fbpx

Youth Spotlight

Nayaelah Siddiqui is a 24-year-old student in her final year at the University of Ottawa. While in school, Nayaelah also works for Global Affairs in the International Platform Branch and is an entrepreneur, operating Empower’em a grassroots group providing safe spaces and accessible leadership programming for young women of colour in the City of Ottawa.

"When I started Empower'em 6 years ago, it wasn't something I intended to start"

Growing up as a visible minority, I faced a lot of inequalities and still do to this today. I wear a hijab and as a consequence, I have been discriminated against countless times. However, the real motivation behind starting Empower’em was when I realized that there was no space for Muslim women to share experiences and connect with one another. There was a gap in the services offered in the community and I felt like I needed a community. I decided to create a safe space to find support in my peers.

I started Empower’em specifically for Muslim women, but as we started meeting people through our events, I quickly realized the need to redevelop our mandate to include racialized women from many backgrounds. Young women from all kinds of backgrounds were coming to our events and using the space to open up about their experiences.

Our first workshop was held in August 2013. I ran a workshop on embracing your own true identity in front of a group of 15-20 people. Based on the success of the first event, I decided to continue organizing such spaces. I learned how to design posters, write grants, create a website and newsletter and finally recruited a team. Our events today welcome anywhere between 15-65 young women depending on the type of safe space. Some of our programming models works through peer support groups.

This year, we started a confidential mental health peer support group, to allow women to discuss taboo topics in a safe environment and to let them know that they are not alone in this struggle. Meeting others who are facing similar difficulties has helped participants in our program to feel like they are not alone in this fight. This program grew from my own experiences and a key component was understanding how inaccessible mental health services were to marginalized communities. Often, professional support meant seeing a counsellor who didn’t reflect or share similar beliefs and values or who wasn’t trained culturally. 

Today, the focus on all our programming is to create inclusive spaces and provide accessible programming for all marginalized women of colour in the city. 

We hope to start a sustainable mentorship program that pairs younger women of colour with more experienced women of colour so that they can have a mentor that shares similar values and beliefs as them.

“I started Empower’em specifically for Muslim women due to the need I saw in my peers, but as we started putting meeting people through our events, I quickly realized the need to redevelop our mandate to include racialized women from many backgrounds.”

About 3 years after starting Empower’em I got involved with Youth Ottawa through OYEC, the Ottawa Youth Engagement Committee. During this time I was also applying for grants to support Empower’em. One of the grants required us to find an organizational mentor. I got in contact with them and they were 100% on board to help. 

What I love about Youth Ottawa’s approach is that they actively listen to what youth need and they build upon that information, instead of immediately giving their opinions. Our relationship has grown in the past year and they’ve really pushed for the growth of Empower’em through their guidance and mentorship. Just a few examples of their support include handling funds for us, helping us create formal documentation, constantly searching for opportunities that could be useful for us, linking us to seminars and other non-profit events and most recently hiring one of our volunteer members under their Entrepreneurship Fellowship Program this past summer. Over the summer, one of Empower’em’s team members, Brenda, was involved in building a Business Model Canvas to help us conceptualize how to turn Empower’em into a social enterprise model. My hope is to get Empower’em registered as a non-profit, build a social enterprise side to generate revenue – and use our lived experiences as youth and as women of colour to give back to the community and build more diverse and inclusive spaces. Eventually, we’d also like to create an annual summit that brings women of colour from all over Canada together to celebrate their accomplishments, learn from one another, and pass on leadership skills. 

“What I love about Youth Ottawa’s approach is that they actively listen to what youth need and they build upon that information, instead of immediately giving their opinions. Our relationship has grown in the past year and they’ve really pushed for the growth of Empower’em through their guidance and mentorship.”

I immigrated to Canada just before I turned 13, a little over 10 years ago, and this is where I grew up. For any young person, these years are a vital moment in their life when they are building their values and beliefs. During these years, I found ways to integrate myself into the Canadian society by being my own self, exploring who I am and not compromising the values and beliefs that I hold. To try to fit in, many people give up their true selves, Through Empower’em, I hope to inspire young women to be themselves and feel accepted for who they are with the support of their peers. I am grateful for the support system of community organizations like Youth Ottawa who believe and support our mission.