Our African-Canadian youth are growing up in a world where culture and identity continues to remain dynamic and acquiescent. Cultural identity is as crucial to the development of self as other factors such as gender, sexual identity, personality and self-esteem (Ishwaran, 1979). Research demonstrates that during adolescence, young people embark on an essential journey to formulate their identity, goals and passions which inform their self-esteem, self-worth and their connections with other people (Wilkinson, 2003). Without a strong connection with one’s cultural identity, self-erosion occurs. Youth who do not have the opportunity to learn about and connect with their cultural identity risk assimilation, alienation, withdrawal and integration (Wilkinson, 2003 and Wallace, 2005). In this sense, the youth seeks to fulfill their needs of belonging with other venues some of which are self-destructive and take time further away from their divine purpose.
Recently, my daughter was offered to attend a trip to Kenya sponsored by an organization named, 30 Elephants, which works collaboratively with Me to We and Free the Children. It was a once in a lifetime experience which provided her the opportunity to return to her cultural roots and connect with the people, the land, the culture and their way of life. When you develop a connection with “something” in the world outside of yourself and can share similarities with others, your perception and outlook of the world also changes and transforms. The same is true when we connect with the nature of our history, our spiritual roots, our music, our food and people who have common traits. It is these moments that we learn the importance of cultural identity.
My experience with African-Canadian youth in foster care and group care is an example of the experience of erosion of cultural identity. African-Canadian youth in Canada are overrepresented in the child welfare system as there is a higher percentage of African-Canadian youth in care than in the general population. This experience is directly linked to systematic racism and discrimination with the child welfare system and the community (Bonnie and Pon, 2015). One of the challenges for African-Canadian youth in the welfare system is being disconnected from their cultural identity through apprehension, displacement and isolation from their family and kin. In the system they face a variety of difficulties such as an increase in depressive symptoms, low-self-esteem and learned maladaptive strategies to address symptoms of distress (Scott and House, 2005). Cultural displacement of youth in care leads to a loss of culture, faith-based practices and social connections with their community (Clarke, 2011).
Thus, in this population, we see the tremendous impact of erosion of cultural identity due to the physical removal of youth from their families and communities. For African-Canadian youth, how do we reinforce, teach, educate and lead them to understand and involve themselves in developing a closer connection with cultural identity? There is not just one pathway, but rather several avenues one needs to explore as we seek to re-establish and re-affirm ourselves as African peoples. In addition, we accept that our cultural identity will become diverse as we blend and merge with other cultures and the dominant culture. However, by diversification we seek to enhance our identity and improve outcomes for ourselves, starting with our youth.
Suggestions for practice:
- Rites of passage ceremonies and programs are essential features of African culture. When my daughter turned thirteen, I planned a similar practice where I gathered my daughter and her friends together to spend an evening on self-care activities, facial masks, manicures and pedicures and fed them a very youth friendly meal. In the morning, I served them breakfast and gathered elders around to pray and commit my daughter’s life to our spiritual being. Each adult pledged to offer in prayer one of the youth who attended the celebration. I pulled aspects from my African heritage to incorporate in the creation of this ceremony. Similar rites of passage are operating throughout the Greater Toronto Area and consist of several week-long programs focused on enhancing youth’s knowledge of their culture.
- Narratives or story-telling was a way in which elders shared the culture, morals and lessons to young people. Such story-telling was a way to pass down information from one generation to the next. This is an essential part of African culture and consists of oral traditions, proverbs, parables, music, dance, art and rituals as some of the approaches used to support healing, to educate and develop identity for its members (Sutherland, 2011).
- Teaching our young people about their history before and after Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, major contributors of African history and world history, the growth of spirituality and belief system, and more are the only ways we can transfer our history onto the next generation. We cannot rely upon the education system to teach our youth our history.
- In addition to teaching our young people about their history, it is important to teach young people to critically analyse and deconstruct systematic racism and oppression.
- Encourage youth to develop a higher sense of social responsibility and community focus when engaging in learning about injustices and inequality. We saw this in our past, when young people joined the Black Panthers and followed Martin Luther King Jr. in his marches for equality and today, with the popularity of the Me to We foundation in reaching youth.
- Understanding anti-oppressive practices and helping youth identify barriers in their lives so they do not become discouraged, but resilient and challenged to overcome them.
- Trauma experiences can create a long lasting impact upon up to seven generations. As African peoples, our history is embedded in trauma experiences and trauma reactions which have not been helpful to our healing and growth. If we can identify that trauma experiences impact our emotional and social well-being, we can learn ways to heal in a healthy way.
- As “elders” we have a duty to support our young people through mentorship and guidance. Think about the people who shaped your development. Our children need the same people in their lives.
- Supporting our African-owned businesses and initiatives helps build community, reduces unemployment rates, and opens up opportunities for youth’s success.
Creating positive outcomes for our young people is a collaborative effort that truly puts the passage, “it takes a village” to heart!
Bonnie, N & Pon, G. (2015) Critical well-being in child welfare: A journey towards creating a new social contract for Black communities in Conere, Jeannine & Strega, Susan, 2nd Edition: Walking this Path Together Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive Child Welfare Practice. Halifax: Fenwood Publishing.
Clarke, J. (2011). The challenges of child welfare involvement for Afro-Caribbean Canadian families in Toronto in Children and Youth Services Review, 33(2).
Ishwaran (1979) Childhood and Adolescene in Canada. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.
Rankin, J., & Ng, P. (2013, March). Unequal justice: Aboriginal and black inmates disproportionately fill Ontario jails. Retrieved May 2, 2015, from The Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2013/03/01/unequal_justice_aboriginal_and_black_inmates_disproportionately_fill_ontario_jails.html
Scott, L. D., & House, L. E. (2005). Relationship of distress and perceived control to coping with perceived racial discrimination among Black youth. The Journal of Black Psychology, 31(3), 254-272. doi:10.1177/0095798405278494
Wallace, Stuart and Ali (2005) The Ryerson-Wellesley Determinants of Health Framework for Urban Youth
Wilkinson, Deanna (2003) Guns, Violence and Identity Among African American and Latino Youth. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing.