Podcast: The Public Discourse

Episode 5: Youth and Social Transformation

We talk with Tanika McLeod and Ashraf Rushdy about how young people are adapting to the conditions created by this health crisis, and the ways in which they can help to lead processes of social transformation. McLeod is a young entrepreneur and Rushdy works with the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity.

Read the Transcript

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity

DELARAM ERFANIAN (Communications Manager, Office of Public Affairs): I'm delighted to explore these questions today with Tanika McLeod and Ashraf Rushdy on what is now the fifth episode of our new series "Rebuilding Together". Welcome to the podcast.


TANIKA MCLEOD: Thank you for having us.

DELARAM: Ashraf you have been a host of this podcast in the past, but Tanika, this is your first time joining us. So perhaps I can ask you both to introduce yourselves. If I can start with Tanika please.

TANIKA: Sure. I'm Tanika McLeod. I am a recent graduate of York University. I did my BA and MA at York. And since then, I have worked in non-profit evaluation, program design and development. I've also started a tech start-up about a year ago with my brother and a couple of other people. And since then I've been focusing on entrepreneurial work. I've since been working as a freelance evaluator for non-profits and as CEO of this tech start-up.

DELARAM: Wonderful. Thank you. And Ashraf?

ASHRAF: Yeah. My name is Ashraf Rushdy. I live in Toronto and I have served for several years with the Office of Public Affairs of the Baha'i Community of Canada that's hosting this podcast. Right now I do a lot of work with the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, which organizes educational activities and research activities around the world. And I work a lot with the programs in Canada that support university students.

DELARAM: Great. It's really lovely to have you both here today. Tanika, you have worked in the field of youth employment as you just mentioned, and you are now involved in entrepreneurship. So how do you think young people are facing this current crisis? And what qualities are helping them to navigate it?

TANIKA: Yeah, that's such a great question. You know, in my experience being a young person working with programs who support young people - working with my peers and colleagues - I think that the gravity of the situation varies depending on social locations. And I find that individuals, like myself, who are young and racialized, are experiencing the brunt of the consequences of this pandemic, and as well as the social unrest that we've seen in the US particularly. But here in Canada and around the world, calls for racial justice have been exhilarating and motivating on one hand, but also kind of disillusioning that we have to bring our bodies outside and on the line for something that we expect to be a universal right. And so seeing so many of us out there can be really motivating, but also, like I said, just a little bit disappointing.

I think that the qualities that young people have that will help us to overcome these challenges are innate in many younger generations. All generations have experienced these kinds of qualities, like resilience and ingenuity. I think that this is something that we've seen a lot in millennials and Gen 'Z's. Not to say that Gen 'X'ers don't exhibit those qualities. But we've seen a lot of creativity coming from young people, especially in the way that we've seen these social movements take place. I think that the ingenuity, creativity, and drive to overcome challenges will be what helps young people really overcome the current situation, as well as create new futures and new possibilities for the way that young people shape the community that they're in. And so that's where, for me and my family, entrepreneurship has played a big part in filling that void.

We've been trained in a particular field, we have experiences, lived and professional, but nowhere to really channel that. And so what you're left with is yourself and your great ideas, and a desire to bring them to light. I think a lot of young people are in that space right now. They've been given time and space to really think about things in a different way because of the pandemic. We've seen that entire nations can change the way that they move, and the way that they do things, on a dime. We just need to commit to that. I think that's something that young people will bring to the fore in the next few years – just a wave of really creative entrepreneurship in a whole host of different ways. Hopefully that will bring a lot of hope out of this really tragic time.

DELARAM: You touched on very important qualities that we've also talked about in general terms during our podcast episodes in the past. And the main reason why we started this podcast was to talk about resilience, which is one of the qualities that you also mentioned. But in a bigger context, there's so much more. Education is one of the places where youth need a lot of support, obviously, coming into it and out of it, as you mentioned, with employment. And there's a whole set of support systems and networks that need to be in place to support youth.

