Too often our municipal leaders overlook or ignore the disadvantaged youth of Ontario, resulting in missed opportunities for these youngsters to forge strong connections to educational and employment opportunities. On Monday, August 18th, WSIC was fortunate to host three guest speakers who were both devoted to fixing these oversights and happy to discuss municipal policies for “at-risk youth” with our WSIC audience. They were: Steven Ambrose, the founder of the Canadian Basketball Academy and Bruiser’s Foundation, Andray Domise, a community organizer and currently running for councillor in Ward 2, and Maura Lawless, the Director of 519 Church Street Community Centre, a public-private partnership with the City of Toronto.
Steven and Andray shared personal stories about growing up in rough neighbourhoods and in difficult circumstances, yet both were able to overcome these challenges and are currently making great things happen in their professional lives and for their communities. Of note, is that both Steven and Andray credit their success by “getting out” of their respective communities and having powerful influences outside of their own circles.
Andray took issue with the term “at risk,” arguing that the term sometimes ends up defining people. By labelling youth as “at risk” we immediately draw a low expectation for them. Instead, Andray proposes a more realistic term “youth without opportunities”. Andray highlighted the difference between kids in high and low income neighbourhoods. He stressed that communities who invest in children, whether through libraries, school programs or sports end up with adults who are significantly better off. He also spoke about how entire industries should be promoted instead of single jobs: e.g., there are only a few basketball players but many trainers, coaches, marketers, physic therapists, accountants all supporting the sports industry.
Steven’s Canadian Basketball Academy currently supports 1200 children and is on its way to raising $1 million this year through donations. Steven has pledged that no child will be turned away due to financial circumstances. The foundation further supports a prep school, which promotes education as well as giving kids the opportunity to play sports, all while elevating the quality of Canadian basketball talent. Through this basketball initiative, Steven keeps kids in school and has seen success stories he is proud to call his own. He was able to get out of his own situation thanks to positive influences in his life and through the CBA, Steven has become a positive influence in the lives of hundreds of young people. Interestingly, Steven pointed out that focusing on young girls has become a priority for him. As girls grow up, they usually lose interest in sports.
Maura devotes her time to the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bi Transgender) community, an overrepresented group of youth in need of assistance and support. Many youths leave their home due to family rejection and they have no support system or shelter that is specifically geared towards catering to LGBT needs. The 519 Community Centre is one of the few places available that specifically helps people in the LGBT community. They provide support for members of the community both through jobs skills and preparation programs as well as through education with other organizations on how to interact with LGBT people. Maura stressed that access is a fundamental right and that ultimately great leadership is what will create the public policy we need to better the outcomes for members of society.
The open discussion was covered a variety of topics such as how to best engage the general public on these issues, the role of inclusive education (such as no space in history curriculums for black contributions to Canadian society), the focus on prevention of possible risk issues versus dealing with problems once they’ve already risen, and what specifically the speakers want to see implemented from our city leaders. Andray pointed out that when a child is put in front of a television, all but Caucasian males have a lower sense of self esteem after 30 minutes. Despite our best efforts, media must take a greater responsibility in how gender and race is portrayed if these programs are to build up youth for success.
On the municipal front, the request from all three speakers was simple. They recognized that funding is always an issue and the pool is not infinite. A simple removal of barriers was all they asked for.
Removing barriers was a key theme: by giving people opportunities, our community and city succeeds as a whole and more diverse groups produce better quality results.