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Executive Summary
Seeds of Change (SOC) is a project of North York Community House (NYCH) funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF).  It seeks to increase the number of newcomer and low income youth living in northwest Toronto that become meaningfully engaged in their community and start the process of creating solutions to their challenges through the innovative use of participatory action research (PAR) as a tool.  SOC targets change at three levels:

  1. Supporting individual youth to understand what they need to enhance their own lives;
  2. Supporting NYCH to have and use a community development lens for all its work with youth that ties into its theory of change; and
  3. Transformative change at the level of the community as youth take the results of the PAR and mobilize to take collective action.

SOC was implemented from the fall of 2016 to the end of June 2017.  It was supported by a Project Coordinator. In addition, a 7-person Advisory Committee was struck to provide direction and support for the project. Key project activities included:

  1. Peer Recruitment and Selection - seven youth (between 15 and 19 years of age) were selected to be peer leaders.  NYCH staff who work with youth were identified to provide project support;
  2. Peer Leader Training - six modules with over 25 hours of training were held;
  3. Participatory Action Research Activities - two key PAR activities were held - a Democracy Talks focus group and 4 focus groups in schools/during NYCH programming (attended by 47 youth). Coming out of these youth PAR activities, five priority issues were identified:
    a. racism and discrimination; 
    b. safe space at home, school, online and in communities; 
    c. support from parents;
    d. pressure to be an adult; and
    e. mental health
  4. Community Action - with the support of NYCH staff, the peer leaders held a Youth Summit attended by 33 youth. The Summit provided an opportunity for all attendees to deepen their awareness and understanding of the five priority issues identified through the PAR process and to explore what youth want to do about them individually and as a group going forward.

Further to the 5 priority issues identified above, youth also identified the following as issues that matter to them that they would like to further explore:

  • Sexual health, sexism, feminism, gender identity/fluidity, homophobia, etc.
  • Career management, financial literacy, how to do taxes, finding jobs, etc.
  • Self-harm, smoking, drinking, drugs
  • Civic engagement – learning more about our own communities
  • Intergenerational programming – how to effectively communicate with parents

Youth also identified key motivators/facilitators to participant in a program or activity, namely:

  • Program design
  • Cost and financial barriers
  • Proximity
  • Inclusion/safe space

Based on the research conducted by the youth peer leaders as well as the learnings captured from this project, the following list of recommendations were identified for promoting youth civic engagement. Specifically, these recommendations aim to support the development of youth friendly spaces, overcome participation barriers, and meet the needs and interests of youth that NYCH serves, in particular newcomer and racialized youth facing social and economic barriers to engagement:

  • Promote the inclusion of youth in decision-making 
  • Design a youth-led tool kit to support the development of community/civic/collective action 
  • Invest in youth-led programs based on a peer leadership/mentorship model 
  • Provide specific youth programming for newcomers and first generation new Canadians 
  • Utilize social media platforms such as Facebook or Instagram to engage youth while still recognizing the importance of face-to-face programming 
  • Build relationships and strategies by hosting a youth-led youth summit that provides youth the opportunity to network and learn together

The project surfaced priority issues of concern to youth, which pave the way to potential future opportunities to engage in collective action.  Peer leaders expressed strong interest in continuing to work on the identified issues using PAR.  Staff, too, are keenly committed to developing and using a community development lens for all youth programming. The project points to the need to take time for community development work (and yet keep momentum going), engage youth to work together and make work accessible and meaningful.

The SOC project received high marks from its participants in terms of both processes used and meaningfully moving the needle on achievement of project goals. The data for the evaluation clearly indicate that SOC has had an important and positive impact on the lives of the peer leaders, both in terms of learning new things, fostering self-confidence and allowing for meaningful connections to be formed. This last point is of special importance - youth have a strong desire to connect with others in their lives.  This desire for connection is simple – the chance to develop and express empathy, care for others, form meaningful friendships (that perhaps go beyond the “screen” and the relatively impersonal experience of social media), and to create more loving environments in their lives.
North York Community House will endeavour to incorporate these findings into our youth program frameworks and for future youth projects and initiatives going forward while also hoping to share these results so that others may also implement the strong recommendations and voices of the youth participating in this project in their own initiatives. 

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