How Youth Leadership is Impacting Philanthropy and D&I

Having worked with five non-profits and charities thus far in my early career, I have started to notice that there is a specific type of voice adding tremendous value to the philanthropic dialogue – the unique voice of youth engagement. The truth is, fundraisers in functional roles within charitable organizations cannot do what they do without other voices reaching the donor. I believe that youth ambassadors and youth engagement are critical to the success of charities being effective storytellers and getting their message out there to the broader community.

In my experience working on a number of youth leadership programs run by charities and non-profits, I have met so many youth who are eager to contribute to the organization’s cause and to help raise funds and awareness. I have also had the remarkable opportunity to watch youth from diverse communities or backgrounds step forward to elevate a cause and share their story.

I asked two inspiring youth that I know from my own blind and partially sighted community to share what diversity and inclusion mean to them personally, and how they are contributing to the non-profit and charitable sector.

Meet Jessica Watkin

PhD student at the University of Toronto studying disability, feminist and performance studies. Jessica, who is legally blind, advocates for accessibility and inclusion within the theatre and arts sectors and is actively making change in her community by engaging decision-makers and young leaders alike.

Diversity & Inclusion:

“When it comes to diversity and inclusion, I speak for myself and my own experiences as well as my own personal interests. Although I care deeply about the blind community (and continue to fundraise and volunteer within it) I prefer to work in my desired field—theatre—where inclusion in particular for people of all walks of life, abilities, and ideas tends to be in short supply due to a lack of inclusive practices. Not only do I maintain a pedagogy within my academic writing for inclusive theatre, performance, theory, and attitudes but also in my work within the theatre community as I voice my opinions to artistic directors across Toronto. In the past year, I have sat in two meetings with different artistic directors who have heard my ideas on steps that can be taken to make our theatres both on stage and in the audiences more inclusive.”

Charitable & Not-for-profit Involvement:

“I work with a few charitable organizations especially in the blind community. In the upcoming year, I will be co-chairing the Canadian National Institute for the Blind’s Centennial Celebration in Ontario leading up to March 2018. I am also helping to cultivate a much-needed space for young blind leaders to collaborate and develop their leadership skills in a day-long summit for the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Finally, I am working in tandem with Balance for Blind Adults in Toronto to create a Young Women’s Discussion Group for blind women in our area to come together to share resources and ideas about common issues for women. All three of these projects are important to me because they directly reflect things that I care about within the blind community: celebrating, inclusion of clients and volunteers, youth programming, leadership, young women, safety for women, and personal development. These things matter to me because I can see (pun intended) direct impact from what I do both in the community, with my peers, with coworkers, and in the organizations that I support.”

“Above all, what matters to me in both my involvement in purposeful diversity and inclusion in theatres in Canada as well as the not-for-project projects that I am working on, is that I hold these values and ideals about life close to my chest while going through these projects and that they all challenge me in creative and meaningful ways. This work is meaningful in every aspect of my life, allowing my personal fulfillment to go beyond my own development to affect positive change in a broader sense, and that’s what it is all about, right? – The future of these communities. That is what I care about.”

Meet Kathleen Forestell

MEd candidate at the University of Toronto’s OISE studying counseling psychology. Kathleen, who is legally blind, is a mental health advocate and is passionate about helping people manage their personal well being. She is making change in her community by making sports more accessible and by sharing her experience on her blog “Blindsight.”

Diversity & Inclusion:

“I’m currently working for the Blind Sailing Association of Canada as their Youth Outreach Coordinator. In this role, I run sailing excursions for blind and partially sighted youth so that they can learn to sail in a way that is accessible to them. We have instructors who describe aspects of the boat and steps to take while sailing – and the youth do all the heavy lifting. I’m also involved with a youth group run by youth who are involved with the Foundation Fighting Blindness focusing on peer support, advocacy for accessibility, and leadership development. To me, diversity and inclusion means accepting individuals who are part of a minority group and are often excluded, and creating opportunities for these individuals to participate fully in activities – from recreation and leisure, to employment and volunteering. D&I is essential for these individuals to be happy, successful, contributing members of society.”

Charitable & Not-for-profit Involvement:

“As mentioned above, I’m involved with the Blind Sailing Association of Canada and the Foundation Fighting Blindness – both are charitable and not-for-profit organizations. These organizations advocate for the inclusion of people who are blind or partially sighted and provide opportunities for these individuals to be a part of a community. Having a sense of community provides a support network and helps people cope with daily struggles inherent in vision loss. For me, being a part of this community has provided me with a sense of purpose and renewed my passion for advocacy and creating awareness.”

As I watch young leaders like Jessica and Kathleen share their experiences with accessibility and inclusion – the philanthropic case for support and the impact we’re all working towards feels real. While fundraisers will meet with donors to speak about the value of investing in the next generation’s well being – these youth are actively living that value proposition every day in the work that they do. When youth are engaged with non-profit and charitable causes, sharing their stories, and actually influencing change through programs and services – there is so much potential to elevate diversity and inclusion for people from diverse communities.

I feel so incredibly lucky to be inspired every day by the work that these young leaders are doing – and as someone working in the non-profit and charitable sector, I will do everything in my power to ensure that youth always have a voice.

Photo – from left: Jessica Watkin, Kathleen Forestell, and Amy Soden at Blind Sailing Association of Canada’s Youth Sails program.