Photo of Marcia Brown leaning against a brick wall with a group of young people standing behind her wearing "Ladies Rise" t-shirts.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY SIAN RICHARDS

Could Marcia Brown be one of Toronto’s best role models for youth?

We say yes! Her non-profit, Trust 15, provides mentorship to youth in Rexdale

When was the last time you had tea with a Trudeau? If you’re like most of us, your answer is probably, “never.” But ask a bunch of kids from Rexdale and North Etobicoke, and they’d be able to say, “two years ago!” That’s thanks to Marcia Brown, the founder and executive director of Trust 15, a non-profit aimed at providing mentorship for inner-city youth.

Over high tea on the University of Ottawa campus, Grégoire Trudeau engaged with the kids, asking and answering questions. She said, ‘Whatever your age, whatever your religion, whatever your background, wherever your family comes from—there is a perfect little creature inside of you who is patient, who is kind, who is loving and who deserves unconditional love,’ Brown recalls. She says Grégoire Trudeau’s words clearly left a mark on the kids.

Brown has made it her life’s mission to provide mentorship opportunities to kids in Rexdale, where she lives. When she began her career as a special-needs and educational assistant with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Brown says she became a “consummate activist and enabler, an agent of change, a resilient and unstoppable advocate for students who came to school with little going for them.”

Portrait shot of Marcia Brown standing in front of some trees wearing a bright blue shirt.

For example, when she noticed the absence of Black parents at her school’s parent-teacher interviews, she went door-to-door to find out why. “Some parents were just not engaged; some had bad experiences at previous school meetings; some were simply overwhelmed,” she says. “I worked on the interview process with them, and even accompanied some to their next parent-teacher night. Where parents were disengaged and disinterested, I inserted myself with a hands-on approach to break down barriers and empowered them to participate.” Her approach got parents and kids excited about participating.

When her efforts were recognized by the school board, she started working on other programs, like Young Women on the Move, a TDSB mentorship initiative for girls in grades 3 to 12, and Girls on the Move, a TDSB summer program for girls ages 12 and 13. But helping kids during school hours and in the summer wasn’t enough. “I saw a significant need for the youth in my community to receive support that expanded beyond the classroom, so I established an after-school program to educate and inspire young women,” she says.

Armed with 250 photocopied fliers that simply read “Girls Group,” Brown canvassed Rexdale looking to recruit for her new after-school program, which would take place at a community church. “On the first day, 15 girls walked through the door. We had a powerful conversation. A change started to happen in those three hours, and the girls came back week after week,” she says. By the fifth month, the program had grown to 45 girls. Two years later, the Trust 15 Youth Community Support Organization, which is named for those first 15 members, was born.

Marcia Brown stands in front of a group of young people sitting and standing near some rocks outside

Today, Brown says, Trust 15 provides a safe, nurturing space for 200 girls and boys, aged seven to 18, during the school year, and 80 kids throughout the summer. Meetings are used to chat about family life, and to find solutions for some of the issues the kids are facing, like conflict, peer pressure, abuse and violence. The group’s four programs – Ladies on the Rise, Girls on the Rise, Men of Distinction and Boys of Excellence – focus on connecting youth with professionals, mentors and community leaders who offer tips to help young people maximize their potential.

The organization also provides support to parents who don’t know where else to turn for help. “Parents talk about the program and say they are seeing a change of attitude [in their kids],” Brown says. “They tell me, ‘I see a difference in his grades,’ and ‘my child is coming home and talking to me,’ and even ‘life at home is much better since my daughter joined your program.’”

Brown says she’s helped hundreds of young people learn leadership skills, healthy self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth. Her work and many accolades (let’s just say the “awards” section of her resume is long), are shining a positive light on priority neighbourhoods that often suffer from negative attention.

“I’ve seen hope again in the life of children and their families. When these youth are in their communities they will be effective members of society; maybe even leaders.”

