Becoming warriors for Alberta’s children and youth
The challenges facing the well-being of Alberta’s children and youth point to broader global issues confronting our increasingly volatile and complex human relationships. This was a theme explored by Margaret Wheatley (a writer and management consultant who studies organizational behaviour) in a public lecture, “Alberta: So Far from Home? Creating Vibrant Communities for Schools in the next Alberta,” held in Edmonton on November 29, 2012.
Wheatley had much to say about rekindling our commitment to the welfare of children and youth. She observed that Alberta is a place of stark contrasts. The paradoxes and promises of the challenges we face in our communities are apparent on a number of levels. For example:
- Alberta’s schools are the hubs of vibrant communities—but are we committed to sustaining them?
- Alberta’s economy has created some of the richest people in the world—1 out 10 Alberta children live in poverty (www.makepovertyhistory.ca/learn/issues/poverty-reduction-plan/alberta)
- Alberta’s booming population is growing in diversity—but does “community” mean the same thing today as it did 10 years ago?
- Alberta’s economic growth is affecting our communities and neighbourhoods. Will they survive in the face of threats, such as urban sprawl?
Young Albertans are growing up in an increasingly diverse province whose population is expected to reach 4.6 million by 2035. Tomorrow’s cities will struggle to avoid social fragmentation, whereas rural communities will remain unchanged or decline.
As a community “imagineer,” Wheatley raised provocative ideas about the current malaise of our social and individual well-being by reminding marginalized and disenfranchised groups that although “no one is coming to help them” they have tremendous power “in and through community.” If we are to enhance the well-being of children and youth, we need to be aware that no one is coming to resolve these issues for us.
Wheatley’s latest book, So Far from Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World (2012), explores what she characterizes as “dark times.” For example, the problems we face are growing, yet the solutions we embrace are not working. Worldwide, resources are shrinking, yet we continue expanding our presence on the planet, with no apparent means of improving our ability to ensure an adequate supply of food, water and energy; people are increasingly uncertain about their identities and the meaning of their lives, yet they are more connected with other voices through technology than they have ever been; many report that they are extremely busy and overwhelmed and are experiencing fear, anxiety and distress.
Wheatley told her audience that “nothing living lives alone” and “we are bundles of potential that manifests only in relationship.” In order to create good health and find solutions, we need to make connections and build community—again, we must help ourselves.
Becoming warriors for Alberta’s children
There is no greater change than a community discovering what it cares about, said Wheatley. We don’t need a hero leader or a group of leaders within the community. Life is connected and it doesn’t rest on one person, hero or group. It’s about coming together to discover life’s beautiful complexities. “Being in the present” with each other will have a great effect on our communities—we do not exist alone; we share basic human needs.
Wheatley said we must work together to engage in deep and respectful listening. This will enable us to build great community. We have to create conditions where people can gather to have courageous conversations about the things that matter. In her view, we must become “warriors for the human spirit.”
What will working together look like?
The Alberta Teachers’ Association has outlined a comprehensive agenda for transforming Alberta’s schools. An integral part of this agenda is immediate and long-term actions outlined in A Great School for All—Transforming Education in Alberta (2012). The agenda includes the following three principles and priorities to address our shortcomings:
- Early learning is the cornerstone of Alberta’s future
Alberta’s provincial preschool program for low-income families turns away 900 needy families each year (Kleiss 2011). Resource-rich Alberta ranked second last on the most recent national comparison of early education services across Canada. The independent report ranked provinces on 15 benchmarks associated with the delivery of high-quality early childhood programs. The benchmarks were organized into five categories: (1) governance, (2) funding, (3) access, (4) learning environment and (5) accountability. Alberta scored 3 out of a possible 15 points. Quebec, the most highly rated province, received 10 (McCain, Mustard and McCuaig 2011).
- Equity is the path to excellence and economic competitiveness
Early learning and ongoing education programs help children realize their full potential and lead more productive and fulfilling lives. These programs also significantly reduce the amount that governments would otherwise spend on justice, health, welfare and correctional programs. There is a growing consensus among economists and sociologists that high-quality early childhood development programs are good investments that have long-term economic returns ranging from $7 to $17 for every $1 invested in such programs (Schweinhart and Weikart 1993).
- Strong communities will foster vibrant children and youth
Alberta Education, working with its education partners, should initiate pilot programs to implement the groundbreaking memorandum of agreement between the governments of Canada and Alberta and the Assembly of Treaty Chiefs of Alberta. This agreement is the foundation for enhancing learning for First Nations students (Government of Canada 2010).
In her closing remarks, Wheatley drew attention to the prophecies of the Hopi Nation—an Arizona American First Nation—that capture one’s imagination and show the courage needed to become warriors for Alberta’s children and youth.
This could be a good time!
There is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold on to the shore.
They will feel they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly.
Know the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of
the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water.
See who is in there with you and celebrate.
At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally.
Least of all, ourselves.
For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.
The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!
Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary.
All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
—The Elders, Oraibi, Arizona Hopi Nation
Are we willing to push off into the middle of the river?
Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). 2012. A Great School for All—Transforming Education in Alberta. Edmonton, Alta.: ATA.
Government of Canada. 2010. “Memorandum of Understanding for First Nations Education in Alberta.” Available at http://education.alberta.
Kleiss, K. 2011. “20,000 More Alberta Children Living in Poverty.” Edmonton Journal, November 24.
McCain, M. N., J. F. Mustard and K. McCuaig. 2011. Early Years Study 3: Making Decisions, Taking Action. Toronto: Margaret & Wallace McCain Family Foundation.
Schweinhart, L., and D. Weikart. 1993. “Success by Empowerment: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study through Age 27.” Young Children 49, no. 1: 54–58.
Wheatley, M. 2012. So Far from Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Dr. J-C Couture is the ATA’s associate coordinator, research.