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Feature: Amadeusz – Look At My Life Project

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Names were changed to protect the privacy of individuals included in the interview

 Q: Can you tell me about the Amadeusz Project

Amadeusz is a set of guiding principles and techniques for implementing education for youth specifically in Toronto. So, Amadeusz is not an organization, it is these guiding principles and techniques created from 4 years of research that was conducted from 2003 – 2007. The 4 years of research was conducted in GTA with young people through in depth interviews, focus groups, surveys, etc. and the info [after a grant from Laidlaw was acquired] was disseminated. A report was then put together to explain Amadeusz. At that point we used the principles and techniques to launch the Look At My Life Project. The Look At My Life Project was launched in 2009 and basically it’s a charitable project in the City of Toronto for young people that are incarcerated in the city. Initially, when the project started is was focused on young people on remand and trying to advocate for these institutions to provide formal education, for these young people – that’s how the advocacy work started. Today, 5 years later, the Look At My Life project runs high school education and post-secondary programs in all the jails in Toronto and now the GTA and the project has  become so successful that we’ve expanded to young people that have been convicted and sentenced. Now were focusing on Ontario instead of Toronto.


Q: What steps did you take in order to build Amadeusz

Amadeusz was founded in 2001 and it was more out of frustration. There was so much programming happening for youth in the Rexdale community, but for which youth? What about the young people in the staircases smoking blunts, what about the young people not in school, what about the young people who were inside [prison]? I know that’s where it came from but again we had to prove it, we had to prove this existed. We had to do the research in a way that the world finds legitimate. As young people we had to prove it to the adults, which sucks.


It started out of young people’s frustration and need; for their need to be answered. Then the Look At My Life Project (as more and more young people came and had discussions) it started to filter through the needs. We have all these needs but what is the root need? And the root need was ongoing violence in our community and because we are coming from Rexdale I’m pretty sure other places in Toronto face the same thing, there are so many little pockets of ‘hoods’ – there’s a lot of turf stuff. To some people it might be bullshit but to us it’s a reality. So I think the growing violence … lead to many of our friends getting incarcerated and dying.


One young person was inside at the time but he was the only one to get access to books. A woman, Sandy, was a volunteer teacher – she used to teach for a living. These jails, sometime people think that jails have high school programs but it’s not true for Toronto, maybe in America but not in Toronto. In Toronto the TDSB used to be in the jails and they removed themselves in 1998 when amalgamation occurred in Toronto and their reasoning for it was that it was costing too much to be on the inside – they claimed they were saving money. From 1998, there were NO opportunities for high school education and there was never, ever, ever opportunity for post-secondary education in Canadian history in the city of Toronto in these institutions. Sandy was one of the original teachers in the jails. It so happened that in 1998 when the schools removed themselves she was retiring at the same time so it didn’t really affect her job wise but because she was retiring she decided to volunteer her time.  And that’s how one of my friends met [Sandy]. He was there from 2001 and was on remand for over 2 years, he was not convicted, and he had to do dead time. That’s another thing that’s frustrating, 41% of young people will not be convicted and they will do dead time. (And a participant that was part of the project, he was inside for over 3 years on remand he was never convicted and just released back into the community. So can you imagine, the mental health that you go through for 3 years for you to not be convicted? And you lost the most important years of your life? 18, 19, 20 it’s ridiculous) And this friend was so blessed to meet Sandy, and even though Sandy was a volunteer and she couldn’t give 100%, she brought him books and she just really inspired him to never want to ever have this experience again. A little bit after 2 years, he was like “I have to make changes in my life, I’m not going back there, this place is awful, I’m not going back there.” I would have to say out of everyone that I’ve met in my entire life he is just one in a million of the lucky ones, honestly.


