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Cheyanne Ratnam Is A Successful Social Entrepreneur And Survivor Of Sexual Abuse, Suicidality And Homelessness
"Family is not just biological. I am blessed to have biological family but also so many siblings from the child welfare system as well as parental figures. I have a Jamaican mom who has loved me since I was 14. I have a French mom figure and a Jewish dad figure. I had a different upbringing from most Tamil people."
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host
Canada
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Cheyanne Ratnam is passionate about equity and developing inclusive and accessible spaces and processes. She has dedicated much of her time and expertise in child welfare and homelessness. She is the Co-founder and Executive Lead of the Ontario Children's Advancement Coalition. Cheyanne went from experiencing suicidality in grade 5 to homelessness to child welfare to experiencing violent relationships, to still somehow coming up above the water. She is an Expert In Residence with CWLC and is an advocate for Childhood Sexual Abuse and GBV/IPV - being a survivor of both. She is also an independent consultant, engagement specialist, personal development coach, capacity builder, media commentator, public speaker, ambassador of the CAFdn, and partakes in various communities through volunteerism. 

In 2016, she received the ‘One To Watch’ Alumni Award, one of the highest accolades awarded by her alma mater. In 2017, was recognized by the United Way of Greater Toronto as 1 of 3 Womxn who inspire for International Wom*n’s Day.

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I find the work you’re doing with the Ontario Children’s Advancement Coalition (OCAC) very inspiring.  What made you start this organization?

Coming to Canada as Yalpanum Thamizh peoples is already a complex narrative due to the losses, violence and grief that our communities have faced. These experiences can manifest into tensions, within homes in new countries, as well as mental health needs not being met. My mom is the strongest person I know and she raised me on her own until I was about 13. Growing up with this identity and diaspora-focused complexity was one thing, but I am also a survivor of childhood trauma and childhood sexual abuse which was never addressed adequately. This led me to needing respite from the community and my home.

At around 13, I ended up basically being raised by the West Indian community, more specifically the Guyanese Community. I was on the homelessness spectrum couch-surfing and found any reason to be out of the home, and community, because I did not feel safe in it. Shortly after I entered the child welfare system and grew up in the child welfare system. My various identities and lived expertise made me want to be a person who created waves, strengthened tides, and fueled impact in things that were, and are, problematic in the system. Since I was younger I have been involved in raising awareness, strengthening my understanding about what allyship means in different contexts in juxtaposition with diverse intersectionalities.

I would say that, from a young age, I always felt like I would be a social entrepreneur – a social impact maker. I have founded and managed/led different initiatives in child welfare, homelessness, and built credibility in these systems. Everything that I have done were steps toward eventually developing a non-profit. In 2018, the provincial government had plans to shut down the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth and this was negatively impacting multiple communities that were engaged and/or supported by this Independent office of the legislature. The negative impact included grief. As a response I messaged a couple of people, who were lived experts, to have a debrief and grieve together; another ally was doing similar and we partnered to make this happen. We ended up in the basement of a community organization and shared our grief, and then I spoke about next steps and what we could do about this. The initial group of about 15 people dwindled down to a core group of about 6 or 7, and we ended up on the lawn of the legislature for a rally.  We partnered with an allied politician and a local university to hold a press-conference in the legislature. The day was amazing. Many people showed up in the cold (it was around November) and we invited all parties to speak at the event as well. It was a show of solidarity and passion. I remember myself and two of the core team members worked through the night planning this - with myself personally having a couple of sleepless nights to plan everything.

After the event was done, we thought, “Ok, we did what we could do and we were great”. Later community members were questioning what happened to the group and at that point I thought, “OK, this needs to become something”. In 2020 we became incorporated as a non-profit and every year since 2018 we have been doing important activities, and continue to do so. This year we signed a contract with the Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services along with a partnered organization and trustee organization to do systemic work in the province of Ontario.

What are a few challenges you’ve experienced setting up the organization?

A couple of the issues that I experienced setting up the organization was the time it took, and going through the organic process of figuring out who the core members would be. Often times, for grassroots organizations, this happens organically. Once we figured this out, we needed to figure out some legal items, which we were privileged to have pro-bono legal support. Everything else after that was history. 

I noticed that in addition to the OCAC, you have a few other roles as a consultant.  Why is that?

I hold multiple hats. I have my own independent consulting and services business.  I am a public speaker delivering speaker services, workshops, and do consults regarding Diversity, Inclusion, Equity.  Additionally, I do focus on youth engagement, lived expert engagement, and consults about subjects I have expertise on re: child welfare, homelessness, etc. I am a brand. Since I was a child in elementary school, I understood that I needed to build myself into a brand. I wanted to become a name that people thought about as an innovator, leader, expert, and go-to person for different subjects. I also work at the Mosaic Institute as the Events and Outreach Coordinator where my services previously include supporting curriculum development for high school students and educators, as prsently include curating digital learning events which occur on a monthly basis around different priority topics such as trauma informed practice, anti-black racism in education, Indigenous peoples, etc. I also supervise Junior fellows who are high school students with that work. 

