At Risk Youth and Bandaid-Solution Jobs
By: Oda Melzoger
In the summer of 2015, when violence was rapidly increasing in my neighbourhood, I decided to apply for a summer job at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC). I live in Chinatown, an area notorious for being low income and, by the city’s standards, “high risk”. Like many other teens living in the confinement of the “high risk” label, I need to constantly work at my learned behaviours, perceptions of the world, and my upbringing in order to begin to hope for a better future. I have to unlearn all of the violence that surrounds me, ease all of my anger caused by observing said violence and put in twice the amount of effort in order to grasp at a firm standing within society. To get a job, I have to forget that I come from the troubled side of town. I have to act as if I have nothing to do with where I live and who I am, and for me it is easier because of my racial ambiguity. But for others, for example, a Muslim woman of color who chooses to wear a headscarf, they can’t hide who they are. These labels mark certain areas and people who live in them as dangerous, not willing to find work and predisposed with violent traits.
I applied to TCHC for a short-term landscaping job and was called in for an interview. When I arrived to the interview, I noticed that all of the staff on the floor were eager to help the young people being interviewed in securing a job. Another thing I took note of was that most of the staff members in the waiting room were clearly people of color. They were all of different background and age, but despite their visible differences they created a very warm atmosphere for nervous soon-to-be-interviewed teenagers. In my experience, interviews and job fairs are a place of competition. Recruiters and administrative staff file the paperwork, put you in line, and call you when your turn comes. After all, no matter what they do, at the end of the day, only a set number of people are going to get hired for the job. So why spend the energy making someone feel worthy of the opportunity when most of applicants are going to be turned down anyway?
“When my turn came, I was led to a hallway where the interviews were being held. As I stood in line I could overhear a girl speaking to the interviewers through the slightly open door. I heard the interviewer say, “Anything else you want to add?” The girl scrambled to get a few more words in, to give reasons as to why she should be hired. As soon as the girl left the interviewing room, I caught a glimpse of her facial expression and saw how fast the former reassurance from the staff in the lobby had worn off. As I entered the interview room, I saw that the interviewers were both white.”
The same goes for the applicants and interviewees, they are there to fight. They are made aware from the start that they were lucky to be chosen out of the large pool of papers, so by the time they get to the interview stage, they are expected to show that they’re not like the others. Sometimes this may cause hostility between the interviewees. You see these things go down in movies: people waiting in a hallway, sitting across from each other and staring at the space between one another’s heads so that they don’t have to meet eyes. However, none of this was case here at the TCHC office. I was impressed both by the encouragement of the staff and the general sense of camaraderie shown by my peers. And when some kids inevitably didn’t have enough references for their application, the staff sat down with them and helped them sort out a solution. The personal approach was quite unusual to witness since whenever I had been at any other job fair and someone came unprepared, they were sent home and not given the chance for an interview. It was very reassuring to have people who could relate to and understand what struggles our perceived “high risk” group was going through. Their kind attitude encouraged me to want to succeed and go beyond the limitations of my personal struggle, and it’s something I kept long after the interviews were over.
When my turn came, I was led to a hallway where the interviews were being held. As I stood in line I could overhear a girl speaking to the interviewers through the slightly open door. I heard the interviewer say, “Anything else you want to add?” The girl scrambled to get a few more words in, to give reasons as to why she should be hired. As soon as the girl left the interviewing room, I caught a glimpse of her facial expression and saw how fast the former reassurance from the staff in the lobby had worn off. As I entered the interview room, I saw that the interviewers were both white. Upon first impression I could see that there was nothing extenuating in their circumstances that would cause them to be targeted by society. They were plump, well dressed, groomed, and had an expectant yet callous air about them. This was a complete turn-around from what I had experienced in the lobby–the verbal encouragement and the counseling attitude were all shut away with the door as I entered. I know that interviewers ultimately evaluate applicants by judging through their own experiences instead of the interviewees’ potential and intent. And for that reason, you cannot have two interviewers with such similar backgrounds be the judge of whether someone so different from them is qualified for the job. Yet, there we were, a diverse group of young adults, waiting to be screened by two people who were far removed from our situation. I wondered why none of the people working in the lobby were part of the hiring committee. Not only would they be better suited/more appropriate/ for the whole interviewing process, but seeing them in positions of power would give youth a chance to believe that, even if we didn’t get this job, we still have a shot at getting to where they are.
Interviews are mainly based on first impressions. But in order for someone to connect with another person there must be a basis of understanding between them. That goes without saying. This comes about in two ways: having a lot of empathy, and, more importantly, having been in a situation similar to the one you’re experiencing. This empathy is important when someone is in a position to evaluate a person’s ability to perform a job. Lacking this empathy can mean writing off an entire demographic as a certain danger posed in our work environment. It continues by not giving them opportunities, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and violence, and letting the cycle repeat and reinforce itself. It is in these critical places that representation matters. In my case, being a queer immigrant Muslim woman has its own set of obstacles in the workplace. But on top of that, it is obvious that my unique set of skills, my enthusiasm, and my energy did not translate over to the two interviewers as I feel it would have to the front-line staff in the lobby. At the end of the interview, I was met with uncaring eyes and the same question posed to the girl before me: “Anything else you’d like to add?”
“the prevalent assumption that “somebody’s fallen through the cracks,” social issues become individualized, diverting attention to the person rather than the system. This kind of assumption begs the question of why it is specifically people who are of colour, of a certain faith or sexual orientation, or of a certain ability who “fall through the cracks”. It leads one to think that maybe, just maybe, this is the doing of a grand-scale system that promotes this cycle.”
The following summer, I was back to searching for a job. It became harder and harder to ignore the fact that violence among youth in Toronto was rising. I wondered how much of this violence can be attributed to the fact that we don’t have role models, that we get demonized in the media and in real life by being portrayed as low-lives in subsidized housing who suck the welfare system dry. And yet we are not given opportunities for decent jobs that could sustain us. I’m saying “we” as in people of color, disabled people, LGBTQQIP2SAA, Muslims, women, other minorities and youth who grew up in the “poor parts” of Toronto with no chance or vision out of their situation. With the prevalent assumption that “somebody’s fallen through the cracks,” social issues become individualized, diverting attention to the person rather than the system. This kind of assumption begs the question of why it is specifically people who are of colour, of a certain faith or sexual orientation, or of a certain ability who “fall through the cracks”. It leads one to think that maybe, just maybe, this is the doing of a grand-scale system that promotes this cycle. Wherever you live in Toronto, you can observe that the owners of your local grocery store, the owners of your bank, the C.E.O. of your favourite retail stores are not doing enough to make sure that they’re fully embracing diversity, not only in the general workplace, but in their higher paying positions as well.
We high risk youth are already faced with prejudice everywhere we go. My experiences at TCHC is only an example within a bigger web of issues Toronto citizens need to be aware of. You can expect to find prejudice in every step of the way with any other company, too. It starts with the interview, it starts with someone seeing your “hard to pronounce” name on the resume, and with preconceived notions that act as barriers to success. People who are privileged are the ones who usually get further ahead in the workplace. At this time, kids who are living in low income areas need the most support, but they are being systematically pushed out of the vast well of opportunity, which keeps growing without our chance for contribution. If we want to change the way our communities respond to violence, we should first make sure to pay attention to who our employers are, then we should look for diversity higher up in the ranks. We should work to break those stereotypes that claim youth living in impoverished conditions are predisposed to a life of violence. We should have workplaces properly represent the communities that they are attempting to hire.