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Lessons from "At-Risk Youth" and Social Change

 For those who aren't regular readers of my blog {btw, I appreciate all 12 of my regulars ;) }, I work at a school for "at-risk/marginalized" youth in inner city Edmonton. Students often come to my school because they are not successful in the traditional school system for a variety of reasons or/and because they are often dealing with many of the issues that are connected to poverty (addictions, violence, homelessness, etc.).

My school is designated as a special needs school to help accommodate students with high learning and behavioural difficulties. Because of this designation, my class sizes usually do not go over 15 students at any time. Most of the time my class size fluctuates between 5-10 students due to attendance issues for most youth. Again, issues of poverty trump coming to school for many of my youth as it is more important to find housing and access to food than coming to class. After all, you can't "eat" a high school credit.

For the students who are able to come on a somewhat regular basis, I get the opportunity to create an intimate and holistic learning environment that hopefully allows the students to feel safe, welcomed and encouraged to engage in a meaningful learning experience. I teach social studies so I often have the opportunity to engage in fascinating conversations with students about many of the inequalities and injustices of our world.

Often times, when I ask students what are the issues they would like to change in their communities/neighborhoods they usually suggest getting rid of prostitution, homelessness, and sometimes gang violence, amongst many other issues. What is interesting during these conversations is that even though students recognize that these issues are mostly unique to the neighborhoods they live in as opposed to the suburbs, they do not identify themselves as youth who are "at-risk" to these issues.

One day, during a class discussion about poverty, a student asked me If I knew that he was an "at-risk and marginalized youth"? I was a little surprised at this question and asked him what he meant. He said that he was on the school's website and read that the students at the school are "at-risk and marginalized". We discussed what those two terms meant and then I asked him if he thought those terms were appropriate for him. He vehemently said they were not appropriate as he was currently not homeless and had a job at a grocery store. In fact, this interaction led to a broader discussion with the rest of the class about how no one felt that the term "at-risk" or "marginalized" youth was appropriate. Students didn't like how those labels made them feel different or even less than. What was even more interesting was that many students wanted to label themselves as "middle-class" or "normal" and not "at-risk" to anything.

Although this could serve as an example of cognitive dissonance, I think it's really important to recognize what the labels we put on youth can do to them. The terms "at-risk" or "marginalized youth" actually tend to have a negative impact on youth when they are confronted with these terms. In the case of my students, they don't want to have people in the community viewing them through that lens or looking at them as if they are "poor kids who need to be helped" as one students put it.

What these conversations have taught me is that we need to interrogate the language that we use when discussing urban/inner city youth. How do those terms/language impact the way we view and interact with youth if we are there in a "helping" capacity? What language can we use to empower youth to take control of their lives and the communities they live in?

In my experience, the role of a teacher should not be confined to the classroom. Teachers must be involved in the process of social change. It is my aim to use education as a tool to empower youth to take control of their lives and futures in order to improve the communities they live in. I cannot treat my job as a charitable act as it is not that. Instead, my decisions in the classroom must be informed by an unrelenting commitment to justice within and outside of the classroom. That is what education for liberation is all about.

If we are to have true education for all students then we must also commit to social change. I will not be able to work with many students in Edmonton's inner city until the issues of poverty are eliminated. It is my hope to engage in a long-term struggle with my students, community, and other organizations to engage in acts of justice to enable the change we want to see happen.