featured Inclusion Racism

The Youth Project: A lot of our youths talk about the feeling of waiting

Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – On Saturday Carmel Farahbakhsh presented on behalf of the Youth Project to the members of the Subcommittee to Define Defunding the Police. This working group, chaired by El Jones, is tasked with proposing a police defunding strategy to the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners. We intend to publish several more presentations over the next few days.

My name is Carmel Farahbakhsh, I’m the executive director of the Youth Project. First I’ll just give an overview of the Youth Project, a multi-service organization with a provincial mandate to create safer, healthier and happier spaces for 2SLGBTQIA+ youth. 

We’ve been providing community support for over 27 years through an education team, programming team, and support services worker. Our goals are to further the inclusion and wellness of 2SLGBTQIA+ youth under the age of 25, foster networking, knowledge exchange/training, increase access to public services for trans and non-binary youth and provide social and cultural programs, services and celebrations for 2SLGBTQIA+ youth and their communities. Our team aims to work on an anti racist, anti oppressive trauma informed framework with which centres youth voice and community leadership..

Many of the pieces that I’ll be speaking to have come directly from the youth that we work with, their names will of course remain anonymous, but I wanted to let folks know that a lot of this comes from our direct work with not only our clients, but our youths board. 

Our main office is in Kjipuktuk located in Mi’kma’ki. We understand Indigenous sovereignty as being inherently linked to queer and trans liberation. And this work is a reflection of that clear intersection for us.

Pinkwashing, anti-Blackness & anti-Indigeneity 

I want to specifically talk about pinkwashing, and anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity, as this feels incredibly relevant to today. Pinkwashing is the appropriation of 2SLGBTQIA+ movements to promote a particular corporate or political agenda, and/or expression of power. In other words, powerful entities, much like the police, market themselves as gay-friendly to gain favour with progressives while masking aspects that are violent, undemocratic, and violate human rights. 

So how does this relate to policing? We see examples of this nationally, as well as provincially and locally. I will draw from two national examples and then specifically speak to this locally. 

So we see specifically how in 2016 the Black Lives Matter chapter in Toronto called for accountability regarding the death of Andrew Loku. And we see the police respond to that ask, not with accountability, but rather with an apology about the bathhouse raids of the 80s where the police violently raided queer and trans spaces, utilizing brute force and arresting many. While it’s incredibly important to acknowledge this violent history of queer and trans realities, it is specifically and intentionally used to distract from and ignore the BLM chapter specifically imploring for police accountability. 

This tactic is also seen in 2010 during the Olympic Winter Games, when Indigenous-led protesters and water protectors implore government to not put so much money and funding into the Olympic Winter Games while there was a housing crisis and resources needed within their communities to survive are lacking. Instead of listening to this really important message, Stephen Harper at the time created pride houses, a place where queer and trans people can watch the Olympic Winter Games in safety. A lot of this information comes from Disrupting Queer Inclusion: Canadian Homonationalisms and the Politics of Belonging

Locally, this (pinkwashing) looks like many things. It looks like what kind of training is prioritized? It looks like wanting to march in a Pride Parade in uniform while still participating in street checks. It looks like wanting to access queer and trans training to look culturally competent while ignoring the realities of anti-Blackness and ant-Inidgenous racism. 

It also looks like working specifically with queer and trans organizations as a way to manipulate public perception. This is a huge issue and one that we cannot be silent about, as it directly links to our work. Often the Youth Project and other queer and trans organizations are asked to train the police. It’s really important that it is understood that that is, in my perception, optical. It’s important to understand the ways in which queer and trans organisations are often used to fill that equity-based gap. Of course, it doesn’t account for the realities of many queer and trans communities, including also specifically 2SLGBTQIA+ Black and Indigenous people.  

Harm reduction in the youth sector

Specifically relating to the Youth Project, we’ve had to really think about our policies and procedures in terms of creating spaces where 2SLGBTQIA+ youth feel safe. This has meant that we’ve had to rewrite old policies to ensure that the Youth Project has done everything possible to maintain a no-police presence. This is due to the safety and well being of our youth and staff, and is something that has specifically been asked for by the clients that we serve. 

We would love to call on state systems if they supported the wellness of the youth that we support, such as help in navigating the realities of sexualized violence, being trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation. But unfortunately, that state service does not exist. 

In a recent CBC article about sexualized violence in the Maritimes, dated March 18 2021, we read that sexual assault reports are actually up 28 and 45% since 2014, and nationally there has been a 50% increase, coinciding with the rise of the #MeToo movement. However, the number of people charged has not kept pace with the increase in reports to police. That rate of people charged for reported cases has actually dropped regionally, from 38-40%.

There is a myth that when we have a resurgence of reports specifically relating to sexualized violence, that there will also be a rise in convictions. This is a myth. This is completely false and falsified. Specifically, queer and trans youth understand that reporting sexualized violence is not a safe option for them because they feel, and rightfully so, that they will not be believed and that their cases will not be understood within the current legal system. We still see that this system is not built to support survivors, specifically thinking about the nuances of care provision. So for example, the intersections of queerness, transness, race class, etc. These numbers do not paint a full picture of course. 

