Feb. 14, 2024

Empowering the future: Black Youth Mentorship and Leadership Program transforms lives

Program increases youths’ confidence that they would go to university, be accepted into their program of choice, and graduate
A group of people stand together smiling at the camera
Black Youth Mentorship Program participants and Bukola Salami (4th from left), met with Adam van Koeverden (2nd from right), and UCalgary leaders. Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute

Ezi Nwachukwu, a Calgary high school student, first heard about the Black Youth Mentorship and Leadership Program (BYMLP) from her dad. She signed up for the program, held in Calgary for the first time in the summer of 2023, not knowing what to expect. 

“Even though it meant giving up part of my summer, I was intrigued by the opportunity to enhance my leadership skills and contribute positively to my community,” she says. 

Nwachukwu says the impact the six-week program had on her professional and academic development was significant, particularly the weekly workshops that explored topics such as tips for university, setting career goals, networking, and the importance of long-lasting relationships.

Nwachukwu's experience reflects the transformative impact of the program, highlighting the crucial role it plays in shaping the lives of Black youth, says Dr. Bukola Salami, PhD, who founded the program at the University of Alberta in 2020. 

Salami credits her own journey toward becoming a nurse to her participation in a mentorship program for Black youth in Toronto that she attended as a young adult when she was new to Canada. Now Salami is replicating the inspirational and supportive environment she experienced by running a similar program for Black youth across Alberta. 

Sense of community offers empowerment

Black youth experience poor educational outcomes across the country. Along with Filipino youth, Black youth in Canada are the only young people that do not surpass their parents’ level of education, says Salami, a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and EDI director at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM).

“The BYMLP is a way to socially and economically empower Black youth to contribute to society. We have seen the participants’ sense of community belonging, cultural identity, responsibility and leadership skills develop through this program. Many of our youths have gone on to excel in their academic paths,” says Salami. 

Her goal is to connect Black teenagers with academic mentors and business leaders, offering them the same encouragement she once received. Reflecting on her own experience, Salami knows first-hand the impact of witnessing Black mentors succeeding in various fields, realizing that if they could achieve, so could she.

Empowering the future and fostering health equity are central to the O'Brien Institute's mission, says Dr. Kirsten Fiest, PhD, O’Brien Institute scientific director. 

“The BYMLP aligns with our goal of advancing public health through research excellence and creating healthier populations. The positive impact on the participants' confidence, career aspirations, and sense of community belonging reflects the program's success in transforming lives and nurturing future leaders," she says. 

Representation plays important role in education 

The BYMLP gives youth a unique networking opportunity with a wide range of professionals in different fields and people in senior roles. One mentor in the program who particularly made a lasting impact on Nwachukwu is Alberta filmmaker Dr. Love Nwigwe, PhD.

“Dr. Nwigwe went out of her way to be a mentor to each one of us. She encouraged interaction, fostered fun debates and created a supportive environment, even when we were acting like awkward teenagers," says Nwachukwu. 

Students also had the opportunity to watch Nwigwe’s short film, I Can't Breathe, which sheds light on racism in various aspects of life such as schools, health care, playgrounds, workplace or religious organizations. 

Salami stresses the importance of representation:

“Black youth thrive when they receive instruction and guidance from individuals who share their ethnic background. By introducing teenagers to Black academics, professionals and diverse mentors, we instill in them a sense of possibility and potential success." 

There was a significant increase in the career aspirations of the youth at the end of the program, says Salami.

“Initially, 64 per cent of students agreed or strongly agreed that they were likely to become a leader in their chosen career field, but by the end of the program this increased more than 90 per cent,” she says. 

Students also reported an increase in confidence that they would go to university, be accepted into a program of their choice, and complete university. 

One of Nwachukwu's proudest achievements from the program was working on a project to design a hub for Black youth in Calgary. 

The students had the opportunity to share their vision for a Black Youth Hub, a space for people  ages five to 25, to cultivate a sense of community, affirm cultural identity and create lasting positive relationships. They met with Olympic athlete, parliamentary secretary and member of parliament Adam van Koeverden when he visited the CSM in August for a discussion about UCalgary’s national research initiative One Child Every Child and children’s health research around physical activity and sport.

At the end of the program, 100 per cent of the participants reported that the project had positively impacted their lives.

“The BYMLP is not just shaping careers — it is cultivating leaders who will undoubtedly make a lasting impact on their communities and beyond,” says Salami.

“Many thanks to Dr. Salami and her team for creating this outstanding program,” says Dr. Francois Bernier, MD, project leader of One Child Every Child and acting director, ACHRI. “We look forward to seeing the huge impact these young leaders will have.”

The Black Youth Mentorship and Leadership Program (BYMLP) is provided in partnership with the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta,  the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. The 2023 BYMLP received funding from: Canada Summer Jobs; Careers; The Next Generation; the University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine; the University of Calgary O’Brien Institute for Public Health; the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation; the Canadian Institute for Health Research hired the youths as research assistants in several research projects.

Bukola Salami is a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute in the Cumming School of Medicine.

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