In Conversation With Youth: A Panel On Race, Careers & More

This year, I had the amazing opportunity to lead a new pilot program with racialized youth in HDSB schools. The HAL YES! Program – Halton Youth for Equity & Student Voice –  is envisioned for high school students belonging to groups who have been historically marginalized, based on their racial, cultural or religious identity. The goal of the program is to enhance youth participants’ confidence and foster critical self-reflection on all aspects of their unique identity, while building their leadership skills to create a climate of inclusion and respect for all members of their school community and beyond.  During this time, I had the honour and privilege of engaging and empowering these youth for a period of 14-weeks. One of my favourite sessions to-date is when I organized and moderated a panel discussion on race and anti-Black racism with invited guest speakers. Panelists were asked to share how they’ve come to understand their identity, lived experiences, and the impact it’s had on various aspects of their lives, namely their careers. By inviting Black professionals from varying fields of work to the panel, my objective as a facilitator was to show youth the possibilities of who they could become and what they could aspire to do in life, not in spite of their identity (talents, passions, etc.), but because of it. Together, we explored themes of overcoming obstacles, personal growth, identity formation, living one’s truth, and the importance of self-love and self-care.

 I also believe that it was a great opportunity to model allyship and solidarity. Naming my privilege, giving space, and listening and learning from the experiences and stories of others are all examples of what it truly means to be an ally and stand in solidarity with fellow community members. It’s understanding that our liberation is bound one another. I will never know freedom, if another is unfree – even if the shackles of their oppression are different than my own. It is our collective responsibility to struggle, to resist, and to exist as we are together. So, my hope has been to impart this very wisdom and perspective onto our youth. It is not enough for them to see it and hear from me alone. I see the value in our youth seeing it and hearing it from people who look like them, and who reflect their own experiences and feelings. These are adults who’ve not only embarked on life’s journey with a great deal of grace and determination, but who have overcome, tried, and conquered great heights in exceptional and extraordinary ways. In the same way, I wish to relay some of their stories and insights back to you here – in hopes of evoking connection, deepening understanding, and broadening a greater outlook on life. That is my job as a writer, and if I can inspire even the slightest change of heart or mind, then it becomes all the more possible for us to reimagine a world that’s kinder, softer, and fuller than ever before.

Alexiis Stephen (AS): My name is Alexiis Stephen. I’m a teacher here in the Halton region…I actually moved down the street from you at the Welcome Centre now. I work with any newcomer families that come in…newcomer students in the schools…as well as I’m part of the equity team. I grew up in Oakville back when…now people say, “oh Oakville is so diverse”…but I grew up in Oakville when Oakville really was very white. And so, there was very little colour. The school that I went to…from K-12, there were literally 5 families who were Black in all of the school. So, you can imagine how ‘unique’ I was, and how much I would have stood out, and how much I might have experienced…what it’s like being Black, especially living in a place like Oakville. In my high school years, I moved to Stoney Creek, and I moved to a public school. So that was unique in and of itself. It was good because I got a little more variety. So, I had a little more opportunity to have Black friends…and South Asian friends. So, I would say that that was the majority of my friend group. And then I moved into going to University…and now I’m here.

Courtney Stephen (CS): What’s up, everyone. My name is Courtney Stephen. I’m from Brampton. Really, I don’t know if my story is 100% completely about my race, and I think that’s kind of by choice…because in my line of work…I’m a professional athlete (with the Hamilton Wildcats). So, everywhere I go, people generally put me in a box right away…and they think that they already know certain things about me. So, I studied psychology. Before that, I spent two years at another school. And those two student populations were extremely different. One was in Chicago…in the US…around the time that Barack Obama got elected. So, it was extremely racially charged…and people were very segregated. People would really separate themselves from each other…like you had the Hispanics, the Blacks, and the Whites. You know, everybody just kind of stuck to the people who looked like them…to the point where I noticed that people who were from the city had different accents than people who were from the suburbs…in the same place. So, that kind of led me to think about my identity differently…being Canadian in America. I say all that to say I’m a young Black man, but I like to think of myself as so much more…because it’s not just necessarily what you look like or what you do…it’s about what value you bring to the world. So, I’m here to share my perspective today…and let you know about some of my experiences.

Juanita Stephen (JS): Hey y’all. My name is Juanita Stephen. I am a child and youth worker, and a student. I’m a grad student right now. Yeah, I think my identity has influenced the line of work I’ve gone into. Another part that’s important to my story is that I was a young mother. I grew up in Brampton. I went to Elementary and High School there…and my schools were fairly racially diverse. The high school that I went to was probably 40-50% South Asian…also a lot of Black kids…there were a lot of racialized students there. And then I went to University, got pregnant, and had my son. So, my academic journey has taken a bit of a winding road. I went to school. I got my Child and Youth Work diploma, and then I’ve been working in the field. And now I’m back in school. I’m doing my Masters in Child and Youth Care. And I’m going to be starting my PhD in the fall. So, I’ve had lots of different experiences, and especially in educational institutions where I’ve encountered people who don’t necessarily know how to interact with someone who lives in a body that looks like mine…who has hair that looks like mine…who looks like this, and sounds like this…they don’t really know what do with all that. So, there have been a lot of intersecting question marks for people, and navigating that has been interesting, to say the least. It’s really influenced the work that I’m doing now…working with young people. I also teach at Humber College. So, I’ve been teaching people how to work with young people in a respectful way. So, I’ll have a chance to talk about that at your school.

Me: Thank you, and again, welcome! So, my first question is what did you learn about yourself in the process of building your career?

CS: Oh, can I take this!

Me: Yes.

