Episode 4


In this podcast episode, Thaila Dixon-Eeet discusses critical youth-centering and community development with youth survivors based on their work with the Collective of Child Welfare Survivors.

Instead of infantilizing or tokenizing youth, Thaila shares how critical youth-centering involves capacity-building and creating safe opportunities for youth to share their feedback and experiences. Thaila also identifies the importance of community sites of resistance and healing for child and youth survivors. Lastly, Thaila offers their vision for the future, which includes transformational justice with change taking place across all levels.

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Thalia-Dixon.pngThaila Dixon-Eeet is one of the co-creators of Collective of Child Welfare Survivors and our Community Development and Outreach Coordinator. Thaila is a Black queer non-binary neurodivergent mad child welfare survivor and abolitionist, of Jamaican ethnic background mixed with white on their mother’s side. Thaila was placed in group homes beginning at the age of 13, was in semi-independent living and then independent living at the age of 16 until they aged out at 21 years old. Since the age of 15, Thaila’s advocated for changes within the child welfare system as a youth at the Office of the Ontario Child Advocate. With their own experiences of the various forms of violence that occur towards Black girls in group homes, Thaila’s advocacy lead to benefits for child welfare survivors generally, such as creation of the HSBC Fund through the Children’s Aid Foundation.

Thaila was the Director of Youth Engagement at Cross Over Youth, while also doing case management where they supported child welfare survivors dealing with the criminal punishment system. Thaila is also an entrepreneur within the tattoo industry, marrying their social justice work with tattooing and co-founding the Rose Underground, which is a collective of BIPOC tattoo artists addressing anti-Black racism and other forms of oppression in the industry. Thaila extended this work into opening their own shop with other BIPOC tattoo artists in downtown Toronto called TruTattoo Shop.


Linda-Baker.pngDr. Linda Baker is a Psychologist, Assistant Professor – Standing Appointment, and the former Learning Director of the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children (CREVAWC) at Western University. During her time with CREVAWC, Dr. Baker led the Learning Network and the Knowledge Hub. The Learning Network translates knowledge on the continuum of gender-based violence and the Knowledge Hub facilitates a trauma- and violence-informed community of practice with Canadian researchers and practitioners conducting innovative intervention research. She has over 25 years of experience in the mental health and justice systems, working with and learning from children, youth and families dealing with experiences of violence and trauma. Her direct service experience inspires and informs her research and commitment to knowledge translation through resource development and publications, knowledge exchange activities, and workshop presentations. Dr. Baker has co-authored numerous publications/resources related to intimate partner violence exposed children and families, including Walk Proud, Dance Proud: Footprints on a Healing Journey; Helping Children Thrive: Supporting Woman Abuse Survivors as Mothers; and Helping an Abused Woman: 101 things to Know, Say and Do. Her most recent work focuses on the application of intersectionality to research with and services for children exposed to IPV and the evaluation of IPV training programs. Prior to her current roles, Dr. Baker was the Director of the Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System (London Family Court Clinic). She participates regularly on faculty teams delivering Domestic Violence Institutes throughout the United States for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and Futures Without Violence.


00:00:16:00 – Linda

Hello and welcome to today's episode of the podcast, Little Eyes, Little Ears: Centering Children and Youth in Gender-Based Violence Work. This podcast is from the Learning Network at the Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children at Western University. The purpose of this podcast is to enhance work, to support children and youth in context of intimate partner violence.

00:00:43:01 – Linda

I'm Dr. Linda Baker, and I'm pleased to host today's episode with our guest, Thaila Dixon. Thaila, thank you so much for being here with us today. I wonder if you would just start us off by introducing yourself, telling the audience a little bit about yourself.

00:01:03:05 – Thaila

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. My name is Thaila Dixon. Pronouns are they/them. I am the Community Development and Outreach Coordinator for CCWS. I am also a child welfare survivor, which is really how I got into this work. I have been doing advocacy work and legislative work within the family surveillance system, a.k.a. the child welfare system. I've worked with the Ministry of Children and Youth. I've worked with the well, formerly the Provincial Child Advocates Office, which is no longer around, unfortunately.

I've also worked with several research projects based out of Ryerson University, some grassroots frontline sort of work, one on one with young people who are also child welfare survivors, as well as some projects that I mean, some projects that looked at care for young people on a global scale and others more directed at the criminal punishment. The youth criminal punishment system and child welfare or family surveillance.

00:02:18:16 – Thaila

I'm also a tattoo artist. I own a tattoo shop. I co-own a tattoo shop where we heavily integrate these sort of practices of like trauma-informed care, anti-racism. It’s one of the few, if not only, walk-in spaces that is primarily Black and Brown artists, as well as like queer and trans folks. So yeah, that's a little side note to the work, but I feel like works well together.

