Tapestry

The real violence in a 'bad' neighbourhood is low expectations, says community coordinator

Growing up in Toronto's most notorious neighbourhood, Talisha Ramsaroop wasn't encouraged to dream big or have life goals. Now she's working to change that for young people from her community.

Negative perceptions can have real consequences in people's lives, Talisha Ramsaroop says

Talisha Ramsaroop grew up in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in Toronto, a racially diverse area that gets a lot of negative media attention whenever crimes happen in the area.  (Submitted by Talisha Ramsaroop)

It's a piece of advice as old as childhood itself: follow your dreams. Except sometimes dreams are bounded by a postal-code.

Talisha Ramsaroop calls it "the violence of low expectations" — and she's been on the receiving end. 

Ramsaroop grew up in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in Toronto, a racially diverse area that gets a lot of negative media attention whenever crimes happen in the area. 

"When people think of Jane and Finch," she said, "they think of a community that is in need… that the crime is high. That the people are bad. That the place is dirty, infested."

But Ramsaroop said growing up in the neighbourhood, for her, was a positive experience. 
Going to York University, not too far from the Jane and Finch community, made Ramsaroop realize just how profoundly many people feared her neighbourhood.  (Submitted by Talisha Ramsaroop)

"There's nowhere in Jane and Finch that doesn't have art in it. There's literally murals everywhere," she said. "My parents never want to leave."

A postal code with baggage

These strengths are seldom reflected in popular images of Jane and Finch, and the negative portrayals extend to the people living there. 

"A lot of young women in the community are seen as either on their way to get pregnant very young, welfare queens. They've been called promiscuous and seen as not respectable. The young men in my community are often seen as thugs or gangsters," Ramsaroop said. 

"There's this idea that we're almost less human. There's not as much value in our lives, right? If somebody from Jane/Finch gets killed, oh, it's just Jane/Finch. It was gonna happen anyway." 

These negative perceptions can have real consequences in people's lives. 

"You see that young person's self-esteem and their sense of self start to dwindle," she said. "And it takes a long time to rebuild yourself after being told for so long that all you are is a thug or all you are is a high school drop-out to be. "

We know that if you're put in applied classes, getting to university becomes either not possible or ten times harder- Talisha Ramsaroop

This is what Ramsaroop means by the violence of low expectations. One of the most damaging examples is streaming in schools. Instead of being encouraged to aspire for bigger life goals and follow an academic path, students with average grades are directed to take applied classes,. 

And that has major consequences on a young person's future. Ramsaroop was a C-student and experienced education streaming first hand.

"We know that if you're put in applied classes, getting to university becomes either not possible or ten times harder," she said. 

Ramsaroop's parents both worked night shifts, so she was left to manage her studies on her own. It wasn't until Grade 10, when a teacher suggested she apply for a special program run through York University, that Ramsaroop even considered post-graduate studies.

Discovering her potential

"Why would I do that?" was Ramsaroop's initial response.

The Advanced Credit Experience program, also known as the ACE program, offers a scholarship and her teacher explained at the time that he thought she had a lot of potential.

"And I remember him telling me that I needed to do my work more — because I never did my work at that point — and him saying that if I did my work I'd actually be really good at it."

Being on campus, while exhilarating in many ways, provided an unexpected shock: she realized just how profoundly many people feared her neighbourhood. 

"At one point I stopped telling people I was from Jane/Finch. I felt a sense of shame saying it," she said. 

"The questions that I got [were] 'Oh my god — you live there? Have you seen a gun? Have you ever been shot at?'"

Ramsaroop now has a master's degree in sociology, and she said she dedicates herself to encouraging the young people in her neighbourhood to aspire to more.  

She is a community projects coordinator at York University in Toronto and her goal is to help students navigate college and university options.

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