By Yasmeen Aslam

The sun has set and the hanging chandelier lights illuminate a soft glow throughout Studio.89. Snow lightly falls outside the large windows. Groups of people slowly trickle in as the soft ring of wind chimes at the door indicate their arrival to the café’s monthly Open Mic Night. 

The aroma of coffee greets everyone who enters, along with a cheerful ‘hi’ from the baristas behind the counter. Light blue colour paints the walls and a big blackboard displays the words ‘Welcome to your Community Space,’ as drawings of golden birds surround the phrase The knocking of the espresso filter is heard as people converse.

Studio.89 is about more than just coffee and Open Mic Nights — it is a space that works to empower youth in the community. 

It’s 7:30 p.m. on a Friday and the Open Mic performances are about to begin. Spoken word and singing performances draw cheers from the audience, who shout out phrases of approval. 

Open Mic Night is Cathy Tran’s favourite event at Studio.89. Tran is a volunteer turned employee at the café and she comes to the event every month. One of her favourite performances was of a ten-year-old girl, who sang and played the piano. 

“It’s so crazy to see in your community these talents,” Tran says excitedly. “But they’re not celebrities.”

Tran has been at Studio.89 for two years. She finished her high school volunteer hours and decided she wanted to get more involved with volunteer work. After learning about Studio.89, she started volunteering in the kitchen and became an employee after a couple of months. She loves working here so much that she even comes in on her days off. 

More than just a café

The café is unique as it only employs youth. Maleeha Baig, one of two program managers, makes sure youth are given resources that will help them with their future careers.

Workplace Ready is one of the programs she manages. It gives youth the experience they need to prepare for future jobs. 

“They’ll get free bussing to come here. They get a free kitchen handling certificate, which normally costs 60 to 70 dollars,” Baig says. “We also do resumé and cover letter training.”

Baig helps them with handling things in the kitchen as well as managing events and preparing catering orders.

She enjoys working with youth and believes the stereotypes placed upon them are unfair. “A lot of people say ‘oh, I hate teenagers, or like they’re just entitled or millennials or gen z’s or whatever,’” says Baig. “I see them as super, amazing [and] really invested in their future.”

Maleeha Baig discusses the café’s goals and how it works to include and empower youth in the community.

Starting from the beginning

Studio.89’s focus on youth stems from its origin in 2006 when it was started by a group of students. 

High school student Zehra Abbas was sitting with her younger sister and her friends, having a conversation about the passion among youth in addressing social justice issues and the lack of outlets to act upon these issues. It prompted Abbas to create an organization called Youth Troopers for Global Awareness (YTGA). 

YTGA hosted poetry and spoken word performances addressing serious issues in the community, such as human trafficking, racism, and mental health disorders. Realizing there wasn’t a free space in Mississauga for youth to meet up to use their skills towards these social justice issues, they created the idea of Studio.89. 

Abbas, along with the other members of YTGA, worked hard receiving grants and sponsorships to open the café. Abbas and her team helped build the space themselves during the winter time, wearing double scarves and socks in the heatless space. A young man saw the space under construction and brought his friends to help build cabinets and shelves. The building of this space was a community and team effort. 

“Studio.89 is a labour of love and a labour of love from the community,” Abbas says. 

Studio.89 opened its doors to the community in 2014. After six years of running Studio.89, Abbas’ life has changed in a positive way. She has met many wonderful youth who are equally passionate about social justice. 

“It’s so wonderful for me to meet all these inspiring individuals that just want to help their community, grow their community in all the right ways and impact change,” says Abbas. “I think that’s been incredibly reassuring.”

The Youth Social Justice Team

Youth are able to get involved in social justice initiatives by joining the Youth Social Justice Team. The team was formed at Studio.89 and they invite high school students to join the group. Libin Mohamed is the second program manager and she helps run the team.

“The Youth Social Justice Team is carrying the torch [for YTGA] in the sense of helping us with social justice programming, arts based programming,” Mohamed says with a smile. “The way that we provide opportunities is giving them this experience of program planning.”

On a Saturday morning, the team sits around a rectangular black table, laptops in front of them, while Mohamed sits at the head of the table. She recaps their recent workshop, held at the University of Toronto Mississauga, called ‘Civics and Careers: Reimagined.’ She asks the group for their opinions on what can be done next time. 

“Civics and Careers is all about providing access to youth in their position that also have questions about their future career path, how to deal with finances, how to do campus living or commuting, like having that decision,” Mohamed says. 

She asks if anyone is willing to be a public speaker for their next workshop. Madelaine Cristobal, a grade 11 student, raises her hand and agrees to take on the role. 

Cristobal heard about Studio.89 through her school. Being passionate about social justice and wanting to step out of her comfort zone, she joined the Youth Social Justice Team. She has also found it has changed her life for the better. 

“[It helped by] building my communication skills, meeting new people, and expanding my knowledge on different issues,” she says. 

Looking at the future

Studio.89’s future involves a lot of growth. They are planning to open two new locations, including one later this year. The goal for these new locations is to continue to make a difference among the lives of youth in Mississauga. 

Like the many youth who’ve benefitted from Studio.89, Tran credits the café for giving her a chance and opening her eyes to the real world.

“I really didn’t know what social justice meant. I didn’t know what being eco-friendly meant,” Tran recalls. “When I started volunteering here I started being more globally conscious. I got out of a small bubble that only had me in it.”

Leave a Reply