Fifteen-year-olds Colin Kishundial and Saif Khan have called Toronto’s Jane and Finch area home for the entirety of their young lives.
But despite a challenging backdrop compounded by the physical and social perils of a global pandemic, youth like Kishundial and Khan say they are determined to succeed in school and life afterward. They have ambitions of finishing their education, becoming entrepreneurs and giving back to the community that raised them without fear of violence or discrimination.
It is why Black Creek Community Health Centre began its education support program for youth three years ago, which Kishundial and Khan have been attending since January after struggling academically and emotionally at their local public Toronto schools.
And it is why the centre launched an adjacent mental health program last year with the help of a recent federal grant, focused on bettering the emotional and psychological health of Black and racialized youth in the Jane-Finch area.
The program, titled Jane and Finch Wellness Advocates for Youth, launched in December and consists of bi-weekly group meetings with youth in the area, many of whom already are part of Black Creek’s education support program. During those meetings, the youth steer the conversation about their mental health forward while mentors help them find the words to explain their feelings.
Kishundial said his time at Black Creek has helped him reflect on his own mental health and wellness — something he says he likely wouldn’t have done had he not been asked to do so.
“I would never think about things like that,” Kishundial said. “They never talked to me about things like that at my school. They would just expect everybody to come in, do their work and go home.”
Wayne Black, a social worker and one of the mental health program facilitators at Black Creek, said discussions at these meetings focus on the challenges youth in Jane and Finch are confronted with on a daily basis. He added many of the youth deal with varying levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the program is meant to help them openly discuss and address this in a safe space.
“You have discussions about gang involvement, street activities, substance abuse … and racism on different levels,” Black said.
Though the program has operated since December 2019, funding for Black Creek’s mental health program is part of the $19-million Mental Health of Black Canadians fund announced by the federal government last week. Of the total, Black Creek will be receiving around $400,000 over a two-year period to administer this program.
A research component is part of the program as well, said Cheryl Prescod, the executive director of Black Creek. York University researchers are studying the youth’s engagement with the project to inform the design of more targeted mental health programs to address concerns unique to youth in Jane and Finch.
While COVID-19 has derailed the integration of more youth into the mental health program, around 20 people continue to meet in person on a staggered basis at Black Creek’s Yorkgate mall location at the corner of Jane and Finch, where youth have been able to talk about the pandemic’s effect on them and their families.
But more pressing than the pandemic, administrators say, is a high rate of gun violence in the area over the summer that has heightened levels of PTSD and fear among youth.
One mid-July shooting, which wounded three people at a plaza frequented by members of the community, has forced Black Creek to stop running its weekly food program in the area because people refused to show up out of fear and paranoia. The plaza has been targeted by gun violence at least twice this summer.
“These youth are traumatized,” said Gregory Leslie, another social worker who works with area youth. “They’re feeling that fear, that high anxiety, that hypervigilance.”
An increased focus on police brutality and anti-Black racism this summer after the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who died at the hands of police, has also affected the mental health of youth in Jane and Finch, Black said, forcing them to relive incidents of racism and violence that they’ve experienced, particularly in school.
“We’ve seen a public display of the private hell these kids live in,” said Black, who grew up in Jane and Finch.
Black and Leslie said despite these complex challenges, they’re encouraged that youth have continued to show up to sessions regularly, for the educational program and the newer mental health program.
Kishundial said he’s thankful the program has helped him address his own paranoia about the neighbourhood he lives in. “Programs like these reassure us that people still care about the community,” he said.
For Leslie, the program has given him and other mentors the opportunity to return to the neighbourhood they grew up in and become role models for youth who may be afraid or unsure of what the future holds.
“We don’t sugarcoat what happens and what continues to happen, we just try to have a conversation about, ‘what are you going to do differently?’ ” Leslie said.
Both Black and Leslie added they’ve seen improvements in youth through Black Creek’s educational program in real time, and believe the mental health program will have similar positive outcomes.
But while both believe the program is a good step toward addressing the unique mental health challenges faced by Black and racialized youth in the community, the federal funding it received is only limited to two years, posing challenges for the program’s continuation and Black Creek’s ability to develop future mental health programs informed by the adjacent research York is doing.
“You can see the potential of this, it’s going to be beautiful later on,” Black said. But if the funding vanishes, he added, the program would crash.
“I do think it sets us up for failure,” Leslie said. “While youth do benefit from this, the fact that programming like this is not sustainable has far more negative impacts.”
If Black Creek was able to get more rounds of funding, executive director Prescod said it would help the centre establish long-term programs to ensure youth are treated and supported for mental health concerns by members of their own community, and those who understand anti-Black racism and the impact it has had on the youth.
Those programs would also be integrated in areas these youth and their families frequent and seek support from the most, like a local church or a mosque.
“They’re looking for folks who look like them, and understand and appreciate their experiences rather than ignore that lived trauma of what racism has done to a population,” Prescod said.