How the Agents of Change program is offering the support that is missing from student leadership

(Courtesy of Hannah busing, Unsplash)

Leading is a privilege, and it is a privilege not afforded to many. In a time of gender inequality, discrimination, and bias, we look towards our leaders for a sense of security and hope. The issue arises when that leadership is not present.

Breaking glass ceilings and becoming a woman within leadership is hard, and being a BIPOC woman leader is harder. To get to a place of balance, non-profit organizations and initiatives need funding and support.

A report conducted by Carleton University looking at the underfunding of Black communities in Canadian philanthropy found that the funding going towards Black-serving and Black-led organizations is microscopic. 

They also noted that the grant funding received is not sustainable and does not invest in long term efforts of Black community organizations. 

The community needs more. More money. More sustainability. More leaders. More representation. More inspiration — and support for new ideas and the next generation is the missing element. 

This is exactly what the Agents of Change program is doing at York.

The Agents of Change program offers students start-up funding, one-on-one coaching, mentorship, training, and networking opportunities in order to support innovative, student-led initiatives which are focused on community health empowerment. 

“It provides students with the opportunity to create grassroots-level impact within the wider community,” says Abdulkhader Mohammed, assistant of the Student Success Program. 

Not only do students get an opportunity to impact their communities, they build real world skills for their future endeavors. “Students hone their leadership and entrepreneurial skills as they face day-to-day challenges in addressing the Social Determinants of Health and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” declares Mohammed. 

That’s not even the most exciting part. “There has been an increase of women leadership within Agents of Change Projects for the last three to four years, and about 92 per cent of our current project leaders are women from diverse backgrounds,” reports Mohammed. 

As a BIPOC woman, Kimberly Gonzaga, an Agents of Change coordinator, finds the increase in BIPOC women leaders “truly inspirational.” 

“The significance of BIPOC women exercising their leadership skills and showing up for the students that they represent is influential,” says Gonzaga. She adds that having leaders who understand the hardships that minority women experience encourages feelings of being heard and represented. 

Currently, the Agents of Change program supports nine projects, and Excalibur had the opportunity to hear from organizations that are looking to bridge the gap in gender equality.

Amanda Nkeramihigo is a program lead from The Black Student Mentorship Program (BSMP), which aims to address and remediate the lack of Black representation in the makeup of graduate students and professionals in health-related studies and professions.

Pukky Fambegbe, founder and project lead for Period2Period Poverty (P2P), hopes to create awareness about period poverty, and distribute menstrual products to individuals experiencing homelessness, as well as campaign for free and accessible menstrual products for all.

Dayana Davoudi, founder and project lead of TorontoTooth, intends to provide oral hygiene products to homeless children, at-risk youth, and underprivileged women in order to implement a preventative approach against oral health maladies in the unhoused population. 

Celebrating Women’s Day, and Month, means bringing attention to student-led non-profits that are fighting for better health, better mentorship, and allyship for the BIPOC communities in Toronto.

After asking our leaders a series of questions, here’s what they had to say: 

What does women’s day mean to you?

“Women’s day is an opportunity to focus on and celebrate women and their accomplishments throughout the world. To acknowledge struggles, but also successes,” says Nkeramihigo. 

Fambegbe offers similar sentiments and adds “Women’s Day means celebrating all women regardless of their race, religion, culture, and socioeconomic status.” 

For Davoudi, Women’s Day is a time of reflection. “Women’s day represents an opportunity to reflect on the history of female liberation, as well as to consider all the progress that is being undone or that is left to be done for gender equality and the rights of women.” 

Davoudi mentions a moral responsibility to recognize past generations of women who have “paved the way for future generations, who have yet to build roads leading to the permanent reduction of gender parity and discrimination.”

While it is critical to delve into deep reflection and consider the hardships that women have faced in the past, it’s also a day that symbolizes hope. “Women’s Day is an opportunity to look at the future: to imagine, discuss, and build a better, safer and more just world for girls and women everywhere,” shares Nkeramihigo.

For Fambegbe, it’s all about breaking barriers. “Despite systems that were created to devalue our skills, intelligence, and beauty, we continue to break barriers and thrive collectively. It’s truly a day where women can empower each other and be empowered.” 

Since starting your organization, what have you learned about gender equality?

