‘Let’s keep up the momentum’ – The Need to Expand Policies for Black Youth
In Fall 2012 I returned to Canada after four years working abroad, and began work on building the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals. Today CEE is the only charity in Toronto exclusively focused on career development for Black youth. It was catalysed by an investment from the Youth Challenge Fund (YCF). YCF was a $46.6-million-dollar fund set up in 2006 in the wake of the 2005 ‘Year of the Gun,’ combining provincial funds with money raised from donors. As I set out building CEE one thing confused me; all the YCF documents kept talking about ‘racialized youth and Afro-diasporic youth.’ I would ask people, “So is this funding specifically for Black youth, or a wider group?” The answer I got was, “We all know this money is about Black youth, but politically it wasn’t possible to explicitly say so.” Often in social service work what you’re doing and what government policy states has some incongruity — it’s not ideal, but you just put your head down and do the work. Thankfully though, things have changed since 2006.
So what changed? A lot of things.
Public policy in Ontario and Canada has evolved, speaking directly about Black youth and their unique needs is now very possible. In 2017 Ontario launched a ‘Black Youth Action Plan’, with attached funding. In 2018 the City of Toronto launched The Toronto Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism, which had a focus area on ‘Children and Youth Development.’ The same year the federal government adopted the UN Decade for People of African Descent and Canadian heritage launched a Community Support for Black Canadian Youth Initiative. Eighteen years after Stephen Lewis named anti-Black racism as the driving cause of the Young Street Riots/Uprising in Toronto, all three levels of government were able to speak about the issue and launched targeted interventions for Black youth. It’s not enough, but it’s a promising start. And much of it was due to continued advocacy and pressure led by community.
The work of Black Lives Matter movement in Canada helped force a public reckoning with the fact that Black Canadians face real systemic barriers in the country. So did seminal research and journalism on the race-based impact of various social issues, such as police ‘carding.’ Also influential was the continued advocacy by Black community groups for culturally-based interventions and disaggregated race-based data collection. This all led to a shift in how government viewed the issue. As one long-time bureaucrat mentioned to me, “Our entire career we were trained to not talk about or present data focused on specific racial groups. We thought doing this would feed stereotypes. But now the understanding has changed.” Changed for the better.
In 2020 Black youth continue to have high levels of unemployment and gaps remain in educational attainment. But we have growing evidence that culturally-focused interventions can change this. A Toronto District School Board (TDSB) initiative around increasing educational attainment for Somali young people was able to increase graduation rates by 27% between 2005 and 2013. Focused efforts by the University of Toronto’s Medical School with the Black Student Application Program led to four times the amount of Black medical students on campus in four years.
When we overcome the Canadian discomfort with talking directly about race, and see policy interventions specifically for Black communities as a core component to creating solutions, we can actually move the dial.
But work remains.
The current reviews into anti-Black racism in the Peel and York School Boards show how discrimination remains stubbornly lodged within some of our core institutions.
The path forward is clear. We need to foster an all-party consensus to support policy responses that name and confront the effects of anti-Black racism. We can’t afford to lose ground on this. We must also continue to demand that these policy interventions are culturally relevant and delivered by culturally-competent staff. But while hiring more Black teachers, social workers, employment councillors, and outreach staff is good, we need a renewed focus on leadership. We need more Black policymakers, political advisors, and senior bureaucrats helping to shape and oversee these strategies. We need to think about how we institutionalize voices within government who can advocate for Black communities, such as is the case with Nova Scotia’s Ministry of African Nova Scotian Affairs. Black folks have been a part of Canada since its inception as a settler-state. But moving beyond Black History to consider Black Futures in Canada, it’s clear we must continue the momentum. Yes, we need broad strategies that improve government services generally and focus on reducing inequities within the entire population. But we also need to expand supports specifically for Black youth, that name anti-Black racism as a unique and destructive force in Canada. This is how we ensure young Black men and women who face barriers but are full of brilliance and skill, like those who graduated our programs at CEE, don’t just survive, but truly thrive.
This blog was originally posted on The Broadbent Blog on February 10, 2020.