Talking To Teens: How Keeping It Real Can Do Wonders

When I got the email to participate as a speaker in Friday’s Leaders of Tomorrow conference, it was a no brainer to say yes. The view from where I sat at the panelist table was extraordinary – blank stares from 250 youth hailing from all parts of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) had never felt so awkwardly good.

Ontario Black History Society conference

Ontario Black History Society conference

But as I stared back at them, my secondary thought was “how do I reach these kids?” (It’s no secret that the teenaged bunch can be a tough crowd to not only capture their attention but to keep it) Unlike a few other speakers, I hadn’t prepared what I was going to say. I had decided the night before to just wing it and to speak from the heart, letting my words come as they may. And so that’s what I did.

A little background: The Ontario Black History Society puts on the annual event. The kids ranged in age from 9th graders to those who will soon graduate. My session was the first of two for the day discussing this year’s theme: bursting the bubble in media, communications and entertainment.

Their curious young minds wanted to hear our stories: how did we climb the ladder to success? How did we overcome challenges, especially as the challenges relate to being Black in Toronto? How did we tailor our high school experiences to set us up for where we are today? How did we make it?

L to R - Emily Mills, Keziah Myers, Alain P. Arthur, Sasha-Ann Simons

L to R – Emily Mills, Keziah Myers, Alain P. Arthur, Sasha-Ann Simons

The kids needed motivation and it felt like we four had suited up in our Power Ranger-esque outfits and showed up to our call of duty. Jokes aside, I struggled with the idea of portraying myself like I had “made it.” Because I haven’t. I have a ways to go before I can say that. However at twice their age, I do have a breadth of knowledge I can share – some advice I wish I had been told back then and some strategies and behaviours, which have worked out well for me thus far.

So, you can bet, I talked to the teens about a pretty defining moment at the beginning of my journey in media. It was December of my first year at Ryerson University, and the week of final exams for the first semester. While you could find the other college kids chugging beers at pub night, I was at home sitting on the toilet. No, I wasn’t doing my business. I was frozen, staring at three little wands with plus signs on the floor. I was a whopping 16 weeks pregnant with my second child; the first was only months old at the time. To say this felt like a setback is an understatement. I was nowhere near my Journalism degree. Had barely started. Big. Huge. Sigh. Not from me, but collectively by a few of the kids in the audience. This panel talk just got real. photo

My story is mine to tell, but I can’t share my journey without talking about the days of uncertainty and struggle. I was slightly worried about connecting with those kids, but once I began spilling the beans, I had their attention, alright. It was important I tell them how my tight-knit family and in-laws remained supportive of my baby girls and me. It was imperative I describe how I stayed focused, how I got involved in the community, how I juggled school and motherhood – and eventually became a career mom.

We touched on other topics like appropriately handling racism on the job. I heard some more sighs as the panelists and I gave examples of some racially charged comments we had been subject to while on the come up. I’m hoping that’s the last time I’ll have to share those, as I’d rather they just go away. I chuckled a bit when one student stood up and asked something along the lines of how our Black community will overcome the whole “dark skin versus light skin” thing. It made me smile because I had just written about this.

Judging by the lineup of kids wanting to chat at the end of the session, I’d say they were engaged and intrigued. I was incredibly impressed by the kinds of questions they asked and how it seemed they had really started to think about and plan their futures. I could see one young man’s hesitation to approach me, so I stepped over to him. He wants to become a music journalist, so we talked about some good schools to apply for. He then leaned in and said, “You know, I’m kinda glad you told us about your kids, because it’s something my cousin is going through right now. She should’ve been here.” That’s the reason I keep it real, because you just never know whose heartstrings you’ll tug at.

panelists with OBHS President, Rosemary Sadlier

panelists with OBHS President, Rosemary Sadlier

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