Support Systems

People from socially marginalized groups can increase their empowerment by building supportive networks among their peers and with community resources. Strategies that facilitate this process encourage approaches such as mutual aid and creating links to services and resource people in the community.

When strategies promote positive images of marginalized groups they help to counter predominant stereotypes and negative messages. For example, those of us who are members of marginalized groups who occupy leadership positions or play mentoring roles can act as role models for young people. When classrooms display positive, strength-based images of diverse groups of people, students absorb an alternative to some of the negative messages from the dominant culture. Such approaches can foster a perception of one’s peers as potential sources of support and strength. Teachers can play a pivotal role in helping to decrease the isolation of students from marginalized groups (and all students). Teachers can act as resource people, listening, offering empathy and empowering support and – when appropriate – linking students to services (such as telephone listening lines for children and youth, or school support staff). For students who are isolated and experiencing difficulties, teachers have the potential to play a transformative role in a student’s life, often through very simple actions.

As teachers, we can encourage peer support in a multitude of ways (e.g. building a collaborative classroom environment). Peer support remains an effective strategy to increase the empowerment of students from marginalized groups.

  • teacher has noticed the attitudes held by some of the girls in his class and he is determined to provide them with an alternative vision of success for women. He decides to organize gender-specific projects for whoever wants to participate, and he finds another theme relevant to boys or others who might identify with them. The teacher looks through various magazines searching for diverse images of real women in a wide variety of professional roles. He brings the photos in and has the girls create a collage with them, labelling each one with the professional role taken by the woman. The teacher facilitates a discussion about their reactions to the activity and displays the collage in class.
  • One day when is at school, the teacher announces a guest speaker. The speaker is from a local community health centre that offers services to LGBTQ youth. The speaker is a gay man and he shows a film about sexual diversity and talks about his experiences in high school and the importance of respecting all people’s sexual orientations. Some of the other students laugh and snicker until the teacher stops them, but most of them listen respectfully. Karen feels as though a light has flicked on. Suddenly she knows she is not alone and there are many others like her in the world.
  • When teacher notices how distracted and quiet her new student is, she is very concerned. She observes him closely for a while and when Umar does not seem to settle in, she approaches him to chat. He remains guarded and reveals little, but he noticed her attentiveness and caring. A couple of weeks later he approaches her to talk about what is happening in his family. She listens and lets him know she is trying to understand what is going on for him (see Becoming an Ally/Empowerment Listening). She offers to connect him to a settlement worker in their school who can help him find culturally-adapted services for his family. He is very relieved to hear about this service and he agrees.