Marcia has dedicated her life to improving the lives of the youth of her community through mentorship, education and problem solving. For nearly a decade Marcia Brown has worked tirelessly to serve her Etobicoke community. Through her groups, Women on the Rise, Men of Distinction and Girls on the Rise, Marcia provides a safe space for children to discuss personal issues and work collectively to find solutions. Marcia's programs also connect children with resources and mentors to help reach their career and personal goals. Marcia's passion and hard work has earned her the Premier’s Award of Ontario for Teaching Excellence Support Staff as well as the Urban Hero Award for Education.
When did you come to the realization that you wanted to have a program like Trust 15?
Well I worked for the TDSB and they offered me an after school program to work with these girls in my community because I live here. So I said okay, I'll go watch. This woman named Michelle was running the program and I just loved what I saw. So then I started getting more involved and then I realized I needed to do more than just sit there and just watch someone speak, I had to do something for my community. I could reach more people.
What's different from what those programs were doing and what you're doing now?
Putting in the time with them. They would put together a program, they'd spend 2-3 hours with them and that was it. I would watch the girls come in and their eyes would still be sad, there was no hope. This wasn’t the case with every girl or guy, but I could see something wasn't picking up fast enough and that's why I decided to stop doing it with the school board and went back to my community. Because I know my community well, I see these people every day. So I see these kids all the time or I'll see their parents at No Frills. And because the kids see me all the time they trust me, they say "Oh, it's Ms. Brown." And I see what's going on in their lives and I knew I needed to do something more, I just felt it. I knew it was my purpose so it wasn't difficult to go out there and do it every day, to get out there on the streets and find the kids that needed to get off it. And then sometimes you go into their homes and you see, "ah, that's what is really going on." And I knew I had to do more.
And when you say "more" what do you think more should include?
Listening to them (the kids). These kids don't have a voice and nobody wants to listen to anybody. Some of them are wrapped up in so much guilt and depression or whatever it is they're going through and when they finally are ready to speak some people are already putting up walls and judging them for who they are. But if you look through all that you realize they just want someone to talk to. So that's what I try to do, avoid what I see and try to just listen. Then I find out why things are going that way and I can try to find people to help them or find people who will lead them in the right path.
On the Facebook pages for the Men of Distinction and Women on the Rise the description says their main goal is to "change the stigma around people from a certain community". Why is that something important?
Because people were telling me that the kids from this area weren't going anywhere, that this was a place of no hope. And I wanted to change that idea and say "you know there is still hope in these young people." We just have to give them a chance and we're not. I've been in this community since I was a little girl in the '70s and I don't know what happened but things changed. It seemed like a door shut, that there was no hope in that community, no way out of there. It's like if you were from Etobicoke, or from these apartments or these housing communities you weren't going to go anywhere. I wanted to re-open that door and change things.
How do you think you can take all the things you've been able to see here and extend that view to the rest of Toronto and beyond that?
I've been bringing people in. I'm not sure if you've noticed but not a lot of people come to Etobicoke. People from Etobicoke usually go to them but I decided to bring them here and see what they can bring light into. And it's been working. How do you get the CEO of General Motors to leave his lovely office, come down to Etobicoke and bring light and bring hope to these young people? It might sound silly to some people but every time someone comes in it gets brighter. There's hope; the kids are smiling and asking questions, the parents are excited. I'm doing a fundraiser, look where I'm doing it, in Etobicoke. There has been a change in this area, people have seen the hope and the light Trust 15 can bring.
At your fundraiser you'll be having Marci Ien and John Tory there as speakers, what impact do you hope they'll have on the children who attend the event?
They've already received the impact of these individuals. They've given them opportunities, they've told them things they haven't heard before. So what they're going to be hearing at the fundraiser is a continuation. It's for everyone else to know that we're here and it's working and we're not leaving! And they haven't left, they're still here.
Many of the children who have been involved in your organization say that they come away with self-confidence and the desire to chase their dreams, why is it important for kids to have that desire?
A lot of them aren’t getting that desire from home. I have two young kids at home and I give them hope every day. And I'm not saying that other parents are bad, I know they have their own struggles to deal with. Some of them are new to the country, they're working two, three jobs and just don't have time. And I don't blame them. I tell them, I don't blame you. I'm here for a reason, so that hope and that light that is being putting into your child continues at home. And I've had parents tell me that there is light and happiness in the home. Usually that comes from the home but sometimes it comes from someone in the community that cares.
When I was on the Trust 15 site I was going through some of the testimonials of some of the people who have attended regularly and one of the interesting ones I found was from a 12-year-old boy who said "I learned that a lot of people have problems and you shouldn't laugh at them. It changed a lot about me because it showed me and taught me not everyone's the same but you should always love one another even if you've had problems in the past." How does a young person come to such a mature realization?
