Aug. 10, 2018

High school students relish chance to be agents of social change

Werklund's Youth Leadership Forum provides space to identify and address challenges
Kainai High School’s Cultural Wellness Room offers students a space for reflection and connection with Elders.

Kainai High School’s Cultural Wellness Room offers students a space for connection with Elders.

Michael Holden

Celebrated each year on Aug. 12, the United Nations' International Youth Day raises awareness of the challenges facing today’s youth and recognizes the role young people play in creating change across the globe.  These values also lie at the heart of the Werklund School of Education’s Youth Leadership Forum.

Twice yearly, hundreds of elementary and secondary students from across Alberta come to the University of Calgary to explore ways in which they can become agents of social change. During their time on campus, the students identify challenges found in their schools, classrooms and neighbourhoods, and then work with their peers to develop action plans to address these issues.

Common problems revealed during the day-long forum include bullying, substance abuse, poverty, concerns about academic success and mental health. Once each group has decided on the challenge they feel is most pressing, they apply for $1,000 in funding from the Werklund School to implement their strategy.

To help ensure the students succeed in their initiatives, the Werklund School offers guidance and encouragement throughout the school year.

“We touch base with each of the schools as they put their plans into action. Sometimes that’s a simple email or a phone call, other times we’ll go out and spend a few hours with the students, hearing about what they’re working on and what they’re struggling with,” says Michael Holden, youth leadership facilitator. “The Werklund School’s role is to support, to offer resources, and to show students that they can shape the world around them in positive ways.”

Holden adds that he often feels his job is to act as a sounding board for the students.  

“I’m not there to tell the students ‘This is how you do this better.’ I’m there to ask, ‘What do you need? How can we help you? How do you want this to grow or evolve?’”

Holden says he is impressed with the range of ideas the students come up with each year and cites two schools that chose to address mental health in very different ways as prime examples of the leadership they demonstrate.

The Compassion, Connection, and Community club at Western Canada High School makes sandwiches for Calgary’s homeless community.

A student club at Western Canada High School makes sandwiches for Calgary’s homeless community.

Michael Holden

Students at Aidrie’s W.H. Croxford High School used the initial seed money to launch their Movement for Mental Health event. Participants organized into teams and took part in a number of physical activities including Zumba and yoga classes during a 24-hour “Move-a-thon” that brought in more than $28,000 in contributions. Funds raised will be donated to local mental health organizations.

The Leadership Club at Kainai High School tackled mental health along with identity by working with school counsellors and Elders-in-Residence to build a Cultural Wellness Room. The goal was to create a space that felt like a home within the school; a space where students can reflect, smudge and speak with Elders.

Currently, the club is working toward installing solar panels on the horse barn as a way to manage the school’s energy footprint.

Karsen Black Water, speaking with peers and Kainai and Werklund School representatives, summed up her thoughts on the various undertakings she has been involved in: “As a young group of people, we want to make a difference for people in our school.”

Other examples of youth leadership include Western Canada High School’s Compassion, Connection, and Community club (below) which has made more than 1,000 sandwiches for homeless Calgarians as well as craft kits for YWCA children and families affected by domestic violence. Students at Bishop McNally High School hosted a Student Faith Day to help peers manage feelings of anxiety. The Christmas Stockings of Care campaign at St. Mary’s High School saw students and staff fill stockings with much-needed items for donation to a local homeless shelter.

The next forum is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 28 and Holden says he is excited to engage with the new and returning crop of students.

“As we run each forum we learn more about what conversations ‘click’ and how to give students and teachers space to generate great ideas. It’s a learning opportunity for all of us — the teachers, the students, and the Werklund School — and going in with that mindset has opened up some great doors as we move forward.”

Elementary and secondary students gathered at the Werklund School of Education’s Youth Leadership Forum to identify and address the problems found in their schools, classrooms and neighbourhoods.

Students gathered at the Youth Leadership Forum to discuss the problems in their neighbourhoods.

Werklund School of Education