Front cover of the report, Black woman with icons forming and afro

A visionary report by Black youth in Ontario’s systems of care



Through the HairStory initiative, Black youth in “in the system” are putting forward a shared vision of an equitable future — one that is dignified, humane, supportive, and just. Read the full report here


Graphic: Front cover of the report, Black woman with icons forming and afro
Front cover of the report. Photo by Zahra Agjee
Front cover of the report, Black woman with icons forming and afro
Front cover of the report. Photo by Zahra Agjee

It started with hair. The Office of the Ontario Child Advocate (OCA) noticed that they were receiving numerous calls related to hair from Black youth and service providers in various systems of “care.” Systems of care in Ontario include child welfare, mental health, and youth justice. The calls revealed that many service providers lacked basic knowledge about caring for Black hair, and that youth “in the system” felt cut off from access to hair care.

The calls pointed to broader systemic issues these young people were experiencing. They spoke to the lack of dignity Black youth were feeling inside of these systems, to the fact that service providers were not coming from the communities they were serving, and to the racial and cultural discrimination faced by Black youth in care. This led to the formation of OCA’s HairStory initiative.

In the fall of 2016, 130 Black youth from across Ontario gathered in Toronto to share their experiences living in the province’s systems of care. The HairStory forum participants spoke passionately to decision-makers about the injustices they had lived and witnessed, but also about the changes they wanted to see in the systems so that those younger than they would not have to live through the same experiences.

The HairStory forum resulted in numerous policy recommendations, which would then be compiled into a report co-written by an advisory made up of forum participants. Just as Black youth determined what the report should say, we worked with them to bring about their vision of what it should look like.

Back cover of report, 9 icons in a circle. In order clockwise; crown, diamond, wing, finger print, tree, candle, heart, star, and rose
Back cover of the report. Photo by Zahra Agjee

Co-designing artwork through iteration and storytelling

The design concept selected by the HairStory advisory featured a woman with an Afro made up of images of hair care tools. The youth however wanted to incorporate symbols that related to their experiences beyond hair.

Concept sketch of a Black woman with hair tools forming an afro
Initial concept sketch for HairStory.

For the next iteration of the concept, we used co-design facilitation methods we had developed for the Vision Archive, a library of visionary social justice icons. The intention was for the advisors to create a set of icons that represented their visions of the future. These icons would then replace the hair care tools in the original concept.

The Vision Archive workshop begins with a storytelling prompt. For HairStory, we asked the advisors to pair up and tell each other about a time when they spoke up and felt their voice was heard. They were then asked to identify common themes that their stories shared, and to come up with ideas for images that represented those themes. Due to strict time limits for these exercises, there is no time for self-critique. Everyone — including those who expressed that they “don’t draw” — participated in image-making.

Youth sketches on persistence
Youth sketch.
Sketch of crown with symbols
Youth sketch.
Youth sketch of Black girl magic
Youth sketch.

The images that came out of the workshop related to shared themes of persistence, speaking up, understanding, inspiration, sensitivity, and strong values. The symbols they chose to represent those themes were a candle, heart, wing, tree, rose, diamond, crown, fingerprint, and compass point.

We then worked with Philadelphia-based artist LaShawnna Simon to bring the concept and the new visual language to life.

Exploration sketches of the cover and sketches of icons rose, star, tree and wing
LaShawnna Simon’s iterations of the cover artwork
Sketch and digital iterations of Black woman with icons forming and afro
LaShawnna Simon’s iterations of the cover artwork

One of the design justice principles that was affirmed by this project speaks to the fact that change happens through the process of designing together; not at the moment a design is completed and released into the world. With each iteration of the design, the young people saw their voices reflected in its evolution. We witnessed a growing feeling of ownership over the design and the initiative as a whole. And indeed, the design was all of ours, because we had made it together.

The original concept was made much stronger through collaboration with young people who had direct experience of the issues the design was addressing. There is a parallel here between the design process and advocacy — that by listening to and amplifying the voices of youth, the result is more relevant, more just, and more beautiful.

Hairstory — Rooted: A Firm Foundation for the Future of Black Youth in Ontario’s Systems of Care was released March 20th to government, policymakers, community leaders, service organizations and youth in Ontario. Read the report and learn more about HairStory at @beyondourhair

View the report on
Download PDF here.

Graphic: Front cover of the report, Black woman with icons forming and afro
Photo: Table of contents and youth and staff holding hands
Spread from the report of a web from quotes of what young people say about the systems
Graphic: Inside spread of culture identity and spirituality with icon of a crown on the left. On the right poem from youth participant.
Inside spread of
Inside spread of Culture Identity and Spirituality section.