An important aspect of character development through youth empowerment is community engagement. As students gain awareness and build a connection to the larger community they have an opportunity to develop important character attributes such as empathy, responsibility and respect for differences. Empowerment, from a long-term perspective, not only enables members of marginalized groups to regain their personal and social power, but also promotes the responsible and positive use of that power.
In our community, we did awareness raising about bullying. We matched downtown stores with small groups of kids from a variety of schools. The students worked together to create a window display. They used data from school surveys to share in their display, to inform the messages they wanted the community to know and understand. This included information about the percentage of students who are bullied, who get involved and step in. They included statistics and then strategies on what to do. The teachers were not involved at all. The students worked directly with the business owners so it was real and relevant, not just theoretical. In this way, the theory comes to life.
Learning about social issues such as inequity and exclusion in their community and engaging in initiatives to address them prepares students to channel their power in constructive and compassionate ways in their future role as citizens. Students from marginalized groups may consolidate or strengthen their identity as they engage with their population group, culture or community. Students whose sense of their own potential may have been limited by poverty and social exclusion may be exposed to new possibilities.
Expanding our vision of community to include the global human community further enriches students’ understanding and increases their compassion. We can introduce topics and initiatives related to equity and inclusion from around the world. A potential pitfall in this approach is when we focus solely on the social problems of other countries, ignoring injustice that is perpetrated in our own.
School-community initiatives that create connections with a particular cultural or social group benefit not only students from those groups but their peer group as well. Greater acceptance and inclusion of their experiences and identity within their peer group can increase the pride and self-acceptance of marginalized students. Engaging with marginalized communities also enables educators to include diverse groups of people in classroom discussions and activities without being put in the position of speaking for them.
This can be a tricky balance to achieve. For example, the vision of the Ontario First Nation, Métis and Inuit Educational Policy Framework states, "All students in Ontario will have knowledge and appreciation of contemporary and traditional First Nation, Métis, and Inuit traditions, cultures and perspectives".
We are explicitly mandated by the Ministry to ensure that all students discover and learn about Aboriginal cultures and history in Canada, and equipping ourselves to play this role is very important. We may need to ask ourselves, "What do I need to think about or do to equip myself to fulfil this important responsibility?"
The Ontario Teachers’ Federation and its Affiliates (AEFO, ETFO, OECTA, OSSTF) have resources for teachers wishing to build their capacity and knowledge in this area.