At first glance these four Windermere Secondary School students look like regular teenagers. They smile at me with braces and shine with that sense of anxious joy and anticipation that is usually only recognized by those who have passed from youth into older age.
‘Under Nineteens’ take on grown-up social issues
These teens are, however, anything but average; Chitha Manoranjan, Jonathan Fung, Neelam Khare and Peggy Lam are currently producing a documentary on homelessness and poverty in Canada. Following graduation they will be traveling across the country to document these issues while also examining the history of the Olympics, Alberta’s infamous tar sands and Canada’s involvement in the nuclear arms industry. For this ambitious and altruistic project, they have dubbed themselves the ‘Under Nineteens.’
Most teenagers look at volunteer work as an unnecessary hassle — or as mere resume padding — but the Under Nineteens immerse themselves in it out of a sincere desire to contribute to society, rather than just consume.
Lam says that this is one of the reasons they started their group in the first place. “We’re called the Under Nineteens because we believe that the time is now for the youth of our generation to stand up and demand change.”
Khare explains why they chose to focus on poverty in Canada: “People who are living in poverty are part of this community too, and so while bringing attention to this issue we also want to bring out that compassion that everyone has in them.”
“Even if it means just saying ‘hi’ and acknowledging that they’re there,” she adds
Capturing the voices absent from mainstream media
Canada is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and yet the federal government estimates that approximately 150,000 Canadians are “absolutely homeless.”
The Under Nineteens recognize that Canada’s homeless and impoverished are also amongst the most underrepresented groups in Canada, and these teenagers are determined to change this.
Khare explains that one way they intend to do this is by capturing “the voices of minority groups and people you don’t really hear from in the mainstream media.” Homeless people will be interviewees in their documentary, along with activists and community organizers who focus on housing and environmental issues.
When asked how they got involved in this project in the first place, Jonathan points to his teachers at Windermere: “We’re in a program called Leadership and it’s run by two teachers. … They teach you to link what you’re learning in school with outside social issues, issues in the real world, current events.”
Vagner Castilho is one of the teachers who volunteer their time with Windermere’s Leadership Program and the result of his passion for teaching and inspiring his students is clearly visible in the Under Nineteens. His devotion is, however, tested every day: “The education system, along with social pressures, parental and so on, makes it very difficult to create inspirational and exceptional students like Peggy, Neelam, Chitha and Jonathan, that break away from all that.”
“They are such a force and give me such energy and inspiration, I often think what an amazing world we would have if we had more students driven like them,” Castilho adds.
Being part of the system ‘would be a waste of our knowledge’
The Under Nineteens future goals are also extraordinary and unique when compared to many of their peers. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, Manoranjan sums it up: “We all pretty much have the same idea I guess. We’ve learned so much already and to just go out there and be part of the system would be a waste of our knowledge. So we want to keep educating and making positive change. We must care about other people and do all that we can.”
Following graduation this year the Under Nineteens will begin their cross-country trip that will be connecting them with other youth, social justice groups and members of Canada’s minority groups along the way.
They will be undertaking this journey while some in their age bracket will be going to travel the beaches of the world with their parents’ money. Being in their presence for just one hour left me more enlightened than before and if they can affect me positively in such a short time, just imagine the kind of results that they can produce on others over the next few years.
Maya Angelou once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” The Under Nineteens are not just living proof of this idea; they have also started making use of this tool themselves.
While the Under Nineteens have already begun fundraising and gathering supplies, they are in serious need of your support — financial and material. They are hosting a fundraising dinner this Saturday, May 23 in Vancouver, and if you would like to donate supplies or funds to their very worthy cause, please visit their website to learn more about their project or email them at: under9teens[at]hotmail[dot]com.
Chitha Manoranjan, Neelam Khare and Peggy Lam — along with Rachelle Wong — participated in a ‘job shadow’ program earlier this year with rabble.ca.
Jasmin Ramsey is a Vancouver-based writer and photographer.