The area in and around Uniacke Square is famous for all the wrong reasons. The neighbourhood has struggled with a reputation for violence, drug activity, and run-down housing conditions, leaving residents with every excuse to give up on their community.
Apparently, the PEP Bro Divas never got that memo. The Divas is a six-woman collective made up by Jenette Beals, Pauline Clayton, Donna Dixon, Donna Nelligan, Jenise Smith and Michelle Verny. Three of the women in the group currently reside in Uniacke Square and the others live nearby. The Divas are currently trying to organize an outdoor rink at the George Dixon Centre on Brunswick Street and generally, enact some positive change in their community. The exact location for the new rink has yet to be determined but there has been talk of using the lower field by the basketball court.
Smith is one of the Divas who makes her home in Uniacke Square. She says that despite all the negative perceptions about her community there are still some residents committed to making things better.
“When I first moved in I wasn’t too fussy about staying, but I made it my home. Now, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” she says. “If people see some good things happening around here, maybe they won’t be so scared to bring their kids. We want people with families to feel like they can come into the Square and be safe.”
The six women first conceived of the PEP Bro Divas roughly two years ago after attending a personal empowerment course together—hence the PEP. Although the women knew one another before forming the Divas, Smith says that working together has strengthened friendships between the members.
“It’s been important to be working with six women who can trust each other completely,” she says. “Because we’re all from here, we’re all really excited. We can’t wait for the snow to start coming down so we can get the rink done and the kids can have something to do this winter.”
District 12 city councillor Dawn Sloane has contributed $5,000 towards the project from her District Fund.
“The ladies have done this on their own. It’s their baby, and I’m just trying to help it however I can,” says Sloane. “They said, ‘We’re not going to wait any longer for people to do things for us, we’re going to do it ourselves.’ They’re doing a wonderful job of organizing things.”
With most of the funding already secured, the biggest concern now is finding volunteers to help construct and maintain the rink through the winter. Specifically, they need help with flooding the rink, clearing snow off the ice surface and having rink monitors on hand once the skating starts. The Divas advise that anyone interested in helping out can contact the George Dixon Centre for more information.
The Divas are also asking for skate and helmet donations, which can also be directed to the George Dixon Centre. As Smith points out, some kids in the community have never been on a pair of skates in their life, and don’t own any of their own equipment.
“My own kids are excited. My grandson is 4, and he’s never been skating before,” she says. “Even myself, I’ve never had skates on before—I don’t know how to skate and I always wanted to learn how to do it.”
Both the PEP Bro Divas and Dawn Sloane hope that the rink turns into an annual undertaking on Brunswick Street. Sloane is especially happy that the initiative has come from within the community.
“The positive nature of actions, it generates community spirit—and they have lots of it,” says Sloane. “With a community as tight as they are, it’s better for them to start something like this than for me to walk in there like Pollyanna and try to get something going.”