LEVEL would not be possible without the support of community members who help guide decisions to support our goal of advancing racial equity, including members of our Advisory Committee. We want to highlight our inspiring advisors, which include young people and adult allies, who share a commitment to this work and an unflinching vision for a more equitable world.
First up: John Michael Koffi, 21, who is currently a UBC student pursuing a double major in International Relations and Creative Writing. A refugee youth originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he wears many hats when he’s not busy studying. Not only is he a LEVEL advisor, but he also serves as a co-representative of the African Studies Minor Program for the Africa Awareness Initiative, volunteers as a wellness peer, authored a book, and even makes time to pursue his passion for music as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. We sat down with John Michael to hear directly from him on why this work matters to him.
What brought you to the LEVEL Advisory committee?
Alejandra, one of LEVEL’s staff members reached out to me after listening to my CBC interview. I strongly believe in Vancouver Foundation’s work and values, and I’m thankful she encouraged me to apply to be part of the committee because I was looking for such an opportunity.
What made you decide that you wanted to be a part of the LEVEL community?
Community engagement is something I care about, and I take seriously. LEVEL gives me a vantage entry into influencing the wider Vancouver and B.C. communities, which complements my work at UBC and the initiatives I am coordinating for a youth club I co-founded in [my former] refugee camp in Swaziland. Additionally, what more social grounding opportunity than to serve on a committee whose members are majority youth, and all from different marginalized populations? The networking and learning aspects of LEVEL are invaluable!
Why does it matter to have young people’s (especially those who are Indigenous and racialized migrant and refugee folks) voice at the table?
Most of the issues affecting marginalized communities remain unsolved, and most attempts to address them often fail miserably. I think one of the main reasons for this is because people who are in decision-making positions who have lasting impact on these communities are mostly detached from the communities’ conditions. As the youth coming from these communities, we understand better the situations, priorities to tackle, and ways of approaching the stakeholders involved. So, it matters a lot that young people, particularly from these marginalized populations have a voice, influence executive decisions at all levels and are both consulted and engaged when it comes to implementation of “empowerment” and impactful projects.
Why does racial equity matter?
It is an open secret that racial ideologies and stereotypes continue to influence, and to cloud the judgement of people in power. It is for such a reason, that we have “Black History Month” (February) and “National Indigenous History Month” (June). These observances have not been created to solidify the existing racial divides, rather to question critically why the divides exist, who they favor and what can be done to address the inequalities and inequities presented by these divides. Racial equity is the provision of equal opportunities to all races, hence it deconstructs institutionalised racism (and associated “-isms”) and empowers people to have equal legal and socio-political participation.
What is your hope for the future of Indigenous and racialized migrant and refugee youth?
While speaking to an old friend of mine who is applying for a summer school opportunity, I advised him to focus on how his life as a refugee – growing up in multiple countries – has given him a unique worldview, and inspired him to influence the world through leadership and the career he envisions. His immediate question was, “Are we always going to have to set ourselves apart as people who passed through tough[er] things than anybody else?” I look forward to the day when no one should have to identify themselves as Indigenous, migrant or refugee because they are marginalized by society, or to use that identity as a stepping stone to navigate an inequitable society; a future where we will all have equal participation as citizens of countries or the world. I imagine a future in which we have equal opportunities and a world where we don’t have to go through hell and back to get where others arrive at so easily.