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FROM THE OJEN BLOG

Learning Advocacy Skills to Challenge Stereotypes

Recently, I facilitated the culminating session of a six week, advocacy-based program with the residents of Humewood House Sheppard, a resource centre for young pregnant and parenting women. In this program, we worked towards applying some of the skills that professional advocates use, in order to challenge negative stereotypes and public perceptions of young mothers. We learned how to find evidence, consider other perspectives, give reasons, look for bias, evaluate sources, and take responsibility, all in the context of everyday interactions and experiences. The young women designed photo-messages and crafted advocacy statements to support their positions.

One common theme was confrontation on public transit. From public servants and private citizens who refused to help carry strollers onto inaccessible streetcars, to unsolicited parenting advice, to overtly rude and often inaccurate comments directed at the young mothers, public transit was a recurring battleground for these women. Although their OJEN/ROEJ program has come to an end, they recently applied for a Youth Action Grant; they hope to use this money to host an awareness barbeque and post advertisements on the TTC.

In my social work program, we are strongly encouraged to spend time reflecting on our own experience of the world, and how it impacts our relationships with others. After working with these young women for six weeks, I felt like I had kept my ears open and learned a lot about their experiences. I really admired the determination and creativity that they showed in managing their various and sometimes competing roles as parents and teenagers. However, they also continued to surprise me, challenging preconceived ideas that I didn’t even know I had. For example, one young woman described how she had gotten pregnant after being told she was infertile by her doctor. I can only imagine how that would change someone’s attitudes, not just to contraception, but to motherhood.  As someone who has dreamed of becoming a parent for as long as I can remember, I can imagine how a surprise pregnancy which was thought to be impossible could be such a source of joy and excitement, regardless of the age of the parents. This contradicts the cultural script of teen pregnancy as an insurmountable obstacle or burden that drastically derails the course of a young woman’s life.

Another situation that took me outside of my own comfort zone and challenged my understanding of my own social location was when one of the participants was too shy to read her advocacy statement out loud. To facilitate her participation, I read her statement instead. While her words were passionate and powerful, the language and sentence structure that she used didn’t reflect how I speak and write, and I stumbled as I read. This gave me a newfound appreciation for how much easier things like school and professional sounding correspondence might be when you’ve grown up, as I did, in a home and within a community where everyone talks in a certain way – a way that was, at some point, arbitrarily designated to be the ‘correct’ way of communicating.

At our final session, I was so proud of the statements they put forward in front of a panel of justice sector volunteers. One of the panel members offered the group some feedback that really resonated with me, as I think it did with the other young women as well. She said that it’s ok to be nervous; we become nervous when facing a task at which we want to do well. Because this was one of the first programs I’ve ever run, I was nervous too. The fact of being anxious demonstrates how invested these women felt in their messages, which drew on personal experiences, successes and challenges. They really cared about doing a great job – and I think that they did!

Alix Nenniger, OJEN/ROEJ Student Intern, MSW/JD Candidate

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