07/31/2012 08:15 EDT | Updated 07/31/2012 10:04 EDT

Gang Violence In Toronto: Fighting For Creative Solutions From The Bottom Up

Could the "summer of the gun" be echoing through Toronto once again? That's something Toronto city councillors and community advocates feared in early June, and recent tragedies have only served to reinforce their predictions.

Despite plunging crime rates in 2011, this year there have been 147 shootings involving 209 victims between January and July 20 -- a 62 per cent increase in victims compared to this time last year. Two of Toronto's most violent outbursts -- the Eaton Centre shooting and the Scarborough street party shooting -- have been linked to gang violence specifically. The latter, which took place on Danzig street, left two people dead (Joshua Yasay, 23, and Shyanne Charles, 14) and 23 injured. The shooting, the worst case of gun violence this city has ever seen, stunned Torontonians. More than 300 people attended Charles' funeral on July 28, wearing white as a tribute to the young girl’s innocence.

Communities uprooted by gang and gun violence are demanding answers. The solution, according to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is a a top-down approach that involves tighter government collaboration and tougher crime laws that fight gang violence. Harper recently told reporters his government has introduced harsher sentencing laws over gun crimes, and that he and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford discussed making punishments for gun crimes "stick."

But many think tougher laws and increased police presence will not be enough to curb violence. Margaret Parsons of the African Canadian Legal Clinic says, "Turning our communities into quasi-military zones by deploying 200 cops isn't the long-term answer." According to the Canadian Press, Parsons says community building and increased gun control are part of the solution.

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RELATED: Inspirational People Who Have Surpassed Gang Violence

Inspirational People Who Have Surpassed Gang Violence

People who agree with Parsons' bottom-up approach to combatting violence believe crime will end only once youth feel valued and empowered. According to Sheila (Twinkle) Rudberg, founder of LOVE (Leave Out Violence), people join gangs because they are seeking a community. "Violence is like a virus that has taken hold of our societies and it comes through the media and it comes through wanting to belong, lack of community, lack of outlets for creativity… a lack of feeling like you can make a difference."

LOVE, founded by Rudberg in 1993 after her husband was murdered by a 14 year-old gang member, is a program that uses photography, writing and video as a means for young people to communicate issues and to express themselves. Youth involved in LOVE say it is a sense of isolation and repression that attracts them to gang and gun culture.

Mark, now 19, joined LOVE Toronto at a very young age, but he hasn't forgotten his former gang experiences. "I wanted a place to belong," he tells The Huffington Post Canada via email. "I joined a group of guys who were up to no good. My initiation into their clique involved being jumped by about 20 guys and I wasn’t even allowed to cry. I was on crutches for months, but once I recovered I was fully involved in that lifestyle. I was known as a reckless guy -- stealing cars, shootings and drugs became my everyday life."

Things got worse for the teen. "At 15, I was arrested and mandated to do community service, take anger management classes and obey an 8 p.m. curfew," Mark says. "But none of that worked. The next time I was brought before the judge I was given an option -- to go to jail or go to LOVE." He admits his initial apathy toward the program, but, in retrospect, appreciates the significant impact it has had on him. "I hated LOVE's programs when I began, but over time, I understood its purpose." Mark has gone on to share his insights with other kids as a youth leader for the program.

Other initiatives that help youth express themselves creatively evoke similar sentiments from their successful alumni. Shamin Mohamed Jr. participated in DAREarts, a program that uses arts education to empower youth. By pairing children with experts in visual art, architecture, music, dance, drama, literature, fashion and culinary arts, the young charges learn to discover their abilities while building self-esteem and motivation.

"It saved my life," Mohamed Jr. tells HuffPost Canada. "It gave me the confidence not only to expand my own ambitions and to succeed, but to learn how to establish an effective charity in my personal field of interest where there is great need."

He is now founder and president of Children’s AIDS Health Program, and attributes much of his success to DAREarts: "When I joined DAREarts, I was in Grade 8, and now I'm 24 -- it set me up for the field I'm in. It's a hard, rigorous program, you're there from eight in the morning and you're pushed to the limits and forced to be independent. It pushed me so far outside my comfort zone that I was pushed all the way to Prague to perform."

Other gang prevention programs across the country that are focused on engaging and empowering youth are similarly showing promising results. Regina’s Anti-Gang Services (RAGS), developed in 2007, engages gang-involved youth in developing life skills, learning how to exit gangs and building self-esteem. A formal evaluation of the program showed it helped youth exit gangs and decreased both violent and non-violent crime in the city. Empowered with skills and supports, youth at risk were able to change their attitudes toward aggression, retaliation and guns.

"Many kids deserve a chance," Mark says. "They need to be heard by someone they can relate to," he says. "Growing up, if I'd had someone in my life to show me the negative side of my actions, I might not have done many of the things I did."