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Leading in Colour

August 20, 2020

Serisha Iyar from Leading in Colour on how to creating space for racialized youth in current democratic systems can create a different future.

Tell us about the Leading in Colour. How would you describe its purpose and what makes it unique?

Leading in Colour was founded on July 25, 2019. After experiencing the rejection of racialized experiences in activist movements firsthand, I decided to create a space where racialized leaders, particularly youth, could come together to learn and mobilize. This focus on racialized youth as experts in their own traumas, lived experiences, needs, strengths, cultural competencies and more is unique in the Canadian landscape of work.

At Leading in Colour we equip young people with the necessary tools needed to conduct their advocacy efforts. We offer FREE training opportunities for racialized youth under 26 years old in the form of webinars, workshops, and events where they can develop their advocacy skill set. We currently offer three specific programs, our online training fellowship program, the Digital Institute for Activism; our podcast, Leaders of Colour; and our teach-in webinar series, Emerging Experts. These programs offer opportunities to both navigate the colonial systems of democracy at play and allow for visions of a different future.

We additionally work with partner organizations to provide programming for their constituents that is built on the frameworks of anti-oppression, anti-racism, intersectionality and decolonization.

We are all navigating the global pandemic in different ways. What’s a key insight from how Leading in Colour is responding to the crisis?

In order to reach youth across what is currently Canada, Leading in Colour since day 1 has been dedicated to developing spaces for action and training entirely online. We have had opportunities to work in-person within varying communities but have remained committed to doing this work via video conferencing, phone calls and hosting webinars, workshops and courses online. As such, we didn’t have to navigate or change our work much when the pandemic struck but were rather well-placed to continue our work and draw in new folks to engage while other organizations sorted out how they would adapt. While our digital framework has been inaccessible for some youth who live in rural communities which particularly affects our engagement with Indigenous youth, we have been able to bridge this by working with partner organizations and other youth-led networks to ensure we have some capacity for outreach beyond those who are just in front of us. We continue to strive for better developments in this area as we grow our organizational capacity.

Over the past few months we have seen groups seize this moment of uncertainty to advance racial and economic justice in their communities. What are your thoughts on this moment in community organizing?

My hope is that the momentum continues and that folks don’t simply jump on the bandwagon of activism only to discard it once the pandemic is over and they are consumed with other interests. Activists have been mobilizing nonstop far before the pandemic began, the media’s decision on when to showcase and when not to showcase this work plays into how those who aren’t as familiar with anti-racism efforts see it. For example, now, in August, there continue to be huge marches in solidarity around police violence against Black communities in the US yet there is minimal coverage compared to earlier in the summer. Yet, this work continues. I think this moment in community organizing is highlighting a whole field of social issues that governments need to be held accountable for.

What’s one big challenge you see Canada’s democracy facing? How are you working on this challenge, what solutions do you propose?

White supremacy. Working within the current democratic system I think is a huge challenge for racialized youth especially when it comes to accessing space, power, and decision-making opportunities. Understanding how we can navigate the Canadian political sphere to seek justice for their communities is critical to this. At Leading in Colour we work on this challenge by creating accessible learning opportunities for racialized youth around how the system operates and what they can do to have their voices and that of their communities heard. As far as solutions go, far too often we say that representation is the way in which we can have our voices heard in Canada’s democratic system. However, this isn’t the be all and end all of resolutions. We need to enable racialized youth who decide to take part in colonial systems of government to do so in ways that support themselves and their communities. Navigating systems of white supremacy often comes at a great cost and our hope to help support one another through this by preparing for what’s to come.

Could you share an idea or initiative related to increasing civic engagement or democratic participation that inspires you? 

I am a huge fan of Platform (formerly known as Young Womxn’s Leadership Network). They have consistently been committed to reshaping the political landscape by putting the lived experiences of racialized women and gender-diverse youth at the centre of their work. Their programs have built civic leadership capacity among hundreds of young people by empowering and educating their constituents. Their work is critical in supporting survivors of sexual assault in the field and continually redefine what leadership in these positions of power could look like if we followed their lead.

Tell us about how Leading in Colour is making its work more inclusive and building engagement with different communities. Any tips or lessons to share with others in the sector about decreasing barriers to participation?

Leading in Colour is committed to understanding the nuanced experiences of diverse racialized communities that live in what is currently Canada. We actively work towards developing anti-oppressive educational materials for racialized communities around subjects like anti-Black racism, Islamophobia and anti-Indigeneity with the hope of fostering unlearning of internalized behaviours and ideologies and promotion of analytical discourse and active allyship aimed at building solidarity across racialized communities. The main lesson to be learned for others is to step back and create space for racialized youth to lead the way for both themselves and their communities. We are not future leaders, we are currently leaders, and as such have the expertise, skillset, knowledge, capacity and ability to do the work that those in positions of power cannot.

Are there specific asks Leading in Colour has for the broader sector — things you need help with, problems you’re trying to solve or wishes you have?

Leading in Colour, like many other racialized youth-led organizations, is not privileged to have the same access to funding and resources as our counterparts. As such, we are consistently at a disadvantage yet, we continue to do critical work that is unpaid for the dreams of our ancestors, the visions we have for ourselves, the future of our communities and the generations to come. Until we can commit to restructuring the colonial ways these spaces have been developed; it would be worthwhile if the broader sector sought out our leadership beyond tokenism and used their platforms to share with us (organizations led by and for racialized youth) access to the spaces they so easily take up in the interim; perhaps then our voices would be amplified in ways that enabled support.

For people looking to engage with you, how can they get involved? Who can they contact?

Follow us on social media: Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Visit our website and check out our podcast Leaders of Colour.


Leading in Colour is a grassroots organization led by and for racialized youth. We equip young people with the necessary tools needed to conduct their advocacy efforts. We offer FREE training opportunities for racialized youth under 26 years old where they can develop their advocacy skill set. We currently offer three specific programs, our online training fellowship program, the Digital Institute for Activism; our podcast, Leaders of Colour; and our teach-in webinar series, Emerging Experts.

Serisha Iyar, Founder and Executive Director of Leading in Colour

Serisha Iyar (she/her) is the Founder and Executive Director of Leading in Colour, a community organization dedicated to providing racialized youth with the necessary tools, resources and skills training needed to conduct advocacy efforts in and for their communities. Born in Montreal where her family landed as refugees from South Africa, she spent most of her life in the small town of Georgetown, ON and now lives in Ottawa. Serisha is committed to operating on foundational frameworks of anti-oppression including decolonization, anti-racism and intersectional feminism. She graduated from McGill University in 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science & World Religions. You can catch her yelling about Canadian politics dans les deux langues officielles @serishaiyar on Twitter.