00:02:52:15 – Linda

Thaila, you mentioned CCWS. Just for the audience, can you explain what that acronym stands for?

00:03:00:01 – Thaila

Yes, sorry. The Collective of Child Welfare Survivors.

00:03:04:12 – Linda

And that you were one of the founders or creators of that collective?

00:03:09:21 – Thaila

Yes. Myself, Josh Lamers and Ashley co-founded the project together.

00:03:18:05 –Linda 

Okay. Would you describe for our listeners, Thaila, a bit about the connection between the child welfare system and gender-based violence?

00:03:31:12 - Thaila

Yeah, I think with my work specifically has always been leaned more toward youth centering. It's only within, recently with this, with this project, with CCWs, have we actually been engaging with the parents of children who are being apprehended or put into the system. So, it's kind of a new territory for us that we're discovering and navigating through and really just relying on the people that we're supporting, on providing us with like information, with their experiences and really trying to understand and answer those questions.

I think also, I know also, we focus more within Black and racialized communities. So, I mean, just we recently or we were operating a Black mothers and femme parents group that supported specifically Black mothers of families that were being surveilled by the family surveillance system and a lot of those connections are, you know, a sort of understanding just outside of like child welfare.

Right. Like we know that Black women are hyper over-surveilled, Black families and Black women are over-surveilled. They're provided with little to no resources as there are stigmas and ideas around Blackness, and particularly Black femininity that bleed in to the ways in which, like these folks can receive services and not just like specifically racially, but if we think about immigrant families, immigrant parents, and that surveillance, I think, well, it's such a big question, right?

00:05:26:05 – Linda

It really is. But you really started us off wonderfully and I just, as I listen to that, you're saying that you're centering youth, but have recently started to center youth while really working with their families and especially mothers, it sounds like.

00:05:50:11 – Thaila  

Yes, that is a large portion of, we also do individual advocacy. It's part of the services we provide.

That's not necessarily my branch, that's not my job. I have taken on some cases here and there, but from what I understand, most of our cases have been mothers. I think maybe we had one father. But that also just speaks to like, the sort of inherent misogyny that takes place within family courts, right? Like the idea that women are the best and should be the only primary caregivers, which is so archaic.

00:06:31:13 – Thaila

And it's not to say that, like not speaking directly to the people that we support, but in a lot of situations, regardless, it should never have gotten that far in the first place. It should not have gotten litigious. It should have been, well, I don't, I believe there's also an overreporting that's happening with especially like mothers, single parents, immigrant families, immigrant mothers.

The jump is to get institutional institutions involved rather than providing resources or building relationships with the families that are a part of the community. So whether that be like a lot of reporting happens from like the education system. So, their jump is, if they see, quote unquote see something with a child, their jump is to call CAS rather than to engage the parent and try to figure out the sort of resources that could be made available to them.

00:07:25:24 – Thaila

So, that's like what we see a lot of. So, like even the courts, to even to start to discuss the court process, it's like, before we even get there, there's about 15 other things that could have been done before we get there, right?

00:07:39:45 – Linda

Right, right. And somehow it jumps to or seems to jump to that in sort of worst- case scenario. When you, and just to the extent that you feel comfortable, your own experience, you speak quite openly in podcasts and panels about your experience within the system and group homes. How does that inform the work that you're doing?

00:08:14:02 - Thaila

Yeah, it's an interesting question. I don't speak much about my experience much these days. I think that how it informs my work has evolved over the years, has changed over the years. Like I said, I started quite young and not really fully understanding the language. Not even having graduated high school, was now informing policy, was a part of legislation, like was doing all these things, just only understanding it through the lens of my own experience, but also the lens of the community that I was surrounded by, other child welfare survivors.

And since navigating those systems on the other on the other side of it and doing that work and not just being within the system, I realized that we're limited and in and creating any actual foundational and fundamental change, bureaucracy and all that. And, and then our own sort of in the inherent biases that come along with working within any institution or organization, whether they are meaning to do good or not, there will always be issues of racism, tokenizing, infantilizing, yeah, misogyny.

00:09:38:13 - Thaila

So, I don't know, like it's, I think like for me now that experience, it just keeps me grounded in understanding the importance of the work. That's how it helps me. It's, it has given me a resilience and an empathy and compassion for this sort of work. But I think that what gets lacking with some folks that engage in this work is that it's no longer my experience anymore.

I have not been in care for years. I don't know what it's like to be in a group home now. I don't know what it's like to navigate that system right now. So, what is the most important is how I listen and how I absorb the experiences of other folks and do honor to it and center those voices rather than just centering my own experience.

00:10:29:11 - Linda

Thank you for that. Now, Thaila, I've also heard you use the term critical youth-centric practices, and I think most of us have a sense of youth centering or feel that we understand what that means. But can you speak a little bit to what do you mean by critical youth-centric practices?

