Scarborough-born activist and educator Curtis Carmichael wants to help kids thrive, not just survive

“It’s tricky,” says Curtis Carmichael as he explains the difference between how the police treated him and his friends in their housing project in Scarborough and the way they operate in other parts of the city.

Carmichael, 28, seems to use these two words when he’s holding something back, perhaps softening the edges around the complex realities of living as a young Black man in Canada for someone like me — a privileged white journalist who grew up in the same city, but in the world outside the four streets of the self-contained neighbourhood where Carmichael spent all his time. Or maybe it’s his way of saying he is exhausted from having to explain it to people who don’t share those experiences. “It’s tricky.”

When he was seven, Carmichael and his family moved from a pre-gentrified Regent Park to the area known colloquially as Block 13 — a collection of four lowrise and tower housing projects near Warden station. “In real life you’re seven,” he explains. “But in Block years, you’re 21.”

Accelerated maturity, Carmichael says, comes from the trauma that kids are exposed to in chronically underfunded neighbourhoods like his: navigating the rules of the street; fighting against institutional racism, frequent carding and beatings from police; being yelled at by teachers who tell kids over and over that they have “no value.”

These kids also have to gain adult-level life skills, like making the 90-minute round-trip walk across the food desert to the nearest Price Chopper for the family’s weekly groceries or learning how to operate a business from street hustlers while your parents are out working multiple low-wage jobs. “You’re just a lot more hyperaware than the average kid,” he says.

At 17, when Carmichael first left “the hood,” as he calls it, to attend a leadership-training program at a summer camp in Muskoka, he was struck by two things: the realization that the life he and his friends had been living was not the norm; and that there was no difference between him and the white kids from more affluent neighbourhoods, except that they had been given the space to think and the resources to succeed.

“When you’re just trying to survive by any means,” he says, “you’re not necessarily in a place to think of thriving.”

Helping neighbourhood kids get to a place where they can thrive is now the basis of Carmichael’s daily work as a public speaker, STEM education consultant, social entrepreneur and author.

After completing his bachelor’s degree at Queen’s University, where he also played slot receiver for the football team, Carmichael turned down a chance to join the CFL to do what he could to elevate the social and economic profile of his community and others like it. He attended teacher’s college to become an elementary educator. He cycled from Vancouver to Halifax to raise money for the non-profit Urban Promise, stopping to speak to Canadians about the systemic racism and injustices facing kids in government housing.

He considers his young adult memoir, “Butterflies in the Trenches” (Synergy Books), which was released Oct. 1, to be a blueprint for breaking the cycle of poverty. As the first augmented reality memoir, it will allow readers to access videos, audio recordings and interactive 3D via a mobile app.

Through Carmichael’s personal experiences — including the first time he sold crack, at age 11, and the morning police knocked the family’s front door off its hinges — the book presents a frank picture of the systemic oppression Black, Indigenous and other racialized kids in Canada face, and lays out a path for realizing their potential.

“(Every) hood is the innovation capital of the world,” says Carmichael, recalling his friend “Dr. Alex,” who at 12 constructed lawnmower-powered motorcycles to reduce travel time for grocery shopping. “Raw talent exists in every single individual in this neighbourhood. They just need a platform.”

Carmichael is helping to build that platform with his next big project, Source Code Academy. He says that the typical approach to getting young people ready for the future of work (adding tech and business to the existing curriculum) isn’t enough for kids who have lived in trauma and been consistently excluded from educational opportunities.

Instead, the academy — which will start out offering workshops and events before becoming an accredited bricks-and-mortar institution — will provide students ages four to 18 a foundation of mental health, financial literacy and the arts in conjunction with STEAM education and entrepreneurship.

“The goal is creating a different culture that has a stronger pull than the systems and a stronger pull than the streets,” says Carmichael. “Then you have kids who can survive.”