Inclusion campaign helps students find their voice
Young adults in Edmonton who started out with the goal of promoting diversity among their younger peers surprised themselves last year, when their efforts inevitably empowered younger students to work for change within their school communities. Over the summer of 2013, organizers gathered a group of a dozen young adults aged 18 to 30 at the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights to promote interfaith dialogue. They spent the summer engaging in discussion about diversity, religion and hate. After attending the Global Youth Assembly in August 2013, the group worked to plan a two-day Peace Summit for older elementary school students in the 10- to 12-year-old range, which would be funded by the City of Edmonton's Ounce of Prevention program, facilitated by REACH Edmonton. The summit was planned to focus on peace building and compassion in schools with space for 66 students to attend. Organizers reached out to 13 area Catholic and Public schools and was overwhelmed by the response. Though there was only space for 66 students, more than 250 wanted to participate. Throughout the discussions at the forum, students were able to voice their concerns about the community and given the tools to act on the concerns they had. After the forum, the children involved were offered continued support in creating their action plans as well as ongoing coaching and mentoring. "It's been pretty incredible," said Renee Vaugeios, Executive Director of the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights. "The biggest impact they had was a sense of agency in their school and community: the feeling that they could do something, they had the voice and the right to speak up." "They see their voices are really valuable, they're just uncertain about how to go about it," said Vaugeios. "So we take them through the process of transforming their schools. Teach them how to plan their next steps to create change." Some of these children, inspired by the forum, organized their own student council to address social issues within the student community. The forum itself highlighted the need for more engagement among older elementary students. "We saw the need before but what really shocked us was the demand from elementary schools," said Vaugeios. "There are lots of programs like this for high school students but there is a real need in elementary schools. They're craving opportunities to engage their students in meaningful opportunities." Organizers were surprised by the quality of the coversations the preteens were having during the forum. Students themselves directed the discussion towards tough issues like acceptance of sexual orientation and their feelings that as students they were not being heard. Vageios said the event, and the support that was offered afterward, is important prevention work in Edmonton that enables these youth to feel connected and empowered in their communities at a young age. This approach works to prevent these preteens from becoming isolated and at-risk in their later teen years. "There is a real desire in these young kids to have a say," said Vageios, "but before this event they didn't feel that they could."