Reflection on the Black Youth Leadership Program

By Monica Tonlé

During Summer 2020, a time when it was beyond easy to feel helpless, I participated in the Black Youth Leadership Program(BYLP), an experience that changed my life.

I have always been a person that tries to bring out the best in the world, and if it is not there to create it. In that spirit, during 2019's summer, I was a volunteer at an Elderly center. It wasn't easy, but when you could see the smiles you brought to the residents' faces, it was all worth it. As we, sadly, all know, the pandemic was especially deadly for older folks and even more for those in centers. If I'm completely honest, I was angry, furious. I knew that when I would come back, a lot of the friends I made wouldn't be there anymore, not because of lack of effort from the staff- unique humans that are doing their best on a tight budget and staff- no, but because they weren't valued enough. Put back to the level of unfortunate casualties. But all my bubbling apathy was only tempered by the fact that I was utterly powerless. We all know this feeling, wanting to DO something, but it seems so much out of our control, as if the dices have already been rolled, and the results of the match are simply being presented to you.

With that in mind, I searched for programs to teach me how to create a change, and out of pure luck and family WhatsApp groups, I found the perfect fit.

The Black Youth Leadership Program is run as a three-session workshop delivered to 12 cohorts in its first year. During the three sessions, participants were shown what elements are necessary to create change in their community. In the first session, Tactics and Strategies, individuals were encouraged to think of things that needed to be changed and tactics to overcome challenges. In the second session, Public Narrative, participants were taught how to tell their stories with emotion to get others invested in the change they are trying to make. Lastly, In the third session, Building a Team, participants were shown how to recruit others by connecting on shared values, exploring resources and shared interests, and gaining commitment from others to pursue a movement. (2019, FYI)

This initiative was created by a partnership between ICL and the For Youth Initiative (FYI) and taught 200+ other participants much more than I can write in such a short paragraph. I remember being downright amazed at the ease with which Sandra Whiting, the lead instructor, spoke to us of change and the power we held as Black youth. I hadn't heard a message like that yet. There have always been empty words of opportunistic "allyship" aimed at my community. But to hear hope verbalized with such candour and by a person who looked like me was completely different, transformative. 

The pull to celebrate our achievements despite the pandemic brought a group of 8 students- aged from 15 to 24 years old- to organize a celebratory end-of-course event with the help of FYI and ICL staff. For most of us, putting together the celebration was our first experience with event planning, and in doing so, we gained so much wisdom and confidence.

"My experience in BYLP was great and something I won't forget. The BYLP program allowed me to meet various people with unique backgrounds and personalities, the stories they had to share enhanced the program. The people I met had points of view I never really thought about; this opened my eyes to different aspects and problems in the Black community. Overall it was a great experience."
- Lamin Sillah, a participant in the BYLP and an organizer of the virtual celebration.

As said above, with the BYLP, I was a student, an event organizer, and a facilitator (now I even work for ICL; Black Youth Leadership Program to Institute for Change Leaders pipeline, much?). My time as a facilitator allowed me to witness the other side of the training and truly measure the sometimes remarkable growth we observed in the York-South-Weston students, an underserved community in Toronto, from which most participants came. We managed to create, especially in the breakout groups, such a safe space that a student came out during the storytelling class. Others talked of complex or wondrous events in their life. We all learned from others resilience and courage in the face of adversity.

"My involvement with the Black Youth Leadership Program has been a refuge for me amidst the global pandemic. It has given me a feeling of belonging with aspiring change-makers."
- Elijah Gyansa, participant and youth facilitator

Everything we learned throughout this program is stored in our heads. As all the participants grow up, there will inevitably come a moment, sooner than later, where we'll need to use our change-making abilities and then, like magicians pulling rabbits out of their hats, we'll utilize our Leadership skills.

Ps: I like to joke by telling the true story that, at first, I thought we had to pay 80$ to participate in the program. I then found out we would be given an 80$ honorarium and not the opposite. I smiled and realized that I'd won 160$ and knowledge for change.

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The Institute for Change Leaders is a Canadian registered charity that can issue official donation receipts (no. 763310679 RR 0001). ICL is brought to you by the Faculty of Community Services at Toronto Metropolitan University.

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