Terence D’Souza and Katelyn Wang founded Young Ontarians United to make a ‘new normal’

It was obvious to Terence D’Souza and Katelyn Wang early in the COVID-19 pandemic that young people were hurting, and certain communities more than others. So they sought to understand that and create tools to help fix it.

Ultimately, the two want to reimagine the youth systems provided by the state — such as schools, child welfare, youth mental health services, and workforce development — with young people themselves centred in the alternative creation.

“Young people are part of these institutions, we encounter these problems every day, yet our voices are not actually considered or consulted when programs and policies are being made,” said D’Souza, director of Young Ontarians United, which the third-year university students co-founded to deliver on that ambition.

The group made up of a dozen volunteers will next week release a wide-ranging report detailing their work collecting and amplifying the voices of youth, which D’Souza and Wang discussed with Canada’s National Observer recently.

It includes the synthesis of around 500 responses to a comprehensive survey, as well as insight gleaned from initial community consultations and a trio of “design jams” involving a total of around 50 young people discussing possible solutions to problems in health, employment and community engagement.

A primary takeaway from their research is that a comprehensive recovery requires defining a new normal, which in the long-term, involves youth-led solution-building that takes advantage of their inherent innovation to help solve their own challenges.

Wang said it was “really eye-opening” to hear the varied experiences of marginalized youth during the process.

“Individuals were vulnerable, very sensitive personal issues were raised, (and) I think they realized that we were here to only try to do as much good as possible and to also learn what that looked like,” said Wang, who is studying pathobiology and global health at the University of Toronto.

“It’s been a very experiential learning process for us,” added D’Souza, who back in May or June last year had sought the advice of the founder of a grassroots youth organization in York Region called L.I.G.H.T., who introduced him to Wang, a member of that group.

The upcoming report they co-authored pays particular attention to the needs of youth of colour, womxn-identified young people, those in care, youth with disabilities, 2SLGBTQ+ youth, rural and remote youth, and newcomer experiences and the intersections between these identities in relation to education, employment, health, and well-being.

“There’s an inequity that’s present that’s preventing access for many communities across Canada,” Wang said. “That was something that we thought was very pressing.”

A lot of youth they heard from felt isolated and disconnected from their community, she said, which can be exacerbated by poor internet connection limiting opportunities to socialize, study or work online.

Some respondents, meanwhile, spoke of being forced to leave a job or risk their health in public-facing work, or of struggling to connect confidentially with health-care providers in homes that lack privacy. Those who could not afford the personal protective equipment required to access many public spaces found it difficult to get groceries.

Many were concerned about the continuity of their education and expected more reciprocal empathy and compassion from educators they knew were also struggling, and the report recommends providing teachers and professors with more resources to engage remotely.

Listening was really important, Wang said; they were not there to instruct or demand anything of the youth who engaged in their work, but instead to provide agency and co-creation opportunities.

Among recommendations the group plans to take to the provincial ministry for children and social services and others are calls for youth in care to be made primary consultants in a move towards a readiness-based system for the sector to replace the current age-based system that ignores their individual needs.

They also want to see existing text-based services for remote health care become much more widespread, and for health communication to be available in text-to-speech and captioned formats.

Young women in particular recommended employers commit to implementing flexible work arrangements that take into account the rising amount of unpaid work they are more likely to carry.

D’Souza said they also want to engage municipal governments and other youth-serving organizations that could take the knowledge and insight they’ve collected and build programs around their recommendations.

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