2020 has been a year marked by unpredictability and uncertainty. Within months of starting this year’s policy program, COVID-19 forced LEVEL to adapt quickly by moving it online. But when a program like this relies on in-person interactions to build trust, develop relationships, and learn about the importance of centering community in public policy, LEVEL YPP Manager, Alejandra López Bravo was initially worried.

In this interview, Alejandra shares how this year’s cohort exceeded expectations and left her feeling humbled by being able to witness their unlearning and learning journey and their commitment to lift each other up. While this year has been challenging, YPP was a “hopeful, shining light” that led to powerful moments of connection and learning.

LEVEL: 2020 has been an unprecedented year that’s required a lot thinking outside the box. Can you describe what this year was like for YPP?

ALB: It was a hopeful, shining light in this crazy year because we were able to continue the program despite the lockdown by transitioning from in-person modules to online. It actually turned out to be really exciting to continue with our commitment to the participants’ learning. It was smoother in a way than last year because it was the second time we were doing it. We had already gone through the curriculum once, we had built stronger relationships with the faculty who were reflective of the leadership of Indigenous and racialized communities, and we were able to weave some of the learnings and feedback from last year’s cohort to this year. It was also different because we had Marcus and Aida as facilitators who had participated in the program last year and were able to bring their voice and experience to creating this learning space.

LEVEL: Can you share more about how the program had to adapt to the pandemic? How did this affect the learning journey for the participants?

ALB: At first, I had a lot of denial. One of the strengths of this learning space is the relationships that are built and the trust that can only happen when you interact with people in person. I was skeptical about the kind of learning and relationship building that could be built in an online platform. There was also a lot of logistical concerns. I didn’t want to expect people to sit in front of a computer for two full days, which is what our modules usually are. YPP also supports participants in the summer with a research stipend as they work on their policy projects, which we knew people relied on. While I was torn about transitioning online, what had more weight is that we committed to this. It was also very important to continue the engagement to create a supportive learning space that allowed for shared grief, resistance, and joy as the pandemic exposed the ongoing violence and inequities experienced by Black and Indigenous communities.

When we transitioned online, the participants exceeded my expectations by being fully engaged and participating. We adjusted the modules to be four half days rather than two full days. Marcus and Aida were also very comfortable with online platforms, which gave me a lot of ease! I think what really helped is that we had started building relationships in person during the first two modules so it was easier to transition. It would’ve been different if we didn’t have those in-person opportunities.

LEVEL: You mention weaving learnings from last year’s program. What did you continue from 2019 into this year?

ALB: Part of the principles of the program is that we try to center different ways of knowing and understanding and that this work happens on unceded territories. We added the question of what it means to do policy and advocacy work on unceded territory in the call for applications.

One thing we were able to strengthen this year was this principle of solidarity between communities. Any issue that affects migrant communities also needs to be seen through the lens of how it impacts Indigenous communities to build that solidarity. I saw that strongly reflected in the conversations, themes, and policy projects. We were also able to leverage and draw from the expertise of Aida and Marcus as facilitators who participated in YPP last year. Some of the feedback we received from some of last year’s participants was that since YPP is by and for racialized and Indigenous people, the facilitators should reflect that, so we made it a priority this year by inviting Aida and Marcus back.

LEVEL: In your own words, can you describe what this cohort was like? What stood out to you about this group?

ALB: It was beautiful to see the combination of a diverse group of participants in terms of experiences, ancestry, and voices. We had Indigenous people from different parts of BC who are working for their nation. We had participants involved and interested in a wide range of issues like decolonization of immigration and “integration” policy in Canada, climate refugees, better supports for urban Indigenous youth, equitable access to healthcare for migrant and Indigenous communities, and accessible university education for students with disabilities among others. I was also excited to speak Spanish to two of the participants! A few of the participants also had interest in not only embedding Indigenous solidarity but also through a gender lens from either migrant or Indigenous communities. There was also a diversity of identities from queer communities. The issues they were exploring were relevant to migrant youth, reproductive health, and LGBTQ2S communities.

I was also blown away by their curiosity and the questions they asked. They learned a lot from each other on the issues close to their hearts and got feedback from their peers about their policy projects. Many of them even asked one another to read each other’s projects before they submitted it.

One participant said that before this program they understood  policy as something that was done to him but he realized that policy is something he can be a part of. Throughout the program, all the participants talked about imposter syndrome or that they didn’t belong. Then throughout the program, I could see they became more confident in their experience and expertise and they began to see that they deserve to be in this space.

LEVEL: What inspired you about this year’s cohort?

ALB: Throughout the program, I saw the care that the participants put into lifting each other up, into building relationships based on solidarity, and their commitment to decolonizing their practices to each other and the work they do. I’m very moved by the fact that they expressed that they’ve never been in a learning space where they could show up as themselves. This is because of the care, solidarity, curiosity, and commitment to listen to each other, lift each other up, and water each other’s roots.

LEVEL: Do you have any final words for the cohort?

ALB: I feel incredibly humbled and privileged to be able to learn alongside them. I learn every time because of the participants who bring their unique voices, experiences, and expertise. Every time is like a new learning journey for me. Being able to witness their learning and being part of it was very humbling. It makes me hopeful to know that the participants have set that bar for their own learning experience and can know that whenever they’re in learning spaces and feel insecure or inadequate, they’re not alone and it’s not a reflection of who they are. It’s the same systems that are structured to not value their voices and their stories. But they can now be confident that the people who came before them like the faculty have created these spaces so they can feel like they can fully be who they want to be. My hope is that wherever they go, they’ll be opening doors and creating opportunities for other young people to embody learning and liberation.