An Interview with Check Your Head’s Sharnelle Jenkins-Thompson

sharnelle-e1394574502582-220x150Sharnelle Jenkins-Thompson, whose passion for social justice began at the age of ten, is a board member at Check Your Head. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Social Work from the University of British Columbia.


How did you become involved in youth activism in general?

I became involved in activism from a fairly young age, for my 11th birthday my mum gave me a book that chronicled actions of activists and it had lots of stories on the “Battle of Seattle.” So I think you can kind of get the sense my mum was instilling a strong sense of scrappiness that shaped my experiences growing up. We were very poor but from a young age I started to see that my family hadn’t failed or done something wrong but we were fighting something unfair. So I took on a lot of causes and issues in my preteen and teen years and strongly identified with any anti-authoritarian figures that so many teens like (so a lot of really bad punk music, as well as some real great punk music). I also really feel my connection to my ancestors; both my Mum’s immigrant and my Dad’s indigenous relations have helped guide me to where I am today.

What is the importance of youth activism to individuals in a community?

There are still many meetings I attend where I am easily the youngest person in the room on issues that drastically impact youth and young families, like anti-poverty work, early childhood work (which is so foundational if we are wanting to move towards a harm reduction society), policy issues, etc. For me, it highlights ways that social justice movements are so fractured and inaccessible to folks often most impacted by these issues. Having any sort of activism that is not intergenerational raises issues of sustainability, inclusion, power imbalances, etc. We need youth in decision-making roles and youth using their skills, knowledge, relationships and creating space for youth to be innovative, critical and take risks in different movements.

You are one of the board co-chairs for Check Your Head. What tasks and responsibilities come with this position?

Being on the board is a lot about supporting the nuts and bolts of an organization, especially an organization the size of CYH (small and mighty). Specifically, as a co-chair it’s a lot about bringing all the pieces together in one place and ensuring we are all in sync, looking to the future, and able to make decisions. As well as those pieces like governance, following the law in regards to the Charity Act, and acting in “good faith”—i.e. the ship isn’t running into the ground and we didn’t feel the need to right it.

What is the content and purpose of Check Your Head?

Check Your Head is about bringing youth together to think critically about social and environmental justice issues facing society through a popular education lens. We try and tackle a variety of issues important to youth and support youth to become leaders in these areas and share their knowledge and skills with their peers.

What are the biggest emotional difficulties in activism?

Burn out is a real issue, especially for so many youth activists when our advocacy is tied up in our lived experiences that fall outside the mainstream narrative of experience. For myself as a mixed-race indigenous woman, some of the issues being discussed more openly in mainstream society like Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), family violence, mental health, food insecurity, housing, etc. are tied up in my personal experiences and relationships and I continue to navigate and reflect on them. Oftentimes, those with lived experiences are continually asked to be vulnerable and share our narratives and do the emotional labour to try and connect other folks to the issues, but within certain parameters dictated by the mainstream: you can’t be too emotional or you’re not objective on the issue and can’t see the big picture. Or, on the other side of that: too guarded and private and not performing the narrative people want from you. So, between constantly having to give your story or being chided for not doing so, it can really burn folks out. I think I have been lucky to the extent that for the most part, I like to do the background and support work so I haven’t experienced too much burnout and have firm personal boundaries about what I share while I do my own personal healing and growing.

Are there any unique problems associated with organizing for youth activism?

I think a lot of what I alluded to above, about: are those in power making sure their spaces are accessible to youth? And are they able to share real power with youth? For youth-only organizing I think there is group burnout issues, for where so many youth are in their lives we lack the same access to resources as previous generations. So many youth are in precarious work, saddled with debt, etc., that it’s really hard to carry your issue forward. That being said, there are so many incredible youth organizers that are tackling these issues and finding innovative ways to tackle them.

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

* All views expressed in this interview belong to the interviewee and don’t necessarily reflect the views of CYH.