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ChangeMaker: How One Artist Made His Mark

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Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free The Children and Me to We, introduce us to not-so-ordinary Canadians who are making a difference.

It was an urban restlessness that first drove graphic artist and Toronto native Jonathan Cruz to explore the far reaches of Canada's North. It was the simple pleasure of eating a hardboiled egg that compelled him to stay. But we'll get to that.

The 30-year-old founder of Iqaluit-based Nuschool Design Agency, a multidisciplinary graphic design studio, has literally made his mark all over Canada. In the process, he's determined to leave his mark mentoring troubled youth in the North. If Cruz or his agency receives a request to paint a local mural, he enlists youth volunteers. He wants to give kids in Canada's isolated northern regions, "something to be a part of," he says.

Much of Cruz's work and volunteer life has been dedicated to helping at-risk youth -- from coaching community basketball to designing government-sponsored social awareness campaigns that are more culturally relatable to Northern youth. His personal style offers a mix of graphic street graffiti, traditional Inuit aesthetics and the community betterment that comes with engaging youth in art and giving them the opportunity to help decorate public spaces.

We caught up with Cruz upon his return from a "mural tour," a youth festival that had Cruz and other artists brand everything from buildings to food trucks and box cars with unique street art style.

Jonathan Cruz is a ChangeMaker.

What inspired you to move to Nunavut and to work with troubled youth?

It was ten years ago that I moved to the North. When I was living in the city I knew I wanted to explore something outside of Toronto. I met a girl and she took me up North for the summer during my studies at Sheraton [College, in Toronto]. Her family took me camping and I was eating a hardboiled egg on the land -- that hard-boiled egg was so good. It seems so weird, I know, but that solidified the deal. There were no distractions. I wasn't used to that. In the city, there are so many distractions. [Up North], it's just you and the egg.

When I look at [local youth in Nunavut], I see a lot of troubled youth, and I see myself [in them] -- hanging out with the wrong crowds and struggling through high school and I think "How can I help by really getting involved?" Not like some people [who come from outside Northern communities] and think "How can I be a saviour?"

I volunteered to teach break dance classes and coach basketball and worked [for the city] in a children's group home. I worked with kids to paint murals around the community [most recently in Igloolik].

Is it important to offer the kids in Nunavut, a pretty remote region, the same opportunity to experience "counter-culture," like break dancing and spray painting that city kids have?

The art scene in Nunavut mainly consists of really, really traditional art: sewing or making parkas or printmakers. And these printmakers are world-renowned, and they do a lot of amazing stuff. Very detailed. [But] there's not what you'd call a "graf scene" [graffiti art scene] or much contemporary stuff.

I take something [urban art] from where I came from, Toronto, and make it something that [kids in Iqaluit and around Nunavut] can experience. But they're teaching me as well and sharing their skills, whether it's [Inuit] throat singing or drum dancing. It's just a nice exchange.

Why is art a good release for at-risk youth?

Because it gets them to be part of something. When kids don't have a chance to be part of something --sometimes, some of these kids aren't even part of a [stable] family, they can still express themselves. They don't even have to talk, or even draw. They can just carry a paint tray or fill in a colour. That alone makes them feel like they can look at a wall mural and say "I was a part of that."

That gives them ownership over community spaces and they take pride in it. Also, they give suggestions [for design] and all that comes into play, so it gives them a voice as well.

Tell us about Nuschool's design philosophy.

We do a lot of stuff for youth engagement and youth-driven projects -- like an "embrace life" Kids Help Phone suicide prevention campaign, and [government-sponsored] mental health and addictions campaigns. We're using the agency as an opportunity to make these government materials more relatable for the kids. Often it's government workers or very high-up people who think they know what kids want. Meanwhile, I work with kids. I'm a bridge between communications from the government and youth. Concept is such a huge thing. Everything you put out has meaning. Nothing is random. No image is random.

We think that having a mentor is important for all young people. You're a mentor yourself, so did you have one growing up?

My father. He's my main influence and the reason why I do this. He's the one that opened the [community] gym to coach basketball and he was a referee. He opened the gym for all the kids. Basically I'm just passing the torch.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. It's youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com or follow
Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger