It is vital that we have hard conversations and challenge our thinking, and there is not a more willing group to do this than youth. Their perspectives are fresh, and they are ready to act. They are the change makers we need right now in a time when division is tangible and needs are extensive.
At Algoma High School, we are testing an approach in which youth build their capacity as leaders by learning how to lead from within, together, and for sustainable, equitable outcomes. We are calling this BETA, as it is a test of incorporating these concepts into the traditional public education system.
The goal of this approach is for youth to apply the tools and topics explored to a self-directed change initiative that improves the school and community. Through this, they are making real change that positively impacts their community while growing the skills and capacity to be contributing change agents in our society.
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As Live Algoma was forming, youth independently started identifying needs within the community and taking steps toward addressing those needs. Student-directed change initiatives that emerged included Wolves and Pups, a mentor program between high school and elementary students; Wolf Den, an after school program that focuses on the emotional, social, and physical wellbeing of youth in grades K-6; Hands-only CPR and iSTAN simulator, initiatives that are teaching people of all ages life-saving skills. This work occurred in pockets which proved difficult to provide the necessary support. A common time and space was needed if we wanted to see these change initiatives and ways of being grow. Thus BETA was born.
BETA began in 2018 as a class that was offered for two hours with some youth available during both hours and others only available for part of the time. The structure created challenges as people were coming and going. The other challenge to address was breaking all of our conditioning created by numerous years in the traditional classroom setting. It took a conscious effort on everyone’s part to establish a space where adults and youth were viewed as equal contributors. Despite the challenges, the outcomes of this first year in terms of personal growth and change initiative success was inspiring.
Now in the second year of implementation, we are evolving, thanks to the lessons learned from the bright spots and failing forward moments of the previous year. Now, a two hour time block is making it easier to create consistency as well as developing cohesion among the group. We continue to explore the concepts surrounding social justice and ways of being, while applying the tools learned to self-directed change initiatives.
After school program that focuses on the emotional, social, and physical wellbeing of youth in grades K-6
The youth are innovators in the truest sense of the word. They are aware of the world around them, connecting with the feelings and experiences of others, and using their voices to make positive change.
They value growth and use what they learn to address personal challenges as well as injustices in their school and community. Their willingness to shift their lenses and address root problems is inspiring. They embrace curiosity and vulnerability as tools to dive deeper into hard conversations.
Twenty-one youth participated during the first round of BETA. The group during the 2019-2020 school year consists of eleven youth ages 15 to 18. Four have experienced BETA during the initial implementation and help continue the culture that was established.
In order to have difficult conversations and lean into discomfort, a space where everyone feels valued needed to be established. The work of Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, as well as the Courage and Renewal’s Circle of Trust Touchstones were used as foundations for the desired environment. A culture was built on the philosophy that no voice is privileged over another.
When you step into this space, you hear youth using open and honest questions to help one another find solutions to personal and change initiative challenges. You see them collaborating on their initiatives, determining their next steps. You witness them exploring difficult topics together, desiring to widen their lenses through which they see the world. You feel a sense of belonging. As Brene Brown states, “We can’t be brave in the big world without at least one small safe space to work through our fears and falls. We can be that space for each other.” BETA has become that space.