On March 26-27, 2015 the Edmonton-based Boyle Street Education Centre (BSEC) Charter School played host to 2K15 Youth 4 YEG Forum, an initiative organized by about a dozen Youth for YEG leaders at the University of Alberta (UA). The two day event, led by Dr. Yoshitaka Iwasaki, a UA Professor and the Associate Dean of Research in the institute’s Faculty of Extension, attracted youth from across the region.
“This is actually our third conference,” explained one of the originating members of the group, 20 year old Tania Ymbi. “This forum is part of our youth engagement participatory action research project (PAR), an initiative that utilizes a youth-informed and strengths-based approach to engaging and developing youth.”
The goal of the group is to “inspire and motivate today’s youth by creating enhanced communities through relationships in a fun, inclusive and safe environment that allows youth to achieve obtainable goals.”
“This forum,” explained Ymbi, “was specifically developed to bring youth and community members together for the purpose of bridging gaps to address the challenges of promoting success among our youth.”
The sessions, which took place both days from 8:50 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. focussed on two main topics: ‘finding your voice’ and ‘transferable skills.’ The sessions, were presented by a slate of motivational speakers that included, among others, Carolyn Davies, Taro Hashimoto, Sahr Saffa, Miriam Sekandi, Ahmed Knowmadic, and Roxanne Felix-Mah, the Project Manager for the Alberta Centre for Child, Family and Community Research, and the co-author of the anthology, Women of the Apocalypse.
Each session was followed by a sharing circle dialogue that encouraged engagement from forum participants.
“Finding Your Voice,” explained Ymbi, “involves the building of self-awareness among youth. The sessions included stories by youth who shared their own experiences with special focus on such things as inspiration, advocacy and social change. The main focus was on building self-esteem and promoting social change – such as addressing oppression, inequity and social inclusion. The sessions also focused on the sharing of stories that helped to create a turning point – from negative to positive – in a youth’s life.
“The Transferable Skills session involved transferring and applying youths’ skills to educational, career/employment and other life opportunities in both a constructive and positive way. The afternoon sessions focussed on hands-on applications that included interactive sessions with talented youth performers such as musicians, dancers, singers, artists and hypnotists. Each session was once again designed to inspire and engage forum participants.”
The BSEC Charter School, which teaches Grades 11 and 12, has a full complement of 140 students this year. The school employs about 20 staff members and offers a modified program for knowledge employability for students 14 to 19 years of age. A publicly funded high school, BSEC utilizes the Alberta curriculum and operates under the guideline of the Public School system. Other than scholastic programs the school also offers training in areas that include welding, woodwork, cosmetology, culinary arts, fashion and textile, small engine repair, music and traditional and digital art.
“The Finding Our Voice Health and Wellness Conference is a yearly event,” explained BSEC Vice Principal Mavis Averill. “This is the first year that we have partnered with the University of Alberta through the Youth for YEG initiative.”
BSEC is an inner city high school that works with high risk youth engaging them back into their education. The school works with students who have previously been out of school and are returning to try again at reaching their goals.
“All students are welcome if we can provide a program for them and if they have been out of school prior to attending our school,” added Averill. “Our school is a supportive, friendly and welcoming place and we build strong bonds with our students so that they feel they have a safe place to be connected. The staff work towards engaging the youth in meaningful and flexible school lessons as well as supplying extensive supports for emotional and behavioural growth. Each year the school has a Wellness Conference to bring new ideas and topics to the students.”
The Youth 4 YEG team began planning the March Forum in late September last year .
“The purpose of the forum and our main goal was to use the framework we had created to guide us through our vision for this conference,” explained Ymbi. “The 12-page framework came about as a result of our group meeting with the various agencies and organizations that deal with youth and discussing with them just what they’d like to see implemented in their particular youth agendas.”
The groups, consulted by the UA’s Youth Leaders, included the Centre for Race and Culture, Youth Clubs, iHuman and Boys and Girls Club of Edmonton.
“We met with the groups to get their feedback so that we could come up with ideas and initiatives that complement what they are doing to empower youth, to motivate youth and to encourage youth to make a positive difference in their respective communities,” explained Ymbi.
“One of the things that our group, the Youth for YEG leaders at the University of Alberta wants to see, is youth empowering youth to make an earnest effort to realize their full potential. As young people we often have things handed to us, too often the expectations of others is too lax and we can become lazy, unmotivated and satisfied with what we can achieve without much effort. These types of attitudes can lead youth down a pathway they’d really rather not be a part of; by participating, by volunteering, by working with others in their communities, youth can make a difference, a very positive difference not just within their families and communities but within themselves as well.”
Dr, Yoshitaka Iwasaki holds a doctorate in recreation and leisure studies within applied health sciences from the University of Waterloo, Ontario. He has more than seventeen years of experience in cross-cultural and inclusive community engagement, research, and capacity-building. His areas of expertise include “culture, diversity, and community engagement; active living and quality of life and participatory action research (PAR) and capacity-building. Using a social ecological, meaning-oriented, and strengths-based framework, his partnership-guided research honours and highlights people’s voices and mobilizes them into actions for improving their communities and systems and providing better support.
“I certainly do not want any credit for what the Youth 4 YEG leaders are accomplishing with their fellow youth across the region,” he stated. “All of the credit must go to those who come to the weekly (Friday) meetings to converse and share their ideas and stories. This initiative, this conference or forum is a community-based, youth-driven initiative that has developed out of a sincere desire by these youth leaders who want to help other youth understand the importance of empowerment and participation. They want to build a better future, a better society and stronger communities for everyone. These are tomorrow’s leaders and I am very proud to be working with them and helping to guide them into a meaningful future.”
Dr. Iwasaki has led or co-led research teams working with a number of population groups in Canada, the United States, and New Zealand. These include Indigenous peoples, gay/lesbian individuals, cultural minorities with disabilities such as mental illness, and “high-risk, marginalized” youth. His emerging research focuses on youth engagement and development with a goal of better supporting youth and families. His team is conducting youth-oriented and community-based participatory action research (PAR) to engage and work with youth living in high-risk, marginalized conditions. These conditions include poverty, homelessness, social exclusion, abusive behaviours, mental health issues, and racism and other forms of discrimination. This research involves the strategic use of youth leadership (especially, the role of youth leaders as a “driver” of research in guiding the trajectory of research) to engage and inspire broader youth groups. This youth-driven research aims to facilitate social system change and more effectively support optimal youth development.
When the Youth 4 YEG leaders decided they wanted to hold a forum that would include youth from across the region they sought “a safe and caring environment” and contacted BSEC Principal Scott Meunier.
“We’ve always had a good relationship with the school and Principal Meunier was very supportive of the idea,” explained Iwasaki, who noted that the school brought in several guest speakers for the first day of the conference, with the youth leader lining up the guests for day two. “There were some very knowledgeable speakers and outstanding performers and our youth leaders once again did a remarkable job. Networking, inspiring and building new relationships – it was an outstanding forum.”
“Our aim for the youth forum,” noted Principal Meunier, “was to inspire and motivate today’s youth in a fun and inclusive environment. The forum heard from several interesting and knowledgeable speakers, various performers and even a professional jiu jitsu team who performed an exhibition that put the spotlight on the effort and determination it takes to succeed and to become a champion of the sport. We hope to host this event again in the future; it was indeed an inspiring event that we hope will encourage even more youth participants the next time around.”
by John Copley