For the past five years, Maureen McCann has been walking through mud.
Well, not literally.
But the 35-year-old FH Collins Spanish teacher says it’s usually hard to get students motivated and “it feels like walking through mud.”
Recently, however, things have changed.
In March, McCann flew to Winnipeg to help chaperon 23 Yukon students at a national youth conference.
“I thought it was just going to be another youth conference, just rah, rah and positive and everything, then you go home and take some of the ideas with you,” said McCann.
“But to me and the other people I went with, it was really more than that.”
Run by YOUCAN, Youth Canada Association, a national non-profit organization dedicated to empowering youth and building a culture of peace, the conference focus was conflict resolution.
But this is not what made it remarkable.
It was how the workshops were run.
All of YOUCAN’s trainers are youths themselves, so it’s not a bunch of adults talking at these kids, said McCann.
“Our youth, they’re talked at a lot. I’m a high school teacher, I know.
“But in this situation all the trainers were under 25, and the rest of us adults were just kicked out of the room.
“So, it was just youth in the room, and they had these really awesome, empowered, positive, active, involved, engaged young people standing up and training them in conflict resolution and they ran the workshops in a very professional way.
“So, instead of adults talking at them and saying, ‘You should do more things, you should get involved, you should take on issues,’ it was other kids doing it.
“And that’s the most empowering thing I’ve ever seen — it knocked my socks off.”
The chaperons were allowed to attend some of the workshops, and McCann, after participating in a stereotype and racism awareness seminar called Unlearn, decided she wanted to bring it to the Yukon.
But while she was talking logistics with the youth who ran the workshop, she was approached by two of her students.
“Senora,” they said, addressing their Spanish teacher in the familiar manner.
“We want to do this,” they told her.
McCann thought her students wanted to help bring the youth who ran the workshop to the Yukon.
But she was wrong.
Her students wanted to run the workshop themselves.
“So, they did a bit of consultation with these guys from Unlearn and then came back up here and I sort of taught them how to write a lesson plan and how to approach people to get approval, and I gave them a few tips on managing a crowd,” said McCann.
“And then they did it — they had this workshop and they’ve presented it a few times.”
Kids here talk about stereotypes and racism a lot, said McCann.
It’s really, really damaging and it’s a big issue for youth and adults.
McCann, who sat in on one of her students’ workshops, found the youth were “really fired up at the end.”
After one of these workshops, the students decided they wanted to do something concrete to combat stereotyping.
They fired ideas around for about 15 minutes, then decided to make a video that addressed stereotyping and racism within the school and within the local community.
Half an hour later, they had a video camera in hand.
“If I went and tried to get kids to make a video on stereotyping, it would have been like walking through mud,” said McCann.
“But that’s the power of a few kids standing up and doing it on their own — it’s contagious.”
Next year, the youth plan to present their workshop in various Yukon communities and at Whitehorse high schools. And McCann, who’s applied to the youth investment fund, hopes these students will be paid for their work.
After seeing how effective the conference training was, McCann decided she wanted to host a similar conference in the territory this summer.
But she faced some challenges.
First, McCann had to find five dedicated people who were willing to join her and form a society.
“When we first started exploring who wanted to partner with us, we got lots of negative, fear-based reactions,” said McCann.
She was told her idea would never work, that there wasn’t enough time and that she wouldn’t get funding.
“And it’s so easy to buy into fear and doubt and worry,” she said.
After one particularly discouraging meeting, McCann was ready to toss in the towel.
But when she picked up her four-year-old son at preschool that day, another mother she’d been talking to told McCann she wanted to become involved in the project.
And that shot of encouragement really turned the tide, said McCann.
So, with four other dedicated youth advocates, McCann formed WECAN Conflict Resolution Society.
“We were inspired by YOUCAN, who we are working with, and thought, we’ll WECAN too, right,” she said.
“In big cities there are always programs running, and we don’t really think about how they happen, they just do.
“But up here, if you want something to happen, you just have to make it happen — that’s all it takes is people to stand up and put the work and energy into it.”
WECAN has contracted six YOUCAN youth trainers to come to Whitehorse in August to host a nine-day conference on conflict resolution.
“But this camp is more than just getting training in conflict resolution, it goes a step further and the youth will also get very intense training to become youth trainers in conflict resolution themselves,” said McCann.
“So, part of the contract is that we’re working hard to invest in them, then next year our Yukon youth will pay that back by passing it on — going into the schools and doing community tours to train others in conflict resolution.”
The camp is open to all youth, regardless of their financial status, so there’s no cost for the kids, said McCann, who noted 15 of the 30 openings have already filled up.
So far, WECAN has enough funding to run a skeleton of camp, using the new retreat facilities at Takhini Hot Springs.
“And with another $10,000 and we could run a really good camp,” said McCann, who hopes to get enough funding to offer participants a chance to use the Takhini climbing wall and go on a trail ride.
“If we can keep doing this on a yearly basis, at least for five years or so, then maybe it will grow into something else,” said McCann.
“I think it will help us as youth and as adults, because we always need to be encouraged to make positive choices, and the more positive experiences we have with other people who are making positive choices, the more likely we are to buy into that.”
And beyond the training, these youth will create a network of friends who are all interested in the same thing, working together, hanging out together, even camping together, said McCann.
“I hope the youth buy into a long-term plan to improve the way we all relate with each other in the Yukon,” she said.
“Because as soon as you decide to take conflict resolution training, you put yourself on the side of someone who is a peacemaker — you’re making the choice to build peace within your community instead of building conflict.”
This training is not the only answer, said McCann.
But it’s one answer.