By: Esther Liu, Contributor

Please introduce yourself!

My name is Michael Abraham. I am 27 years old. I graduated from McMaster University with a BSW, so [an] honours bachelor of social work in 2017. In general, right now, most of my work is involved in two spheres: running a youth center in downtown Hamilton and working as a graduation coach in the [Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board].  

How has COVID-19 affected the SPACE?

Running a youth center is the business of social interaction and engagement. Before COVID, we would have anywhere from 50 to 80 participants a night or even more depending on if there was an event or dinner. Once the lockdown had hit back in March [2020], we had to shut down for a brief hiatus, for around six months.

When we returned in September, we had to really think through how we were going to reopen the SPACE and in what capacity we could possibly do that. What we had chosen at that time was to do closed pre-registered drop-in programming. So there’d be one program for three days during which we were open — Wednesday, Thursday, Friday — and there’d be a maximum of 10 youth that could attend said program.

One day could be Aux Cord Shuffle, another day could be our queer and trans youth programming, another day could be another program. So when that set cohort did their program for that day, once that program was done, they essentially had the entire space themselves, which we were hoping would be an added benefit to those individuals to still also exist in the SPACE because it may not be cool to be chilling at home, things may be not as safe or there are lots of situations with housing and stuff that youth have complexities around. We were able to do that from September until November.

Unfortunately, December was when things were intensifying so we had to really adjust and pivot towards online programming. I purchased a Zoom account and then we’re now just doing two online programs a week, one being digital drop-in which there are various different activities or different concepts from other programs we’ve done . . . Right now, it’s been going really well, we were kind of nervous, we didn’t really know how it would go.

But, youth are really engaged and oftentimes, the programs go over the one hour that we schedule them as. We also want to make sure that we’re not having youth stuck on their computer for an exuberant amount of time.

What are your favourite elements of the SPACE outside of the programming?

One of my favourite aspects of the SPACE is creating a sense of belonging for marginalized and racialized youth . . . A beautiful facet of the youth center is that we want to make it a space in which people can be their full selves, people can unpack things, can unlearn, can navigate some of their pain and trauma. We can all collectively carry the weight of that together.

That’s really led into beautiful moments of sharing space with one another, being there for one another and building healthy relationships, even building chosen families outside of people’s individual families. In a general way, being a dope spot where people can safely just grow up and have fun, kick it and do dumb safe stuff, and also have opportunities to really grow and develop and be the best version of yourself that you can be.

Could you elaborate on your work for the HWDSB? 

The graduation program is a new pilot project initiative started in my partnership with the ministry on a provincial level and the HWDSB on a specific regional space for Hamilton. The title of the role is graduation coach for Black students because the work is specific and focused on Black youth. I am located at Westdale Secondary School, whereas my partner in crime, Chad McPherson, is at Bernie Custis Secondary School.

In general terms, what we do is support and provide opportunities for growth and mentorship for Black students, meeting their academic things and supporting them in overcoming their academic barriers, but also and maybe even more importantly, is having a stake or value in their personal development and growth. We definitely find that when a student is doing well or is set up for success with their personal development, the school follows as well.

What’s your favourite part about this role?

A lot of the way in which I do my work and exist in the youth center definitely overlaps [with this role]. My absolute favourite parts are directly engaging and connecting with Black students. I think so much of my own educational experience had such a lack of seeing myself reflected in the administration or reflected in mentors or people I can trust.

I’m really trying my best to fit that in some way for students. So, my best hope is to build trust and rapport with the students I’m linked up with. It’s super dope connecting with students and hearing where they’re at, hearing some of their own thoughts and knowledge.

The stuff that young people are talking about now is way ahead of what I was thinking about at that age. A lot of the things that students who are 15, 16, are talking about now, I didn’t learn that stuff until I was in first, second year of university. So it’s super hype seeing the growth and level up of the next generation. 

What are you envisioning for the future of this program? 

Big visions of having graduation coaches at each high school, at elementary schools. I think a continual buy-in and accountability to the process of creating more spaces of healing, more spaces of racialized youth feeling that they have places to belong and be able to be a part of the system’s processes. So being able to provide feedback, being able to say that “Hey, this happened and it was wrong and it needs to change” and seeing those things be done in real-time.

Could you talk a little bit more about your involvement in the general Hamilton community?

In the general Hamilton community, lots of like small and larger pieces of being involved with justice endeavours. I think that’s always going to be a facet in some way that I’m always going to care about. I think the foundation of all these pieces comes from hip hop, from that dance culture in that breaking sprang forth from a direct response to the oppression that Black and Latino youth were feeling in the Bronx at that time.

So, it’s definitely a continual speaking back to systems and speaking back to “Yo, this isn’t okay.” I think a lot of that also ties to the work at the youth center. Beyond those small pieces of activism when I have the capacity and time to be able to be involved, I also teach breaking at a dance studio on the mountain called DMD, which is Defining Movement Dance. That’s also a really dope opportunity for me to share my love of movement and dancing and making sure that the young’uns are getting the proper knowledge and tips around breaking and the history.

Image courtesy of Mary F McIlroy

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