Snapshot: Stephen "Buddha" Leafloor

Our Snapshot article series features Q&As with key pioneers, innovators and emerging practitioners across the multidisciplinary and multi-dimensional arts and health field in Canada, who are part of the Arts Health Network Canada community.

Interview by: Zara Contractor

Stephen "Buddha" Leafloor, founder of BluePrintForLife has a Masters in Social Work (MSW degree) and over 25 years experience as a social worker in the areas of probation, wilderness programs, and street work with youth at risk, residential group homes, child protection and community outreach. Stephen has also been an active participant in the Hiphop culture as a dancer since 1982 and completed his masters thesis on this culture and its importance for educators and social workers in 1986. He was recently appointed as an “Ashoka Fellow" for Canada and also appointed as a “Making More Health Fellow” to an international working group on health.For 2012 he was selected as one of Canada’s Top “45 over 45″ for Zoomers magazine. Stephen is also a published author in publications regarding healing and hip-hop. 

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you are involved in arts and health?

I have a Masters in Social Work and have almost 3 decades of experience in the field. I’ve also been break-dancing since the age of 15 and eventually cofounded the Canadian Floor Masters (Canada’s oldest break-dance crew), which celebrated its 31st anniversary last year. We were the first break-dancers on MuchMusic.

In 1996 I combined my two passions and founded BluePrintForLife, an organization where we address the issues that youth in native communities face, using hip-hop. Through dance, over 5,000 Aboriginal youth have learned how to express their own personal stories, and begin healing together. Our work has become a beacon for youth all over the country because it challenges existing models of education, social justice and health care, and creates transformation in a way that traditional methods aren’t able to do.

2. What made you choose hip-hop as a modality to address community development and mental health issues?

I use my own story to describe how I got into hip-hop: As a teenager I was bullied severely. I was getting into trouble by doing break-and-enters and spent a lot of that time getting high. At the same time, I was listening to the sounds of Motown and Funk, which were the precursors to hip-hop, that were coming out of Detroit and travelling up to Windsor, Ontario where I was growing up. I used to roller-skate every night back then. Then one day, I saw a guy spin on his back and became obsessed with the hip-hop movement and seeing angry young men reclaim their lives through dance. They had swag, without having violence and I thought, ”I gotta get me some of that!”

After that I co-founded the Canadian Floor Masters. I danced for James Brown, Rapper IceT, Grandmaster Flash, BlackEyed Peas and George Clinton.
I decided to do my Masters in Social Work where I read up on subculture theory and convinced my professors to let me complete my research in a low-income community where I used hip-hop as a tool for getting young, at-risk people to talk about the barriers they faced, such as drugs, violence and poverty.  I led the launch of the Freestyle 85 hip-hop festival in Covent Garden, in London, which highlighted the positive, empowering elements of the dance movement. I ended up writing the first academic thesis about hip-hop in 1985.

I see hip-hop as a way to bring together role models from other marginalized communities.
It becomes a metaphor for inclusivity and a safe cultural space where youth can explore their own identity. They get to hear each other’s experiences and telling one’s story is one of the strongest healing modalities in mental health and is very much in line with the First Nations and Aboriginal people’s traditions.

Through the workshop youth also create their own personal safety plans to manage their anger. This builds a strong support network where youth can trust each other. It all boils down to trust and honesty.

It also becomes a space where you can preserve culture. BluePrint’s week-long Intergenerational Healing program brings youth into a dialogue with the elders of their community, and each project starts with the community’s traditional ceremonies. These traditions can be mixed in with hip-hop, preserving old traditions within a new context.

Most important, it’s about using a modality that resonates with the youth: I always say ”they come for the hip-hop but stay for the healing.”

3. Can you tell us more about some of the health outcomes you have seen in a social and cultural context, as a result of the work you do?

I have hundreds of stories. During the typical 5 day intensive, we run the workshop from 9am -5pm.  We invite different community members to join the dance troupes - police officers, social workers, teachers, elders - they all join in and by choreographing a dance together and creating feedback loops, perceptions are transformed.

When we put on the big showcase it is usually the largest gathering in the community. Looking at the faces of the parents and elders, you can see some of them openly weeping in disbelief when they realize how far their children have come and that other realities are possible.

Most children have at least one strong memory of feeling safe and happy. Many of our kids don’t. This creates a positive memory for them. They begin healing in a cross-cultural, non-medical way. You can see their body language changing as they gain greater self-confidence and recognize opportunities for empathy. What we’re trying to do is build capacity and sustainability for a cross-cultural leadership program where those who have done the program mentor younger kids. I tell the kids, each one teach one.” It is a Zulu Nation saying that goes back in hip-hop, and it reminds us that we have a responsibility to mentor and teach each other.

4. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and continue dealing with in your work and how have you responded to those?

I believe that hip-hop can be a model for diversity, inclusion and respect. There’s a lot of programs out there that are being developed for youth that never stop and ask the kids what they’re interested in. I think we need to inspire others towards change by marrying our language with the language used by policy-makers and funders, and with different allies in the health and social work sectors. This is tricky, but it can be done.  It’s about engaging the front line workers in public health, social services and getting them to realize that every dollar spent on crime prevention saves 10 down the line. 
We already know in our hearts about the power that art has to help us heal, eventually neuroscience will catch up and support us.

Here is a video of him speaking at TEDx Ottawa.