So thinking of that makes me think of my next question for Ashraf. I know you've been working with a variety of youth and educational initiatives for a number of years. What kind of support do young people need at this time, do you think? And what are the particular needs of this population?

ASHRAF: Yeah. Tanika has already touched on a lot of these things that are important to bring to the fore in this kind of conversation. There's very clearly disruption happening – and has been happening for quite a long time in the past few decades – to the degree that in kind of every dimension of life that it becomes very difficult for young people in general – I think for our whole society, but for young people specifically – to determine a vision of a future. What role am I going to be able to play in this society that I live in and even what's the path to get to that vision? Both of those things I think are being questioned right now.

When I think about youth and the needs and support that youth need, I think we can say that youth need an opportunity to reflect on this time and what has actually happened in our society. They need an opportunity to do that together, with each other, and with their communities. I think that youth need a place where their voices are heard and they're able to participate in a conversation about the kind of future that they want to see in their community. Because I think when we look to youth, when we think about supporting young people, we really are struck again and again by the capacities of young people.

So when we think about what we need to do to support young people, I think a lot of those supports look like enabling, they look like channeling, they look like strengthening, what it is that young people are already striving to do.

I think that those are some of the main kind of things that I would touch on. When we get more specific, we get to things like unemployment, or the search for meaningful work; I also like that term being brought up. (What kind of work actually am I actually seeking?) I think that the more you speak to young people, the more you see that there isn't that much of an interest in a lot of the kinds of work that are available in the society around them. There's this kind of push – a desire to see a new kind of life that they could live by integrating all of the ideas that are spreading and circulating amongst a lot of young people.

So, I think that one of the ways to support youth is also to help to enable the realization of that best possible future. And to give volume to that voice in our society.

DELARAM: Volume to the voice. I love that. Building on those comments that you made, you know this crisis has exposed certain structural issues in our society that are preventing youth from advancing. So Tanika, what kinds of structural changes do you think we need to talk about in terms of allowing young people to play a role in contributing to the betterment of their communities?

TANIKA: I guess my first response would be how much time do you have? Because I think the list is long. I think we're overdue on structural change. I think that structural change has for some reason developed a kind of negative connotation over the years outside of social justice circles.

I think in terms of structural changes we really need to change the way that we are preparing young people for life, and how we are describing what life is meant to be. It shouldn't be that you are intending to just work a 9-to-5 job so you can pay your bills and then retire at 65. I just completely disagree with that kind of logic. I think it should really be about chasing what makes you happy in a way that is sustainable, and safe, and responsible; and that right now isn't really being promoted. And so I find that there are a lot young people around my age who are just finishing their degrees and feeling a kind of crisis. Even my friends who have gotten into law school. Some of them they are finishing now and they're like, "I don't know if I want to work at this firm." You know? "And I just got these really expensive degrees, so I feel like I need to work at a firm and I need to practice law. But honestly I don't know if that's for me."

I think that what might help to amplify those voices of young people is to fundamentally change the way that we prepare them for life. Right? So that it's less about, "You need to fix yourself for the labour market." And more about, "What innate qualities do you have that could actually benefit society writ large?” That is what we're working towards. Not so much creating these, in a capitalistic sense, well-trained labourers. That's not who we are. I think many generations have been fighting against that idea. I think that young people, with entrepreneurship being such a robust sector right now, are looking at this as more like an option than that 9-to-5. And as a society we need to listen to that and shape ourselves around that, starting with education.

DELARAM: Thank you. One of the other things you touched upon earlier was about these social movements that have emerged related to racial justice and equality. Ashraf, I wanted to touch a little bit more on that. We have seen young people at the forefront of these social movements that have been emerging in the last few months. How do you think this energy and vitality can be channeled into enduring social transformation? How do you see that?

ASHRAF: I think that one thing that comes to mind is this idea of hope. I think that youth need enduring sources of hope in order to continually channel energy and vitality into something as large as wanting to see a social transformation; a permanent structural change in the society that we live in.

