Speaking Up: Youth Voice & Ontario’s Black Youth Action Plan
In February of 2017, the Ontario Ministry of Child and Youth Services launched the 47-million-dollar Ontario Black Youth Action Plan (OBYAP) to tackle the barriers that Black youth in Ontario face. NOISE program participant, YouthREX Research Intern, and student at Emery Collegiate Institute, Benjamin attended the OBYAP community launch and a number of the consultation sessions. His experience ended up being focused on advocating for a youth-centred space within the BYAP consultations. We asked Benjamin to share some of his thoughts and reflections on this experience in this blog.
Can you describe your impressions and experiences with the first consultation session? Why did you think it was so important for a youth only consultation space for the BYAP community consultation sessions?
Benjamin: The questions were catered for adults in social work but when the adults see a youth they assume that a youth should know the answers since it’s supposed to be about them, even if it wasn’t meant for them. I felt that the language and adult-centred space would be challenging for most youth to feel like they could participate.
After pointing out how I felt to the adults in my group (with some pushing from Cyril, YouthREX’s Curriculum Specialist) the discussion began to improve and we seemed to be finding an answer. All in all, I had a good time because I learned a few things about youth that I didn’t know before. However, I felt that there should have been more time in order for a proper discussion to begin.
You ended up sharing your recommendation, advocating for youth-centered space, at the OBYAP launch to over 400 people during the open floor session. What did that feel like?
“While I was speaking, I had cold sweats. I was nervous, and it was not so much about speaking out but, more so about not sounding stupid. Thankfully, I wasn’t asking bad questions and people seemed interested in them. I was surprised. I didn’t think people would share the same thoughts as I did. I certainly didn’t expect my ideas to be implemented either. It was interesting seeing the discussion questions evolve and helping create a better environment for dialogue.”
I found it interesting with my first community-wide advocacy (even though it didn’t feel like advocacy) and I was very surprised at the outcomes. I feel like a part of advocacy starts with a person not liking something. This causes them to talk to others about it or start thinking about how to make things better. I feel like this is the starting point because after that you can either complain about what you don’t like and leave it, or begin to think of improvements. Then comes the hardest part, telling the right people about it.
Was it difficult to speak to “the right people” about your observation?
Benjamin: I was opposed to voicing my opinions to the Minister, his assistant, or the person facilitating the BYAP meetings. Thoughts like “it’s not important, what impact will I make, or someone else will do it instead” were really preventing me from speaking out. Thankfully, I had people (my dad and Cyril, YouthREX’s Curriculum Specialist) pushing me forward and encouraging me to speak out on those occasions.
“So I went and spoke but with an “I highly doubt anything will change, but I lose nothing for speaking out” mentality. I ended up speaking w/Minister Coteau, and later followed up with Danavan Samuels, OBYAP project lead to share my ideas on rephrasing the consultation questions. I later learned that my voice was one of the many that led to the creation of youth-focused spaces and clarification of some of the consultation questions.”
At your third BYAP community event, you had a bit of a frustrating experience. Can you share what happened?
I had high hopes for this session because the last two meetings I went to were welcoming… I decided in my head that I was going to sit back and kind of watch over what was happening because I’ve already experienced the meeting twice. I picked a table that seemed to already have a discussion going and watched. Everything seemed fine until we needed to start answering some of the questions. There was an older man who had an attitude that felt like “I’m right, you’re wrong and that’s just how it is”. This mindset is terrible for group discussions because discussions are for finding ideas and hopefully coming up with an answer. When someone else came up with an idea, he would take that idea and began debating with them if he didn’t agree with them and at one point, it almost escalated to an argument.
How did you respond to this?
Benjamin: While seeing all of this I decided to stay quiet because I didn’t want to start an argument and because I just didn’t feel comfortable in the area. The older man didn’t like that so he’d repeatedly tap my chair or shoulder while trying to get me to answer. I hated it so much and I wanted to tell him off about it but, I didn’t want to start a problem so I stayed quiet…. I realized that all those times teachers and other people said “one person can ruin it for everyone” meant.
How does this connect with a broader issue of making space for youth voice?
“This ageism silences our youth and makes them consider going to other places to voice their ideas and opinions with people who are more likely to listen or agree with them. This is sad because a lot of the wisdom that the elderly and other adults can provide is ignored due to this repeated treatment of the youth.”
What advice would you give to adult allies working with or engaging youth?
Benjamin: I would just like to tell anyone who is in a position to help a young person, that if they try to speak to you, make sure to properly listen and take everything they say seriously. The most important thing is to be there for them especially if you’re an adult because finding good people to talk to is tough as a youth. Sometimes it is better for them to talk to someone with more experience than another youth, who may not be able to help as much them in the long run.