4 min

Teaching tomorrow’s leaders

Helping kids learn to advocate for themselves and each other

Each day I go into work and sit in a circle with world leaders. It’s profound, challenging and life changing work.

Some days, either in triumph or exhaustion, I come home and cry. They’re tough negotiators these 11-15 year olds. They have their own unique understanding of power and privilege and how attention gets distributed.

As the school year comes to a close, I reflect on the world these kids will inherit and how this next generation will awaken from its collective oppression.

Several years ago, a small group of Salt Spring Island women stood up against a brutal act of violence toward a mother and her child. They insisted we act against domestic terrorism. Salt Spring Women Opposed to Violence and Abuse (SWOVA) knew that to make a cultural shift in our society, the face of violence needed to be recognized early on in a child’s social education.

Six years ago, well before any BC Safe Schools bill, SWOVA initiated the Respectful Relationship Program. Now a nationally and internationally lauded curriculum, it makes healthy changes happen.

Every year, students in Grades 7, 8, 9 and 10 participate in a 12-session curriculum. The feedback has been phenomenal. These kids grapple with the social viruses of sexism, racism and homophobia at levels that might put most university programs to shame.

Together we build stronger, healthier social immune systems that recognize and repel the ills of the world.

We begin by sitting in a circle. When asked why we do so, the kids respond by saying that it demonstrates equality where we can actually see and hear one another better, and that everyone’s opinions matter.

Each child then writes out her/his goals and dreams. We then introduce experiential activities designed to deepen concepts of personal boundaries, empathy and creative conflict and communication skills.

We deconstruct the influence of media and how stereotypes perpetuate violence. We role-play scenes where, in one case, a young girl spreads rumours about her former friend who might be a lesbian.

These kids become advocates for the queer community and each other very quickly.

When asked whether they thought the over-used term “that’s so gay” is violent when describing someone’s T-shirt, an overwhelming majority of the kids said yes.

These kids begin to comprehend that language affects the climate of intolerance and abuse. They begin to understand that by protecting one another’s rights, they then possess the skills to champion their own goals and dreams.

As a facilitator, I come out to them immediately after I introduce myself. We state at the top of each program that we will not assume everyone in the class is straight-identified. We even role-play same-sex scenes.

The kids occasionally choose to do the same. We don’t indoctrinate; we listen, we question and we encourage them to challenge us.

Then we witness a small cultural transformation. It’s as simple and as complex as inviting them to consider the idea of being themselves.

When we respect youth–not as institutionalized seat-bound students but as active, young, global citizens–they demonstrate a maturity seemingly beyond their years.

They articulate what kind of adults and parents they would like to become. They name world problems and imagine what kind of super power they would need to change them. They begin to thaw out from the predominant worldview that the upper class, middle aged, straight, white, healthy male is superior to the rest of the planet.

And if a child represents that particular demographic, we invite him to consider how his privilege can benefit others as well as himself.

We invite them all to think critically, to discern the box society wants them to hide inside and pretend to enjoy. The jolt awake comes when these youth can identify and express their feelings as a source of personal authority–a skill that many of our own generation have yet to achieve.

Two of the 12 sessions are gender separate. When asked, “What does it mean to be a girl/boy? How do girls and boys get stereotyped? What does a healthy relationship look and feel like? How do we identify the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship?” their responses are telling of the pressures under which these kids live.

The girls unravel the enormous social weight and soul aching of body image. Christina Antonick, my amazing co-facilitator and a tireless youth activist, assists these young women to recognize how sexism becomes internalized and entrenched in how they perceive themselves.

Many young women safely experience for the first time what might be called the anger of awakening. While society evolves it has a long way to go before gender equality truly exists. These girls learn to self-advocate.

Boys talk about sex (erroneously imagining girls don’t). The program doesn’t promote celibacy or sexual activity. It supports their diverse philosophies and religious beliefs.

We won’t shy away from talking about anything, provided it is done respectfully. Together we examine objectification and desensitization of ourselves as males and particularly of women. We chat about how learning to dance and cook a good meal goes a long way en route to a successful date.

If the guys get all yahoo about sex, I follow their lead but counter it with, “What about the idea of learning to become a good lover?”

On the heels of their horniness I suggest that quality lovemaking is not a skill with which most of us arrive naturally gifted; that in fact, like any muscle, it takes practice, patience and sensitivity to get good at it. Their boyish blank faces are worth the price of such an admission.

We approach this work with an open heart and curious mind. We can’t pretend to understand these kids or the world they struggle with at home or at school. A space can be made for their stories and experiences to become the medicine-making of the future.

As an educator and artist of 23 years I am proud to say that in their classroom the teacher is the real learner.