Nkeramihigo’s program is relatively new, but that hasn’t stopped the group from learning quickly on the job.

“We know that gender is raced and race is gendered, and continue to learn the exponential barriers and impacts of living at different intersections, with gender as one of the driving forces,” states Nkeramihigo.

“We have had the opportunity to partner and feature women-identified panelists who have shared their experiences living at the intersection of gender and race/Blackness,” adds Nkeramihigo.

Fambegbe’s organization is also in the early stages, but has been able to recognize gender equality issues, particularly in the health sector. “More equitable measures must be instilled for there to be equality between women and men. The issue of period poverty is encountered by women monthly, and for a large part of their lifetime,” states Fambegbe. 

At TorontoTooth, Davoudi’s team has learned about the devastating effects of homelessness on women. “We have learned that homelessness presents unique challenges to women, making them even more vulnerable to the effects of unstable housing than men,” she says. 

At the women’s shelters in Toronto, where Davoudi’s organization provides oral hygiene products, she notes that many of the residents “have been subjected to violence and various other forms of trauma,” an upsetting challenge for women facing homelessness.

How would you like to support aspiring BIPOC leaders?

Nkeramihigo of BSMP hopes to support emerging leaders through several avenues, and paints a picture of what that might look like. “We can support aspiring BIPOC leaders by listening to their various experiences, offering resources, space, and platforms to exist and be heard.” 

She adds that “Support can look like training, mental health support, mentorship, engaging with partnerships, awards, etc.” 

P2P founder, Fambegbe, hopes to encourage personal connections and skill building. “I would love to use the power of horizontal networking to garner the skills of aspiring BIPOC leaders to work together, brainstorm and leverage their skills, and empower them to be great leaders who can influence change in diverse settings.”

Fambegbe also notes her desire to share her own knowledge gained from experience, and how she was able to overcome shortcomings and obstacles. 

Davoudi’s team at TorontoTooth is currently made up of “racial minority women with diverse backgrounds of cultures.” Similar to Fambegbe, relationship building is important for Davoudi, who strives to promote inclusivity. Davoudi hopes to “work, promote, and foster relationships with female BIPOC oral healthcare professionals” who support their mission.

How are you and your organization celebrating (or supporting) Women’s Day?

“BSMP will be running an event during which women-identified students can congregate, unwind and share,” says Nkeramihigo. “It’s an opportunity to talk about issues that are specific to us, creating networks and communities to celebrate and support each other. It is also an opportunity to just have fun.” 

TorontoTooth hopes to support Women’s Day this month and every day after through the use of social media outputs, as well as consistent advocacy for the rights of marginalized women who need access to healthcare. 

“Through the use of our newsletters, social media presence, and blog articles, we continue to acknowledge the work of female leaders along with racial, ethnic, and religious minorities in the field of oral healthcare,” promotes Davoudi.  

P2P also hopes to support Women’s Day through social media. “We will be celebrating and supporting women’s day by educating and empowering our followers via social media posts. Our Instagram, @p2ppoverty, will discuss topics such as women’s health and gender equity,” says Fambegbe.  

Additionally, their team had an event on March 9 called Sip Tea with P2P that was meant to create “a safe space where all menstruating individuals will have a conversation about menstrual cycles,” adds Fambegbe. 

Supporting student-led organizations have increased the number of diverse women leaders in the York community. Organizations like BSMP, P2P and TorontoTooth have been able to bring attention to important causes that help close the gap in gender equality.

They’ve gotten support, and now, they are shattering glass ceilings.

Mohammed notes that in “nine years, the Agents of Change program has supported 25 student-led initiatives that are geared towards assisting vulnerable and marginalized populations within the Toronto community.”  

The best part about being with the Agents of Change program? Being a part of the big picture. “I get to support students who are thriving in leadership and in achieving goals for the betterment of their target community,” mentions Gonzaga.

“Being a part of something bigger than myself is very eye opening and motivational for me, and working with Agents of Change projects have shown me that to build something big, you must start with something small,” Gonzaga continues.   

Interested in finding out more about the Agents of Change program? Attend the Calumet and Stong Colleges’ Agents of Change Expo 2022 in late May, where you’ll have the opportunity to connect with featured leaders, Amanda Nkeramihigo, Pukky Fambegbe, and Dayana Davoudi.

About the Author

By Kiana Beharry


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