CS: Alright, when people talked about careers growing up, the number one question you would get is, “Okay, so what do you want to do with your life?” And, I would always tell people that I wanted to be a professional athlete. And then the number one follow-up question is, “So, what’s your plan B?”

Student: Exactly!

CS: And so, in the pursuit of my goal or in the pursuit of my career (which I’m currently in)…I understand that I’m the slim minority of people who’ve made it, but in order to get there, you have to have a mindset that the hard work is not the barrier to entry. It’s the thing that will hold everyone else back because you’re willing to the do the work. So, if you do it, it’s going to eliminate your competition for you. You know what I mean? So, that allows you to focus on yourself. Achieving anything that’s extremely substantial…reaching any kind of height…you know, the stuff you dream about…not the stuff that falls into your lap…the stuff that you sit down at night before you go to bed and you’re thinking about…and like you’re meditating on. To reach those kind of things, you really have to turn in and focus on yourself because no one will ever give it to you, and no one will ever help you get there. And if they do, once they’re gone and they leave, you’re just going to crumble under your own weight, right. So, in my career, I’ve learned that there’s extreme power in internalizing your deepest convictions and just not really listening to the noise.

AS: For me, I think growing up in Oakville, there’s this expectation that you have to get a really good job and you have to do really, really well, financially…that you have to have a certain standard of living. So, when I first graduated, I think I was looking for a job that would pay me the most amount of money and I was lucky enough to get into a job as a pension analyst working in downtown Toronto. It gave me a lot of money, and I was able to do well. But the sacrifice that I had to make to get to that place was that, at the time, I had a young daughter. I had a growing family. I really had to sacrifice my time with my family, and I had to really sacrifice my time in general. I was in there on weekends, I was there late nights to perform and to do what everybody expected. And I wasn’t the only one, everybody was doing that. And there were times where…there were moments where I really had to sit back and say, “Do I really want to do this for the next four years? Do I really want to be in this position where I’m working like crazy?” Yeah, I’m making lots of money but I can’t even really enjoy it because I’m working like crazy. So, I think what I learned for myself and the best advice I ever got was somebody once told me – when I was beginning to think about whether or not this is what I really want to do – they said think about when you were in high school or in university, and what was the one thing that you did that you enjoyed. You did it just because you didn’t do it for money, you didn’t do it for any personal gain, you did it because you just really liked to do it. And for me, weirdly enough, what I like to do is I’d like to start clubs. So, I started a step club at my school…I started a mentor club at my school…I ran a fashion show at my school and I loved being in a school environment. And that told me that maybe teaching is something I’d like to do. So, that was really how I made the shift over to teaching. And then somebody else told me afterwards as I was on my journey towards teaching, they said, “You know what, do what you love and the money will follow.” And I won’t say that I’m rolling in the dough, because I am a teacher, but I’m happy and I’m comfortable and I love my job and I love going and doing what I do every day. And so, I’d say the trade-off is I don’t make as much as I used to make, but definitely the trade-off has been more than worth it. So that would be my advice.

JS: I think the greatest thing that I learned about my identity coming into my career is that not to try and change it essentially. So, there are a lot of things about me that people love, and there are things that people don’t really get. The fact that I had a son when I was 20 years old…that made people think about me in a particular way. They aligned me with certain statistics and stereotypes that people have about young Black women. Right, so some of those things that made people think that I was a certain person. Then when I started my career, people who taught me about working with young people, they wanted me to come to the table, come to that career in a particular way. And so, I would try to change the way that I talked, or I would sit a certain way to talk to young people. You know, something that I thought was going to be engaging. And so, I was really trying to make myself fit into the career or wherever I was trying to go, and then I came to realize that the best thing that I can do in working with children, working with young people, even working with the parents of young people is to really come to the table as my authentic self. Just kind of get comfortable in my own skin and in who I am because there are families who need to work with someone like me. And there are going to be young people who really need someone who’s kind of loud sometimes, and kind of a geek because I really settled into my geekiness. And I’ve just accepted that I’m a little bit kind of ‘Awkward Black Girl’, and that’s okay. And the less that I tried to resist that, the more success I had in doing what I do…which is essentially building relationships with people, and getting to know them and supporting them, in a longer journey, even in the classroom. I don’t just dress like this to go to class, right. Sometimes, I might wear a skirt or whatever, but I just come authentically as myself into that space, and I offer what I have to offer. And I found more opportunities open up when I’m my authentic self…than when I’m trying to fit a particular image…and I bring that to the table.

Me: What advice would you give your high-school self today?

JS: Okay, can I start that?

Me: Yeah.

JS: Just try it, is what I would say. I was so shy in high school. The one thing that I knew I could do well was be smart. Right, I come from a family of athletes and artists. People who can draw really well, and write really dope poetry, and who could play sports. My mom was an Olympic calibre sprinter. I have a sibling who plays professional sports, right. You know I have people in my family who do things really well and I knew I can do academics well. I expected that if I wrote this test, I was going to get an A. So, that’s all I did. I just really did classroom stuff. I did my homework, and I went to class and that was it. and I would have tried more things that were outside of my comfort zone. I would have tried out for sports. I would have joined the club – even though I didn’t really know anyone in that particular club – because it’s interesting to me. I really would go back and I would take the auto body repair class that I wanted to take. I wanted to learn about cars, but I would have been the only girl in the class, and so I didn’t take it. So, I would have just tried more things that were maybe, a little bit scary to me, because now I play on the volleyball team. I’m like, “Man, I would have been great at volleyball in high school if I had taken the chance!”, but I didn’t. So, I would have told high school me, like if you’re interested in it, just give it a try.

