Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Conversation with Jesse Brown: Community Youth Advocate

Jesse Brown

CAS: I hear that you recently had an opportunity to be part of the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference. Can you tell us a little about it?

Jesse: I first heard about the conference from a YouthCO supporter who was an alumni of the conference in 1991. She said that it was a transformative experience for her and suggested that I apply.

So I threw my hat in the ring, wrote the application, was chosen for an interview and was fortunate to be one of 30 people selected from BC.

The theme of the conference was Leadership and Innovation … so they were looking for people who demonstrated leadership or innovative ideas in their field. During my interview I highlighted the innovative programs and projects that we developed at YouthCO during my tenure as Executive Director such as the Mpowerment project which is our HIV awareness and education program and Know On The Go which was Canada’s first mobile sexual health and testing clinic for HIV.

I also stressed that YouthCO is one of the few youth-led and youth-driven organizations in the country that is creating cutting edge leadership opportunities for youth.

CAS: What exactly do you mean by creating leadership opportunities for youth?

Jesse: We’re really talking about mentoring and succession planning at YouthCO. Everyone in the organization is under the age of 30 and it requires us to focus in areas beyond recruitment, training and the mentoring of people. 
We are in a sense a bit of a leadership factory ... hundreds of people are now educated about HIV and have moved on to work at various AIDS Service Organizations and other educational and health organizations. In fact we have a really extensive alumni at YouthCO … and we’re quite proud of that.

CAS: I hear that the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference itself is innovative in its approaches. Can you tell us how it worked?

Jesse: Well, there were over 200 participants from across Canada. We first met in St. John’s, Newfoundland where for the first three days we heard several presentations and speeches by various community leaders. The keynote speaker was the astronaut Chris Hadfield. He was fabulous as he mesmerized us with the high stakes leadership that is required to command the international space station.

From there we were divided into study groups to visit each of Canada’s provinces and territories. Three groups were selected to tour various parts of Ontario ... and I was selected for the Northern Ontario Study Tour. We were usually busy from 6 am to 11 pm … we had a military liaison officer who kept us on schedule.  We would visit different towns and cities throughout the region and stop at different sites to learn about innovative projects – much of it focused on how to get the economy kick-started – particularly for young people in the region.

There was also a clear focus on how to engage with indigenous populations in Northern Ontario and the challenges of reaching out to them in an area that is about the size of France. And we learned a lot about health outcomes for the region.

CAS: How many towns did you visit in Northern Ontario?
Jesse: We saw a lot of it: North Bay, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins and Red Lake. The distances are enormous so we had to fly to some locations using Bearskin Airlines.
In Sudbury we had the opportunity for a real live “Sudbury Saturday Night” just like the Stompin’ Tom song and heard a local band play.

And in Red Lake we visited a Goldcorp Mine. That was a mind-boggling experience. To put it in perspective, the mine shaft itself is three times the height of the CN Tower. I had never seen an operational mine before. Mining has a huge impact on the environment and on local communities. It definitely clarified for me the controversy surrounding the cost-benefits of mining.

CAS: What would you say were the highlights of your experience?

Jesse: I feel that I mostly learned a lot about myself. I engaged with people from very different backgrounds and experiences from my own ... business and union leaders, young executives working in the energy sector, small business owners, civil servants, people from the not-for-profit sector such as myself ... and a diversity of views from across the political spectrum.

It was also eye-opening to go to a really rural part of the country. It made me realize that I live in a bit of a bubble in Vancouver – and that issues, perspectives and challenges can be vastly different than they may be in urban settings.

On a very personal level, being the only gay person on the Northern Ontario tour, it was an opportunity to challenge myself. For example, we visited a newly built church that was quite innovative in itself – it was a rather unique concrete dome structure.

It turned out to be a Baptist congregation and after the tour of the building we had an opportunity to ask a few questions of the Minister. I felt it was important to ask about the reception they gave to LGBT people in their congregation.  The Minister replied that they were a conservative church that believes marriage should only be between a man and a woman and that it might be uncomfortable for gay persons to attend their services. The answer didn’t surprise me … but I thought it was important to bring my perspective to bear so the rest of the group could hear the answer and learn from it. That was a unique experience that actually helped our group bond even closer together.

CAS: It sounds like spending so much time with these people on your tour must have been quite an experience for the group.

Jesse: Indeed it was. We spent ten days together on the tour. It was somewhat surprising to me that we would develop close friendships with people who might not be part of our usual circle of friends – and sometimes with those having quite different perspectives or political views.

CAS: What would you say are your lasting impressions of your experience?

Jesse: I think I walked away enriched by an experience that expanded my horizons and made me realize that there can be a wider audience for our messaging of social justice and social change.

It was also certainly eye-opening for me to see a part of the country that does not have the natural opportunities that Vancouver has. And it made me realize that I live in a bit of a bubble in Vancouver where issues like harm reduction or access to treatment are pretty much a given where I live – but these can still be very much up for debate in some other parts of the country.

I do feel lucky to have been born and raised in Vancouver. It would certainly be far more challenging to grow up gay in Thunder Bay or Red lake ... where options and services are clearly more limited.

CAS: What would you tell anyone else who might be thinking of applying to the next Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference?

Jesse: There will be another conference in two years time. I would say that it's a great opportunity for personal growth and to get to know more about your country.  I would highly recommend the experience to anyone who is keen on creating positive change within society.

CAS. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us.

Jesse: I really appreciate you taking an interest.

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