Introduction: On February 12th, 2021, Barnes Management Group convened a discussion of former participants in the youth leaving care advocacy project. The project was supported by the Office of Child and Youth Advocate for Ontario, and worked closely with the Ministry of Children and Youth Services. The purpose of this discussion was to bring together three different perspectives on this work: government, convenor, and youth leaving care whose experience influenced policy change. The following is an edited and condensed account of the conversation.
Alex Bezzina – Alex was a senior official in the Ontario Public Service for 20 years, and served as deputy minister of the Ministry of Children and Youth Services from 2012 to 2017. Prior to entering government he worked in the non-profit sector with organizations delivering mental health and homelessness services. He is retired.
Wendy Hayes – Wendy is a freelance marketing consultant, and a co-founder of the Ontario Children’s Advancement Coalition. She was a project lead on the Youth Aging Out of Care project
Anna Ho – Anna is a former social worker, currently a commercial real estate advisor and non-profit consultant. She was a project lead in the Youth Aging Out of Care Project.
Irwin Elman – Irwin was appointed Ontario’s Child and Youth Advocate in 2008, and served in this role until the position was eliminated in 2019.
The meeting was moderated by Barney Savage of Barnes Management Group (BMG), and observed by David Barnes and Fernando Saldanha.
How did this all get started?
Wendy – I got involved in the youth leaving care work because it intersected with both my lived experience and my professional interests, in marketing. They were looking for someone to develop a website, do social media, etc. I thought working in downtown Toronto looks pretty good – didn’t live in the city. Toronto was very sparkly. I wanted to make a difference. I had already done some advocacy work.
Anna – I got an email from my CAS worker about the hearings, she said you should get involved. She knew I was an active volunteer in my community and the Leadership Council at my school. And so I signed up! For the very first time I met a whole bunch of youth in care in the same room. It was really my first exposure to other youth in care, and that in itself reeled me in. I thought, how do we leverage our experience to make a difference for the kids who come after us?
Irwin: I was in a meeting with a bunch of youth in care I think it was Guelph. They were telling me all about the difficulties of youth leaving care and I made the mistake of saying this is not new. We have heard this for years. This young woman at the meeting said what are you going to do about it? You’re the advocate! And I thought Oh shit.
Wendy: Thank you to whoever that was!
Irwin: I thought about something from the US years ago, where a bunch of kids become journalists, they held hearings in Congress on family violence. This was probably 30 years ago. It was broadcast nationally. I thought, that’s a good idea. So we brought 60 young people together and we pitched the idea. We went from there – and they really took it.
What did you think about government when you started this work?
Wendy: To be honest, I did not really give a lot of thought to government. People in marginalized communities often face a lot of barriers to getting involved politically, and they feel ostracized. It is part of what amazes me about young people who get involved in this kind of stuff. They don’t do it for themselves – they do it for the next people. That is really special.
Anna: When I started I didn’t know what people in government thought. But I did think – they are adults, they must know what they are doing. They have all this experience and education, they are responsible for my well-being, and so of course they know what they are doing. I also thought they would hear about our experiences and immediately act on what they have heard. Very quickly I realized, — oh, 18 year-old Anna! – that’s not how things work. There is liability, money – which is a big factor.
“Sometimes it can appear as if we are just another case file, another policy issue.”
From the government’s perspective – any memory stand out? How did government respond to this work?
Alex: I think it was a cumulative appreciation of awareness and knowledge. People who are trained in classical policy development believe that the advice of public servants to government must be extraordinarily objective. Of course, that is important – we should not be looking just at one side. But in the last 15-20 years, there is an appreciation that there needs to be preferential insight for those whose lives policy will impact.
When I came to the ministry the hearings had already happened a few months earlier. I was drinking from a fire hose – my first DM role, and all the files I was responsible for. From an early point, people told me about the importance of the youth leaving care work. I heard about it from the minister’s office, from the people who reported to me, but also, interestingly enough, from the secretary of cabinet. I realized this was really important.
I had some experience with previous files where I encountered people with direct lived experience. But this was different at MCYS. I credit the advocate and his office – they created forums to amplify voice but also to make sure youth were being cared for through the process. In my experience in government, when we heard from people with lived experience – often emotionally raw experiences – we ourselves were impacted in ways that often brought us to tears. No matter how much data and reports we have, it just does not have the same impact that storytelling has. Youth leaving care – I remember staff leaving the room in tears. Did it have an impact? It absolutely did. In a way that is different than reports and data.
The only other thing – one of the questions that public officials need to ask themselves about people who are presenting themselves with lived experience: to what extent does this represent the full diversity of lived experience? Public policy has broad impact. If you have right mix, diversity, intersection of lived experience then your policy will be better for it…a quick example: I worked with families of kids with special needs. Their stories were riveting. But most of the people sitting in my boardroom were people of means. They had time to do advocacy, and they wanted the system to look a particular way, that met their own personal life experience. You have to ask yourself: do they represent the full experience of the families affected? Is the reality of all families being presented to government? Is government hearing the perspective of a single mother of a child with special needs balancing multiple jobs? How does her experience get reflected in what is being heard by government officials? So you have to be a bit careful about this in government.
