Considerations for Treating Youth Equitably in Non-profits

As a youth food council and with summer on the horizon, many non-profits are just starting up and getting funding from various contributors or often from Canada Summer Jobs. Although we understand that non-profits are often underfunded and struggle to stay afloat, many young folks, especially BIPOC 2SLGBTQQIA+ youth, on our council and beyond have shared common experiences of the poor treatment they have faced within non-profits. Especially within non-profits that advocate or try to advance food justice, access to farming or green spaces, and otherwise ‘social justice’ advancement.

Here are some things to consider before hiring youth in your non-profit:

  • Will there be time or capacity to bring on new staff, with clear directives and goals for the position?
  • Will there be opportunities for youth to receive a liveable wage (liveable wage in Toronto is $22.08 as of 2019). Can minimum wage be supplemented by your organization or is there capacity to apply for another grant in order for youth to be compensated fairly? (please note, just because $14 is the minimum wage, doesn’t mean that this is a fair wage, and just because we are youth doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to be ‘paid less’)
  • What are your organization’s values, positionality? Is it in alignment with how youth will be treated if you are hiring them?
  • Is there genuine diversity in your leadership, specifically Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), 2SLGBTQQIA+ leadership? If BIPOC 2SLGBTQQIA+ youth are being hired, have you created an anti-oppressive, safe space for the workplace? What training or actions should be taking place before you hire youth?

This, a lot of the time requires individual and collective unpacking of privileges the organization or individuals running the organization have. This is not quick work and cannot be done in a single anti-oppression training.

  • Is there genuine anti-oppression in your organization? Are you making space for marginalized folks to actively participate in your space, paying them equitably, and calling out oppressive policies, voices, or actions that are taking place?
  • How is the organization actively addressing anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, within the organization and in it’s activities? 
  • What is the organization’s understanding of intersectionality?

Here are necessities that need to be provided to youth (or any employee), regardless of the stage of development your non-profit is in:

  • Full informed transparency around compensation
  • A full explanation of what job responsibilities and expectations will be
  • At the beginning of a contract, let your employee know when you will have a decision whether the contract will be extended, or they will need to find other work. This should be done within a reasonable timeline. For youth with ‘minimal work experience’ it usually takes anywhere between three to six months to find a new job.
  • Full transparency about what the steps are in terms of conflict, abuse of power, microaggressions, and macroaggressions. Including who to talk to, what to expect and how they will support you. 
  • Benefits, a level of job security, or other forms of compensation. Actively avoiding stipend and contract work. NOT hiring exclusively desperate and severely financially insecure people in positions that lack power and job security: students, interns, volunteers, and international students, etc. 
  • Flexibility and openness to change. Internal and external research. Honest reporting on shortcomings and possible improvements. Openness to feedback and criticism. 
  • Boundaries – youth should not be expected to work or be available at all times. We need to be given boundaries and have our boundaries respected. 

Other basic necessities, you as a non-profit, are responsible to provide your employees:

  • Access to an accessible washroom
  • Access to a washing station that meets COVID19 protocols for on-site workspaces.
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Mask and other PPE
  • A place to fill up a water bottle
  • Access to breaks when youth can eat, relax, and take a break from work. Especially if the job is outside and physically demanding.
  • Compassion and understanding when crises arise during a global pandemic. 

*Although the above seems extremely reasonable and obvious, these are things that have not been provided at various non-profits that youth on our council have worked at*

As an employer, you are in a position of power, regardless of your personal subject positionings. There is a clear division of power between employer-employee. If youth are approaching you with discrepancies, be sure you are willing to receive critical feedback. Do not speak over them, and do not ignore their requests.

BIPOC 2SLGBTQQIA+ youth deserve better than to be ignored, belittled, and treated as ‘less than’ because of their ‘work experience’ or their ‘position’ in your non-profit. Lived experiences are enough and contribute just as much, if not more, to any workspaces advancing social change.

Youth provide an ongoing legacy to your project or organization; it is your responsibility to ensure they are nurtured and treated fairly at work. If your non-profit is one that claims to be rooted in ‘social justice’ or promoting equity, this is a part of your activism- treating your own employees fairly. 

