Joseph Smith (BA ’11, BEd ’12, MEd ’14) is a man who wears many hats. He is a PhD student, an educator, researcher, consultant, volunteer leader and co-founder of Generation Chos3n, a not-for-profit organization that supports young adults in the Jane and Finch community. Following his recent appearance as a panelist on the York University Black Alumni Network (YUBAN) Welcome and Wellness Panel, we caught up with Joseph to learn more about his experience at York and his life beyond graduation.
Why did you choose to study at York?
In high school, I was considered an at-risk student. It changed when I met Mr. Carey, my civics and career teacher who helped get me into the Advanced Credit Experience (ACE) program. This program provided high school students with an opportunity to attend lectures and potentially earn a scholarship at York University. As a high school student attending a political science course on neoliberalism, I loved the content, the professor who taught us and their teaching style. During my time in the program, York also gave me my first job working at the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections. With all my positive experiences being on campus and the university being close to home, the decision to choose York was a no brainer. I continued to stay at York for my graduate studies because I could not leave the professors I met in my undergrad. These individuals were incredible, and they were the ones who changed my life’s trajectory.
Do you have a favourite memory from York?
I went through a traumatic experience during my travels around Europe and was struggling to overcome the aftermath. In my fourth year of university, I met Professor Kulak who curated and delivered books and lectures to help overcome my anxieties and depression. He also helped interrogate my negative thinking and false ideas about myself and the world. This educational experience impacted the way I understand my feelings and how I process my experiences. Meeting him was the catalyst to my pursuit of graduate studies and my desire to become a professor. He is now the supervisor for my dissertation.
As a community leader and an advocate for youth in the Black community, can you talk a bit about your non-profit organization, Generation Chos3n?
I worked at an after-school program in the Jane and Finch community during my master’s. Working in the community has shown me the disconnection the youth felt from pursuing paths similar to mine. I started to think about how I could create more of a conduit so that young adults can see themselves in this space. In my first year of PhD studies, my classes with Professor Kulak made me realize that the program was not doing the things I hoped it would accomplish. I also felt that the program was unable to address issues the youth in the community were experiencing. With my now father-in-law and wife, we contemplated what we could construct to alleviate the barrier that bisects this community: our decision led us to start our non-profit organization named Generation Chos3n. As an organization, we champion the following issues: mental health, emotional intelligence, financial literacy, and civic engagement. We also pride ourselves on showing up to support the community.
Can you recall a tough moment you experienced with Generation Chos3n, and how did you motive yourself or overcome the situation?
When I started Generation Chos3n, I was a full-time graduate student juggling my job as a supply teacher. Anyone would think it’s insane of me to start my own nonprofit organization! When we first started, I funded many of its expenses from my own pockets to run the programs. The young adults in our community have varying needs and range from individuals who experience food insecurity, face homelessness, need assistance from legal issues or require therapy for deeply entrenched mental health issues. As a result, it was hard to start a nonprofit when the organization did not have the necessary networks or resources to support its services for the community. It was hard work in the beginning, but my dedication to investing in the organization has paid off. I can say that we are in a good place. Generation Chos3n is now government-funded, and we are working with many corporate partnerships that believe in our vision. Their support has given us the resource we need to offer free therapy and hire staff to lead conversations about emotional intelligence and financial literacy. We also host virtual and in-person workshops about civic engagement.
What advice would offer to prospective or current students?
To be the light, a change maker, or a leader, you will need to recognize that it will come with deep commitment. The commitment can be your time, energy, resources, comfort, or emotional security. To advance yourself, your community or supporting those who are most in need will require that you be bold enough to be okay with feeling uncomfortable as you overcome obstacles. Also, people often share success in a one-sided manner, but results do not happen overnight. It is being prepared and putting in the effort that will reap dividends.
Is there anything else we should know about you?
My mother was a teacher in Jamaica for 11 years before she came to Canada in 1987. Her credentials were not accepted in Ontario when she applied to be a teacher, so she had to go back to post-secondary school. She decided to go to York because of how the university is accommodating and inclusive. During her studies, she also had a part-time job at the Tim Hortons located next to Scott Library. She graduated during a hiring freeze placed on teachers; as a result, she had to work multiple unsustainable jobs before she received a full-time teacher’s contract. Throughout her journey, I witnessed her resilience firsthand as she pursued her education and career. I hope anyone who reads her story will note the importance of preserving despite how difficult the challenges may seem. I hope you are encouraged that the barriers you will overcome and the sacrifices you will make for your education will create meaningful changes to improve not only your life but those around you.