CS: So, I never read a book cover-to-cover until I was almost a graduate of university. And like, since January, I’ve read maybe 6 books, and listened to like 15 audiobooks. So, I think the main thing that I would tell myself is “Go learn something.” With the most respect, people think that schools are going to give you what you need to become what you want to be in life. It’s going to give you a framework. You need to learn a discipline of study, you need to learn how to communicate. Knowing the gravity of an atom is not going to benefit everybody, but if you want to learn how to make money off of standing up in front of people and speaking the way that I’m speaking to you right now…do you know that people get paid for this? So, watch a YouTube video or read a book or listen to an audiobook or go find something else and learn it and master a craft because you don’t find your life’s passion, you create it. Wherever your curiosity takes you, just dive all the way down that rabbit hole and then you’re going to find what you want to do with your life.

AS: So, okay, you guys have to remember, I’m a teacher. So, I was probably your goody two-shoe of the high school. I was Vice President in student council. I was very involved in different things. In the midst of all of that, I think that the advice that I would have given myself is that I was so busy being part of all these different clubs and doing all of these different things that I don’t know if I really took time to build relationships with my friends. Of course, I had my really close friends, but I just think about this one guy on my track team. And I remember, there was a day that stuck out at me…we were sitting on the bus, and he was sitting by himself. He was the kid, who at the time, he was a little bit awkward, he had a lot of acne, and he kind of physically stood out a little bit. And nobody really talked to him. And I remember walking with my friends and looking over, and I can actually see his face…today, I can see his face. And I remember thinking to myself, “I should probably go over and just talk to him.” But, I just think I was just caught up in the midst of being so busy and so involved with everything, and having so many friends of my own that I didn’t really have to take a moment and stop and think…and maybe talked to somebody. So, that would be what I would tell myself is, you know what, I had the privilege of being in this situation where I was very well known in my school. I had that privilege, and I could have taken that moment to just meet somebody, and just say “hi” and check in with somebody…so that’s what I would tell myself.

Me: Can you think back to a time, or a moment, or an experience that you believe was pivotal in shaping who you are or how you’ve come to be in your career? 

AS: I’ll never to forget Grade five. Grade five was my year. Grade five was the year…remember, I grew up in Oakville…where I really realized that I’m Black. And I realized, “Oh my gosh, this is what it means to be Black.” So, I don’t know what happened, but I just remember looking around me and thinking, “I’m the only one in this room…I’m the only one that looks like me in this room.” And that was the moment that I had to really spend some time really doing some research about what it means to Black… the Black history experience…because as I’m sure you guys know, I don’t know how much is changed, but I know when I went to school, Black History wasn’t taught.

Students (in unison): It’s still the same!

AS: So, I had to teach myself my own history. So, I really became curious about what does it mean to be Black? What is the history of the people who look like me? And I had to do that work for myself. But I remember that being a very pivotal time in my life, and ever since then I’ve been very aware, and reading a lot, and learning a lot, and trying to connect with other people that looked like me, which you can imagine there weren’t very many of us, right. So, it was really just trying to make those connections from there.

Student: I just want to say that I lived in Oakville too when I was in the fifth grade. Yeah, and I remember the fifth grade for me was kind of the same, because I remember realizing that when I was in the fifth grade living in Oakville, everyone around me was white and there was one other girl who was Black, but she was like, pale, pale, pale Black. So, I really had nobody else that looked just like me. I remember kids would just like make fun of my hair. And if you were to stick a pencil in it, it would get stuck, it wouldn’t just fall out. So, like yeah, I remember fifth grade. I never had a black history lesson. I hadn’t known about Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, or anyone like that, until I was in the seventh grade. She was like my first black friend, and that wasn’t until Grade 9.

AS: Yeah, my first black friend was also in Grade 9. And I remember, also, the first black history lesson was in Grade 10 for me. So yeah, I totally can connect with that.

JS: I think I had two pivotal moments. One that changed me, and one that propelled me, I guess. And I guess the first moment was a conversation that I actually had with this guy right here. So, we’ve had the opportunity to work for the same organization working in high school…running groups with young people…with students after school at different locations. But we were at a training one time, and one of the things that we were doing was practicing telling our stories, because that’s one of the ways that you engage with people. You kind of let them know who you are and some of the things you’ve been through. So, I’m sitting in this room, and all of the other people that were there were professional athletes. And so, they were telling these stories about getting cut from teams and breaking legs, and limbs falling off. They’re telling all these stories of <<we’ve climbed mountains and we’ve overcome>>. And at the end of it, I was like, “Oh I don’t know if I have a story to share with anyone.” Like I don’t know that I have something to bring to the table. Like I’ve never been cut from anything, and I never had to overcome this. And Courtney here was like, “Remember the story that you just told in there about being a young mother, and raising your son, and about where you are now, and things that you’ve done? That’s a story, that’s your story to tell.” And it made me really realize that piece of coming to the table and recognizing what it is that you have to offer. That it’s not going to be the same thing as someone else, but that you bring something unique to the table that you can use in pursuit of the success that you’re looking for. So, it kind of got me to get a little bit more traction in feeling like what I was bringing to the table was valuable and starting to find ways to use that in my career. And kind of similarly to your story about kind of recognizing Blackness was…So, I found many opportunities. I’m teaching at Humber College, and running groups and things like this. And I have this activity that I do with my students who are in their third year of their Child and Youth Worker program. So, it’s the last semester of academics before they go into the field, and become CYCs. And so, I stand at the front of the room and I ask everyone to give me all of their assumptions that they’ve made about me…things that you assume based on how I look, how I speak, things that you’ve heard about me, my name, my gender identity, my sexual orientation, anything you could guess. Nothing’s off the table. There are some common things I hear all the time, but I had one student who said, “Well I assume that you’re really, really smart because you’re my first Black teacher ever.” And so that person had made it through elementary school, high school, and three years of college without ever having another teacher in front of them who looked like that. And for me, that was like “Woah.” And then I thought and I was like, “Man, I only had like two Black teachers myself.”