I think that we can see that every generation has causes that they champion, and some of those causes need sustained championing from generation to generation; they need an entire society behind them before movement can really happen to the degree that our consciousness rises. Basically, our consciousness increases and we notice more and more change that's required in order to realize an ideal.

Like Tanika was saying, we can see how in the face of a crisis, like the coronavirus, whole sectors are ground to a halt. That’s something that in the imagination of people before this crisis was impossible. I think now that we've seen that they can stop, that should also be a lesson for youth: a recognition not just for youth, but for our whole society, that with enough will, with enough recognition of the depth of the issue, the consequences of a social ill like racism on entire society, that it should begin to motivate this kind of drastic action. But I think that despite kind of consciousness building – as much as things have been promoted on social media, and as much as things have been shared in the news – we can also tell from the tenor of the emerging conversation that it has been mostly just swept up into the very, 'us' and 'them' [narrative] that our national media is gripped by.

So, to see that this conversation actually advances, I think youth need to speak to those around them in the community. If one is continually serving one's community and sees change at that level – [one’s community] is actually like a laboratory – a level at which it's possible to actually learn how to build these environments of unity. I think that that will be the best place [to start].

If you want to build a society that recognizes the oneness of mankind, then we have to labour for that probably for the rest of our lives, and also expect that it will take several generations for us to move towards a goal that even now we can see, but we don't see it instantiated everywhere. But we can actually see that ideal with a lot more clarity than I think we could fifty or a hundred years ago.

DELARAM: This makes me think of the fact that we've always seen that youth can move the world when they get together with that energy and vitality. We've also been talking about how young people can become protagonists of change, [but] youth also need mentorship and support. So Tanika, what kind of mentorship do young people need to contribute constructively to their communities? Ashraf just touched on that a little bit, but… what do you think about that? And what do you think is the role of intergenerational relationships in this process?

TANIKA: Everything that Ashraf said I resonate with so, so deeply because I think young people - those who are critically conscious and active - are trying to cultivate transformation at the local level and not really seeing the supports, or really knowing how social media is the most readily available tool, but not always the most effective. I totally agree. What needs to happen is this kind of local smaller sort of micro activism, or push for transformation.

Just speaking in my experience, with our health tech start-up, a lot of the reason why we started that was for a social purpose. We founded this start-up over a year ago and we never would have imagined that coronavirus would essentially dominate the world right now. At the time, it was about recognizing a problem, or a gap in our health system in Canada, and desiring to improve that for people who, like us, maybe have experienced, or have been a part of healthcare in some way in a long term capacity and have been disappointed by that experience.

Since then, this desire has really blossomed into a whole host of social initiatives. One of which is to show young people that there are other ways you can start and run a corporation that don't require one to depend on the hyper exploitation of human beings, natural resources, et cetera. So for us, that has been an area where we have tried to evoke some kind of transformation.

But at the same time, we don't really see too much meaningful mentorship in this area. It's challenging. And surely the experience is different for many people, but if I could speak specifically to entrepreneurship and the tech industry, especially for racialized founders, there's a lot of talk right now about wanting to support and fund Black and racialized founders. But on the ground it's really hard to access these funds, and find people who are willing to commit themselves to your very, very early start-up project, and give you meaningful support.

So what I think meaningful mentorship is, and Ashraf has talked about this a lot, is a kind of ally-ship, a kind of partnership wherein collectively you determine what are the goals that these young people are trying to achieve, and then support them in achieving those goals.

So I think that the purpose really needs to change and be less about the program, or the activity, or the initiative that the mentorship is under, and more about the individuals themselves and meeting them where they're at, and supporting them in leading their own futures.

DELARAM: How do you think what you've mentioned is linked to this intergenerational relationship as well? Do we always assume that maybe the mentor will be someone who's older and more experienced? How does that play a role?