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Your guide to non-binary pronouns

Language defines us in so many ways — here’s how to make sure you’re using it respectfully

I was writing in a cafe the other day and had to use the washroom. I got up to grab the key and, dangling from the key ring, was a red plastic rhinoceros bottom. On the door to the washroom was affixed the rhino’s better half. Instead of being labeled with pictures of one individual in pants and another in a skirt, both of the cafe’s washrooms were genderless.

As a non-binary person, it made me feel safe. Slowly, societal structures are beginning to recognize [http://montrealgazette.com/news/national/heres-how-non-binary-folks-can-skip-the-gender-question-on-thecanadian-census] those of us who exist outside of the gender binary — the idea that there are two genders, man or woman — and it’s going beyond washrooms. There are endless ways to define one’s gender: Facebook alone recognizes 71 of them. If you live in Canada, passports and immigration documents now have the option [https://globalnews.ca/news/3694753/canadian-passports-x-gender/] of X marking the box for gender, as opposed to the now rather tone-deaf M or F (which relates to sex, not gender, anyway, but that’s a whole other story).

The point of these changes is to make space for people who don’t identify as men or women, but as nonbinary. People who are unfamiliar with concepts of gender variance often feel unsure of how to refer to nonbinary folks or how to use non-binary pronouns, but it’s high time we all learned: Non-binary folks fall under the trans umbrella, and one survey [https://www.transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS Full Report – FINAL 1.6.17.pdf ] of nearly 28,000 trans people in the U.S. revealed 40 per cent of those surveyed had attempted suicide. The least we can do, as a wider population, is to use language in a way that makes them feel more comfortable and part of the broader community. Here’s how:

ASSUME NOTHING

It’s simple: Ask people their pronouns. Before you apply a pronoun to someone, be sure you’re using the right one because misgendering someone can be painful. (Just because someone looks the way you think a man should look does not mean that they are, in fact, a man). If you ask someone and they react angrily, just explain that you ask everyone this question, since there are so many different ways to identify and you don’t want to hurt anyone.

I use “they” as a pronoun, for example. People often assume that I use she/her, and it makes me feel invisible. I was applying for a job recently, and the application asked me to identify my “sex.” Then it told me to pick “man or woman.” Since “sex” refers to someone’s physiology and not the socially constructed manner in which other people determine they should behave, I decided the whole process was reductive as well as inaccurate, and that I wouldn’t apply after all.

Someone’s gender identifier is not part of a conspiracy to commence world domination.

ACCEPT THE ANSWER

Many non-binary folks prefer to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns, like they/them/their or the newer third-person pronouns ze/zir. That said, please don’t assume that someone must use “they” or any other specific gender-neutral or nonbinary pronoun [https://nonbinary.miraheze.org/ wiki/Gender_neutral_language] just because they are, or appear to be, non-binary. Related: do not correct a non-binary person and try to give them a language lesson if they open up to you enough to tell you their pronoun. For non-binary people, being clear about who we are usually invites furrowed brows at best and violence at worst, so if someone gives you this much information about themselves, respect it. Language evolves all the time [https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/usage/he-or-she-versus-they], and it’s evolved to include a new meaning of they/them/their and z.

REALIZE IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU

It’s crucial not to get frustrated. Trust me: someone’s gender identifier is not part of a carefully plotted leftwing conspiracy to annoy cis people and commence world domination. (“Cis” means the sex you were assigned at birth aligns with your gender expression). The person is just being themselves, and making the conversation about you derails it and may contribute to the feeling that they are not being seen for who they are.

IF ALL ELSE FAILS

If you don’t have the chance to ask someone’s identifier, use their name. If a pronoun is demanded by circumstance, err on the side of “they,” since it’s neutral and could apply to anyone, cis or trans. (See also: using “folks” when you address a crowd of people instead of “ladies and gentlemen” or “men and women.”) Then, if the person prefers another word, they will likely tell you. If not, you’ve prioritized accuracy and harm reduction, and that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? That, and finding a place where you can pee in peace. ♥