by John Copley
(ANNews) – Community, discovery, sharing, fun, adventure, uplifting, friendship, enlightenment, safe, and personal growth are descriptors for the Junior Journeys Cultural Exchange Program adopted and adapted this year by Jasper Place (JP) High School in Edmonton, Alberta.
“The Junior Journeys Cultural Exchange Program (JJCEP) is part of JP High School’s partnership initiative with junior high schools located throughout Edmonton’s west end,” explained JP Journeys Program Coordinator, Taylor Rubin. “As a former participant of the Journeys program I am very excited to be one of those coordinating and facilitating the program here at Jasper Place High.”
The year-long program connects Grade 9 students who have self-identified as being First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, enrolled at west Edmonton junior high schools, to JP High through after-school, bi-monthly sessions. JJCEP got underway in November this year and takes place every second Thursday afternoon between 2 and 4:30 pm; it continues until May 2016.
“JJCEP is an individualized opportunity for students to engage in a participant-directed, cultural exchange process that focuses on personal growth as well as local community awareness and engagement,” noted Rubin. “Students learn about clubs, programs and resources available at JP and connect with students and staff, including our Aboriginal Cultural Liaison, Lyle Tootoosis.”
The program brings youth together to learn about one another as they share stories about their cultures, their ideas and their experiences.
“The bi-monthly sessions at Jasper Place High utilize the Sacred Circle as a guide in creating youth-directed activity sessions, which explore physical, spiritual, mental and emotional reflections of culture,” noted Rubin. “The purpose of this approach is to strive towards balance and resiliency in life through cultural experiences and to thrive in all aspects of their lives. Through Journeys we explore aspects of culture and identity through activities including a tour of JP, performances, smudging ceremonies, storytelling, bannock-making, improvisation and more.”
The ideas or subject matter for the program sessions come from both staff and students; the only criterion is that each session must be fruitful when it comes to learning.
“The idea of the program is to learn and grow, and as such everything we do is designed to enhance knowledge and increase awareness,” explained Lyle Tootoosis. “The program sessions are thought out in advance; for example, I am putting together a program for March 2016 that will introduce a round dance and powwow presentation to the group. Students will hear from guest speakers who will explain the various dances and why they are important to our culture. Professional dancers will also join us to demonstrate their skills and speak to the students about the significance of music and dance within the Aboriginal community.”
The Journeys initiative got its start in 2004 when a call came from community members concerned about the numbers of homeless youth in the province’s Capital Region. A pilot project between the University of Alberta and Native Counselling Services was launched to look at the situation and to devise a plan of action to combat the disparities between Aboriginal youth and their non-Aboriginal peers. The program has changed both its name and its perspective over the years but the overall goals remain the same.
“The Journeys Program is founded upon rotational and shared leadership processes which nurture and explore the cultural identities of youth from both traditional and contemporary perspectives,” explained Patricia Robbins, Executive Director of the Journeys Cultural Exchange Program and the first facilitator of what was then (2007) an outreach program known as Links. Their mission statement is to ‘provide diverse youth participants with an opportunity to learn about each other’s culture through a multi-faceted process which focuses on personal growth, education, and community engagement.’ Culture is defined as ‘the interconnected nature of the social, physical, and spiritual environments, which are informed by experience and defined by the individual.’
Jasper Place High is currently the only school in Edmonton participating in the initiative but work is underway to add more schools throughout the city to the program.
“The concept of the “journey” has particular relevance for today’s youth,” noted Robbins, “especially those who have experienced “at risk” lifestyles, as they often struggle in their search to find a deeper understanding of self, as well as a connection to the community in which marginalization can be a common experience. Journeys is a time of discovery that brings youth in touch with the deeper meaning of identity and relationships. For the purposes of our program, we conceptualize this process as a “journey” into one’s inner and outer spaces, with a clear connection to both being a catalyst for a life rich in meaning and purpose.”
Taylor Rubin said the Junior Journeys program is designed to “encourage meaningful interaction within a diverse peer group of past, present and future JP students by way of providing supervised cultural activities in a supportive and safe environment. The program provides youth participants with comprehensive continuing support and holistic programming options in preparation for high school. It also increases awareness of available school sports and social programs and fosters a sense of cultural competency, respect and understanding and embraces everything from consciousness-raising of treaty rights and responsibilities to experiential hands-on learning.”
Wil Campbell is a long-serving Elder with the Journeys Cultural Exchange Program. A Pipekeeper for the Healing Our Spirit Worldwide Conference and Sundance Chief for the World Council of Elders, Elder Campbell has worked with many Indigenous organizations over the years, including as an Elder with Native Counselling Services of Alberta.
“Journeys, for me,” he explains in a YouTube video dedicated to the Journeys initiative, “is about sharing with one another; not just sharing our words but also sharing our space and sharing who we are. The Indigenous aspects of the program, or the traditional teachings we bring forward, are teachings from my people about how we are to live here on Mother Earth in harmony with one another. It’s also a good place to form friendships. A lot of youth feel isolated; they feel that no one is listening to them and they feel like they are alone. I find in Journeys, that relationships and friendships are created, some of which last for a lifetime.”
In that same video, JP Success Coach Nikki Houde said, “Students in the program have found their own voices and are able to develop those voices through experience, by trying new things, by sharing their passions with other students and by being excited in the sessions.”
Well known Aboriginal politician and human rights advocate Lewis Cardinal, one of the directors of Journeys, said, “The educational part of Journeys is learning about others and learning about yourselves. Today we look at a major city like Edmonton and there are so many different cultures, so many different people, and so many different experiences. Indigenous philosophy says let’s come together and share with each other, learn from each other.”
Junior Journeys at JP High began with four initial introductory sessions from November through December; four to six students from each junior high school attended one of these sessions. In the new year, the small groups of students will participate in monthly sessions held at JP and will rotate so they continue to attend the sessions with students from other junior high schools. Schools currently involved in the program include Hillcrest, S. Bruce Smith, Parkview, Bessie Nichols, Westlawn and Winterburn.”
“Junior Journeys is an interesting, informative, upbeat and fun experience for everyone involved,” noted Tootoosis. “The name of the program speaks for itself – through participation students are taking a journey, one that will serve them well wherever they go and whatever they do throughout their lives. It is a worthwhile experience that increases knowledge, improves self-esteem and enhances communication skills.”