What role did the child advocate play? How did this work? Are there other examples of convening and marshalling the voice of lived experience?
Alex: One other set of experiences with advocate. Feathers of Hope – another whole different set of experiences that was very impactful.
Government is inundated with request for meetings – most often it is people and groups representing service providers. It is often difficult for government officials to have access to people [with lived experience]. In certain circumstances, certain forward-thinking service providers would organize meetings for government officials to meet with clients, to meet with people who were experiencing difficulties. One organization, for example, brought people together to have real conversations about the needs of homeless youth. But most of the voices that government has on its radar comes from professional advocates.
Wendy: I am the co-founder of the Ontario Children’s Advancement Coalition, and we are founded by people with lived experience. Our purpose is to continue elevating the experiences of these young people. It’s not easy. We are not paid to do it. But it is too important not to be done. We need institutions like the advocates office who have the resources, that have power, that can be intermediaries. But that model is not perfect. There are drawbacks. But government needs to develop real partnerships. It can’t just be “ okay, show up on these three days we will listen to you, and then go make our decision.”
Alex: For us, the advocates office was important because we felt that young people were being supported before and after the meeting. It can be challenging to tell your story.
Wendy: I would challenge that a little bit. Sorry Irwin! That support was not perfect. Wage disparities between youth and people in the advocates office. There were still moments where young people would come, have a meaningful experience, and go home to Belleville, or Hamilton, and suddenly you don’t have that community anymore. You put your heart on the line, and you go home alone.
Anna: The advocacy process can be very scrappy – to use a tech term – we’ll figure it out as we go. But when organizers are working with young people, with such vulnerable experiences, you have to be much more aware of using a trauma-informed lens. What does a trauma-informed lens look like? I will give you an example. The one-page briefing for this discussion was very helpful – but I should have had this information before deciding whether or not I wanted to participate. I called Irwin just to field these questions. What is the intended outcome? What is it for? Who’s involved? This one-page briefing should have been provided before. When organizers are asking young people to share their lived experiences, we must ensure sure there is someone to follow up with young people to make sure they are alright. If you are going to ask people to tell their story you need to give guidelines. Here are the things you need to know to participate in the process. So, for example, if you are going in to meet with a minister or whomever, don’t feel that you have to share your whole life story. Share enough to get the point across. Young people with lived experiences leverage their stories as evidence that there is a need for change, but they may not realize what triggers might emerge. You go home afterward, you are mentally and emotionally exhausted, possibly re-traumatized. Young people may not see that coming. But the adults and organizers need to do that prep work for them, give them guidelines and tools to prepare and cope with possible triggers. These are things to keep in mind. The leadership and onus falls on the convenor.
Did you have experiences where you felt people in government just didn’t get it? How did government officials respond to your stories?
“Sometimes I think policymakers can be well-intended, but they usually have a pre-conceived idea or plan or decision that needs to come out of the process.”
Often, the purpose of the meeting is to validate what they already intend to do. The consistent experience of young people is that they tell their stories – both lived experience and professional experience – and there is just no follow up. That happened when the advocates office was shut down.
“You kind of realize – great, we are having a conversation.
But where’s the action? What’s the follow up?”
Wendy: I think we need to do more prep with the government people. People in government hear an emotional story, it has an impact, all good. With humans, sometimes facts just go in one ear, and out the other. The challenge comes when the response is personal in nature. It can be re-traumatizing. In one instance I heard a young person talking about how they had no money, and were worried about losing their housing, it was very emotional. The government official also got very emotional, and she said “you could come and live with me.” I get where it comes from, but it was wildly inappropriate. The reason we are sharing these personal stories is not so you will offer us a place to live – I don’t know you, so I won’t come and live with you – it is to make systemic change. So that the person who comes after me doesn’t have these concerns. So I think that prepping these people who are going to hear these stories a bit.
Alex: The point you are making about preparing people to participate in these conversations is important. A couple of ways: reiterate that certain responses are appropriate and some are not. Government officials are also people. They have lives, families. And they have triggers. So there is a tendency to see faceless government officials on one side of the table, and people with lived experience over there. But we need to recognize the interaction needs to be some training and support on both sides. That wildly inappropriate response – come and live with me – might have been because that person was triggered. We go home, we have kids who are ill, partners who are suffering, parents who are dying, other stresses. You don’t know what is going on in their lives.
Wendy: Good point Alex. Thank you.
Is there a danger in having political people elevate the personal experience?
Alex: It depends on the experience level of the minister and his/her political staff. A brand new minister, may be full of desire to create change, and they may want a response to every problem they encounter. The voices they hear are not just what they hear through their ministries, but they also have constituency offices. They hear stories from their constituencies all the time. As deputy minister I would meet with the Minister every week, and separately with the minister’s chief of staff every week. I often got these requests about certain problems. The challenge with this is that if you respond to each one you end up getting a series of one-off responses that are not necessarily sustainable and are not impactful for the greater number of people who are in those circumstances. Our job is to guide the minister and their office about what policy channels are available to address these problems.
