Thinking we know what is best for youth without considering their lived experiences can inhibit their visions of their future selves

Josslyn Gabriel

author headshotIn Canada, the tendency to pressure youth to get serious about what they want to do with the rest of their lives is ever present. The education system tends to be career-motivated, structurally merit-based and unforgiving of the developmental changes youth experience. The risk of thinking, as adults, that we always know what is best for youth – especially without consideration of cultural context – is that we can stunt career exploration inside or outside of school. This is not a risk we should be willing to take.

X-Impact strives to dismantle some of these barriers for students, while creating tools and opportunities for youth agency in the interest of students’ mental health, wellness, self-advocacy and social consciousness. Our Youth Activator Hubs program provides a community for youth to think and act in their best interests outside of school. We have developed a concept that uplifts and supports youth voices and their initiatives.

Looking beyond the file

A few years ago, I had the privilege to work with a young girl whom I’ll call Jayden. Jayden, who was in an alternative education program, lived in a low-income area. She was 14 and had not been in school the year prior; this was her first time back in a classroom setting. This student had a large file that would follow her from school to school, detailing her trauma as if her experiences were meant to have a warning label for her future educators and support workers. This limited her ability to believe she could lead a life with purpose. She was able to tell me all of the things that she was not good at, but would never speak positively about herself.

Students like Jayden who are deemed to not “have their life together” at an early age are often channelled into a lifetime of minimum wage work, and thus believe that this is all that is possible for them. The system ignores the fact that people have the ability to grow, change and develop, especially children and youth.

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Jayden was a phenomenal storyteller and her art was amazing. She was great with numbers, but always received low math grades because she could not show her work, and so she believed she was bad at math. She did not put capitals where they belonged, and so she thought she was not good at English. Her grades never accounted for her attention to detail, her memory, her ability to quickly solve problems and her impressive vocabulary.

Jayden was motivated to do well in school through connection and genuine investment. Authority and trust were not earned by being the oldest in the room or the one with the title. Jayden was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, so just demanding she complete a task was not enough. This structure does not work for any student who has distrust or lack of respect for authority figures.

We forget what a privilege it is to feel safe and respected in a classroom. While the other educators and support workers had read Jayden’s file, I chose to learn about her at her pace. There are pros and cons to reading a student’s file. By reading about the student’s history, an educator could get a sense of how to prepare their teaching dynamic to meet a student’s needs. However, this is also a permanent file that educators can use to pigeonhole students, in a way that does not allow for an equal relationship to be built between student and teacher. I often think back and wonder if, when I was a teenager, I would have appreciated everyone having access to my most vulnerable moments without my consent or awareness.

Systemic issues restrict future possibilities

I wish I could say that this anecdote about my student was rare, but there are classrooms full of students with similar stories. Many students get lost in large classrooms and they believe by 14 to 16 years old that they have nothing to offer, with no future ahead of them. Canadian and international research shows that youth in low-income communities face socioeconomic barriers that restrict them from pursuing post-secondary opportunities in education, training and meaningful employment (Gilmore, 2010; Lyche, 2010).

The data reveals the outcomes of inadequate support. In 2018, Indigenous youth made up 43% of admissions to correctional services, while only representing 8% of the population. Ninety-four percent of Black youth reported that they would like to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, but only 60% thought they could. Black Canadians are also more likely than non-racialized Canadians to be unemployed (Statistics Canada, 2018).

“We forget what a privilege it is to feel safe and respected in a classroom.”

How can educators and support workers mitigate these outcomes by teaching priority youth to rely on a system that is based on inequities? With Jayden, it took me one school year and a lot of positive affirmation to support her in knowing that she had choices and was capable of anything beyond educational walls.

While there are a number of barriers that affect families and youth on the individual level, many are systemic and correlated with race, class, education and lack of access. They affect Black, Indigenous and racialized youth disproportionately. With Canadian school dropout rates sitting at roughly 50% or more in the lowest-income communities (Statistics Canada, 2018), the economic discrimination against Black, Indigenous and racialized children not only affects their individual growth but robs them of the progression and development of their communities (Frankle, 2020). We need to think about these statistics as push-out rates (Dei, Mazzuca, McIsaac, and Zine, 1997) rather than dropout rates, as it is the education system pushing these students out of classrooms by not believing in their potential.

A call to action

Representation and culturally specific supports are essential for youth, especially those living in under-resourced communities. A curriculum that does not account for these needs can negatively impact students’ mindsets toward learning and their future ambitions. X-Impact’s Youth Activator Hubs strive to combat some of these concerns by taking a student-centred approach. We focus on advocating and co-creating with BIPOC youth to have more culturally relevant programming, in order to support their growth and potential in the highest form. We also ensure that when we are engaging with youth about their future aspirations and careers, we remember the developing adolescent attached to those decisions, as well as their lived experiences.

All youth have the right to figure out their futures with the same unconditional support and belief we give youth who seemingly have it “together.” It is no longer enough to assume that everyone is coming from the same starting point. It is important to take up privilege and positionality when we are teaching youth about career development and it is vital we do so in a way that supports and empowers all youth.

Josslyn Gabrielhas completed a Master’s in Social Justice Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto. Gabriel is now the executive director of X-Impact, where she focuses on youth advocacy and program development, such as their new Youth Activator program that specializes in youth wellness, self-advocacy, as well as civics and career engagement as it pertains to underserved communities.


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Dei, G. J., Zine, J., Mcisaac, E., & Mazzuca, J. (1997). Reconstructing Drop-Out: A Critical Ethnography of the Dynamics of Black Students’ Disengagement from School. University of Toronto Press.

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