Academically addressing social issues allows for an intellectuality that provides distancing and allows people to discuss things as though they are separate and distinct from them. If you are able to effectively use drama, you have the capacity to break down all of those barriers and close that distance.
You carry people into a space and take them on a journey that will hopefully get them so deeply invested in the characters and the story that they don’t have time to go into their reservoir of defensiveness or push back with intellectual doubt.
They are simply existing there with you in the moment and when the moment ends they will hopefully be moved to the point that something has irrevocably shifted in them so that they cannot look at the world in exactly the same way again. There are films and plays that have done this to me, changed me in fundamental and necessary ways. I hope that I will be able to create art that can do that for folks at some point in my life.
How would your articulate your social justice vision?
Hmm. I don’t really know that I have one. Right now, I am really interested in the question of how we come to know and understand what justice is. Why is it normal that when someone does something wrong that person has to be arrested, taken away, locked in a cell and then be tried in a court system that is presided over by people who have never met them and will make decisions that will affect their entire life? How did that become our normal? How did prison become normal?
Spending time supporting and visiting a friend who was charged, incarcerated and then later convicted, sentenced and sent to serve his time in an institution located quite far away made me question a lot and really reconsider what justice looks like in our society. I don’t have too many answers, but I do have a lot of questions.
Sitting in the waiting room of the jail in which he was held in before his sentence made me notice that I was surrounded by almost all women waiting to visit someone who was incarcerated. I wondered about their experiences, their relationships and what their ideas of justice were. I wondered about these stories that are the collateral damage of our current justice system.
That curiosity in part led me to co-create with my friend Keisha-Monique Simpson, The Ride or Die Project, a trans-media exploration into the stories of women who live their lives by a ride-or-die philosophy.
What are some of your most memorable moments from your time spent in Kenya as an exchange student in the International Emerging Leaders program?
While in Nairobi I had the immense privilege of connecting with many incredible people and organizations that are doing amazing, creative and transformative work. Among them was an organization for young women called Safe Spaces.
One afternoon these women came to the home we were staying in and shared with us all the work that they were doing in their program; everything from mechanics and basketball to theatre, music and poetry. They then turned to us and said, “your turn!”
I laughed and responded that I wasn’t an artist or a creator, I merely facilitated spaces for other people to share and develop their artistry. They did not understand a single thing I was saying. They said, “What do you mean you are not an artist? Everyone is an artist! If you have a heartbeat you know rhythm.”
It was then that I realized that the conception of an artist I had held in my head was that of the moody and depressed genius who had no friends and sat in an attic furiously creating their work. It was the Eurocentric notion that only those who specialize in a single field can ever lay claim to anything. These young women taught me to break down that limited perception and see beyond those confines.