Is there a danger to reacting? Yes. The more experienced ministers that know how things need to change – broadly – it is easier to transition those conversations into policy discussions. It depends on the minister and their staff and their experiences and maturity with respect to public policy.
Anna: Alex, when you talk about ministers, there is a high turnover rate. But it is the senior bureaucrats who stick around. How often is it that senior bureaucrats make recommendations and the minister just rejects the advice
Alex: Rejecting advice is pretty rare. But, I have had a lot of pushback from ministers. When we recommend a policy change to government – especially legislation or funding – the ministers are the ones who have to go to cabinet or treasury board and make the case. We are there in the background. So, of course, ministers want to understand and know what they are actually putting forward. I never typically got a black and white response, but lots of pushback. That pushback is really important.
There are often changes in minister, true. Each minister arrives with their own agenda, their own experiences and perspectives. Sometimes sustaining the work between ministers takes work. Good example – the work we did to change what was the Child and Family Services Act spanned several ministers. Policy work went on for years. So every time a minister came on board we bring them up to speed. Ministers are very much shaped by their constituencies. One minister will bring a very different set of experiences to the table than the previous minister – experiences rooted in his or her community. So, having an appreciation of that is important for senior public service officials.
Wendy: Interested to hear about how ministers are influenced by their constituencies. Engaging communities at large – in a broad sense – that is really important.
“Personally, my value goes beyond my story.”
I often don’t feel that way when I am engaged by folks by people who might be doing important work, but all they want is my story. As someone engaged in digital marketing my personal experience, working in nonprofit, I bring an approach to my work that is just as important as my story. So when it comes to youth engagement, look beyond just offering a seat at the table, sharing the story, and going home. I talk a lot about that –
“I don’t want to be on the side of a bus, I don’t want to speak at a fundraising event, but I have lots of knowledge you can use.”
Anna: When government comes to us – Wendy said it perfectly – they really want a good story. But we don’t have the full picture. So, just as Alex was saying he had to get ministers up to speed, you need to get youth up to speed about what the big picture is, so that we can provide better advice to government. Governments need to provide people with the context – and follow up, follow up, follow up. I say it three times. What are you going to do with that information? Show us. What’s the roadmap – from where we were, where we are now, and where we want to be headed. That will help governments get more robust data and information out of people they are trying to engage.
What advice do you have for those of us who wish to see direct experience having a greater role in influencing government?
Alex: Wendy and Anna are making a great point. If your organization is interested in engaging lived experience as part of policy development you need to think about what model you need to develop. Are you a convenor and amplifier? Will you be an intermediary, which might involve gathering stories of lived experience and moving them on to someone else? The second thing I would offer is a caveat: people don’t want their stories to be commodities. They want to be valued beyond their stories. So, if they feel like their story is just another thing that is being purchased – that would be a disservice to the people you are engaging. So I just want to reiterate very loudly: people’s stories are not commodities.
Irwin: In terms of a model, what Alex was saying fits with what Wendy was saying about the Ontario Child Advocacy Coalition. The idea of supporting, building community is better than the model of what I call open pit mining: you go, find some people, seniors, people with disabilities, young people, you mine the nuggets of wisdom, and you leave behind an open pit. Instead, you need to be thinking about a “do no harm” model. Wendy presented a valuable model of doing that in partnership. I always thought you had to get bureaucratic and political on the same page if you really want to make change. Check to see if the deputy and his people – and the minister and his or her people – are on the same page. Important for them both. I remember Wendy with Minister Hoskins when they were going to release My Real Life book. The minister didn’t want any of the opposition parties at the release. And Wendy said no, it is going to happen, because all parents/adults need to be at the kitchen table.
I kind of think that the toughest thing for bureaucracy is implementation, not policy. How do you make it real in the lives of children, for example. When I was in charge of the office, or Alex in charge of the ministry, just because you say something is going to happen doesn’t mean it is going to happen. The help of people with lived experience might be able to help with implementation. Not making them responsible for implementation – they don’t have the tools. They can’t craft legislation. But checking with them about whether the it is staying on the right track. That is another reason not to do the open pit mining approach, but to keep people involved.
Last thing: I am not surprised, but I cannot explain how much Anna and Wendy are diamonds, brilliant, continue to help me learn. They are special people, but they are people. Every person you meet has the potential to be diamonds like Anna and Wendy.
Wendy: Thanks Irwin. One more thing to build on your comments: sometimes you cannot promise that things are going to change. So how do you continue to honour the work when you cannot guarantee the outcome you set out to achieve.
Alex: Irwin mentioned implementation. There is a life cycle to policy, and implementation and evaluation is important with the feedback loop to the policy cycle. So the role of lived experience in that cycle is important. You have to remember that influencing government is one thing, and influencing system leaders and service providers is equally important because they get the money from government to change things. So when I say the influencing government I also mean all the various players – service providers, researchers, government, etc. It sounds like a huge challenge. But you can dream big!
Anna: It is about quality assurance. To see that things happen, and make sure that young people have a role to play in keeping things on track. Making sure young people are part of that process. And I think that winds down our discussion!
Contributor: Barney Savage, Member of the BMG Leadership Team
Image Copyright: Fernando Saldanha