Maybe they never got that opportunity for someone to show them that way and then they saw something and suddenly it clicked and they thought "you know what? I'm not gonna laugh at that individual." Like they're seeing something and then something changes in them and realize they want to do something better with themselves. Because when they leave they're going back to somewhere they don't feel happy, or they don't feel safe so they're trying to change their ways, so they can take that light and bring it back into the community. That's why that guy can tell everybody that he's not going to be the individual he was before.
How does it make you feel to know you’ve had such lasting impact on young people?
Joy! (laughs) I feel so much joy. And peace, like "finally!" because now the door's open again. Because remember how I told you it felt like the door was closed? So for me to say "that has to stop and we have to change that" and then I have kids coming up to me and saying "thank you Ms. Brown, you changed my life or you gave me hope, the confidence to speak" it's so amazing. I wish you were there to see it because this is my passion. All of them are leaders you just have to give them a chance and that’s what I do. And I wish I had that when I was younger because I was always in my little shell and I was thinking "no one wants me" or "I'm not worth it" and I think that's how a lot of these kids feel. So instead of that happening I make sure they know they are worth it. I think a lot of that comes from the way I was brought up and what I went through, so I'm trying to make sure that's not what they have to go through.
When you're with the Men of Distinction, or the Women on the Rise or the Girls on the rise, can you take me through what those meetings are like.
Girls on the rise is my Monday program, it’s a reading program for young girls. What they do is bring one of their dolls, so I lay these dolls down and the girls pick them up and some of them have never had dolls before and don't know how to talk to themselves so they talk to the dolls. They write with their pens and pencils then we all read. I have their parents sign a contract saying they will read with them every night for 15 minutes. Let's go back to how things used to be before the computer came into our lives (laughs). I so I encourage the girls to read every day.
Next, at Women on the Rise I'm making them leaders in the program. We talk about things like bringing in guests. I figure out what these girls need in their lives that they've never had before. I read their papers and I'll see something like "I'm having mental health issues" and I'll try to bring someone in. If I can't do it myself, I bring someone in. But in the meantime I'm getting them to speak up and see they're worth every cent of who they are and giving them the confidence they need. For example, I'll have in someone like Tracy Moore and I'll pick one of the girls to speak. Not because they can speak well or because they're the pretty one. I just pick. So everyone has to listen because it could be you.
I do the same thing with the Men of Distinction.
Is there a set time for the programs, how long can the kids stay in them?
Nope not at all. The best thing is when they keep coming back. One year around reading week, while public schools were still going on I had a Men of Distinction meeting and there were 5 of my Men of Distinction who had graduated at the meeting. It was Tuesday evening and they could have been anywhere and they decided to come to Men of Distinction meeting. And that's when I realized I was doing the right thing.
And if you were to talk to someone who came in the program at age 14 what changes would you hope to see when they're 18, 19?
Maturity. I have to see that. Because not everyone who comes through my program changes. I have people who came in when they were 14 and they're still acting like they're 14. And I will be the first to say there isn't a perfect program. For example there are two girls in the program and I just don’t think they've got it yet. And people have said I should get rid of them but I say no let them stay. Because when are the going to realize? After they leave and they go to work or they go to school. And maybe by then they'll mature. For some it takes longer than others. I have a lot of patience. And to throw them back into what? A closed door with no hope. Eventually they'll get it.
And when you do encounter those difficult situations how do you work around it other than letting them work themselves out?
Get the parents involved, the parents have to know what's going on. Some people think you reach a certain age and then all that stops...no. As long as that child is living under your roof you need to know everything. And sometimes that child just needs something from that parent, and every child reacts differently. Sometimes they just want the parent to listen so I try to get the parents involved.
How have you taken your parenting philosophies and applied them to your program or vice versa?
Whatever I'm doing with these young kids in the program I've done it for my own. So if I'm firm with my kids I'll be firm with them. Any words I teach them or passages from the Bible I use it with these kids too. Everyone of the kids in my program I consider my own and I treat them like my own. If you come in late, I'll ask you why you're late. I'm firm and I'm tough but I'm loving, because of that they respect me. Or they wouldn't keep coming.
The Trust 15 philosophy is "Live, learn and leave a legacy." When it's all said and done and you decide to take your life in a different direction, what do you hope your legacy will be?
That no child will be left behind. That the things that I've taught them carry on for generations. That when I leave this place the next person who comes in to sit in this seat carries on the same path. Because I've done so much for them but there are other people who can do more for them. And I believe that's what's going to happen.
On Saturday April 11th, Marcia and Trust 15 will be holding the 3rd annual Student Success Fundraiser at the Woodbine and Banquet and Convention Centre. This year's event will feature Canada AM host Marci Ien, CITYLINE host Tracy Moore, Diane and Michael "Pinball" Clemons as well as Toronto Mayor John Tory. For tickets and information go to www.trust15.com or call 416-427-5398.