Student: I only had one.

Student: I had none.

Student: I had none, too.

JS: And that landed for me in a really powerful way. A really powerful way. A lot of the research or the work that I’m doing in grad school…that’s why I went to grad school…so, I could be able to contribute to that program in different ways, and kind of make more space for more Black professors. So, two kinds of pivotal things.

Student: So, about hearing about other people’s stories and all. I’m an athlete too, and I read a lot of athlete memoirs and stories, and how they became who they are today. And so, because of that, I can be hard on myself because I don’t play at the highest level. So, I really identify with what you said.

JS: Yeah, and it’s tough. Finding your own story is part of the journey, you know what I mean. And it doesn’t have to be that you’ve got cut, or it’s the last chance you had to make it big…that doesn’t have to be your story. You have a story, right? And it’s kind of finding out what that is, and recognizing what that is from.

CS: Just to piggyback off of that. You’d be surprised how many people will relate to you more, right…because she just said it, now you’re saying it, and there’s probably at least two other people in this room thinking it. So often, we don’t think that what we’ve gone through is that big because you know what you know, and you take it for granted, but somebody else hasn’t been through it. I say that to say share your story regardless with who wants to listen because when you spread yourself out, people just take what’s important for them, and get their own guidance from it. I was going to say that my moment, I’m kind of realizing now in retrospect, that I didn’t understand and I was actually fighting it because I was so against this moment from playing out, but I was in this program called “Enhanced Learning Program”. So, in the sixth grade, they offered it at my school, and then in the seventh grade at a different location. And I was so tied to my friends that I stayed behind at the school that was close to my house because I wanted to be with my friends. I didn’t want to go off to the school and ride a bus every day and all that kind of stuff. I’m like, “I’m in the seventh grade. Let me just be a seventh grader, right? I just want to be with my friends, and play basketball.” Then Grade 7 and 8 comes, and I’m about to go to high school, and the school that I would have been going to, they didn’t have a football team. But I knew at this point that I wanted to play football. It’s something that I had to do. And so, the only way for me to get into a school that had football was to get back in that “Enhanced Learning Program”, which was way down the road, a bus ride from my house. So, long story short, I realized that if you value your friendships more than you value your goals, you’re going to be tied to somebody who eventually is going to start chasing their own goals, and they’re going to leave you right where you stand, right. So, when people are talking about “Hey, let’s fill out these university applications together, and let’s be friends forever.” Don’t do that. Go where you want to go. Do what you want to do. Don’t try to live in this moment forever. Be in this moment right now, and look forward to your own goals. Don’t live for somebody else’s goals, live for your goals. Right, sometimes you have to go off on your own.

Me: We’ve definitely explored many themes, like overcoming adversity and coming to terms with who we are and how the world perceives us, and how we’ve come to understand that journey…and really digging into self-awareness. So, a lot of amazing themes are coming out of this, but I’m thinking as a segway to what was just shared…knowing what you know about yourself today, as adults, considering the journey that you’ve been on so far, would you do anything different? Why or why not?

CS: I would definitely be more empathetic because I know in high school, I didn’t realize how much influence I had. I kind of had that perspective, “I’m only here for myself. I’m going take care of myself, and that’s it.” But that’s how the social world works. As you start to have success in one realm, it trickles over to another. So, as I started getting better at football, people started to know my name. So, I started to have a little influence in my social group, and I could’ve used it way better. I had so many friends who were doing dumb stuff, for no reason…throwing their potential away. and I remember my gym teacher saying to me, “Why do you hang out with these guys?” And I told him it was because everybody else gave up on them, except me. But, what was I actually doing? I could have done a lot more to be a good influence on those people who were around me because I had a clearer perspective than they had at that time, even though we were in a similar circumstance, right. So, if I could go back, I would definitely be more empathetic to the people who I was hanging out with, and care about trying to give them a good influence instead of just letting them do their thing.  

JS: I think when I look back, I see opportunities to have done things differently that may have led to a different path…but I’m grateful for even the decisions that maybe, in retrospect, weren’t in my best interest because I found the lessons in them. Right, I learned from it. I learned how to adapt, I learned who was really in my corner, I learned how to make space for myself…you know, there’s lots of learning that came from it. The one thing that I would say that I might do differently was to make a conscious decision that I made a little bit earlier. I remember in high school, I had a reputation for not being the nicest person, but it was just because I didn’t smile a lot. People would come up to me after years of being in the school, and say “I thought you were like such-and-such…because you just always looked so mean.” And I was like, “Really? I’m just living my life. I’m not angry, this is just how my face looks.” And now, years later, I’m a CYW in a high school in Malton, and I met a co-worker of mine who was just laughing all the time. She’s just happy all the time, and I decided I want to be like that. I just want to be happy. I’m going to choose to be happy. Not that I was unhappy before, but I just chose to have an intentionality of approaching situations with a positive attitude, and just like seeing what a smile felt like. And since then, it’s just opened up opportunities for to me to connect with people in a different way. And that’s been really helpful in my career. My whole career is about building relationships with people. So, even though I had the best of intentions the whole time, and I had lots of friends, and I was happy…the way that I carried myself didn’t always translate. So, once I made that conscious decision to be aware of what I was communicating in my body language, it opened up a lot of doors for relationships that I have now that have been really, really helpful. So, if I had the opportunity to access that decision a little bit earlier, then maybe that would have been the one thing I would have changed.

