By Jenny Stewart
Darley Polony sits in her office splashed with posters, photos, and artwork that tell stories of her work with, and passion for youth. She radiates enthusiasm for life and change. The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Darley is thankful that her parents chose to raise their family in Canada and in Montreal in particular. She loves the city’s diversity and opportunities.
Darley matured at a young age when she lost both parents and subsequently became her siblings’ legal guardian. In late adolescence, while tutoring youth at Dawson Boys and Girls Club, her mentor/supervisor took a chance on her and recommended Darley become involved in the teen program.
At that time, she worked with youth in an impoverished, mostly English-speaking, straight, white neighborhood. She accepted the challenge of bringing a new perspective by proving she was there for these kids – despite cultural differences and her Francophone accent. It wasn’t always easy. “When I started working here… there were not that many people who looked like me.” She admits to initially being the recipient of verbal abuse, but over time the youth responded to her. She gives an example of how things changed over the years.
“I had a youth who apologized to me about one year ago. I’d known him since he was 11. When he was 22- or 23-years-old he said to me, “I apologize.” He said, “Darley, let me just say, all ignorance – it’s gone – sincerely, I apologize, from the bottom of my heart, I apologize. If it wasn’t for Dawson, if it wasn’t for you, if it wasn’t for the teen program, for the teen staff, I don’t know where I would be… I know I gave you a hard time.” I was like, ‘thank you; but you were forgiven way before now.’”
Darley became involved with Equitas in 2009, and this changed how she perceived herself in the world. “When you’re dealing with Equitas, it brings it out of you that it’s okay to say… yes, I’m not from here; this [Canada] is my adopted country, and I am a proud immigrant. Being different is just a beautiful thing.”
Credited with the inauguration of the Dawson Girls Group, she recognized the need to do more; Equitas’ Young Women, Young Leaders (YWYL) program was the perfect next step. Their goal, to effect change within Dawson and throughout the neighborhood, led Darley on a journey of empowerment. She brought her message to Montreal’s Sud-Ouest communities, encouraged participation in Dawson programs, and gave young women the opportunities and role modelling required to gain confidence and leadership skills. The program was life-changing for her and the young women involved! Darley tells a success story of one girl, ordinarily very shy and nervous about public speaking, who stepped up and attended an Equitas meeting on Darley’s behalf. She returned from the workshop and said, “Darley, you changed my life,” and I said, “no I didn’t change your life, you changed your life; I just gave you an opportunity through Equitas to step outside of your comfort zone.”
Now, as Dawson’s Education Program Manager, every program Darley touches has a human rights component. Darley oversees the Raising the Grade program, which provides academic support while attempting to bridge home and school life. Many youths at the centre know first-hand the challenges of addiction, physical, mental and emotional violence, as well as poverty. Darley’s involvement with youth and their families give them the security of knowing there’s always someone there for them.
Seeing herself as a “citizen of the world”, Darley believes human rights education is vitally important. She encourages youth to celebrate their differences: backgrounds, nationalities, religions, belief systems, and to accept others. Darley’s involvement with Equitas’ Speaking Rights program produced youth ambassadors who advocate against discrimination and encourage respect for diversity. “The ripple effect in the community is what life is all about,” says Darley. She now understands what her mother meant when she said, “if you are not of service, then you are not fulfilling your role as a human being.”
Darley’s vision for her future? “Whatever comes next… all I want to do is empower – through arts or culture or education. I will always work with Equitas. Always.”