When you come out, whether you were convicted or not there’s so many barriers and challenges in front of you that the system we all know is completely set up for you to fail, they want to you go back inside…this is a really strategic plan for domination. When he came out we talked more about this and that’s how the LAML project was narrowed down. We took his experience and other young men that were our friends and decided that education was gonna be our answer. Gaining a formal education will never show how smart/dumb you are. All that formal education does is say that you must do this or that to be claimed or deemed smart and your gonna get a certificate that you are smart. But we also knew the reality to survive in this society, especially that it’s a knowledge-based economy. We realized it had to be this way, so we contacted the jails and they didn’t want to hear from us.


So to answer your question, the organizing and advocacy was the easy part. Now that I actually look at it and reflect back, young people organize and advocate every day. Sometimes they don’t know they’re organizing and sometimes they don’t know they’re advocating, but they are. I think that the only reason it survived is because I’m a bitch. I’m gonna call you every day and bother you every day because at the end of it when it started to be a change it dwindled. No one really cared but I was like, no I’m calling every day. And from 2006 to 2009 I called a lot and bothered them a lot and finally in 2009 I got a meeting at the Toronto West Detention Centre and I couldn’t believe that I had this meeting. I had to go, so I did everything to be at this meeting, I even did a proposal. I went in there, sat down with the woman and just told her. I didn’t talk anything about advocacy or revolution. I explained to her who we are, what we want to do and what our idea is and what we can do for her and I made it seem like this was for her and to make her and the institution look good. I didn’t talk about young people in the community; I didn’t talk about our needs. Before I left, I said, “can you read over the proposal and see what I’m saying and contact me and I’ll follow up with you.” She said there was no need to follow up and “we haven’t had an education program since the late 90s” she even brought up Sandy’s name, which totally made me know how real it was… “Sandy retired years ago and she can’t volunteer her time anymore… talk to Sandy, based on what she tells you, based on those barriers and challenges try and overcome them and then we’ll start”.


We meet at a coffee shop and it was such an honor to meet her because of my friend, her whole life she taught and all she wanted to do was make positive change and finally in her retirement years later she hears about this one person and she was so good with that – it was as if in that moment she really retired. I did an in-depth interview with her, I got it transcribed by our research coordinator, and she shared with us so many challenges and barriers – that interview was so important because she told us all the challenges and barriers before some of them were to be faced. There was no money, she couldn’t pay for the books or the courses and it was really hard for her and she had no other teacher support – the need was too much and she was saying that it was placing a lot of issues in her marriage because her husband wanted more time since they were retired.

That’s what was different about our program, not only were we offering the opportunity to complete high school we were the first alternative education program to show alternative education can occur and be successful on the inside. And the reason why is because it’s a jail first. There are policies and procedures and a culture that is there that’s not a school. And you know what, those policies, procedures and culture is gonna create so many barriers and challenges to running a GED program. The OSSD it’s a little easier because you’re taking history, he’s taking English, and he taking math they’re focusing on that course in their cell and when they come out you work with them one on one. With the GED it’s a class. They all come to class and sit down and that’s the big deal with us. Our whole big objective was that we needed to make education more accessible to young people on remand.

Now we are starting to investigate a new stream called ACE. The colleges have a high school equivalency called ACE so now we created a partnership with Centennial College to have ACE available as well. If you don’t want to do the OSSD or the GED is not for you, you have the opportunity to do ACE and have your high school equivalency.


We fought and advocated and 2010 I was blessed to meet Wyanna. She changed this project – took it and ran with it. The first GED exam in all of Ontario to ever happen in Toronto history happened in 2010 April in the jails and even though only two people wrote the exam – that was not the point. She overcame and fought all the policies, procedures and culture, that’s 100% against you.  Today, the last time I checked, there has been 50 young people that have graduated high school while they were in jail and out of the 50, 25 of them have continued their education and taken university courses while they were on the inside. University courses were NEVER provided to young people on remand, never in the history of this institution. Wyanna organized the first post secondary school program for these young people. These young people are writing 8-10 page essays with a golf pencil. They are doing references – can you imagine, we go on our computers, we type stuff up, it aligns it, formats it – these young people are getting 80%-90% with a golf pencil. And why? Because they want to be there, because they are passionate, because they look at this opportunity as a way to make positive change in their life.


