By Yale Wang, Junior Fellow, Engineers of Tomorrow
As one of EWB’s Junior Fellows (JFs) in Toronto, I set out to find how low-income youth in Canada relate to science, technology, engineering and math. I grew up in a low-income family myself and was curious and passionate about science, so I wanted to determine how existing outreach methods could most effectively get marginalized students interested in STEM fields. I was moved by what I found, but, in the end, I lost sight of my original goal and failed to produce findings that answered my initial question.
I spent about half of my four-month fellowship settling on a main focus area. Once I did, I researched poverty in Ontario and searched for people and organizations serving underprivileged and underrepresented youth. Near the end of the summer, I finally connected with Shelina Karmali, the executive director of PEACH, a Jane-Finch community grassroots foundation, who told me about the many issues that impoverished youth face, their fear of leaving their neighbourhoods and the lack of resources available for educators and organizations. The interview helped me detect the rift between resources and benefactors. But, by then, I had only two weeks left in my fellowship—and the daunting problems that Shelina had pointed out left me with more questions than answers.
When it came time to present my findings at the EWB gala in Waterloo, I spoke of general patterns: how, in a city like Toronto, different communities are heterogeneously distributed but resources don’t flow from one area to another. I tried to recount my observations in a style very different from most EWB presentations: a storytelling format that focused on my visit to the Jane and Finch area. I wanted to give the audience a snapshot of poverty in our own city and empower them as EWBers to do something about the problem. People took in the story, but they, like me, were left with many unanswered questions.
My unorthodox presentation conveyed the anecdotal evidence I’d found but left out concrete statistics, quantitative data and best practices for connecting low-income youth to STEM fields. In other words, it had strayed from what I had originally intended—and from what EWB expected. I should have scheduled my time better, focused on the goal of my fellowship and reflected on and communicated my goals, expectations and findings more regularly to make sure my project was going as planned. Instead, I got lost in large systematic issues and encountered a challenge common among the JFs who travel to Africa: the outsider’s struggle to communicate the lived experience of poverty.
In the process of failing, however, I re-discovered the importance of connecting with people who have different lived experiences. It’s only from listening to them and understanding their problems they’re tackling that we can begin to help solve them.