Empowering East Asian Youth to Speak Up
When it comes to educating and engaging youth in social justice, there are sociocultural factors to take into consideration, especially when youth are from racialized communities. East Asian youth not only face the typical barriers that other young people do, but they also face historically influenced norms of not ‘rocking the boat’ and the myth of the model minority – a narrative that tries to convince everyone, including East Asians, that East Asian communities are excelling at school/work and personal life, and not facing any issues. This narrative perpetuates the image of East Asian people as quiet and docile, making it abnormal for them to speak up or raise a concern. These conventions consequently silence those who are hurting or seeking help. They also make it difficult for East Asians to ask questions and explore topics that are considered taboo in East Asian communities.
To encourage these conversations, the Live Well, Take Action: Ambassador Program for East Asian Youth was created to empower East Asian youth to become agents of social change, and to reconnect – or connect for the first time – with their identities as racialized people in Canada. The after-school initiative was implemented at different high schools across the Greater Toronto Area and included workshops that focused on subject matters not often discussed in East Asian communities, such as racism, mental health, and homophobia. The importance of wellbeing was emphasized throughout the program, as it was an integral theme in recognizing how experiences of oppression affected one’s sense of self.
2020 participants at Pierre Elliott Trudeau High School.
To cultivate a safe space where East Asian youth could express themselves and relate to one another, the program centered on East Asian narratives in a Canadian context. While there are distinct cultural aspects among East Asian nations, many of them share similarities in lived experiences, which allowed participants to bond and understand each other’s stories and reflections.
In addition to engaging in workshops, the Live Well, Take Action program tasked youth participants with developing group projects that highlighted issues affecting East Asian people. These projects were featured at community venues and acted as a vehicle for youth to practice speaking up and advocating for others. This program aspect was intended to strengthen the youth’s voices and build their confidence in confronting topics as part of their journeys in allyship and solidarity.
Live Well, Take Action participants at the program’s Student Celebration in 2022.
Now that the Live Well, Take Action program has completed its last and fourth run in 2022, its hope is that it has inspired youth to continue living well and taking action in fighting social injustices.
To carry on its impact, we’re excited to share the following five lessons learned from our program’s success in working with racialized youth:
1. Make discussions and activities relevant!
Personalize storytelling and sharing ideas as much as possible. Use guiding questions and prompts to ask youth to be precise with their thoughts so they can better reflect on their lived experiences.
To further support this growth, adult facilitators are encouraged to be vulnerable with youth by leading with their personal accounts. This models the introspective behaviour needed to partake in un/relearning, as well as a means to build trust and connection between youth and adults.
2. Be inclusive with program recruitment by attracting different kinds of participants.
In many racialized communities, there are significantly large newcomer populations, as Canada has a reputation of welcoming immigrants. It is important to include and acknowledge newcomer youth because there is often a relational gap between them and those who were born or grew up in Canada.
Another type of youth who are sometimes overlooked are those who are perceived as quiet or consider themselves to have zero experience in extracurricular activities. The exclusive nature of school clubs and teams discriminate against youth who do not fall under the ‘outgoing’ and ‘confident’ stereotypes of student leaders. Some youth have yet or just begun to recognize their potential, and they just need a gentle nudge to join such programming.
3. Make sure that there’s a balance of autonomy and structure in designing activities and tasks for youth.
For instance, youth may have exciting ideas for projects, but it is worthwhile to provide guidance and tools in the planning and implementation process. Foster creativity among youth while informing them of the challenges they may face.
Seeing their ideas come to life allows them to gain confidence through their achievements. This self-competence is particularly critical in fighting social injustices, as the path towards equity and liberation is an arduous one that requires a lifelong commitment.
4. Do not expect all youth to be at a similar pace of learning with social justice issues.
Some may resonate more with experiences of oppression while others don’t or are not ready to do so. Be mindful that there may be layers of trauma, lack of experience, or discomfort with discussing certain topics.
Wherever they are at in their journeys, equip youth with the vocabulary and concepts of intersectionality, oppression, and privilege so they can feel more comfortable and confident engaging in discussions about social justice.
5. Make it fun!
Reflecting on heavy topics can be overwhelming or distressing. Whether it is by using appropriate humour or providing delicious snacks, find ways to lighten up the mood and let youth relax by giving them a break from the mentally tough work of challenging injustices. This includes interactive activities for youth to learn and laugh with one another.
Visit the Live Well, Take Action program website to check out student projects and snapshots of events, or follow Live Well, Take Action on Instagram or Twitter. For a detailed account of the program’s impact on youth and community, download the evaluation report.