Student: Can I just say something? Yeah, I totally relate to that because a lot of my friends that I have now, like even them, I find that a lot of people tell me that, “Oh, I see you in the halls, and I was too scared to come up to you because you’re around all your friends, or you looked really mean, or I thought that if I messed with you, you’d be mad” or something like that. And I remember that I never really understood why because I’m a really nice person. But now I try to be more approachable so people aren’t afraid to come up to me because then I miss opportunities of making friends with other people. So, I try to be more approachable…It takes time.

Me: Can I just ask a question? Because I think that’s a really important point. Sometimes, we are perceived by the world in a certain way, and that’s not in our control. And at times, especially when people have inappropriate or even blatantly racist stereotypes about us, that’s also not in our control. And we need to understand that it’s not our fault…it’s on them. So, I’m wondering, how do you navigate those lines and how do you, in turn, stand in your truth? How do you live your truth?

CS: I feel like if you walk in a room and you don’t know who you are, you’re going to leave it up to other people to decide who you are. So, I think a lot of it comes down to understanding what is the value that you bring, because then you can put that on display. So, initially if I walk in the room, I’m 6 feet, 200 pounds, and I got a tight shirt on, people will be like, “do you play sports?” Right. You know? But if I come in the room and I know that that’s my persona, and they ask me that and I do play sports, but I’m well-spoken, then it’ll automatically trigger something else in their mind…”But what else can you do? Because I’ve met another athlete who doesn’t quite speak that same way”. So, it’s a matter of know your value. And like Juanita said, you don’t have to put on a mask, but put what you do best on display because then we can talk about something else. You might be the only Black person that somebody’s ever met. And then now that’s a great opportunity because, think about it, now you get to set the standard for the whole race.

All: [laughter]

Me & Juanita (in unison): No pressure!

CS: Think about it though! Do you want to be that one person who is exactly what they expected?

Students: No.

CS: So then why would we act the way that they expect us to act? So, you have to be aware of what is your actual value. Put it on display, and then give them something else to talk about.

AS: To Courtney’s point, I think, for me, I agree. I like breaking stereotypes. So, when I meet somebody who has assumptions like…that I’m going to give an attitude, right. Like I’ve had situations where I was with my manager, back in the day, as a pension analyst, and I’m just speaking my opinion. I was speaking my opinion, and she’s like, “Okay, but don’t give me an attitude about it.” And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an attitude. But I do like to consistently break stereotypes. So, I do like when people meet me…they’re not going to get what they had assumed that they’d get with me, and I think that that’s part of it. It’s part of creating your own identity. So, I would say it’s just finding out who you are, but at the same time, preparing yourself for the fact that at any given time, there’s potential for microaggressions. So, there’s a potential that because somebody is in their space and in their way of thinking about what their opinion of you is, there’s still going to be those microaggressions that you’re going to experience and just handling those as they come.

CS: And can I say one more thing too? I think also we got to understand that no two people have lived the exact same life with the exact same environment and influences. So, when somebody does something that is completely out of left field, I try and stop and think, “If I was this person, and I grew up to this moment in life right now, the exact same way that they did, I would do the same thing.” So, I have to be able to remove myself from my emotions and think logically. People just want to feel important. This person right now, the way that they’re going to derive that importance is by putting me down or building themselves up over me, so I’m not mad at them. I just understand what’s going on. I didn’t quite understand that when I was younger. I might have clashed with some of my teachers, because of it, but now I understand better that you’re just a product of your environment. So, when people put you in those boxes it’s because of their past experiences. It’s not because of you.

JS: I agree. It isn’t because of you. I like to hold people a little bit accountable for the stereotypes that they have about me, and I’ve learned how to do it in a less combative way…because before I used to be quite angry about it. And the thing that was challenging is because one of the stereotypes about people who live in bodies that look like mine is the “angry Black woman” stereotype. And if something goes wrong, or there’s an issue and even if anger is a legitimate response to it, it’s a problem if I become angry. For example, if there’s an issue with the cheque…the cheque was wrong. The response is “Woah, whoa! Calm down please!” Right, that’s the response that you get, even if you’re as cool as a cucumber. But what I found is I found ways to constructively encourage people to see things from a different perspective. That’s why I teach. That’s why I initially wanted to be an English teacher. Now I work at the college level, because I have an opportunity to use my classroom as a space to encourage people to think about things differently. We get to have conversations in that classroom. The reason I do that activity that I explained to you earlier is because at the end of it, after I’ve used my actual physical body as a teaching tool, and people have said, “Well, to be honest, when I came in, I assumed that you were a student and not a teacher.” So, what is it about me that doesn’t look like a teacher? What is it that we expect teachers to look like? Where does that come from? Right, we get to ask those questions, with the understanding that people come to the table with the way that they’ve been socialized. Right, the way that they’ve learned things in their life up to that point from their families, from the media, from all the crap that’s on TV. From music and all these other places where we get our information. We start to think about the world in a particular way. And sometimes we think about people that look a certain way or speak a certain way, who live in a certain community, we think about them in a particular way. And I use my classroom as a space to try and change the way that people think about things. I’ve hear things like, “Well, I assumed that you smoke weed, and your house smells like incense.” I’ve heard that too. So, we unpack that. Why is that? Does it have anything to do with my hair, perhaps? Right, and so there’s opportunities to…What I’ve done is I’ve taken the feelings that I have about people making assumptions about the way that I move through the world, and use that as kind of my fuel. I try to make space. I started a community organization. I teach. I’ve just tried to turn it into constructive energy.