00:10:52:16 - Thaila

Yeah. So, with myself, Ashley or Ash and Josh, we all kind of come from the, we all came from the same background of work. We've actually worked alongside each other on similar projects, not always at the same time, but around that.

That is how we came into relationship to each other and the idea of critical youth centering as a response to how we witness these organizations engage in like that sort of work. So, although we appreciated and even protested when the provincial advocates office, we shut down Bay and Queen in protest of them shutting down the provincial child advocates office.

That comes with a lot of criticism of how the organization functioned, as well as some of the projects that I've worked on. And a lot of what we saw, a lot of like what we witnessed and experienced was, it was tokenization, it was an infantilizing. There was no capacity building. Like I said, I had even gotten into this stuff, not even graduating high school at like 15, 16 years old and not fully understanding the gravity of what it is that we were doing and really understanding the process.

00:12:22:22 - Thaila

Right? The only thing I knew is that anything that were to be implemented, I was not going to feel the benefits of and that wasn't even something that was told to me. That was something that I had to come to realization, that I'm fighting for changes to happen within the child welfare system that I will never experience myself.

That should have been something that was told to me quite young. There was a lot of requirements from young people to show up in a certain way, to conduct themselves within the lens of respectability. When you're asking marginalized, a heavily marginalized group of people, heavily traumatized group of people, to do a work that people have salaries and like six, eight years of schooling experience to do, right.

So, it was truly, our lens comes as almost a response to that. So for us, critical youth centering is and in a simplified way, it's listening to young people. It's approaching it with humility, also understanding that young people are going to have their own language, are going to engage in ways that are safe and comfortable and real for them.

00:13:42:02 - Thaila

We meet them where they’re at. We have to also understand that it's not always a yes to the young person, and it's not always just a no. For us, it's important to, I implement this with even with my own tattooing, it's like informed consent. It is making sure that the person understands all avenues and the gravity of a situation before allowing them to say yes or no to something.

So that is what we wanted. That's what we do with young people. Another huge part about that is, and I think that sort of becomes a result of doing all the things I mentioned before, is capacity building.

Like, we cannot function as though we will be in the lives of these young people forever. The support ends, whether it's mandated by an organization or age or just naturally, we have to make sure that we're preparing young people to be without us and understand the language and understand the system or whatever system they're navigating that feels natural to them and that could be built upon. I hope that answers your question.

00:14:58:10 - Linda

It really does. And it sounds like but correct me if I'm wrong, while you still have concerns, it's not ideal. The work that your collective's done and others that people are understanding better about how to meaningfully and supportively engage with youth to center youth, without disempowering and exploring them, to be quite honest.

00:15:32:17 - Thaila

I don't know about other organizations. I know I would say, I trust more community-based organizations to be doing that sort of work, ones that are facilitated and ran by young people or the groups of people that are directly affected. All right. So, I would say that we are doing that in part, that we are former, we are child welfare survivors and running this organization, but also in how we engage everybody from the top, like I wouldn't say top down, but from all aspects of our project down to the to the volunteers, to myself, there's a level of training that happens, there’s a level of capacity building that we do.

00:16:16:21 - Thaila

So, everything that we believe in doesn't just translate to the clients or the young people that we support or the families we support. It also happens within our organization. But yeah, I think when it comes to larger, or like institutions or projects that are backed by millions of dollars, and at the head of these projects are folks who are on the Sunshine List, I wouldn't anticipate that they're doing much of critical youth centering.

I don't think that that's the priority. The priority is to have faces of young people on their board so that they could say that they have had young people on their boards. So a bit of a real answer for you.

00:16:58:30 - Linda

 We want you to be real! So, what you're describing is, the way you see I,t is that it's still more perhaps performative than true critical youth centric.

00:17:15:11 – Thaila

Yeah, I do. I do think so. I think what differentiates us, as well, is that as much as we can be as individuals, we have a particular kind of politic, right? Like, a politic that is transferable to our personal lives and to the work that we do no matter what. Right? So, we are abolitionists by in practice, or we hope, we try to be.

Obviously, we're funded by the government so that's kind of, we understand the limitations of that. But coming from an abolitionist perspective is also a transformative right, a transformative perspective, a healing perspective. So, we navigate the work that we do through that lens as well, right? Trauma-informed and not just the cute little word of trauma- informed, like actually implementing that.

00:18:05:03 - Thaila

Like we, some of us are mad people or some of us are neurodivergent. So, it's like, how do we make the work environment accessible to ourselves? And also, and like obviously for first and foremost with the people that we serve and we provide for.

00:18:25:10 – Linda

You've talked about the importance of building capacity, but also about healing. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about resistance spaces for child and youth survivors of violence.

00:18:44:20 – Thaila

Yeah. Are you asking if there are spaces that provide that for young people?

