Innovation summary

Positive mental health is not simply the absence of mental illness, but also “consists of attributes such as having a purpose in life, positive relations with others, experiencing personal growth, social acceptance, social coherence and making contributions to society”.1 Resilience, self-esteem, access to resources and services and a supportive environment (family, friends, and accessible health and social service providers) also assist in creating positive mental health.UNITY Day Programs can be vital to engaging youth and providing accessible programming that promotes positive mental health in a population that is in a key transition phase of their life, and are underserved by current interventions.     

UNITY is youth-focused and youth-led. UNITY offers deep impact, arts-based programming in relevant and accessible art forms such as break dancing, beat boxing, spoken word poetry and graffiti art to youth aged 10-18, focusing particularly on high-risk and underperforming schools. 

Through the arts, UNITY aims to:

  • Engage youth with one another and with their school communities
  • Develop youth skills for success by teaching youth to express themselves positively and constructively through the arts, and transform these positive outlets into tangible skill development tools (personal and professional)
  • Empower youth by providing youth practical life and work experiences that align with their skills

Using a multi-component model based on these principles, UNITY helps youth create sustainable programs and peer-to-peer mentorship networks, to develop positive school culture and safer communities.

Impact summary

  • 62,000 youth each year in school programs and UNITY festival
  • 240 youth leaders are trained through UNITY's After School program 
  • $600 (CAD)/ year/youth in after school program

 “I have learned to express my anger positively. Instead of punching the wall, punching a face or slamming doors, I will dance it out or write my feelings down on paper.”

-Youth program participant

Innovation details

UNITY Programs seek to:

  • Use urban arts and hip-hop to engage youth, including break dance, spoken word, beatbox, and graffiti art
  • Build year round mentorship skill based-programs
  • Teach youth to express their stress and develop skills for success
  • Connect through leaders personal stories to heal and inspire
  • Work with youth living in priority / high risk communities

UNITY contributes to maintaining individual and community health through the improvement of self-esteem, social skills, and learning specifically through being a vehicle for primary expression/communication, “in addition to augmenting verbal expression, significantly expanding forums for progress toward… goals and skill-development, and enhancing [youth-centered] approaches.” 3 In helping to develop these positive traits in youth, the arts can have a positive impact by combating a range of social, emotional, and behavioral problems including: bullying, violence, defiance, ADHD, eating disorders, depression, self-harm, anxiety, and addictions 3

Types of UNITY Programs:

UNITY Crew After School Program

An 18-week arts-based leadership and mentorship program that ends with a youth-led performance addressing issues of the community.


A weekly community program that unites all elements of hip-hop that focuses on building skills through peer-to-peer mentorship and artistic performance.

UNITY Leadership Groups

Youth leaders participate in Leadership Groups to develop professional skills in their art forms, lead workshops, organize community events and become UNITY ambassadors. 

UNITY Drop-in

Weekly community space that teaches specific hip-hop art forms 

UNITY Artist Training 

A multi-level training program for young emerging artists to develop professional, career-building and organizational skills.

UNITY Festival

A nation-wide urban/hip-hop arts festival celebrating the artistic talents and stories of youth from UNITY’s program and community.

The Artist Educator Training

This component of the project, facilitated by two professionals of social work and education (Dr. Ellen Sue Mesbur and Lynne Mitchell), provides Artists Educators with two components:

  1. Basic and advanced group work techniques that will be integrated into their training workshops, andSupervision which allows Artist Educators to deal with ongoing support regarding mental health issues that arise in the programs. 

After the initial training and throughout the supervision, feedback and consultation is sought from the Artist Educators to inform the training and practice for the duration of the project. The training is part of the evaluation plan with a view to data collection/synthesis to develop knowledge translation tools. 

Key drivers

Intensive, Repeated Training

Artist training retreats and monthly training programs supported by training manuals with a 4 level graduated training program

Continual Program Revision & Updates

Program lesson plan yearly review, revisions and updates with staff, artists, and youth

Strong, Multi-Approach Evaluation

Pre and post surveys in after school programs and program logic model (process and questionnaires created by donated consulting time from Social Venture Partners Toronto)

Research reports and focus groups being done on UNITY program participants conducted by University of Toronto students, through School of Medicine and through the Human Biology Program (“Exercise and Mental Health” course)

Effective Program Structure

“Train-the trainer” programs are facilitated on UNITY top artist roster by retired social workers Dr. Ellen Sue Mesbur and Lynne Mitchell. Top artists then facilitate these same trainings on the larger UNITY artist roster. Topics include: social work training, express your stress activity manual training, program debrief training, and group facilitation techniques.

