Diversity high school program faces uncertain future

Teens create projects to promote multiculturalism challenge discrimination

Tucked into a forest near Bragg Creek more than 50 Alberta high school students sit on the floor inside the lodge at Kamp Kiwanis. A teacher at the front of the room quotes Gandhi (“be the change you want to see in the world”) and encourages the students to come up with creative ways to promote diversity in their schools. “You’re not going to save the world in six months but you’re going to make an impact in your part of the world” George Taven tells the group.

The day prior the students participated in sessions on Islam and aboriginal culture. Later they’ll learn Middle Eastern dance steps. And before they eat each meal one table leads the others in a blessing of some kind. “It’s pretty amazing… learning all of the things about cultures that I’ve never known before” says Jalisa Feltham a Grade 10 student from Olds.

Feltham and the other students are here as part of Connections a high school leadership program that focuses on diversity and cross-cultural understanding. After four days at the camp students return to their schools with projects that promote diversity and challenge prejudice. Some students write articles for their school or local newspapers; others raise money for development projects in other countries. Still others arrange for guest speakers to come to their school. “There are magnificent projects by many students that wouldn’t have happened otherwise” says Taven a teacher at Chinook Learning Services. “Absolutely wonderful stunning amazing stuff.” Organizers estimate that since the program’s inception in 1987 more than 40000 people have seen and been impacted by the projects.

Until recently Connections was accredited by Alberta Education which meant students could take it as a course for credit. Earlier this year however the department chose not to renew the accreditation. “Basically what it amounted to was a committee looking at locally approved courses and saying ‘Gosh you shouldn’t be able to get credit for this course if you’re also getting credit in school for another course’” says Bill Dickson president of the Connections Education Society and a former deputy chief superintendent of the Calgary Board of Education. “It had nothing to do with the educational value.”

The decision left the program strapped for cash (the credits came with money from the province) and organizers say that unless they can find a new source of funding this could be the final year for the program. “We’re scrambling to try to put something in place” says Gail Kingwell the society’s vice-president. She notes that according to a recent Statistics Canada study Calgary has the highest level of hate crime in the country. “The motivation we have for providing this program is to help young people and their teachers figure out how to deal with these kind of things” she says.

At the camp in late October students spoke to the importance of the program. “Everybody’s really accepting” said Mariah Addo a Grade 11 student from Chestermere High School. Addo regularly sees discrimination at her school but at the camp she says people are free to be themselves. “You don’t have to worry about being judged and seen differently” says Addo. “It just makes me feel a lot more comfortable. I’m not used to that at school.” Addo says the program helps students see from a different perspective. “Lots of them will go back to school or home and pick up on the things that people are saying and doing and maybe try to make a difference.”

Every student Fast Forward interviewed at the camp said they encounter discrimination at their schools in one form or another — particularly racism and homophobia. “There’s a massive amount of [homophobia]” says David Heiter a Grade 11 student from Calgary’s Central Memorial High School. “It’s a big problem in our school.”

Heiter and other students from Central Memorial are considering putting up a bulletin board in their school to post information on different cultural holidays. “I think there are a lot of people who don’t know about other cultures” he says.

The Connections program was accredited for three years before it lost its accreditation. During that period Taven worked as a paid staff member. Now he’s essentially a volunteer. “We’d like more stable funding so we’re not nickel-and-diming it” he says.

Dickson believes that because of its youth focus Connections has succeeded where similar programs aimed at adults have ended up “spinning their wheels and not getting anywhere.” “I really believe it’s going to be the next generation that provides the leadership that is needed for the rest of the community” he says.