Their names are Michelle Bain and Li Koo—but I think of them as Danforth heroes.
Together, Bain and Koo founded Youth Empowering Youth (YEY), an organization with a mission as noble as it is challenging: to give agency to the children in Ontario’s child welfare system.
Bain is a lawyer by trade, as well as YEY’s director. Koo is a professor in Communications at George Brown College, and a recent candidate for the Toronto-Danforth Council seat in Ontario’s provincial election. Both are talented and professionally successful women who have thrown themselves headfirst into addressing the needs of our community.
The problem tackled by these women is, sadly, unsurprising: too many children end up in neglectful—and, often, abusive—foster homes. What is surprising is that money, for a change, isn’t the issue.
Sure, more money would be helpful, but in the way that more money is always helpful. But it would not fix the broken system. Those in the child welfare system need hope and direction. They need to believe that they have a bright future, a chance at happiness and a full life.
This is where YEY steps in. It teaches youth who are in the system about the law and their rights, giving them the tools necessary to leverage this knowledge and spread it to their peers through a mentorship program. Koo and Bain have created a virtuous cycle, one where—true to their organization’s name—youth empowers youth.
It is easy to see why this program is so important: young people who have suffered trauma at the hands of adults are far less likely to trust other adults, but their chances of connecting with someone who can relate to them—someone who has been through similar struggles—is significantly higher.
The Youth Justice Advocates—young people their own age and often with very similar experiences—are an ideal point of contact. Their role is instrumental in conveying all the helpful tools and information they can to the kids who most need it.
Part of the education and training component is also preparedness for employment. Bain and Koo both stress the work ethic and resilience of the children in the system, and their desire to just be able to afford the basics on their own: food, clothes, a safe space. These kids just want to build a life for themselves, and to do that, they need employable skills. YEY seeks to provide them with relevant preparation and connect them with on-site job training and apprenticeship opportunities, and eventually full-time employment to help kick-start careers.
For many of the kids in the system, they are already at a disadvantage in the workforce, even without taking into account their status as Crown wards. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of the youth in the child welfare system are Aboriginal or black—marginalized communities that face daily prejudice even when they are from comparatively healthy and stable families. Even the most affluent communities struggle with racism, sexism, and classism.
“As a person of colour, as a daughter of immigrants—[you recognize] that when you have a lot of -isms, the system’s stacked against you,” says Koo. “So when you’re able to create space [for those individuals], it becomes your mandate.”
Bain, who has faced her own hurdles as a woman of colour, nods in agreement. “But you learn to navigate, learn to figure out what your strengths and abilities are. . . . And these kids are so resilient.”
The Danforth is a neighbourhood that takes care of its own: already YEY has seen support from the local community, and has had help and donations from local individuals and business partners.
All it takes is one person, one dependable individual to extend that olive branch to these young people, and it really roots them. “These kids don’t want a handout—they want a hand up,” Michelle says. “All these kids want to be is gainfully employed, happy citizens. And these are the kids that are going to help other kids in the system through their problems and into stability.”
Part of that stability is, of course, a consistent and safe place to live, which is why YEY also focuses on housing—they recognize the importance of offering young people a clean, safe, and affordable home. They are currently in the process of acquiring a property in the Danforth neighbourhood that can house eight or nine girls between the ages of fifteen to twenty-nine, specifically from the child welfare system.
When canvassing the neighbourhood for her campaign, Koo realized that part of the reason so little was being done was a lack of awareness of the problem. As soon as people learn what’s going on, they are eager and willing to help. The Danforth is a neighbourhood that takes care of its own: already YEY has seen support from the local community, and has had help and donations from local individuals and business partners. The organization is working towards becoming self-sustainable, and Koo stresses the hopefulness of their trajectory.
“Public libraries—thank you!” Koo says emphatically. The local libraries have opened their doors and allowed people in indiscriminately, allowing organizations like YEY to use them as safe and neutral spaces for their educational and training programs.
More than anything, YEY wants people to spread the word across the Danforth community and beyond. “We’re serious about this,” Bain says. “We’re not just talking about solutions, we’re living them.”
Youth Empowering Youth is a not-for-profit organization serving the Danforth community and beyond. To learn more and follow their progress, visit www.tspn-yey.ca.