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Toronto youth activists say civic engagement needs to start young

Torontonians will be going to the polls on Oct. 22 with a lot of big issues like access to transit, affordable housing and ensuring safe neighbourhoods at the forefront of their minds for candidates to tackle.

Youth mentors Joseph Smith and Yasmin Rajabi spoke with Our Toronto about why young voices matter in elections

Yasmin Rajabi, the founder of the Young Women's Leadership Network, spoke with Our Toronto about working with young women to encourage them to participate in public affairs. (Paul Smith / CBC)

Torontonians will be going to the polls on Oct. 22 with a lot of big issues like access to transit, affordable housing and ensuring safe neighbourhoods at the forefront of their minds for candidates to tackle. Yet according to a 2014 study, voter turnout for the last three elections has only averaged about 42 per cent. 

Yasmin Rajabi is the founder of the non-profit, Young Women's Leadership Network (YWLN). The University of Toronto alumni says she works at the grassroots level with young women to help encourage civic engagement.

"I think you need that change when you're really young and then you go on to continue to give back to your community and I see that again and again," she said in a panel interview for Our Toronto's election edition special.

Joseph Smith, co-founder of Generation Chosen, spoke with Our Toronto about the issues the youth he works with face daily. (Paul Smith / CBC)

Another panellist, Joseph Smith, is the co-founder of Generation Chosen, another non-profit that aims to provide opportunities for young adults from marginalized communities.

Both activists say that civic engagement needs to be introduced when people are young, especially for youth who don't necessarily have access, to learn how the city works.

Smith, who is a York University doctoral student and educator, sees first hand the impact lack of engagement has on the kids he mentors.

Smith is from the Jane and Finch area and his group works with kids from similar areas. For him, many of the struggles he sees the kids of Generation Chosen deal with, are similar to what he himself had to overcome.

"What happens when you grow up in a marginalized community is that you really do feel isolated from the rest of the world. You really do feel like certain spaces are not allotted, or built for you."

Joseph Smith (left) and Dwayne Brown are best friends and co-founders of Generation Chosen, a weekly after-school program for teens in the Jane and Finch community. (Joyita Sengupta/CBC)

Both Rajabi and Smith agree that issues like access to transit, affordable housing and ensuring safe neighbourhoods are key for kids to feel like they matter in their city.

Transit troubles

Rajabi is a Scarborough native and she says the community has been suffering from a lack of planning for decades.

"Transit becomes so politicized — it's definitely been removed from this 'urban planning lens' and it's been moving in the direction of who deserves transit. Who doesn't in our city?"

Statistics Canada found in 2016, over one in four Torontonians rely on transit to get around. It also found that for the people who used it to get to work, they had to travel over 10 kilometres for only one way.

Rajabi says she hears the stories of those who have no choice but to make the daily trek.

"I know a lot of people who decide to pay for the transit pass, cause they need to get to work, over paying for groceries."

For Smith, transit isn't just an economical issue, it has the power to connect communities. "Transit . . . links people from disparate areas in the city."

A map of the Relief Line South route. (City of Toronto)

Some of Mayor John Tory's transit promises include a relief line to better connect people to the downtown core. A one-stop Scarborough subway extension is also on the table of election commitments.

Meanwhile, candidate Jennifer Keesmaat is promising a three-stop Scarborough subway as well as speeding up construction on the relief-line by three years.  

Housing costs through the roof

Housing remains top of mind for people in the city with average monthly rent costs climbing upwards to $2,000.

Earlier this month, the second affordable housing lottery in Regent Park wrapped up, with thousands racing to win the jackpot.  

An advertisement posted on the side of 110 River Street for new affordable housing units, available through a one-month lottery process. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

Smith works with youth who come from families who struggle with the affordable housing shortage and he says the costs are unacceptable.

"You're asking young adults who are getting out of university for example — who might not come from means, might not have familial support. You're asking them to put forth a $1800 a month [for rent]?"  

Empowering the most vulnerable

With the slashing of city council down to 25 seats, Smith and Rajabi say they are worried about whether major issues  will be represented in the full context of what marginalized communities face.

When Smith was 15, he says he encountered a civics teacher that changed his life forever. It propelled his interest in the social and political issues of his city.

"It's the simple issue of trying to relay the message to young adults, young people and adults in these respective marginalized communities, that the life you have been living for the last decade or two decades can change."      

For Rajabi, she immigrated with her family to Canada from Afghanistan as a young girl. She says it has empowered her and so many.

"I think coming here, you can definitely see that there is a change. I can run for elected office, that I can mobilize my community to create change."

It's a sentiment she says she tries to pass along to the young women she mentors to encourage them to make a difference at city hall. 

"What we did at YWLN was we took a group of girls to city hall and we did a little field trip out of it, and I think that for them it was very empowering to see that they could be here themselves one day."  

About the Author

Mrinali has written and produced stories for CBC's The National, CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup, CBC News Network and CBC Entertainment News.

With files from Our Toronto

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