Gaining influence, step by step: Young leaders talk about following their passions
Leadership isn't about titles, or how big your organization is, it's about influence.
That was one of the ideas that came out of Yonge Street's March 22 panel on the city's emerging young leaders.
"If you think about leadership in that capacity, there's no problem too big," Salima Rawji, co-chair of the Emerging Leaders Network
, told the audience gathered at ING Direct Café. Moderated by curator and community organizer Devon Ostrom
, also an ELN member, and sponsored by the Toronto Community Foundation and Waterfront Toronto, the lively discussion addressed the value of finding good partners, how to find the right niche and the importance of celebrating your success stories.
Gaining influence is about getting your voice heard, which is often the biggest challenge for young people. Although the three panelists advocate in very different domains—education and community building, attracting international talent, and the intersection of business and social good—what they do share is the passion, curiosity and savvy to get their messages across.
Rawji, who was born and raised in Vancouver, praised Toronto's openness and the willing of people here to listen to new ideas. Currently land development manager for SmartCentres, Rawji is involved with several initiatives that aim to connect economic and social goals. Rise Asset Development
, for example, provides financing and mentorship to people living with mental illness and or addictions who are interested in starting their own businesses. She talked about one young artist who came to Rise about a year ago with a proposal for a greeting card business, who was at the very beginning of figuring out what it meant to be an entrepreneur.
"Now she's getting orders from around the world and she was talking about international distribution and how to do that," said Rawji.
The origins of panelist Amanda Parris' projects were a little less deliberate; she calls Lost Lyrics
her "accidental baby." Five years ago, she and collaborator Natasha Daniels were hired to teach an afterschool program to students in grades six, seven and eight. When they realized the curriculum just wasn't connecting with students, they developed their own, using hip-hop lyrics and culture as a way to bridge what goes on in the classroom with what goes on in the real world. Working on a bank overdraft, they struck out on their own, offering programs at Jane and Finch, and in Malvern, and have touched and activated something in many of their participants. Some of the original students from five years ago are still involved as interns.
"Lost Lyrics was fun and at first I didn't really understand where that fun was coming from," Isiah Lea told the audience after Parris invited him to join the panelists. The 16-year-old Earl Haig student is now an administrative intern with the program.
"You can use education to build movements," says Parris. In the beginning, Jane and Finch participants and Malvern participants didn't think much of each other’s neighbourhoods, if they thought of them at all. "We realized we really needed to create those bridges."
Although the panelist have proved you don't ask for permission to change the world, that doesn't mean you don't ask for help. Parris says she and Daniels were initially reluctant to apply for funding; they didn't want to be under the thumb of anyone who didn't share their values. But over time they realized that working with established institutions like school boards gave them more opportunities to get their message out.
"If I want to transform society, it has to happen within institutions at the same time," says Parris, even as she and Daniels continue to do their own no-strings-attached education and advocacy in spaces they define for themselves.
While Rawji and Parris have focused on nurturing talent and empowering Torontonians to pursue their goals, the third member of the panel, Eva Wong-Scanlan, has focused on attracting talented people to reclaim their Toronto-ness. Co-founder of Toronto Homecoming
, she has worked with community members and various levels of government to entice Torontonians with international experience to return to their home city. As the program has grown, she has realized the importance of building something that, perhaps, starts out small but has lots of room to grow.
"If you had told us years ago we'd be doing this, it would have seemed overwhelming. It's been small steps," says Wong-Scanlan.
Our next Yonge Street Speakers Series event is coming up in May; more details soon.