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From modelling to magazines, Jessica Bowden has been a lifelong teen role model

The publisher of 'Teens Now Talk' has spent decades working to empower teens — and has a raft of accolades to prove it
Jessica Bowden is the publisher of Teens Now Talk Magazine, a Maritime-based publication written "by teens, for teens."

Jessica Bowden might be the most accomplished Haligonian you’ve (probably) never heard of.

She’s a recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal, awarded to her by former governor-general David Johnston; the governor-general before that, Michaëlle Jean, awarded her the Hope, Success and Empowerment Award, the first African Nova Scotian to do so. Tack that on to a list of other accolades: the HRM Volunteer Award, an induction into the Black Cultural Centre and a place on its Wall of Honour and the 2011 Haliward winner.

She’s been one of the top models in Canada — the list really does go on.

The accolades stem from her many years working with teenagers, most prominently as the publisher of Teens Now Talk magazine — a Maritime-published magazine that’s written by teens, for teens.

“Our students, they are the writers,” she says. “We have close to maybe 50 or 60 students that write the magazine every quarter.”

In its nearly 15-year history, they’ve published thousands and thousands of teenagers, writing on topics that matter to them.

“They write, but they have no place to put it,” she says. “If you wrote poems, stories or short stories, there’s no place to put them.”

But at Teens Now Talk, that sort of work has a home and an audience of other teenagers.

Bowden’s work with teens started at the tail end of her modelling career — “my bread and butter,” Bowden says now — while she was giving a talk to students at a Cole Harbour high school. She’d injured her leg a few years earlier, which had let her shift into public speaking, but was scuttling her modelling career.

“It was really, really weird for me to sit there and talk about Career Day, while I’m watching mine fall apart,” she recalls. “The more I talked to them, the madder I was getting because I’m realizing that my world’s falling apart. So when I asked them, 'What is it you want to do?' They just started talking over each other. You couldn’t hear them at all, it was like a bunch of chickens in a room.

“So in two or three minutes, I went to the microphone and they started to calm down. I said, ‘You know something? no wonder no one knows what you want, because no one can hear you. We gotta find a way for people to hear you, for people to understand who you are.'"

One thing led to another, and that started the process that would lead Teens Now Talk to start publishing in 2007.

It has been publishing ever since; thousands of writers on countless topics that affect teens.

“I’m the conductor,” she says, but the teens are really guiding the magazine. “One of the guidelines is very simple: what you write about, what you bring to the table, must empower, impact and give credit to more than just yourself.”

Like a free journalism-school education, she helps connect the kids with experts to weigh in on important subjects. And forget any ideas you have of the magazine being full of stereotypical teen stuff.

“They’re talking about education and things that they are living themselves — racism, sexism," she says. "We had one young guy who was coming out, and he was terrified at how he would do that. So he wrote a poem, and he was able to see just how his words helped others.”

It has led her into a world where she is a role model for teenagers, especially from the African Nova Scotian community around Mulgrave Park, her old stomping ground. She remembers being told that investing her time in the kids there was a waste.

“They were telling me about these kids in this community who weren’t going to amount to anything, so why bother investing your time into them?” she says. “That’s when I looked at that person, right smack in the face, and said, ‘Listen. You’re talking about me. I’m from here.’”

These sorts of things still exist out there for teenagers.

“Poverty, racism, labelling, stigmatism, you name it — these are all things we had to deal with as kids,” she says. “They morph, you know, they become a chameleon, they take on the climate of fear at the moment in time.

“It’s one of those things where you look at it and say, 'How do you make a change? How do you make a difference?'" she says. “Going back from living in Mulgrave Park, to this very day, the same message is there: 'be the change.' So for me, I understand these youth when we talk.”

And it hardly seems like she’s interested in slowing down just yet. The magazine is still used in schools.

“We’ll drop off bundles at each school,” she says. They create and post videos — fun stuff, but also things on current events. “The magazine itself morphed into just having fun, while still having a magazine."

There is probably more official praise in her future, and while she’s typically modest about them, she sees it as important to offer a kind of role-model-ship.

“The youth see it, and at least they know: they can follow in those footprints," she says. "That’s the key.”

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