TANIKA: It's interesting because in my experience, I have had, and participated in, more peer-to-peer mentorship than I have intergenerational [mentorship]. Though I would love to have more intergenerational mentorship. I think it needs to be a combination of both. I think that young people should be supporting other young people. I have colleagues and friends from my undergrad with whom I still stay connected and we support one another through whatever it is that we're experiencing in life; professionally and otherwise. But intergenerational mentorship can be extremely valuable in that there are life experiences that fundamentally shape the way that you understand the world, and sometimes it just takes a bit of time to get there.

DELARAM: Well, I have to say that I'm sure many youth will feel inspired listening to everything that you have shared of the things that you're going through. And I'm inspired to know that you're viewing things in this way, and that you could also look at mentorship in this different way – more like accompaniment; like, really being there for someone and walking hand in hand and learning together. Not necessarily only being a teacher and a student, but learning together and walking together.

I don't know if there are any other reflections that either of you would like to share as we're reaching the end of our conversation today, but I know there is so much more we could talk about. So if there is any other reflections you would like to leave with us today, feel free.

ASHRAF: I think that one thing that really struck me as I have been working with university students is that there's this opportunity for them to reflect on their perspective on history. And I think that it's one of those things you were saying is a benefit of intergenerational mentorship. And that's kind of one-to-one, depending on the mentor, you're going to be exposed to a certain perspective on the development in the community, or something like that. But it's sort of saying that our culture also operates in a sort of ahistorical mode. It tends to forget the past.

I've been to so many conferences where everyone can diagnose the problems, but rarely is there a vision for the future that's put forward. You know? So we kind of see ourselves as just being in this condition and we experience most of the world as a series of events. Like, the global pandemic is an event. I see in the [ISGP] materials [how it encourages change in] the thinking in the youth: to be able to view their lives and what's happened in the past and in the future as parts of these larger processes. Being able to see what I'm doing as part of a process, and what I'm contributing to as part of a process that's been ongoing before me and will continue after me, and I'm doing one part in it now; and on the constructive side.

And so I think that the more youth can gain that kind of perspective, the more I think it opens doors to channeling their energies in a way that they won't look back and feel like it was wasted. You know? Because that's another thing that youth can also learn by looking at older generations: when we look at people who are at the end of life, some look back with pride, and joy, and happiness of their accomplishments, and others look back with sincere regret over the kinds of things that they didn't do. And it would represent the kind of maturity that I think we need for young people to be able to look at their life in the moment, from a perspective of a whole life lived.

TANIKA: Yeah. I have to agree with Ashraf on so much of that, especially the importance of history. As you mentioned, it's a lot of work to re-educate ourselves on our history. I think that part of the issue here is supporting young people and encouraging young people to learn that history on their own. And then the other side of it is encouraging our political leaders to support these institutions in changing so that they are intended to [teach] that; so that youth and young people don't need to re-educate themselves on what our history is. Right?

So I would say, take a bit of time out of that Netflix, out of that social media time, to really learn and re-learn what has gotten us to this point. What social relations were like, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred years ago. How have they developed? How have they changed?

Our civil rights movement, it feels like has this kind of erasure in our society. Especially in younger generations. Like really, what were the principles? Who were the leaders? What did they write? What did they care about? Are we just repeating a lot of the same arguments? Are we innovating upon them? What worked in that time and what didn't work in that time? So, we don't have to keep making these same sort of mistakes, or even if the arguments and the methods of that activism were great and effective, and could still be today, we also still need to change our approach because as we've seen, there was a limit to that effectiveness, right? We still experience racial and other kinds of inequity.

So, we know there's a limit to that and we've got to change our ways. And learning our history can really help with that.

But again, I understand that there are structural limitations to what we can and can't expect of young people. And so on the one hand, supporting them is our prerogative, but on the other hand, and perhaps even more so, should be to turn our attention to those who actually have the means to change our institutions fundamentally is also part of our work.

DELARAM: Thank you both for such a meaningful conversation. Thank you so much again for your time today. It has been wonderful to have you here on the Public Discourse.

TANIKA: Thank you for having us.

ASHRAF: Thank you.