It’s a Friday night, in the Salons Room at St Andrews Wesley United Church. Twenty youth ages 11 through 17 are standing in a circle, surrounded by a backdrop of flip chart papers and emptied pizza boxes. It’s the end of November 3rd’s workshop on Gender Justice, offered by the Youth Justice Series. The feeling in the room is electric, humming with the rippling energy of two intense hours of ‘Aha!’ moments. You can almost hear the synapses firing, the gears turning.
“What’s said here stays here, what’s learned here leaves here.”
Anna White, this month’s facilitator from CampOUT, asks the group to share one thing they’ve learned, one thing they’ve felt, and one thing they’re going to do. Each workshop in our Youth Justice Series ends with this kind of check-out. Every time we do this round, I’m astounded by the profoundness of the responses. For those of us organizing the workshop, it’s a chance to hear first-hand what youth are getting out of session. But the exercise also captures the intent of these workshops – that youth learn language and concepts related to an issue that touches their daily life, that they use this systemic understanding to speak to their personal experience of oppression or complicity, and that they leave with a tangible next step.
This moment at the end of the workshop always gives me chills, because it feels so needed and yet so rare. Facilitators are not experts, the participants are, and the knowledge exchange happens not between the facilitators and youth, but rather within the circle of youth. It’s the non-hierarchical sharing of knowledge and personal experience that make these workshops the rich, transformative learning experiences they are. Our hope is that by modelling this type of peer-based education, youth can imagine a world that is not defined by the existing forms of power and oppression.
As Anna put it at the start of the workshop: “What’s said here stays here, what’s learned here leaves here.” Testifying to our personal stories of injustice and complicity in oppressive systems is vulnerable and personal, and as we share and witness the stories and knowledge of the group, we are transformed and called into action.
The Youth Justice Series sprung out of the youth ministry at Canadian Memorial United Church a year ago, and has since grown to offer workshops for youth groups all around the Vancouver area. In this time, the series has offered workshops on migrant justice, health care, gender in the media, economic justice, social determinants of health and food justice, all led by skilled facilitators from organizations outside the United Church. The project is now housed by the Youth and Young Adult Ministry of Vancouver South and Burrard Presbyteries (also known as VanYAYA) and is generously supported by funds from the Contemplative Justice Network.
We’re excitedly anticipating out next workshop on December 1st, at Dunbar Ryerson United Church at 6-8:30pm. The workshop will be facilitated by a leader from Kairos, who will lead us in the Blanket Exercise, exploring the historic and contemporary relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, and how our faith calls us into action. We hope to see you there!
For folks outside the Vancouver area who can’t make it, I’d strongly recommend hosting your own, and inviting your neighbours to attend. The Contemplative Justice Network grants form takes about a half-hour to fill out, and finding facilitators on a topic can be easy. Youth and leaders have loved the workshops offered by Check Your Head, and there are loads of other groups offering high-quality, peer-based workshops on many different topics: Qmunity, Peernet BC, Kairos and AORTA are all great places to start.
I’m looking forward to this next year of workshops, and am so grateful to the Contemplative Justice Network and all of our facilitators for helping it happen!
Danica Black works in the Youth and Young Adult Ministries office for Vancouver Burrard and South Presbyteries of the United Church. She is also the past Minister for Children, Youth and Families at Canadian Memorial United Church. She has spend many years doing youth education and empowerment through Check Your Head, and is active in various justice efforts.