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young teens, adults and a police officer sitting at boardroom table having discussion
Photos by Michelle Tremblay
Feature

Making Space for Youth Leadership

Sarah Vance
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Located two and a half hours equidistant between Toronto and Ottawa, Bancroft is a rural town where the first women’s shelter opened shortly after the mines closed in the 1980s. For a period of time Bancroft was a manufacturing hub, with an industry that contributed more than one million dollars a month in wages. This came to an end when a stagnating economy led to facilities closing up sites, which now sit abandoned.

Today, the average working wage in Bancroft is a barely livable $35,000 per year. In the heart of town, across from the LCBO, a food bank, North Hastings Community Cupboard, distributes 35,000 pounds of food every year. And while there are fewer than 4,000 people living in Bancroft there are four drug stores, within 200 yards of each other, all sites for distributing methadone.

Asking the Right Questions

Despite the fact that children live with the social and economic precarity endemic to our community, there have been few platforms where they can express their needs and feel heard, valued and represented.

In 2014, during a Grade 7/8 health class I asked my students to consider working with an elbow-partner to create mind-maps of healthy living choices. Using a gradual release of responsibility model, we brainstormed healthy development and personal responsibility.

The learning goal was for students to arrive at an understanding of how healthy active living is connected to the world and the community around us.

Interestingly, several students questioned the authenticity of the task. “No one actually listens to us anyways,” students said. “So why should we pretend to do this?”

It was a poignant question, which engaged other students in sidebar conversations about their own experiences. Their frustration came from a feeling that they confronted a number of consistent issues, had very good ideas to share, but felt that the community was choosing to ignore them.

Opening the Door for Change

During a conversation with the staff sergeant of the Bancroft OPP detachment, our school learned about Safer and Vital Communities funding. This funding is part of the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services policy to support engagement programs and is allocated every two years.

Because this funding supports cross-ministry collaborations, it was a chance for the school to sit down and talk about ways students could be supported outside of class, on evenings, weekends and summer holidays.

Our school partnered with Bancroft’s Early Years Centre (North Hastings Children’s Services), which invited the OPP to sit down with them to discuss a grant that would fund adolescents studying rural issues and creating change. The idea of a youth advisory board emerged and 20 adolescents were invited to apply as leaders.

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