Collaboration At and Across Levels

Youth, artists, and school staff are all represented on the UNITY Board of Directors as well as a diverse group of individuals from the business community to ensure UNITY has input from people of various backgrounds, experiences and expertise at all levels of the organization


Evaluation Expertise

Conducting a quantitative study on a controlled group has been a challenge for UNITY which is a goal for the organization in the near future. UNITY is looking to collaborate with researchers internationally to conduct this

Core Funding Void

UNITY has a very diverse funding model, and the organization is still seeking a core funder to help cover the base operations

Demand Outweighs Supply for UNITY Programs

UNITY has a limited pool of top artists who can deliver the model at the highest integrity and quality. Because of this UNITY can only grow as fast as our artist’s receive the needed training to expand the programs. UNITY’s goal is to solve this scaling challenge with the documentation of the UNITY Crew After School program model and training manuals. Over the years, UNITY has experienced steady growth with a much larger pool of artists due to UNITY’s train the trainer program


UNITY is currently developing a guide for youth and adult role models (or in the case of schools, a guide for students and teachers) to create and run self-sustained “UNITY Crew Programs”. This manual has the steps required to sustain a UNITY Crew Program, with a focus on mentorship and the values of our organization. Through this avenue, UNITY Crew Programs can be established and supported in schools or community groups UNITY has either run programs in previously or that may not have the opportunity to receive UNITY programs. This will create sustainability and further reach for the program model to work in different areas around the world. UNITY is looking to pilot this model, and highly encourages interested parties to get in touch with them directly.

UNITY is also focused on scaling the UNITY program model outside of the province of Ontario, Canada. UNITY is currently piloting the model in other provinces across Canada: Nova Scotia, Southern Alberta and Northern Alberta, with plans to expand to British Columbia. The long-term goal is to have UNITY coast to coast within Canada and one day internationally – known as a leader in Hip-Hop based outreach around the topics of stress management, mental health, goal setting and leadership.

Evaluation methods

UNITY has a number of initiatives (past, current, and planned) to evaluate the impact of its programs:

  • Qualitative evaluation of youth developmental outcomes

Survey-based qualitative assessment of UNITY after-school programs and in-class workshops. Participants in these programs completed surveys, and responses were analyzed thematically. Emergent themes suggested UNITY helped cope with stress and anger, improve self-confidence and respect for diversity, encourage healthy risks, discourage bullying/victimization and fostered the application of participants’ new skills to school

  • Literature review on after-school program

Review of current research on arts-based after-school programs for at-risk secondary school students revealed score of best practices that were mapped against UNITY’s practices. UNITY programming met 12 out of 13 best practices

  • Pre- and post-intervention qualitative assessment on after-school program

Questionnaire-based assessment of participants’ personal and professional goals, stress (intensity, frequency, ability to cope), level of empathy and leadership abilities

  • Social Return On Investment assessment done by Success Markets Inc. (underway)

Cost of implementation

Programs cost per participant (in CAD):

  • UNITY Crew After School Program: $600 per youth (160 youth reached last year)
  • UNITY Hub: $438 per youth (80 youth reached last year)
  • UNITY Leadership Groups: $416 per youth. (50 youth reached last year)
  • UNITY Drop-in: $260 per youth. (120 youth reached last year)
  • UNITY Artist Training: $563 per youth. (60 youth reached last year)
  • UNITY Festival: $300 per youth. (180 youth reached last year)

Impact details

  • 350 youth community role models trained in the 2013-14 school year
  • Catalyzed and supported creation of two self-sustained youth leadership groups, now in their fourth year
  • 25 youth from UNITY programs hired into part-time or full-time positions
  • 52 artists hired (with over $300,000 paid out to artists in the 2013-14 school year)
  • Many youth who participated in UNITY programs moved onto Post Secondary education. Four University Chapters were created by past UNITY program participants at York University, University of Toronto and University of Western Ontario.

Impact data on mental-health related outcomes are expected to be available from the on-going and planned evaluations, as outlined above.

Other Milestones:

  • 2008: UNITY received Charitable Status from Revenue Canada.
  • 2007-2013: Reached 80 schools, 90,000 youth and trained 500 youth across Canada
  • 2012: Social Venture Partners Toronto selected UNITY to receive 3 years of free consulting. Our organization was the sole organization chosen over fifty other groups
  • July 2013: The 5th annual UNITY Festival attracted 38,000 people and showcased over 300 youth at Yonge-Dundas Square and 3 other venues across the city
  • 2013: Launched National UNITY Day in 7 cities across Canada
  • 2013: Featured in over 50 media outlets across Canada (TV, Print, Radio, Online)
  • 2014: Their Excellencies the Right Honorable David Johnston, C.C., C.M.M., C.O.M., C.D., Governor General of Canada, and Mrs. Sharon Johnston, C.C. became patrons of UNITY
  • 2014: Annual budget reached $1 million (CAD)


  1. Keyes CLM. (2007) Promoting and Protecting Mental Health as Flourishing: A Complementary Strategy for Improving National Mental Health. American Psychologist, 62(2), 95-108.
  2. Pollett H. (2007) Mental Health Promotion: A Literature Review. (Prepared for the Mental Health Promotion Working Group of the Provincial Wellness Advisory Council).
  3.  Children’s Mental Health Ontario. (2005). Arts-based mental health treatment for children and youth: Evaluation of innovative programs in Ontario, Final Project Report. Ontario, Canada.
  4. Berman-Rossi L, Cohen MB & Fischer-Engel H(Eds). (1997) Creating connections. Celebrating the power of groups. London: Whiting & Birch Ltd. 
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