Pathways, School Community

Marginalized Youth and Education: Voices from Regent Park

They say I’m less than average
They say I can’t succeed
Because I live in Regent Park
They say there’s just no need.

Excerpt from a poem called, They Say, written by Zeinab Mohamed, then aged 14 and a Grade 8 student at Nelson Mandela Park School in 2003-04.

Former Regent Park resident and Pathways’ alumnus Andrew remembers the incident well and considers it a defining moment in his life.

It was 1999, just prior to the establishment of Pathways. Andrew, then 13 or so, was on his way home from a skit put on by 51 Police Division’s Community Partnerships office. The skit, ironic given what was to transpire, was born in the early days of community policing and illustrated the tension felt between Regent’s community members and the police. It was intended to forge better relationships with the people who lived in the community by getting to know them better, engaging with them, dealing with them as individuals. After all, not all of Regent’s youth were drug dealers, petty criminals on their way to a life of violent crime – many of them were just plain good kids, some of them in the wrong place at the wrong time. So it was for Andrew and his friend.

As the two young teens were walking away from the event, they were nabbed by police, frisked, more than a little roughed up, and held briefly in connection with a car robbery that had taken place moments before, near 51 Division. They tried to explain where they had been, only to be told to quiet down. They were scared and shaken up.

Andrew (not his real name) came to Canada as a refugee from Kosovo two years prior to the incident with the police, with his parents, one brother, and two sisters. He came from a place where folks made every effort to avoid such confrontations. In Kosovo, to see the police show up in your neighbourhood meant almost certain danger, and potentially even death. Most of Andrew’s male family members had had violent run-ins. As a result, this incident was particularly traumatizing for Andrew, and it upset his parents greatly.

This could have been a turning point for Andrew, and in a way it was. Andrew was pretty shaken up. Relations between the police and youth in Regent Park were not good – some would say downright hostile. Quite often, young people who experience such encounters are tempted out of anger and pride to retaliate, to make bad choices that reflect this anger that sometimes take them down a dangerous road. But instead, Andrew kept his anger in check and committed himself to avoid, if possible, all such future exchanges with the police. He would keep his head down and concentrate on doing well in school and getting into university. And he did.

Andrew had what the researchers are calling these days, “resilience”. But that so-called resilience didn’t reside in his genes or his neuro-networks, or at least that’s not how Andrew sees it. “I could have gotten angry and focused on getting even, retaliating. But I didn’t. If it weren’t for Pathways, it might have been a different story.” In fact, a few years later, Pathways staff facilitated a formal apology from the police to Andrew and his father for the 1999 run-in.

Nowadays, lots of kids who live in Regent Park begin their sentences with, “If it weren’t for Pathways…” For them, Pathways represents a parent figure, less emotionally vested in the kids’ lives, but equally committed to their success. The program was first established in Regent Park in 2001, following a lengthy period of research and consultation with the community. Regent’s residents were clear in what they considered was the principal challenge of their community: to better support their young people in finishing high school, which would enable them to attend college or university and to gain more meaningful employment. Today, Pathways remains committed to ensuring that all youth in its programs – regardless of their social or economic situation, or where they were born – have the same opportunity for success, in school and in life.

Pathways’ students now talk about a new culture of expectation… They say words such as disadvantaged, poor, violent, and at-risk do not address the fullness of reality and life in their community.

The Pathways Program itself consists of four principal components, which each address the academic, emotional and cognitive, social, and financial barriers that young people in vulnerable communities face as they move through adolescence. They include: the assignment of a Student Parent Support Worker; access to tutoring and mentoring, including career mentoring in their later years of high school; opportunities for peer mentoring and social supports; and the provision of some financial assistance, whether in the form of bus tickets or meal vouchers. Together, these four major supports ensure the successful completion of high school, which enables young people to move into early adulthood poised to make the choice that’s right for themselves, one which reflects their interests and personal aptitudes, be it going to college or university, or entering the workforce.

Pathways, as well as the rebuilding of Regent Park, have profoundly changed the community. Pathways’ students now talk about a new culture of expectation. They bristle at, and obviously reject, most of the labels the media and others place on them and, by extension, their community. They say words such as disadvantaged, poor, violent, and at-risk – to cite a few – do not address the fullness of reality and life in their community. In fact, if you ask the young folks who live in the community today, the feelings and dynamics captured both in the poem excerpt and Andrew’s run-in with the police are coming to represent more Regent Park’s past than its future. Even its present is looking pretty good. Though the relationship with the police is still not perfect, there is a sense that the legacy of struggling against a set of circumstances that have conspired to limit their possibilities relates to the past. As one student put it, “the labelling and other negative things associated with Regent are more related to the older kids… because now this community has changed and now we don’t face the same obstacles.”

This even applies to the classroom. Because Pathways students attend high schools from all over the city, they often find themselves in highly diverse settings, and are just as likely to find themselves sitting next to the son or daughter of an accomplished business person or academic as they are to attend school with a friend from the community. Historically – for some of the older Pathways students – teachers, however unconsciously, held Regent Park students to a different set of standards. Youth from Regent Park were just not expected to do as well. Today our program participants say that has changed. “We proved to them we could be as smart as everyone else, if not smarter,” said one recent Pathways graduate.

The results concur. And now, as graduation approaches for yet another cohort of Pathways students, not applying to college or university is simply out of the question.

EN BREF – Les élèves du projet Pathways à Regent Park parlent maintenant d’une nouvelle culture des attentes. La plupart des étiquettes que leur attribuent les médias et d’autres, et donc la collectivité, les hérissent et ils les rejettent. Ils affirment que des termes comme défavorisés, pauvres, violents et à risque – pour ne citer que ceux-là – ne décrivent pas toute l’envergure de la réalité et de la vie de leur collectivité. En effet, si vous consultez les jeunes qui y vivent aujourd’hui, ces termes sont en voie de mieux représenter le passé de Regent Park que son avenir. Même que son présent semble plutôt positif. Comme le dit un élève : « L’étiquetage et les autres choses négatives associées à Regent se rapportent davantage aux jeunes qui sont plus vieux… parce que maintenant cette collectivité a changé et nous ne faisons plus face aux mêmes obstacles. »

Meet the Expert(s)

Stacey Young

Stacey J. Young, Ph.D., is Director of Research and Evaluation at Pathways to Education Canada and an adjunct lecturer at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Previously, she served as a senior policy advisor at the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and special assistant to the president of the University of Toronto.

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