I serve on the Board of the Children's Aid Society of Toronto as 2nd Vice-Chair - Diversity Equity and Inclusion Board lead, a member of the Equity and Inclusion Council of the Children's Aid Foundation of Canada (CAFdn), on the board of Scarborough West Community Legal Clinic and serve on the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario’s Race-Equity Working Group, a By Youth For Youth Advisor at the Housing Outreach Project (Collaborative, and Engagement Specialist Consultant with a Making The Shift project which is in the homelessness sector). I am also an Expert In Residence with the Child Welfare League of Canada and I am also an advocate regarding childhood sexual abuse, gender based violence, and violence against wom*n – I am a survivor of all mentioned. I am the provincial representative on the National Council of Youth in Care Advocates, a Core Steering Committee member of the Canadian Lived Experience Leadership Network, and now serve on the Canadian Consortium on Child & Youth Trauma Community Advisory Committee. 

As a Tamil individual I am passionate about our beautiful community, and being engaged with our community was a goal of mine. I am an advisor to both ISEE Initiative (Tamil organization regarding Domestic Violence) and Kudai Centre (a grassroots initiative that wants to support young girls experiencing housing instability or access to respite and safety in our community). 

Beyond the above, I also do one-to-one motivational coaching, and have been a media commentator, public speaker and a long term ambassador of the Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada.

All of this work is part of my passion to be a meaningful addition to different systems.  All of my involvement are due to my own feeling of responsibility and accountability to make sure that future young people do not face the barriers, traumas, oppression, and violence that myself and others have faced. 

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Is the OCAC something that you’re able to focus on full-time?  If not - do you have plans to make this a full-time endeavour in the future?  If not - why?

When we start grassroots startups they often end up being fulltime hours, or close to full time hours while figuring out funding. I see OCAC focusing on a couple of goals and deliverables for the next little while and this would make it a part-time focus and activity based, but this is important to continue to build capacity and strengthen our foundation. Figuring out funding to continue organizational capacity building and permanency is optimal. 

I personally view social media in a positive light.  I see it as a tool that can be used for good or bad (similar to a car).  Do you agree or disagree with this statement?  What has the impact of social media been on driving the mission of your organization forward?

A lot of our impact has been done online after our Queens Park rally. A good example is last year during the pandemic when we led and facilitated townhalls to elevate the voices of key stakeholders in our communities, and subsequent events related to our annual signature event for our annual Children and Youth in Care Day, which happens annually on May 14th. Attached is an infographic that shows the outcome and audience for our events. There will always be barriers issues though when it comes to equitable access to broadband, and even the privilege to have the time and mind-frame, amid such a chaotic time in our lives, to tune into so many things online can be difficult. Not everyone has access to adequate technology, and not everyone has access to broadband around the province. Financially, it is also not cheap to be connected. So as much as it is positive for some, it may be difficult for others. One of my dreams is to have access to donated tech and to be able to provide that to young people from our vulnerable populations so that they have access to technological devices. We are not all privileged. 

What’s one goal that, if you were to accomplish it over the next three months, would feel like a big win for you?

Well last year we began our campaign to push for systemic changes in the child welfare system. This brought with it broad support from every sector in the province and across Canada. This then led us to the table with the government. In April 2021, we signed the contract to partner with the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services to better the system. The goal? Young people from the child welfare system have better outcomes while in the child welfare system and beyond the child welfare system. 

How have your family and friends supported you through your journey?  Did you have any doubters?

Family is not just biological. I am blessed to have biological family but also so many siblings from the child welfare system as well as parental figures. I have a Jamaican mom who has loved me since I was 14. I have a French mom figure and a Jewish dad figure. I had a different upbringing from most Tamil people. I am lucky to be supported by my family through the child welfare system who understand what I am doing. My biological family don’t really understand what I am doing, nor really know to be honest (Lol).  In general whether family (all definitions) or just general people, there will be people who may question your decisions.   However, I have always been a person to go where my passion takes me, and my entire journey since I was a kid has brought me to this place, and I know I will keep climbing. 

Where do you see the OCAC in the next 3-5 years?  How about yourself in the next 3-5 years? 

The activites that we do now, which are highly impactful, will continue into the next couple of years and I hope that these activities will inspire people to support in building up OCAC. 

What is a failure you’ve experienced in the last 5-10 years that you’ve learned the most from?

