Raised in Toronto, Ontario, Michael Solomon is a member of the Cape Crokers Chippewas of Nawash, on the Bruce Peninsula in Northern Ontario — although he points out that it’s actually Southern Ontario. Michael is part of the TakingITGlobal team, working as the Indigenous Education & Youth Engagement Activator, administering interactive learning sessions with Connected North and micro grants with the #RisingYouth program for Indigenous youth across Canada.
Michael grew up in a tough part of Toronto, where poverty and gang violence were common. “By the time I was 15, seven of my friends were already dead because of gun violence. We always had these life goals together, we’re going to have these cottages with our families all in the line on lake shore. It’s never going to happen because they’re gone, there’s only like three of us left now that are from the original crew. And one of them’s already in hiding and one’s in jail. I’m the only one that’s free that’s giving back to the community now.”
But Michael knew he wanted a different life for himself and his family. “I wanted to change my own story. I realized that my surroundings weren’t fit or capable enough to raise a family or even for safety reasons. And so, at that point I was like, how do I make this not so great situation better for myself and for my family? How do I get from point A to point B? Because I want to live in a safe neighborhood. I want to be able to raise a family with good morals and everything. And I want them to be as far away from danger as possible.”
And although he knew it wouldn’t be easy, education was the key to making the life he wanted. He stuck with school, got his diploma, and went to college, taking night classes and summer courses so he could graduate a semester early. “I just wanted the fast track, I just needed to get out of here. And I figured the sooner I can graduate, the sooner I can get out of there. I can start working and making money.”
But first he had to deal with the implications of growing up in gang culture. “Being in this gang culture, it’s like everyone’s always trying to prove something and trying to become this idea of what a man is supposed to be. Which is far from the truth, far from reality of what a man is actually supposed to be. A man is supposed to be loving and caring and providing. And what I was doing was just the complete opposite. All that stuff kind of conditioned me in the wrong way. Right? It kind of made me harder than the person that I actually was, who was compassionate, soft, and loving. But this idea of being hard, it kind of conditioned me in a way where I had a thick skull, I guess you would say. When people were trying to reach out to help me, I completely ignored it. And it was just like my way or the highway type deal.”
But eventually, a mentor in his neighborhood got through to him. “His real name was Trevor, but we all call him Flow Seven because that’s what he wanted to be called. And he sat me down one day and he bought us some basketball tickets to the Raptors. I was about 19 and he bought us a box suite, and he said, ‘You know Mike, I hear what’s going on and I just want you to know that I’m here for you and you don’t have to do this … respect comes in two different ways. There’s fear and then there’s real respect where I give back to the community, I work in the community. You can do the same if you change your act. Because you have so many other people looking up to you. People are following you.’”
Michael thought about it for a week, and then he said “all right, Flow Seven, I’m ready. And Flow Seven said, ‘Great,’ and from there, I was just giving back to the community. I did after school programs for the other gang members and I was helping them out in different ways. I was getting their younger siblings into beneficial programs like soccer camps, elite tennis camps and stuff like that. Opportunities that would never have been able to happen without someone actually caring about these youths. So, from there, it just grew into my passion for giving back and helping and giving these youth an opportunity, and trying to become my own mentor because it was something that I feel is important. With great leadership and proper mentorship, you can go places.”
And even though there were tough times, Michael doesn’t regret his journey. “Dealing with these obstacles, I feel like it made me stronger. It gave me a different outlook on life and I don’t regret any of it. Because it made me the person who I am today.”
Although his “day job” was in construction, Michael’s volunteer work eventually took him around the world. Then, back in Toronto, he found a job working with Indigenous youth at a Friendship Centre, facilitating athletic, cultural, and after-school programs, but eventually he was ready for new challenges. “I realized (that the) program can really run itself now. And I was like, well, I also need to grow more. I need to challenge myself even further. And it was then I came across this organization called TakingITGlobal.”
With TakingITGlobal, Michael has found a new role in supporting other Indigenous youth, working to help them through obstacles in their journeys. “If there’s any follow-up questions that the youth may have after reading this, feel free to reach out. If you want to ask me further questions about my story and you’re more curious about my story, I’m happy to share and if there’s any way that I can help you and guide you on getting out of situations and making the right choices. I’m here, I’m here.”
“We’re all brothers and sisters at the end of the day.”
Special thanks to Keith Collier for authoring this blog post.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.