By Erik Steiner
In the past few months at the Fondation Michaëlle Jean Foundation, I have done some of the most important work in my short career. This was an opportunity to test the qualitative and quantitative research skills I had developed over the course of a year in preparation for a Master of Science.
The project in question was titled the Youth Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Research Project. Aligned with the FMJF’s core goals to support youth entrepreneurship, this project attempted to gain a better understanding of the current barriers that impact young entrepreneurs in Ottawa, along with the gaps or limitations preventing the ecosystem from serving them optimally. The testimony we gathered from youth and those working in support organizations will go on to create a new program or initiative to make real change in this area.
I was especially enthusiastic about taking on this responsibility since the project focused on an ecosystem I felt very passionate about. As a young artist concerned with social justice, entrepreneurship in the city of Ottawa, and the ways it intersects with cultural and institutional factors, exploring the youth entrepreneurship ecosystem with the FMJF could not have been more pertinent.
The FMJF team had been holding a series of conversations prior to my employment and had a set of assumptions to test. As such, I went into this project with some ideas about what I would find. Any young person with half an eye on the current cultural climate should be able to accurately guess what some of the major struggles facing youth entrepreneurs might be and which communities are most disadvantaged.
Upon completion of the research, our hypotheses were largely validated. However, along the way, I learned so much more than I could anticipate about working in the not-for-profit space, the aspirations of both youth entrepreneurs and the organizations that serve them, and in particular, the influence of identity in support and research.
The role of identity
When discussing youth entrepreneurship and examining the struggles of youth entrepreneurs with a view to creating a new support program, the conversation is about those entrepreneurs who face disadvantages in their journey. What this means in practice is that although it is encouraging to focus on the youth who are excelling, it’s equally important to know what is going on at the edges of the ecosystem. The young people who are not getting the resources they need to succeed due to a profusion of historic, cultural, and economic factors too complex to outline in this blog, predominantly come from Black, Indigenous, or immigrant low-income communities.
In coming into this project, I needed to be aware that coming from a middle-class white Southern Ontario background, I do not fit that profile. I do consider myself to be entrepreneurial and an artist, but although I may be aware of struggles faced by my peers from different backgrounds, I never have personally experienced them.
For example, I learned that with programs that support youth, identity is of utmost importance. Regardless of whether you are aware of it, your identity, and the identity of those you are working with, greatly impacts the effectiveness of your actions, what kind of information you can find, and how you process it through analysis. Exacerbating this factor is the vast disparity in power between established organizations, and the marginalized communities who need support.
Being conscious about my identity as a researcher coming from privilege was imperative to truly understanding the environment and to avoid perpetuating institutional barriers to access. Furthermore, understanding my role as a listener also led naturally to the necessary development of partnerships with youth entrepreneurs who believed in our mission. Only through these relationships could I begin to get an accurate view of their reality. With the FMJF, we want to ensure that ownership of the data and solutions that arise from it, are in the hands of the young entrepreneur community.
What it means to be an ally
From this definition, my identity as a young artist researcher working through the establishment possesses characteristics somewhere in between the youth-serving organizations and the youth entrepreneurs, something I like to call an edgewalker (Beals, Kidman, & Funaki, 2020). An edgewalker is a unique and valuable identity in the right situations since it includes an intimate understanding of the establishment and an ability to navigate marginalized communities by building relationships upon shared values and interests. I truly believe that this role, on a personal and organizational level, was key to the success of the research project and is one of the reasons why the FMJF is uniquely positioned to make a major impact on youth entrepreneurship in Canada.
As I came to believe, through my limited experience in this project, being an edgewalker is about being a good ally. As long as you remember that you can’t and shouldn’t attempt to complete research like this alone, then this platform is an excellent way to use one’s privilege to uplift other voices and share access to platforms and resources wherever needed.
By championing the youth entrepreneurs who believe in the FMJF’s mission to support youth entrepreneurship and giving them the tools they need to make positive change within their communities, I am confident that the FMJF’s impact in the youth entrepreneurship ecosystem will be a force for lasting good. One of the most important aspects of the project design was the inclusion of youth in data analysis and roundtable moderation affording them an ownership stake in the program that results from it. At the end of the day, it’s about the young artists/entrepreneurs and their journey.
I remember chatting with my supervisor halfway through the project exclaiming how profoundly important this work felt and how grateful I was to be able to undertake it. Upon reflection, I retain the sense of purpose, but I also recognize another underlying feeling which contributed to the gratefulness — the sense that because of my identity, in some ways I wasn’t the best person for this project.
Despite this uncertainty, it is not a source of discouragement. I realize now that I need to be confident that my ability to learn and listen, and that those qualities regardless of identity can make me a good researcher. I think it is important that more people like me look beyond their immediate community to see where their skills and experiences can be used to make a social impact. For these revelations and for the opportunity to be a part of a profoundly important organization, I want to thank my superiors at the FMJF, Tara Lapointe and Edward Matwawana. I cannot overstate how invaluable your support was throughout the project, and how much you inspire me.
I’m proud of what the FMJF and I accomplished this summer because if the output of this project contributes to improving the youth entrepreneurship ecosystem, builds awareness and access to support for marginalized youth, and prompts another edgewalker to continue the conversation, then it was more than worth it. The kind of cultural change required to systematically break down the institutional barriers impacting youth entrepreneurship and empowerment, especially the ones we might not be fully aware of yet, is a continuous inter-community effort.
Beals, F., Kidman, J., & Funaki, H. (2020). Insider and Outsider Research: Negotiating Self at the Edge of the Emic/Etic Divide. Qualitative Inquiry, 593-601.