Youth spaces – if we bring our best selves to this, we can get this done

Posted on 22. Jan, 2014 by in Background, Updates

During this budget cycle, City Council will be discussing the possibility of adding new youth spaces to our community centres. Individuals and groups across the city have been pushing for close to two years to make this a reality, and we are determined to see it happen. We are also determined to see it done right.

In October 2013, we worked with Frontline Partners with Youth Network to bring together 12 youth workers from different parts of Toronto for a ‘think tank’ on best practices in youth spaces. Over a very inspiring three hours, the city’s brilliant, skilled and committed youth workers shared what they consider to be the core elements of youth space. We should all listen very carefully.

To start, they helped us define what ‘youth space’ is and what it isn’t. Youth space isn’t a registered program that begins and ends—it’s not six weeks of dance classes or a set of art lessons. It’s also not a drop-in basketball program that takes place for a few hours every day or week. We are not arguing that youth spaces should replace any of the above—they are all important. Youth spaces should be seen, instead, as a necessary complement. A place where youth—including those with unaddressed needs and strengths—can go after a program is over.

As youth workers at the think tank made clear, a youth space is a reliable and safe space to be, with consistent staff and consistent hours, open a minimum of five days a week. Youth can show up as themselves, as who they are in that moment—sad, happy, scared, in crisis, needing to talk, wanting to be quiet, ready to spend time with friends, looking for a referral to a particular service, looking for help with homework or a job search, wanting a healthy meal—be welcomed, and get what they need.

To make this happen, youth spaces must engage the complex realities faced by youth in Toronto with clarity, skill and deep care. This means clean, bright, open and welcoming spaces. It also means staff with the intense, ongoing training and space for reflection needed to unpack and engage systemic injustices. The history and ongoing realities of colonialism. The way racialized youth are often ‘criminalized’—treated like criminals by different institutions on a daily basis. Experiences of war and migration. Experiences of racism, ableism, gender violence, homophobia and transphobia. The layered consequences of personal, historical and collective trauma. Economic injustice resulting in a lack of access to basic resources like safe, stable shelter and food. The list goes on.

Staff must also have the knowledge, context, skills and support needed to deal with realities like family violence, violence between youth, substance use, pregnancy, STIs— whatever situation walks in the door.And, of course, youth spaces must engage the enormous talents, skills, creativity and cultural assets of youth. This means stocking art supplies; collective creative projects (youth from the St. Stephen’s Community House Youth Arcade, for example, have published three books); discussion groups; homework supports; skill building opportunities, including around employment, and much more. This means culture-related training for staff in partnership with community organizations. It means staff who listen to youth, share knowledge and create opportunities for collective learning. And it means spaces where youth have a meaningful say in the physical set-up, and day-to-day activities.

None of this will be easy. And the City doesn’t have to—and should not—go it alone. We have provided detailed recommendations to City Council’s Community Development and Recreation Committee about the role of a robust and resourced community advisory group in shaping, evaluating and improving youth spaces over time. We would also recommend adding members who can speak to the dynamics of specific neighbourhoods once locations have been chosen. In addition, we have provided recommendations around collaborating with community groups and organizations around anti-racism, anti- oppression, and culture-related training. Finally, we have recommended that youth spaces involve a number of City departments in addition to Parks, Forestry and Recreation. To name a few: Social Development and Finance Administration; Toronto Employment and Social Services and Toronto Public Health.

In addition, the City should not plan for youth spaces that are anything less than great. It was suggested at a budget committee meeting in January that we should resource new youth spaces of “moderate quality”. Youth is a critical stage in life. The potential pitfalls are deep and the barriers are numerous. We require best practices to achieve positive results. These are our children. We should not, and will not, settle for anything less than what is required to achieve excellence.

A small number of fantastic youth spaces exist already in the city, and there are countless talented workers from Parks, Forestry and Recreation who do great work with youth. If the City works closely with them, with a range of youth workers city-wide, with organizations and with communities —if we all bring our best selves to this—we can build beautiful, permanent spaces that make life better for our city’s youth. And we will.

To read the report from the youth spaces think tank, please visit:

http://www.communityrecreationforall.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/youth-space- reportnov13th.pdf

Amy Katz, on behalf of the steering committee for Community Recreation for All

Bridget Sinclair, Manager of Youth Services, St. Stephen’s Community House

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