Student: I just want to say that what you just shared right now, I can relate to because literally today, me and these two other Black girls were taking a selfie, and then some kid was like, “Can I get in it? Or is it coloured people only?” I don’t like being called coloured. White’s a colour too, so technically we’re all “coloured.” So, I turned around and said, “Can you like not say that? I don’t like being called that.” And then he was like, “Woah, calm down. Why are you screaming?” And I wasn’t, I’m just naturally loud. I’m not screaming at you.

Student: Someone really said that?

Student: Yeah.

JS: So, can I ask a question? How do you manage that in a way that doesn’t…because it’s really easy for you to have that interaction and then just be angry for the day because that feels like you attacked me for no reason. I’m over here with my friends, trying to take a picture. You came over and decided to make an assumption about me or to have a microaggression against me…that we didn’t even have to have that interaction. So, it’s easy to walk away from that, and just be angry about it. So, what can we do with that? Any of us. What can we do with it when we have interactions with our peers, that’s going to be constructive, that’s going to leave us feeling better than we were at that moment? When all of a sudden, you get angry, or you get upset, or you’re like, “Why did we have this interaction?” What’s going to help us to get to a better place, how do we respond to it?

Student: I think just opening a conversation to be like, “Oh, why did you say something like that? What was your thought process before you said that?” And just making them think about what they said in that moment. I think that can help set the conversation about breaking down stereotypes. And maybe for that one person, it could make the difference.

Student: Or you could just say, “Oh, I’m just taking a picture with my friends.” And then that will just shut them down. Taking the time to calmly explain what we’re doing, it might just show them that we’re the same. Just teenagers taking pictures with their friends.

JS: And I find sometimes humour works. You could say, “Yeah man, white’s a colour too, jump on in here!”

Students: [chuckles]

JS: Right, you almost use that opportunity to teach a little bit of something without creating a conflict. It diffuses the situation, and it might even do exactly what you said…Help that person to look at the situation a little bit differently. And it doesn’t build, because it’s easy to carry that stuff around with us.

Student: But it’s hard to do that, because if you’re mad in that moment, then it’s hard not to just lash out.

Student: Especially with the person, because knowing him, he’s just ignorant. He’s the type of person to make fun of Jewish people and Black people.

Me: I think there are just some people out there that exist just to elicit a reaction from us, and I think that it takes a certain level of self-awareness and emotional literacy for us to take a breath…take our time in responding…using humour…putting people in their place in a way where it really gets them to start thinking about they said. And if it doesn’t, at the end of the day, we are living with ourselves. We go to bed every single night with ourselves and our thoughts, and we can’t allow that to have a negative impact on us. We need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves. That self-care is a really important practice. Because what was just shared here definitely resonates with me…as a visible Muslim woman of colour. It’s one thing for people to spew microaggressions my way, just by simply how I look. A very common microaggression I get is, “Oh! You speak perfect English.” So, the assumption is that I’m not educated, that I’m not from here. All of these assumptions are already there, just by them looking at me. As soon as I open my mouth, even then the assumptions are still there, and I feel like I have to say something. But, I feel like my best weapon is to just, in terms of living my truth, I think it’s existing. And just owning who I am, being unapologetic and bold about who I am and where I come from. And you need to understand that how people respond is not in your control, but you could control how you feel about yourself and how you see the world around you. If you choose to be positive, if you choose to have a different outlook where you’re treating people with love and kindness and empathy and understanding, it’s easier to live with that.

AS: I think Leena touched on a really important point. I think self-care is important. It’s unfortunately, but we can’t control other people’s reactions to us, right. And that’s going to be a thing. I mean, as a fully-grown adult, it still happens. My partner and I were going into a store. It happened within the last six months in a furniture store in Georgetown…as adults, and we can afford things. It was a positive experience, but as we’re leaving, my partner walked out with something, and they asked us, “Did you pay for that?” And we were like, “Of course, we paid for it!” But you can’t control that, and that could have wrecked our day. And I think that self-care is really important. So, surrounding yourself with positive people who can bring you up, and you can chat about these things, and you can have these conversations, and they’ll understand. And also filling your world with positive experiences and examples of people of your race. So, I try to follow Instagram feeds of really positive Black women that I can look up to, and are doing amazing things. Feeds that will provide me with information with positive things that Black people are doing in the world today because it helps me to just see things not from the lens of ‘everybody’s attacking me and making me feel bad’, but ‘we’re an awesome people to celebrate’, right. So, I think that self-care is a big part of it.

Student: We all did this Black History Month assembly on February 28. And there was a lot of backlash after it, which kind of like…I don’t know, I feel like for me, my self-care went down. I was obviously really upset about what people were saying, and some of the stuff that happened during it. But then I remember thinking, I was like, “I don’t know if I want to do it again next year because of what happened.” But then, I follow this girl on Instagram, do you know who Yara Shahidi is?

All: Yeah!

Student: That’s my girl!

Student: She did this poem thingy on her Instagram. And I was reading it, and I was like “damn!” If I’m doing this next year, I don’t even care. Looking up to people who do the same thing. But she’s like saying this out to millions of people, and I just said it to a couple hundred at my school, and got a little bit of backlash. So, it’s like, “Wow, I’m going to try and do that!”

Me: Yeah, yeah. She’s great! Have any of you all heard of “Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday” podcast?

AS: Yes!

Me: If you go onto that, she has actually sat down with Yara Shahidi, and she’s a brilliant young lady!

AS: Amazing!

Me: Highly recommend that episode. Any episode, really, on that podcast!

AS: Yeah, for sure.

Me: I guess my question, from your answer, Alexiis, to the both of you is what are your own self-care practices, and what sources of inspiration do you look to to keep you going and doing what you do every day?

