Karn Nichols (BSc'84)

By Mark Campbell

As a proud alumna, Karn Nichols (BSc’84) never ceases to be amazed at the dedication of her fellow Dalhousie alumni to making a difference wherever and however they can.

“There are some people I know from my time at Dalhousie who truly inspire me,” she says. “They’ve made an impact in our communities in both large and small ways. It’s a privilege to be connected to them.”

Creating the right spaces

No doubt there are many alumni who would say the same of Nichols. Over the years, this independent performance management consultant has consistently helped young people and newcomers to Nova Scotia to find their way, and to shine, through her involvement in organizations such as Junior Achievement of Nova Scotia and the Metro Immigrant Learning Society (a nonprofit organization supporting immigrants in Dartmouth pre- ISANS).

“When you overcome fear and shine,” says Nichols, paraphrasing a famous quote by author and lecturer Marianne Williamson, “you give others permission to shine brightly as well. I feel my job is to help create the ‘space’ for this to happen.”

MacPhee Centre instruments

Musical instruments available for youth at the MacPhee Centre.

It’s a philosophy that Nichols has applied at the MacPhee Centre, a bold creative learning facility that she helped bring to fruition. Inspired by Bill Strickland’s pioneering Manchester Bidwell initiative, the Dartmouth-based centre offers a safe, nurturing environment where youth ages 12-19 can connect their passion and purpose through the arts. The focus, says Nichols, who chairs the board of directors, is on youth who are disengaged with traditional education or lack access to creative learning opportunities. Typically these youth are having trouble in school, struggling with mental health issues, looking for others they can relate to and in need of a creative outlet.

Developing leaders

“What we’re trying to do is to give them a voice through the arts. We want to inspire and engage them, giving them confidence and skills so they stay in school and succeed. We also want to build community and mentorship so they go out into the world with a desire to pay it forward.”

Nichols stresses that the centre’s programs are intended to supplement, not supplant, traditional education, and anyone who participates in a program must commit to staying in school. Through close collaboration with teachers and guidance counsellors, the centre endeavors to ensure all students keep that promise. And it appears many are, at least based on anecdotal evidence from the more than 700 students who have participated in programs since the centre began programming in 2013.

“Every day, we are privileged to bear witness to amazing stories about the youth who walk through the doors at 50 Queen. They are powerful stories of overcoming fear and anxiety and finding voice. We are developing leaders who will carry these life lessons forward and make impact in their own communities.”

MacPhee Centre

Collaborative spaces available to youth at the MacPhee Centre.

Ensuring a future for fearless creativity

Along the way, Nichols has found that her Dalhousie connections have been particularly beneficial in ensuring the continued operation of the centre. “Last year, we were at a crossroads. We knew there was an appetite in our community for the good work we were doing, however we only had enough funding for a two- to three-month runway.

“By turning to those contacts, and to others in the community, we were able grab the attention of businesses, government and generous individuals who believed in our vision and were willing to support our dream financially.”

MacPhee Centre images

Images on display at the MacPhee Centre.

The centre’s continued financial health is on Nichols’ mind as she enters her third year as chair. She wants the centre to be self-sustaining, mainly so it can be a hub for what she calls “fearless creativity, the ability to turn up and bear your soul without fear.” She says in the next five years, the centre is also looking to expand its programs across the province, keeping more young Nova Scotians in school.

And after that? “I’ll always be involved with the MacPhee Centre. In the same way that we work to align passion and purpose with our youth – this project represents the sweet spot for me,” Nichols says. “It’s exciting to see how everyone is inspired by this – the youth who participate, the artists who work with them, our board, our volunteers and our community partners – everyone. And with that inspiration, we can all shine unapologetically and work to make the world a better place.”