What does community safety mean to us?

What does community safety mean to us as an organization? When we talk to our youth, they have brought forward incredible and brilliant suggestions that I want to share with you today. 

Our youth have asked for funded food justice and housing programs and bolstered funding to the community organisations that have already been doing this work and continue to uphold this work. They’ve asked for funded training for youth in their communities in topics such as de-escalation and active listening. To clarify, this training is not for the police. This is for youth themselves to learn how to respond to their peers, which I think is incredibly powerful. They’ve asked for alternative systems to support youth who they can call in the context of a crisis? We know that there is police involvement and we know that sometimes a plainclothes police officer or a police officer in uniform will attend to mental health support, and that is completely unacceptable and a huge barrier to our youth in utilizing that resource. 

We understand statistically that 2SLGBTQIA+ youth are at higher risk of suicide due to, of course, the homophobic and transphobic world that we exist in. It is crucial that there are culturally competent and culturally relevant resources that are offered to these youth as a form of harm reduction so that they do not feel like they have nothing when they are in times of need in crisis. 

It is important to understand that the police have monopolized safety. The police were never meant to respond to mental health crises. And yet we see the police having a huge hand in the ways we understand mental health provision and support, locally and nationally as well as beyond.

Youth have also asked for well-funded trauma-informed and harm-reductive services for substance users, and bolstered funding to community organizations that already hold this work. (They talk about) Warm, accessible 24-hours spaces with electricity and WiFi such as large indoor bus shelters and less hostile architecture. They’ve asked for 24-hour accessible public washrooms with sharps containers and lighting. They’ve asked for neighbourhood features like crosswalks, better and cheaper public transit options, funding for community rec centres that can be accessible to all, well funded trauma-informed and harm-reductive services for sex workers, and (supports for) the community organizations which already do this incredible work. They’ve asked for universal basic income, community lockers where folks who do not have access to stable housing options can keep their belongings. And they’ve asked for longer term funding options for grassroots organisations and nonprofits holding the responsibilities of community safety. 

Defunding the police

Why don’t we have these things? It is because there is an inequitable distribution of community funds and city funds. It is the city’s responsibility to reallocate funding to fund our social services sector. And we believe that defunding the police is part of that plan, or should be part of that. 

The incredible TJ McKay says, “defunding the police sounds radical until you realize that we’ve been defunding education for years.” Of course, education is a huge element of our mandate provincially as well as something that affects our youth every single day when they access our public education system. And our youth are dissatisfied with our public education system, there is a lack of 2SLGBTQIA+ representation, and a lack of training for staff and administration to create the safest environment possible. Imagine what our school system could look like if there was bolstered funding and a prioritization of the importance of education for all. As our youth say, brilliantly, defunding means refunding our social services. It doesn’t mean funneling more money into reformist policy that doesn’t work. 

Our prior two presentations have spoken really well to these realities. I would like to touch specifically on body cameras as a solution and echo those words that say where violence is filmed, it doesn’t stop the violence, it just allows us to have access to it. There’s a lot of research specifically pertaining to the US where there has been reformist policies. Those reformist policies do not shift the realities of violence, for example, the chokehold has been banned, yet we still we see people experiencing incredible violence and also fatal realities and murder. 

Our youth have asked for a transition process. As brilliant as they are, they understand that this is a multiple decades long process. This process has to be careful and intentional. Our incredible youths understand that it doesn’t happen in a year or six months. It also includes training opportunities for people who will be shifting their work away from policing. 

While we understand that this will be a multiple decades long process, there still has to be a deep transparency and public accountability throughout that process, with clear goals, clear timelines around what defunding looks like and a strategic plan. 

This is a global call for action. We see it in a global context. We see it nationally, we see it provincially and it is time for us to apply that important feedback to the ways in which our city runs. 

So what should the police focus on in these times of transition? Our youth believe that police should focus on violence-based crime. This does not include property crime or sexualized violence. And it also could look like community vaccination clinics or distribution of supplies during times of crisis. 

In 2019, the House of Commons released a report on the health of 2SLGBTQIA+ communities in Canada, stating, among many other things, that queer and trans youth who have supportive environments are allowed to be themselves and thrive, pointing to the direct correlation between harm reduction and fully funded services and support and the health and safety of queer and trans youth. This is well-documented, if we have access to funded and stable community organizations we increase public safety and wellness. 

The political economy of waiting 

I want to specifically speak to the political economy of waiting briefly. A lot of our youth talk about the feeling of waiting, waiting for justice, waiting for culturally relevant services, and waiting becomes a part of their identity. There are so many youth that are in limbo, waiting for justice from our legal system or court system, waiting to feel protected by the police, which they have said will never happen for them, at least not within the context of how the policing system looks now. 

It is very upsetting to me that a lot of our youth feel like they are in limbo while in that process of waiting. They believe that the realities of waiting ,for example, in the context of trans- affirming care, which also without lack of resources, can be fatal. If we had access to fully funded resources, that wait time would decrease, we would have more culturally relevant services that were run for and by the people that need access to public safety, and there could be a redefinition of what public safety looks like, in our municipality and beyond.

See also: Jamie Livingston: Mental health crisis responses without police

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