JS: I’m inspired by other people who are doing similar work to me, or who are finding ways to exist unapologetically in the world. I have a friend who’s a Sikh woman who teaches with me at Humber College as well. We spend a lot of time just gassing each other up, just empowering each other, and that’s a motivating space. It takes me away from – even within the institution that I’m in, where I’ve talked about some of the microaggressions and things happening – it’s kind of a creation of a virtual safe space where I know that someone is supportive, and I know that someone will believe me if I say that I’ve had this experience. I won’t be gaslighted. I spend time talking to people who are doing other cool things, awesome things and who are supportive, and just like tapping into their energy. I listen to a lot of podcasts. People who are making spaces for themselves. So, I try to just stay forward-focused. So, here’s where I want to get to, who’s done that or who’s doing that that I can look to. Creating networks of other PhD students, because that’s going to be a really big thing that I’m going to be doing, and challenging but I’m also really excited about it. So, just looking for the opportunities in the midst of challenging situations, and connecting with other people who are already doing that helps me to recognize the possibilities in it. So, I may not have had a lot of black professors, but there are black professors in my program now. Which makes me see that maybe things are changing, maybe there are spaces and possibilities in what I’m working for that are positive. Even professors who are not Black, who are supportive of me, who are giving me opportunities. I went to Florence this year because I had a white professor who was like, “Hey, you’re doing really great things, and I’d like for you to be part of this project.” So, you know, trying to balance my mindset is really important too, and not getting stuck in the negative things because that’s not helpful. Right, and it can keep you from moving forward.

CS: So, self-care and motivation. I have so many rituals that I can’t name them all. I think part of that is my being an athlete, and having to do certain things…you get used to routine. Routines, habits are kind of like fundamental building blocks of success. Anybody can hit a half court jumper, you know, and they have them at half-time. But that same person can’t be Steph Curry and just hit 100 3-pointers. You have to practice a lot. So, for me, I like waking up really early because my main motivation – and I hope you take this the right way – but, I am absolutely afraid of dying with all my potential. I’m scared, I’m scared to die with my potential because then what? You know what I mean? The only thing we’re alive for is to build something great, that lives on past us, and somebody else can experience that and continue to build off of it. So, for me, I feel like every day I feel like the sand is running out, and it’s like, if that doesn’t make you do something, then what else? So, I wake up early. I try to do something constructive every day. And so, in order to make sure I get that feeling of satisfaction, one of my routines is to write down goals. So, when I write down a goal, the most satisfying feeling is crossing it out. So instead of just having a bunch of humongous goals, I have tiny goals. Like read for 15 minutes three times a day. Cool. I read for 15 minutes. I get to cross something out. I feel good. Boom! Okay, now that’s becoming a habit. Right, so if I want to read for an hour a day, I don’t just go and sit down and start reading an hour block. It’s like working out. You want to do 100 pushups? Somebody can do 100 pushups. I can’t. So, I’ll do 10 sets of 10. So, if I want to read for an hour, maybe I do six sets of ten minutes, right. But I have goals. Written, concrete, long lists. Some goals for today, some goals for this month, some goals for this year. Some goals for this decade. But I write down what I’m going to accomplish, and I always remember that it’s not even about hitting the goal as much as it’s about keeping myself on a path to somewhere where I could reach my potential.

AS: I just wanted to add to that. As a teacher who now works with teachers and staff around equity… So, I’m always working with teachers and telling them how important it is to have different visualizations in your classroom of like different representations of people who look differently. And some teachers are really great at it, and some teachers are still working towards it. But from a self-care perspective, definitely looking at how you can create those visualizations within your personal world. So, whatever interests you…So, for example, yoga interests me, but can you guys tell me if I were to look up yoga, who am I going to likely see?

Student: A white person.

AS: Yeah, a white woman who looks really nice and slim, and has a yoga body, right. But, I’m a Black woman, and love yoga. So, I follow a feed called “Black Yoga.” And so, I get to see all these beautiful Black women who are also doing yoga. So, I get to see those positive representations because I can’t control who outside is going to show me those representations. The world’s not great about that. So definitely breaking those stereotypes and seeing them for myself is always a good thing, right. So, as much as we’re working with staff, it may not happen while you’re still in high school where every single teacher does a great job of making sure that their classroom shows that. So, you may have to create that for yourself as well.

JS: One other thing that I did, for self-care…and I’m not lying, this improved my mental health significantly. When I wake up in the morning, I give myself one hour before I’m allowed to look on any social media. I promise you, because what was happening was I would wake up in the morning and I would immediately either check my email, go on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever. And I would be inundated with negativity, first thing in the morning. It was the first thing I was consuming, before breakfast. My breath still smells like nighttime. I haven’t even had a chance to get out of bed yet, and I was just inundated with negativity. So, now I wake up in the morning. I practice gratitude. So, I try to find at least five things that I’m grateful for. I set my intention for the day. So, I’m grateful that I woke up. I’m grateful for this person in my life, I’m grateful for this opportunity, whatever. Here’s what I want to accomplish today. And it might just be like, “I’m going to speak positive words about myself today. That’s my intention. That’s my focus.” And then I get up, put on my soca music, brush my teeth, whatever. For at least an hour, I don’t get on social media at all. And I promise you, it allowed me to start my day in a much better head space. It allowed me to set the tone for a positive day. And then I’m better prepared. I’m healthier. I’m in a better space to be able to address any negativity that I might encounter because I started from positive instead of starting from negative, and trying to dig myself out of that hole.

CS: And very quickly, if you want a book that can help you to do that – and it’s like only maybe 15 pages of reading, and the rest is just one quote per day – the “Five-Minute Journal”. Somebody gave it to me, and I promise you, I went from having the most negative self-talk, because I’m so competitive. I used to talk down to myself. If my friend spoke to me the way I speak to myself, I would be so mad.