Even though we know structures and barriers exist you still have agency and choice. Young people are using their free will to make change. And through this project, I now see that change can happen. It may not happen as quick, or in the capacity you wanted, but it can happen and I think it’s important for young people to remember a couple things. You may have that revolutionary mind frame but you have to know how to work it. You have to know and understand that you can’t be coming with a bunch of gats and do guerilla warfare and start the revolution – that’s not gonna work in the city of Toronto in 2014 because they’ll lock you up too. But what will work is if you understand the system, how it’s set up and prep yourself (even though a masters degree or a PhD doesn’t deem you smart to yourself) that will give you the outer look and the mask that you need especially if you’re a young person of color and that’s what you need to get through those doors and get people to listen to you. I think it’s really important that young people can organize and do all those things but systems, policies, structures, and laws exist and it’s important that you negotiate them and navigate them. If you really want to see change you have to understand and work within the system to make change happen.


Q: What are 2-3 ways that you practice self-care?

Social workers need social workers and people don’t realize that… As years went by, I began to heal through all the situations that I went through so I was a better community worker. Today, I’m more healed and I think I am better at [self care]. It’s not that I don’t know how to do these things. I know different strategies that I could implement but for me personally I would tell young people I kept a diary where I was able to write out my anger. Or we started this thing in our project where we have one person on the team on a specific day and you call that person and when they pick up the phone you say “I’m ready to dump on you” and you just dump everything. There are resources out there for young people but it’s just using them. And the truth is at the end of the day from my experience a lot of community workers are just people and at the end of the day, like I said social workers need social workers.


Q: Are there specific ways that you like to learn?

I like to learn in the ways my mentor has taught me. When you go to school, you have to put a mask on, speak a certain way, use a certain discourse. My mentor wasn’t like that. That’s why GOAL and [AVNU] are so important because they give you not only an opportunity to learn but they give you an opportunity to learn in an alternative way, in an alternative environment, with alternative people that aren’t so bougie and they’ll accept you as you are. When I met my mentor she gave me guided opportunities for me to learn about myself and see myself. I like to learn where someone trusts me enough to give me an opportunity to go and learn through that opportunity and still guiding you and will hold your hand when necessary. That experience was so crucial for me.
Someone in a leadership position trusts a person enough to go out there and do the work on behalf of us and that trust is where the learning comes in. With my mentor, trusting me enough, that was how I learned. Not only did I learn about youth work in the field but also I taught about my own personal self – my abilities, what I can/can’t do, what I want to do. She showed me the importance of getting my degree. Just because it will help me get into doors, people will listen to me, it helped me articulate everything I thought, it helped me express it better because I had the discourse to do so. I like to learn through actually doing it, not have a book telling me. I think that’s why I’ve been successful in the field.


People think you need your master’s degree or PhD to get published. Now that I’m more educated (and I don’t mean formally, I mean knowledge that I’ve investigated on my own) that’s true learning. My mentor reminded me that there are other ways to navigate and negotiate the system to get what you want – most importantly to make the change that you want.


Our first paper is going to be published in The Canadian Review of Social Policy. This contributes to Canadian research about young people held on remand and their human right to gain education and how the social policies in Ontario are set up to go against their human rights. That’s the real work. I don’t have a masters degree, but that shit’s getting published and I’m gonna use that to my advantage to make more change. That’s the point. That’s learning.

You see, these young people, they know nothing. They know justice but they know it because that’s what the book said. They don’t know real things that I’m telling you about, the real fight, the real blood sweat and tears. They don’t know about that.


I think it’s important for young people to have mentors like mine because her leadership has a positive ripple effect on the city of Toronto. I am her ripple effect; I’m not the only one. All of these people that are her ripple effects are contributing positively to the City of Toronto. That is real social work, contributing real change.