00:18:52:05 – Linda  

Yes. And what those look like.

00:18:58:25 – Thaila

Right. I think, though, if I'm being completely honest, this is something that I've been thinking about for a little while for myself. I think the resistance spaces don't actually come from an organization and don't come from an institution.

I think those just come from the community directly. I think, it is young people with and marginalized people with shared experiences coming together and providing for each other, whether it's emotional support, you know, physical support, maybe even sometimes financial, even if the other doesn't have it, it's telling them that they're here and letting them know that they're here and the love is unconditional.

And I feel like that comes mostly from the direct community. I don't know if there are a lot of spaces like structurally that can provide that for young people. I will say that there are some organizations that we are partnered with that are doing that, that sort of work. But again, like they are people of these communities.

00:19:59:00 – Thaila

But resistance spaces. Yeah, that, and online I think. Young people are finding community online and learning and it's expansive and how they understand themselves in the world. And I think that's where people are connecting or there's the resistance is coming from.

00:20:22:10 – Linda

And that is open to a wider group of young people as well. I mean, it's one thing to be in Toronto area and it's another thing to be in a more remote location, in terms of perhaps finding community.

00:20:37:18 - Thaila

Yeah, well, if you think of it, like even the conversation around something that we, we are not necessarily pro-adoption, we're pretty critical of the adoption system and it's a pretty nuanced and new conversation that is kind of being had. I know somebody that's currently doing the research around that, and even to find resources is so difficult.

It's from 20, 30 years ago and not even really like, it's kind of trash. It's not done well and it's almost done to propel interracial adoption, whereas we're now being critical and being like no to interracial adoption. But I mentioned that to say that like the first time I ever really had those conversations were with like folks in our organization.

But then if I'm online, I now follow, like several, and we as a page also follow, several like individual young people that are having that conversation and sharing their experiences and writing literature and creating content that are talking about this and educating people. So, that's what I say with even online, it kind of gives voice to things that we're not.

We're like catching up to the young people, right?

00:21:58:05 – Linda

Right, and they have that avenue for connecting with others and sharing their experience and their thoughts. You've talked about so many things that the collective is doing, and I wish we had a lot more time together. But I guess just in terms of your work, in terms of your own personal journey, what you've shared a little bit with us in terms of the journey, the evolution in terms of your own perspective.

I wonder if you can talk a little bit about your hope for the future in terms of, if you look ahead, you know, what would you like to see change in how we support children and youth?

00:22:52:12 – Thaila

Yeah, I would like the conversation to be on a larger scale. I think the issue is that, the issue is that people don't understand child welfare and it's one, it is the one institution that literally anybody can have to navigate.

Anybody is at risk to either having an interaction with them at any point in time. And it is the largest contributor of criminality, of young criminality or young people who are being criminalized while within the system and then continued criminalization while they're outside of it after 18. It's just creating more marginalized individuals in a place where there is limited to no resources in a world in which is anti-Black, which is even, I wouldn't want to say increasingly, but it's hit the pedal queer phobic transphobic, ableist, and unaffordable.

And so, it's difficult for me to really answer that question because it's not really a matter of like, what can folks working within that sector be doing differently? Because anything, any response would be a Band-Aid solution, which is what we've been doing, trying our best to working against a system that wants us to continue the way that we are.

00:24:27:13 - Thaila

It was built exactly to do what it's doing. So, I think it's like voting, you know, it's such a cliche to be like vote better or like be more aware. But I mean that, right? We've created legislation that was passed all the way through that was doing good work. And within a couple of years and a change of government, it was overturned completely.

It's how we lost the provincial child advocate's office. People are just not paying attention to things outside of themselves, to things that don't directly involve them. In the future, I would like to see, you know, more families supported, better resources, affordable housing, better access to health care and mental health, accessible resources for queer and trans children, and people being more aware of their implicit biases, the ways in which they could be anti-Black or anti-Indigenous or racist, because it plays a role in how we interact with each other, plays a role in how somebody's life is like what's going to happen to somebody's life right?

00:25:40:14 - Linda

Absolutely. But you shared many messages. But one of the fundamentals that I think you’re stressing for us is we have to stop with the Band-Aid approach. We're really talking about transformational change. And that doesn't mean tweaking programs here or there. I think that's one of your fundamental messages.

00:26:09:24 – Thaila

Totally. You can't just, we talk so much, and I get asked that question so much about, like, what do you see for the future? What would you like to see change? And the fact is, we're not going to see change within a system that was built to operate the way that it is. Yeah.

00:26:26:05 – Linda

Thaila, thank you for sharing this space with us today.

Your ongoing advocacy is truly inspiring and so, thank you. And for our listeners, please stay tuned for our next episode. And to do that, look out for an email from the Learning Network team to see when the next episode is ready. Take care and goodbye.