Ililli Ahmed: Smart Start Youth summit – Why Youth Empowerment is Key

Illili Ahmed

Illili Ahmed

#SMARTSTART2017: Why Youth Empowerment is Key

By: Ililli Ahmed

Where’s the last place you’d think of being on a May weekend, at 8:30 a.m.? Not the Canadian Food and Agriculture Museum, that’s for sure. Despite this, that is exactly where I ended up on May 6th and 7th, and it proved to be one of the best weekends of my life.

The inaugural (and long awaited) Smart Start Youth Summit, presented by Ottawa’s Young Leaders Advisory Council (YLAC) was held last month at the museum. The summit hosted a total of 150 young leaders–often referred to as ‘delegates’– from our city and special guests from across Ontario. The initiative was founded by and organized by the Lead Council: Natalie Domey, Eldon Holder, Faiza Ahmed-Hassan, Teshini Harrison, Tanisha Williams, Ayesha Thorne, and Danait Mehreteab. The #SMARTSTART2017 Summit itself a product of the incredible hard work of the Lead Council in partnership with Black History Ottawa. Moreover, partners of the summit include YMCA, Jaku Konbit, Capital Courts, and Ontario 150. After experiencing the summit myself, I can see that it was organized to create a safe space for young people of colour and marginalized groups to hone their leadership and innovation skills, while attempting to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. Nuanced topics were discussed in this celebration, such as the Canadian government’s dark history of erasure of its Indigenous peoples, female empowerment, climate change, entrepreneurship, and anti-black racism.

In addition to the affordability of the summit (it was cost-free), the event was impeccably organized. Upon arrival, 150 delegates aged 13 to 18, were signed in, fed, and given lanyards with their name and an assigned colour. These colours corresponded to different groups led by trained Ambassadors, aged 18-24, who made sure the group was engaged and excited to learn. As part of the Green Team, I was led to a room after the day’s opening ceremonies where we became acquainted with the workshop facilitators and crucial themes for the weekend.
Over the two days that I was lucky enough to participate in the Smart Start Youth Summit, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly optimistic. As many minorities know, it can be incredibly difficult to be hopeful while living under systems that have institutionalized racism, homophobia, and sexism. That’s why this event was needed, and it is why there must be more to come. Young people of colour, women, and members of the LGBTQ +community deserve recognition, and deserve to feel as though we matter, and that our voices can and will be heard. Fuelling our dreams and aspirations, and highlighting successful members of our communities not only shows us the representation we so desperately need, but it provides a scope into a future that is achievable. And so, I am grateful for the Smart Start Weekend and the knowledge I received as a result. I not only learned about how I can harness my strengths and experiences as a young Black-Canadian woman, but I was able to network with other students with similar aspirations in such a warm, welcoming environment.

I humbly thank the entire YLAC team and the Ambassadors for supporting Ottawa’s diverse youth; I hope to speak for all of us when I say that we can’t wait to see what you do next!

About the writer

Ililli Ahmed is an 11th grade student who loves onion rings, equality and Beyoncé (not in that order). In the past, she’s written articles for Radio-Canada, and is a regular youth contributor for ‘Black Ottawa Scene’. Ililli is also co-president of many school clubs, such as the Feminism Club. Her role models are her parents and Olivia Pope from Scandal. You can contact her at

YLAC Team Photo:
SMART START Youth Summit Photos:

Photo credit: Black History Ottawa
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