Black History Month 2019: Better Mental Health for Black Youth
YouthREX offers a range of services to support youth workers and meaningfully improve the lives of youth across the province. This blog series profiles organizations and stakeholders who have accessed program supports and capacity building services. Through YouthREX’s Youth Program Supports, the profiled organizations have accessed evaluation and program design services.
Imagine living in a world where the voices of young people hold weight.
Imagine a world where young people are treated as the experts of their own lives.
What possibilities does a world like that hold?
What innovative solutions could we come up with to meaningfully address the problems young people in Ontario face?
The RITES program challenges us to ask questions like this. Housed within Central Toronto Youth Services (CTYS), RITES is a culturally-specific, identity-development initiative that supports the empowerment of Black and African-Canadian youth between the ages of 13 and 18. The program focuses on improving mental health outcomes for Black youth. Participants have access to a range of coordinated mental health clinical and program supports and resources, available in both school and community settings.
Vanessa Lackraj and Kevin Rambally are both program coordinators at RITES. Listening to Kevin and Vanessa talk is like listening to an exceptionally well crafted how-to guide on what counts as good youth work practice. After all, lived experience is evidence and, in their reflections, they offer valuable insights on creating meaningful supports for young people. They both have long histories working with young people. In the past, Kevin worked on programming for LGBTIQ youth, while Vanessa’s work focused on youth experiencing homelessness or living in care. Both of them made the decision to work specifically with Black youth after, as Vanessa put it, “we got tired of constantly seeing young people who are Black fall through the cracks.” At RITES they have the opportunity to work in a program that puts Black youth at the centre and works alongside them to address the mental health challenges they face.
A recurring point in the conversation with Vanessa and Kevin is the importance of creating spaces where Black youth can be their authentic selves. The truth is, in Ontario, as in Canada overall, we still feel the echoes of the past. Colonization and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade contour present Black life. They have contributed to anti-Black racism and systemic inequalities that affect Black life for youth in Canada. The devastating result being the ongoing devaluation of Black life. RITES begins by looking closely at how Black youth move through the world. It doesn’t turn its eye away from youth’s experiences with racism, stigma, and discrimination. Rather, it asks how all these experiences might interact with mental health and impact the lives of young people. Most importantly, it gives weight to the lived experiences of youth and considers this in developing solutions to the problems they face.
In this context, the importance of spaces where young people can be their authentic selves can’t be understated. Kevin provided valuable insight:
“Young people navigate difficult environments every day. For racialized youth even places like school can be challenging. Black youth report being unfairly typecast as disruptive troublemakers. They feel misunderstood. This has implications for their mental health and how they move through school environments. The program helps youth to be able to articulate what’s really happening for them in a safe space, with guidance from staff.”
The RITES program gives youth an opportunity to also talk about mental health in relation to their Blackness, using an intersectional and nuanced approach. It gives youth the opportunity to demystify the ways that mental health is discussed in relation to Black people in Canada.
Black History Month is drawing to a close, but for organizations working with Black youth in Ontario, this doesn’t signal the end of thinking about Black futures. Vanessa concluded our conversation with this necessary observation: “Black youth are smart, they bring a tremendous amount to the table. Our goal as a program is to highlight the brilliance and to make the path ahead easier for them.”