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Former Westview Centennial graduate excels in post-secondary thanks to Youth Participatory Action Research

By Hilary Caton, Communications Officer

Awwal Abass, YPAR

First-year York University student Awwal Abass has achieved so much since graduating from Westview Centennial Secondary School and it all stems back to his participation in Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR).

Currently in its fifth year, YPAR has helped participants develop their research skills using Afrocentric methods. The youth-led participatory action research (YPAR) continues to support Black students' self-determination and centre their voices while developing transferrable skills they can utilize after they graduate or enroll in post secondary education.

YPAR works in conjunction with the Black Student Summer Leadership Program ( BSSLP), ― a one-of-kind experiential learning opportunity for secondary students to be introduced to a variety of professional and career pathways ― under The Centre of Excellence for Black Student Achievement.

Abass recently finished his participation in YPAR in 2021 and is currently studying Law and Society at York University in the faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies.

We were able to catch up with Abass and ask him a few questions about YPAR and its impact, here’s what he had to say!


Q: What was your experience like participating in YPAR?

It was a tremendous experience. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot.

I saw things from a different perspective and by participating in the program I realized there are a lot of Black scholars out there that the research team introduced the students to. There are a lot of Black professionals, and there are a lot of Black oriented knowledge in academia, in research and in a lot of things going on around the world. We are often told that we produce our own knowledge and stories.

As Black kids we don't really see that because we don't really see things from those perspectives. But by participating in YPAR, I was able to conduct research and see things from an Afrocentric perspective. We began to learn that there are a lot of Black scholars contributing to this knowledge, to this discipline. So, I learned about that, and it's honed a lot of different skills for me in terms of learning, understanding, and thinking critically about the world around me from different perspectives.

Q: What did you learn from YPAR?

When you’re placed in an industry you’re passionate about, and have an opportunity to see successful Black people who are in law, who are in medicine, who are in media, and you're like, ‘Oh my God, these people actually exist! How come no one told me sooner that I could see myself represented?’  YPAR helped me and my peers recognize that all youth, whatever their backgrounds, possess innate talents and strengths to critique the world and ask questions. You start to think about the injustices that shape our society. YPAR gave us the tools to question our schools, communities and society. The conversations and the topics we covered impacted my perceptions of us as young people creating a better future for ourselves.

And that's something I learned during my experience at YPAR, that you can aspire to do more, to be more. To actively engage and be change makers.

Q: How has YPAR developed your leadership skills?

Honestly, I feel like YPAR played a huge part in the obtainment of my leadership skills. I would also like to state that YPAR helped to me to grow beyond leadership skills, academically and professionally. It’s something so great that youth my age got the opportunity to understand that we can make changes and be active citizens. By providing us with those tools, it was the creation and the establishment of a strong foundation for us.

The decision-making and leadership skills I developed led me to a position with Calumet and Stong Colleges. As a young person, I oversee a PhD/PH peer tutoring program with a student organization that helps first- and second-year students who are in the Kinesiology, Psychology, Global Health, Nursing and the Health Science programs. We help students to transition to university and help foster and support academic success with resources and tools. And I am also proud of the work I do as a Student Mental Health Lead at York University, where we are trying to support Black students to succeed academically and professionally. We also offer the supports needed to improve their mental well-being as they balance their school life.

I was also recently appointed as the President of the Black Future Lawyers (BFL) program at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. Where they provide Black undergrads with several learning and mentorship opportunities.

So, in short, I feel like I wouldn't have been in those leadership positions if not for all the things I learned in YPAR and the summer leadership program.  My capabilities have improved for sure, based on the mentorship and guidance I received. I engage with my peers and adults differently.

Q: What advice do you have for students who are going to be a part of YPAR?

One piece of major advice I'm going to share is― and I've always shared this with my community created at YPAR too― don't ever think that you are not enough. Don't ever think you can't make it or don’t have a voice. For every obstacle, challenge, and experience you've faced, don't fall back, and stay there. Instead, fall forward, as you fall forward keep pushing and remember, there are adults that can support and guide you. Take the learning you will acquire in YPAR and build your confidence and your skills. It will help you shape your purpose that goes deeper than acquiring an education just do graduate. You will learn to critique the world around you. Something that will always be with you.

Q: Where do you see yourself after graduation?

I see myself continuing my path after graduation by applying to law school. I see myself working as a lawyer to represent the marginalized voices that get brushed aside.

I want to give back to the Black community. I want to support Black youth and provide opportunities in the same way I was helped through the Centre of Excellence for Black Student Achievement by adults like Ms. Kai Gordon who was my Graduation Coach.