I wouldn’t call them failures. I have learned over time that it is important to leave things, places, and people who do not align with my goals. That is the thing, when you are attached to the vision, you flow to the right places and do not become stuck in spaces you shouldn’t be in. There is a time and place for everything, and we should all learn to know when to diplomatically say good bye. This is professional spaces and personal spaces. 

Who is one person from the global Tamil community and one person that isn’t Tamil that you admire and why?

My Tamil mom. Even though we have our differences, she is the strongest wom*n I know. Her relentlessness as a single wom*n, who left an abusive husband while I was in her stomach, is something that I admire. Her tenacity to navigate things on her own, who worked so hard to provide me with experiences and opportunities, and her heart for helping others – I see a lot of her in me. 

My Jamaican mom. She taught me that I am worthy of being loved, and in the most meaningful way. My biological mother showed me love through her relentlessness, however due to her own life experiences, she didn’t have the capacity to show me emotional love. My Jamaican mom Sophie showed me what emotional love was, the love that I craved for and needed - as every child deserves and needs. 

Love and meaningful/adequate support as children frame the foundation for the rest of our lives, and I am lucky to have both of these remarkable wom*n in my life.

In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?

I want to be remembered as a passionate person who stood up for what was right and not settling for the status quo, or what was easy. A passionate wom*n who went for what she wanted, and made them happen despite the many barriers that she faced. She went from experiencing suicidality in grade 5 to homelessness, to child welfare to experiencing violent relationships…to still somehow come up above the water. I want to be remembered as a person who made the right rumbles and who was a social innovator and leader, who had community minded goals for better outcomes and a better world in general. 

What do you think you would tell 16-year Cheyanne looking back?

I would tell 16 year old Chey that all those things I experienced that almost killed her, multiple times, would never be strong enough to hold her down, and that she would be a wom*n whose footsteps made the devil afraid to try her… because she is a beautiful storm to be reckoned with. 

What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?

I generally love the Red Table Talk. It is so important to be engaged in critical conversations that contextualize social issues and make taboo topics focal points. They are needed to break stigma and engage in reflexive practices that make us question our own thoughts and norms. As a person engaged in attacking stigmas, I love listening to things that are in line with my mind-frame, they offer regurgitations of issues that you are passionate about, and they also provide new perspectives. 

What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?

I started to jog in 2020 before the pandemic and it is something that clears my mind every morning and puts an oomph into my day. I do my best thinking on the move. It is also time I use to speak to the Creator/Universe and set my intentions, express gratitude, and just have dialogue with the universe. I believe energies play a huge role in our lives, and I have seen this impact. Being connected to the universe, and starting my day with a positive activity sets the tone for the rest of the day. This also, I believe, has influenced my trajectory and opportunities. 

If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?

First and foremost as a settler on Indigenous land, and as someone who has been privileged to find home in Canada, I need to ground this question in the truth that many indigenous communities do not experience the privileges that even newcomers experience. In Canada, much like back home, and us being native to the north and east, Indigenous people experience similar land issues and other issues. In a privileged country, many Indigenous communities do not have access to water. I would actually use that 1 billion dollars to allocate the money to indigenous communities. When allocated, this can even create jobs that would be needed to solve the issue. I don’t even think 1 billion would be enough to fix the issue, but it would be a start – I would also challenge the government to match the amount. 

How would you describe the impact that the Tamil community in Toronto has had on your personally and your business?

I don’t know if I should answer this as trauma experienced in the community led me to the child welfare system. And the Tamil community doesn’t really support it because they don’t know much about it. I wish I had more support from the Tamil community as a person who is a leader doing good work outside the Tamil community. 

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?

Katharikai poricha kulumbu with fresh kulal puttu with thengai 

Mutton roll, mutton curry, mutton cutlet, mutton everything.

I actually love Kovil cook-up rice as well lol. 

What is your favourite Tamil movie?

The earliest movie I remember is Bombay (great Mani Ratnam film). As a kid, I remembered I liked the movie because it made me cry. And it made me ask questions about things in the movie to expand my understanding, about the context of the movie and the characters within it. I also love the soundtrack. 

What does Tamil culture mean to you?

Tamil culture means diverse people on a spectrum of what Tamilness is, who appreciate the colours, the rich ancient language and ancestry of our people. We come from the oldest civilization – Tamil civilization, much like the black civilization, and it is something to be proud of. I had to re-learn Tamil culture after being away from the community.  My love for my people and community started with learning to cook the food, and even learning the science behind our food. Learning to love my Tamil people was also learning about the rich history of our language, our art, our jewellery, our native practices. Tamil culture means that I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams, and knowing that I come from strong warrior ancestral lineage of people who refused to be silenced and erased. 

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