Jane-Finch high school students share lived experiences through poetry at high-profile Congress academic conference on creating a better world
Students from high schools in the multi-cultural Jane-Finch area of Toronto are asking to listen and be heard as they take part and share their perspectives on the world by reading their poetry at the prestigious Congress 2023 academic conference hosted by York University May 27 to June 2.
Kamahary Mohamed, 16, said her poem, “I hear myself speaking,” came to her on a day she felt she wasn’t being listened to, and that she hopes it helps those who hear it understand her experience as a Black teenager living in a racially diverse neighbourhood.
“Somebody else that’s not Black may not understand my struggles and I feel like at least with poetry you can put down feelings on paper and give people kind of a gateway to understand what it feels like,” said the Grade 10 student at Emery Collegiate Institute.
Mohamed is one of several students who answered the call to submit poetry on the theme of ‘Reckonings and Re-imaginings’ at this year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. The largest academic conference in Canada will engage more than 9,000 scholars, graduate students, policymakers and community members in an important dialogue about building a world that is safe, equitable and sustainable.
Four participating high schools recommended five senior students who identify as Black or Indigenous to attend two of Congress 2023’s Big Thinking lectures: former Governor General Michaëlle Jean’s lecture about ‘Re-Imagining Black Futures’ and Indigenous filmmaker Alanis Obamsawin’s talk, ‘Seeds of the Future: Climate Justice, Racial Justice, and Indigenous Resurgence.’ Afterward, each speaker will meet the students for a private lunch and conversation.
The high schools are located in the Jane-Finch area adjacent to York’s Keele Campus. One of Toronto’s most racially diverse communities, the area is populated by a high proportion of youth, refugee and immigrant families. To reflect the neighbourhoods and people around it at the highly anticipated conference, York partnered with the community to come up with ideas to have their perspectives reflected over the six-day event.
“This is the best kind of outreach,” said York Prof. Andrea Davis, who is the academic convenor for Congress 2023. “We want to show students they have a voice and a future, while breaking down walls between academia and our wider communities.”
“It’s part of our larger commitment to demonstrating what it means to be a place-based university adjacent to the Jane-Finch community. York University and the Jane-Finch community both emerged in the mid-20th century and our location makes us both unique and co-dependent. As a university, we have a commitment to serve the communities adjacent to our campus and to deal with them ethically and honestly,” she said.
The students will be paired with undergraduate students who also attended high school in their neighbourhood, meeting twice before the conference to build connections.
“It’s so important to give Black people the opportunity to actually see the University,” Mohamed says of the opportunity to imagine a better future. “When you tell somebody that there’s nothing for you long enough, they will believe you, and when there are people telling kids that they are worthless and useless, thugs, they listen.”
Alecia Roach, 17, a Grade 12 student at Downsview Secondary School, said she “wants to soak in the experience” of the event and to be inspired and motivated in her future by “people who are successful that look like us.”
Opportunities to have a platform on a post-secondary campus like York and to absorb the insights of people at the conference on how to build a more equitable and sustainable world are motivating, she said.
“It’s definitely important in terms of exposure – it exposes the youth to something new and, especially for Black youth, it helps us to question and really realize these things are achievable and don’t let anybody try to downplay what you’re doing,” Roach said.
Saraya Elwin, principal at Downsview Secondary School, said she was inspired in her own life by Davis, one of the few Black teachers she encountered when she studied at York as an international student many years ago. Elwin said she chose to stay and work in the Jane-Finch community, which she says is often stereotyped by negative media attention, but has a lot to offer.
“There’s so much greatness that comes out from these so-called priority neighbourhoods but we tend to dwell on the pockets where there is violence,” Elwin said. “There’s a lot of hidden potential and sometimes you forget that because there’s so much bad news.”
Elwin said it’s important for teenagers living near the University to be given opportunities to spend time on campus and experience what it could be like for them.
“Young people are sometimes scared of the unknown. They know the campus exists but a lot of them sometimes feel they don’t have the grades and they’re not good enough – and they actually do have the grades and they are good enough,” she said.
She hopes that those who have the opportunity to attend Congress spread the word to their friends about what they saw and heard there.
“What I hope is that the students who go to the Congress will let the ones know about the amazing opportunities that are available at the school so the Grade 11s and 10s and so forth can have that as a stepping stone.”