How Marilyn Field Grew a Top Canadian Charity on a Shoestring Budget

Written by Monika Jensen-Stevenson, Emmy Award winning producer, bestselling author, and DAREarts Director.

“DARE to be Disciplined, take Action, be Responsible and strive for Excellence.” – Marilyn Field, founder DAREarts

For many of us, start-ups are the catch word of the day and no one is more admired than the man or woman who creates an Uber, an Airbnb or Snapchat – companies that earn billions for their founders,  create jobs and add to the well-being of the economy.   But there is another kind of start-up which does not earn billions for its creator and yet has an enormous impact on people’s lives.

DAREarts Founder Marilyn Field, Monika Jensen-Stevenson, Councillor Michael Ford, and TDSB Associate Director Christopher Usih with the DAREarts Grade 8s

For almost twenty years, I have observed the progress of such a start-up, the DAREarts Foundation. Just recently I had the enormous pleasure of participating in its twenty year anniversary which celebrated the success of some 200,000 young people who, over 20 years, used what they learned at DAREarts to fulfill their potential.  Of those kids, very few have failed. Certainly not the young man who had trouble coping when he joined DAREarts as a young immigrant from Ghana. Newly graduated, today he is a practicing optician. Neither the 14 year old who stood his ground against an armed gang on his street, using the confidence he had gained at DAREarts to escape. Still in his twenties, he is today Director of Operations for DECIEM Inc., a multi-million start-up cosmetics company.  He is also DAREarts’ youngest board member.  In the 20 years of its existence, in their careers, personal life and contribution to their communities, DAREarts graduates are successful and happy; most attribute a large part of that to their involvement with DAREarts. Like Liz Ward, homeless at 12 and now in university, who says “DAREarts saved my life.”

The DAREarts Foundation started with exactly zero dollars and is now helping annually 10,000 kids in challenging environments to reach the potential that was in them.  The foundation’s income for fiscal year 2016 was $713,537 – not nearly enough to include the long list of kids who are waiting to join, but a significant accomplishment in today’s tight giving environment.  Only four per cent of that comes from the government.  The largest amount comes from corporations and individuals. These figures do not take into account the value of the hundreds of volunteers which alone is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

DAREarts Founder Marilyn Field & Grade 5 Rexdale-area Delegates

It also does not take into account the enormous accomplishment of the organization’s founder, Marilyn Field, a former teacher who knew that an organization like DAREarts was needed from the time she taught in inner city schools.  There, during detention classes, she realized that the arts could make a significant difference in the lives of children who had no coping or life skills because of their difficult social environment. Instead of forcing them to write promises to do better one hundred times, she got them involved in the subject she knew best: classical music. She says, “They particularly liked Pachelbel’s Canon, keeping a volleyball in the air while the music played. It just worked!” During one incident, two boys got in a schoolyard fight over Mozart, she says. Soon students were lined up before school to join her classes.  She remembers one particularly enthusiastic boy who showed up very early.  He was barefoot. It was winter.

Just as many of Ms. Field’s counterparts in commercial start-ups do, when she could not raise enough money to get started she used her own. She was on leave from teaching.  Money was tight. She says there was only one option, “so I re-mortgaged my house.  That got us started.” She rented space, hired artists to do planned workshops with the kids. Almost immediately, though, she had to look for more money.  A friend who sat on the Esprit Orchestra Board with her introduced her to the head of a corporation who contributed $25,000 as the first serious donation. Soon, more friends stepped up. The battle for funding has been on-going ever since.

Deputy Mayor Vincent Crisanti, Marilyn Field, Monika Jensen-Stevenson, Councillor Michael Ford, and TDSB Associate Director Christopher Usih with the DAREarts Grade 8s at NACI on March 2nd

DARE is the acronym for Discipline, Action, Responsibility and Excellence – the approach by which the 4th through 8th graders, chosen by their schools, can use the talents within themselves to advance their own lives and their communities in Vancouver, Toronto, remote Indigenous communities like Marten Falls FN, Webequie FN and Attawapiskat FN, Montreal and Halifax.  The tool used to bring this about is an intensive arts education program (ten days over ten weeks) that includes diverse arts experiences from a Q&A at Stratford with Oscar winner Christopher Plummer to workshops on the Renaissance, Jazz, architecture, fashion, literature, dance, music and much more. By going back to their schools and teaching their peers what they have learned in DAREarts, students become self-confident and develop leadership skills. The kids say, “You saved my life.”

At the DAREarts winter showcase held on March 2nd, 2017 at the North Albion Collegiate Institute in Rexdale, kids from all grades showed off their newly learned skills. A group of truly multicultural grade fours wrote and performed their ten-stanza song about the Silk Road called Voyage. Below are excerpts.

….Mapping the world
And changing the globe.

From England to Asia
Collecting as I go
Selling and trading
That’s how I earn my dough!

Trading spices East to West
World discovery, no more rest
Learning new languages throughout the globe
That’s what happened along the Silk Road.

Not bad for fourth graders who had begun their one-day-a-week classes only ten weeks before! Now they performed with confidence, expressing all they had learned about Discipline, Action, Responsibility and Excellence.  The audience which included Toronto Deputy Mayor Vincent Crisanti, Councillor Michael Ford and Toronto District School Board Associate Director Chris Usih, was impressed.

Before they start DAREarts, many kids lack self-esteem or confidence.  One eighth grader was so unsure of himself he hid in the bathroom on the first day of classes. At the final showcase, he was the star of an exuberant hip hop performance.

African drumming, a take-off on Commedia del’arte, a blues performance are just some of presentations that entertained the audience.  The showcase ended with a powerful song, ‘Spirit of the North’, written by the kids in Webequie FN and sung as a ‘musical handshake’ by the kids in Toronto.

DAREarts Toronto children sing “Spirit of the North”, a musical handshake with our northern First Nations youth.

Lest anyone think that DAREarts’ work with FN kids in the north is the usual Canadian dead-end run around of some well-connected person getting government funding for a one-time project which leaves Indigenous kids still feeling abandoned once again, they should know this.  An Elder from Webequie approached Ms. Field during a Canadian Forces event. He told her about his teenage daughter who had committed suicide two years before and a teen who had recently hanged himself in the doorway of their community centre.  He said, “Marilyn, please come.”  Against opposition from her own foundation board who did not want to dilute scarce monies already attributed to other DAREarts programs, Ms. Field went, paying her own way and that of three other artists-as-teachers.

“That was a request for life,” she says.  “Not responding was not an option.”

When she returned from that first week of workshops in the north, she got to work finding designated funding from a company that shared her interest in Webequie.  Noront Resources responded with a $40,000 donation so that the youth of Webequie could create their own film telling their community’s story.  The documentary is now being considered for a CBC program as well as by other networks.

Ms. Field says, “We need to find other northern supporters like Noront and national supporters like Northbridge Insurance for all our programs.” Thousands of kids and their schools are waiting to participate in DAREarts.  With the help of generous corporations and individuals and its track record, DAREarts can lift more kids to be all that they can be.

To help a child, call Brenda at 905-729-0097 or visit

Monika Jensen-Stevenson is a former Emmy award winning producer for Sixty Minutes and bestselling author.  She is currently chief correspondent on a documentary about the legacy of the war in Vietnam.

Photos courtesy Alan Dunlop.


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