All: [laughter]

CS: Like I used to just beat myself up all the time, right. But once I started using this book, I promise you, it was nothing but positivity being reinforced.

Me: You could get it from Indigo, I believe. They sell it.

CS: Yeah, it’s a great book.

Me: Amazing. Okay, so just being mindful of time, one of our students has a few words to share with you.

*Word of thanks*


Me: We also have a little something for you. It’s a small token of appreciation from us, for volunteering your time and being with us today. Thank you!


– End –

From Canada’s Indigenous Youth to Parkland’s Students: The Power of Youth Activism

Photo: Nicole Brumley

Recently, I had the great privilege of attending the Tina Fontaine Rally in downtown Toronto. In the spirit of solidarity, I showed up to honour the life of Tina Fontaine – a teenaged First Nations girl who was made missing and murdered in August 2014. People in major cities across Canada gathered to protest the jury’s decision to acquit Raymond Cormier, the 56 year-old-year man from Winnipeg responsible for her death. The verdict came less than two weeks after Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley was found not guilty in the murder of another Indigenous youth, Colten Boushie. Considered among the high number of Indigenous women, girls, and LGBTQ2S people made missing and murdered in this country – a national crisis that’s been unresolved for decades – her death renewed calls by activists for the government to conduct a national inquiry into the issue. On that Saturday afternoon, I was pleased to see a large show of support and solidarity by allies from all over the city. The square soon became enamoured with so much love and unity. As thousands joined hands, strangers quickly became friends. The exchange of smiles and greetings were both familiar and comforting. It reminded me that community spaces like this give us the permission to mourn, cry, and heal – together. But more than anything, it left me feeling a great sense of pride and inspiration. The event was organized by Madyson Arscott, a 16-year-old Ojibwe student. Madyson, one year Tina’s senior, was the primary organizer of Saturday’s rally, and used her voice and platform to remind other young Indigenous people that their lives are valued even when faced with discrimination and violence.

“You show more courage walking out the door in the morning than the ones who are trying to silence you their whole lives…there’s resistance in your simple existence…if all you do today is breathe, that is enough.”

– Madyson Arscott

She continued on by saying that the death of Fontaine hit very close to home, which inspired her to action. As her words rang in my ears, hope swelled in my chest. She reaffirmed my belief once again that youth are the true champions of change. Madyson, to me, exemplifies the many youth activists and change makers who are politically and socially engaged in ways well beyond their years. But the truth is, youth are embracing activism across borders, and have been for a long, long time. In the weeks since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that took seventeen lives, a remarkable movement has gathered momentum. Students who survived the shooting are raising their voices to demand greater safety in schools. Conventional wisdom says grown-ups spark social change and the kids merely follow. But if you read between the lines of history books, the opposite is often true. Our youth are the ones organizing, and it’s the adults who are simply following their lead. In fact, young people have been key actors in nearly every major social movement in modern history. At the forefront of these movements, youth have played a central role in influencing their widespread mobilization and success. 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, for example, was the first to pave the way for many during the civil rights movement era. She had refused to give up her seat to a white person on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, nine months before Rosa Parks had. Young activists helped raise awareness of inequality during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Young people drove the Arab Spring protests that toppled dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. And young people were the ones to take to social media spawning the Black Lives Matter movement. Madyson made me think of the many young people in Parkland and across the U.S. presently speaking out and doing the work: writing op-eds, planning walk-outs and teach-ins, talking with journalists and lobbying elected officials, and organizing a nationwide demonstration pressing for American gun law reform. It’s no coincidence that students are leading this outpouring of activism: as young people who have grown up with the fear of mass shootings and regular school lockdown drills, they are at an age of dawning political awareness but not yet cynical about the possibilities for change. As an added bonus, they also understand how tools of mass communication like Twitter can amplify an individual voice. Students are the ones making the bold and brave choice to participate as upstanders and civic agents.

Madyson also made me reflection on my own experience with the youth I work with each and every day in schools. The connection I have with youth is always a refreshing and energizing experience. They openly and generously share their lived experiences, often with so much vigor and emotion. Their stories resonate with me. They are enriching, insightful and profound. Their pain is my pain. Their anger, my anger. Their trauma and brokenness, my own. Their incredible liveliness to bring about change is promising. They thirst for knowledge, and hunger for change. The energy they exude could very well power an entire city. Youth truly are a faithful testament to the powerhouse of resilience in which they wield within. Charged with so much optimism and passion, they make me feel alive. When my energy supply runs low, they refuel my fire. As someone who’s been working with adults within the taxing industrial complex of non-profit organization for some time now, I can honestly say that it dims your light. Luckily for us, youth have the power to give us a much-needed spit-shine from time to time. Youth, unknowingly, guide and motivate me to fight the good fight, and keep on striving. They nourish my will to keep going. Crossing paths with these young individuals is a God-sent. I always look forward to joining them on their journey of embracing their truths, and being true catalysts for change in their schools and communities. Doing this work has taught me the value in supporting our youth. Despite having to face the fact that society continues to fail them (e.g. continuously being wronged by the adults responsible for their wellbeing), I’ve learned that youth also have an unwavering ability to forgive and move forward. They are so forgiving. So, I believe that we owe it to these kids (our future) and to ourselves to do better, and to do right by them. We need to continue investing our time and energy in uplifting their voices. Think about it this way: if we can uplift youth activists like the Parkland teens and praise them for their vision and courage (as we should), then there’s certainly no reason for us not to uplift Indigenous and racialized teens as well, like Madyson Arscott, and so many others just like her.

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