A Message to Youth

Putting up with unsafe working conditions is no badge of honour, no matter what employers or other employees may say. Refusing to work in conditions that could put yourself or others at risk for harm does not mean that you are any less passionate about your cause. If employers need to keep you quiet or complacent about something that you feel is wrong, then please reach out to someone separate from the organization with your concerns, whether that is a friend, family member, or anyone else you can trust. 

Here are other things to keep in mind if you are working at a non-profit organization: 

  • What are their goals in terms of helping the community, what is the intention?
  • Do they pay in stipends, use contracts or seasonal/temporary labour to cut corners, not use HR and avoid paying youth a living wage? Do they rush and corner youth into signing intellectual property forms? Do they take credit for ideas and initiatives to further their organization and access more grants? Do they exclusively use student labour or rely heavily on volunteers or unpaid interns? Do they make youth work overtime without pay? Do they exclusively use contract work? Do they understand the inherent job insecurity of contract work? 
  • If they only hire youths with degrees, what do they do to support youth in their aim for higher education? Do they help fund the education of youth? Or do they hire white staff with higher education from other provinces when their own local communities struggle to find work? 
  • What is their understanding of power dynamics and exploitation of labour? 
  • Are they hiring predominantly white men and women? Do they have an understanding of what tokenism and systemic oppression is? Do they make efforts to combat these issues? What were the experiences of the previous employees? Especially those with the least power and privilege? 
  • How many staff members are on the team? How were they hired? Are they all friends? What is the dynamic? How did they get involved in the organization? 
  • How many of the staff members are people who actually experienced the systemic issue they are trying to solve? 
  • Are the leaders open to criticism and feedback? Are they aware of their own privilege? What steps do they take to do the inner work so that they do not harm others? Do they take responsibility for their own shortcomings?
  • Do they toss responsibility onto youth by overworking them instead of addressing the issue at the root? 
  • How does the not-for-profit use their power and access to resources to change systemic issues? Do they maintain the status quo? Does their work only superficially affect change? 
  • Are the staff members predominantly white, overpaid and inserting themselves into impoverished and racialized communities? Do they have a good grasp on what white saviorism is? What do they actively do to avoid causing harm? Are they taking up space and grants that could be better utilized by the community in other ways?
  • Did the community ask for their support? Are they trying to solve an issue while there is a more pertinent issue? Are they wasting resources doing something they think should be done instead of asking the community what they need? Do they regularly do community research and report wins as well as shortcomings honestly? What is their relationship with the communities they aim to “help’? 
  • What is their recruitment strategy? How is it that they keep some groups out and let others in? How do they practice anti-racism in their recruitment strategy? Who decides who is hireable and what is that based on? Is the organization flexible and open to change? How often do they change their mission and policies? 
  • What did they do at the beginning of the pandemic? Business as usual with more oversight and micro-management of people working from home? Did they immediately fire their ‘less valuable’ employees to cut costs? Did they provide support for accessing funds like CERB and EI? Did they prioritize the health and safety of their staff? Did they overload their employees with work because they assumed working from home means more free time? What did they do to support parents with kids now under their care at home? Did they acknowledge the severity of the pandemic on mental health? What did they do to support the mental health of their employees during a global pandemic? Did they deflect the responsibility of dealing with the hardship of the pandemic onto their employees? Do they pay sick leave? 
  • What are their views on a 4 day work week? How do they view productivity?
  • What do they do to not become like for-profit organizations? How are they different? How are you different from exploiters you seek to dismantle and challenge?

We felt compelled to write this statement as we as the authors have faced poor treatment within non-profits, and we notice that non-profits get away with treating youth poorly, as they often position themselves as doing ‘good’ and ‘important work’.

As a council of youth food justice advocates, we want all youth to know: you deserve better if your employer is not providing you with what we stated. You absolutely have the right to be asking questions and demanding what we listed. However, we understand the outcomes that can occur when youth speak up, including reprisal. 

If you are looking for employment support, please see:

  1. Filing an employment standards claim in Ontario: 
  2. Migrant Rights Advocacy:
  3. Federal sanctioned work: 

On behalf of the TYFPC


Kaitlin Rizarri 

Nicole Forget

Sheldomar Elliott

Rossen Lee

Maria Jude

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