Mike Prosserman (a.k.a. Bboy Piecez) took his love of breakdance and turned it into a major charity for youths across Canada.
“I use dance as an outlet to deal with some of the stress and anger I have,” the 26-year-old says. “Especially as a teenager, it helped me clear my mind and focus on what was in front of me.”
UNITY Charity, he says, is his own story multiplied by thousands.
What began in an entrepreneurship class in Grade 11 at Thornlea Secondary School in Thornhill, Ont. has now reached people far from his home of Toronto, including places in Alberta, Nova Scotia, and even Nunavut.
The charity introduces youths to four elements of hip-hop culture: breakdance, beatboxing, spoken word, and graffiti. Prosserman says he specifically chose those aspects of the genre since they can be done with no resources.
“The idea in hip hop is you create something out of nothing,” he says. That’s why the group left out DJ despite its prominent place in hip hop. You have to buy equipment to DJ, so it’s something that’s inaccessible to many people.
The charity’s website claims to have reached 100,000 youths since 2008, with 220 youth mentors and leaders trained each year, 90 schools reached, and more than 400 volunteers in high school and university chapters of the charity.
Prosserman says he can’t pinpoint exactly what it is about breakdance that spoke to him, but he knew he wanted to do it since he saw a breakdance group at a bar mitzvah.
He says it was a natural fit for him, having spent much of his childhood practising gymnastics and walking around on his hands.
His breakdance skills have taken him around the world, performing and competing in places such as Spain, Italy, Japan, and many others. He says being able to communicate through dance is a really interesting phenomenon.
“I always say hip hop is a universal language, and I find that to be true no matter where you go,” he says. “You have an automatic family in another country because we speak the same language even though we don’t speak the same language.”
Prosserman became so skilled at breakdance, he was even offered a position with Cirque du Soleil, but he turned it down in favour of studying at university and chasing his dream of running the charity.
“At the end of the day, I had bigger goals for myself around wanting to do more with what I have,” he says. “I wanted to give that outlet back to other young people. I had to dedicate my life to something bigger.”
In July, the charity demonstrated its wide reach in its fifth annual festival showcasing participants from the programs, and professional performers. Prosserman says that last year the festival reached 30,000 people, and although he does not have concrete numbers for 2013, he estimated the group surpassed that record.
The four-day festival, which ran from July 18-21, involved a day at Toronto’s Dundas Square. That event, Prosserman says, drew huge crowds.
“The festival is a celebration of the voices of the youth in our program, to show what they have created to the public,” he says.
So how did he take the charity from a classroom project to a successful organization employing eight full-time and five part-time workers?
“Trial and error, using our instincts, and surrounding ourselves with people who know more than we do so we can very quickly learn,” he says.
And it’s ultimately been a true success, proving to young people and helping them realize that they can use hip hop as a form of expression and an outlet for stress.
“We do use these art forms to escape some of our challenges,” he says. “It’s a powerful tool to give youth a voice when they wouldn’t necessarily have that opportunity or voice. This is something that really speaks to them.”
For more information about UNITY Charity, visit unitycharity.com.