A global pandemic couldn't derail an opportunity for students from across the city to come together, share ideas, and work toward building an inclusive community.
Seventeen classrooms — 10 from Saskatoon Public Schools, six from Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, and one from Lloydminster — gathered virtually on March 19 to listen to community leaders share stories and thoughts about building a peaceful community. The annual event is held in conjunction with the International Day to End Racial Discrimination.
"The goal is always to get students together with other students from around the city and province," said Nancy Barr, a teacher at École Lakeview School. "We want them to think and learn about what racism is and how it looks in our community. I asked that the speakers talk from their 'lens' or world view about what they do to build community and do it an inclusive way."
Although the pandemic precluded the usual in-person gathering, this year's virtual event organized by Barr and Heather Feynes of Think Good Do Good saw the participation of an estimated 400 students ranging from Grade 5 to Grade 8.
A roster of a dozen speakers shared their stories on building community, how they work with racist attitudes, roadblocks they encounter, and what students and others can do to develop a stronger, more peaceful community.
Among those who spoke and answered questions from students during three sessions were Director of Education Shane Skjerven, board chair Colleen MacPherson, and cultural liaison Donny Speidel from Saskatoon Public Schools. Other speakers included Mayor Charlie Clark, police Chief Troy Cooper, Fatima Coovadia, and Judge David Arnot of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.
"Having all of the lenses for students to experience gives them a vision of what our leaders are doing to help eliminate racism," Barr explained. "It lets them know there are many people in our communities working to grow and build safe and strong places for us to learn. It holds our leaders accountable to one of their biggest stakeholders — the students who are our future leaders."
After each round of speakers, students broke out into conversation groups to discuss questions prepared by Barr's class. Discussion was guided by adult facilitators from education and the wider community.
At the conclusion of the event, student classroom groups were asked to offer five to 10 ideas for change to present to the day's presenters. Those results will be sent to Barr's students who will categorize the responses and then share the themes with the group of leaders, along with a request that they consider the students' thoughts in future thinking or policies.
Barr said the educators and facilitators involved in the event provided positive feedback on what they saw and heard from students.
"Most saw hope for a future filled with knowledgeable students who are being given the ear of leadership to be involved in change and be change makers. They loved hearing the students voices and sharing in the ideas and thoughts the students had around changing racism ideas and practices around them."
As educators, Barr said an opportunity to bring students together under one banner creates a critical mass of ideas and initiative and works to eliminate barriers between neighbourhoods or schools that may otherwise keep youth compartmentalized.
"We need all students to lead our future and build our community together," she said. "The teachers or principals I worked with are mostly part of my 'team' of community builders. I call on them to join me in projects that try to move community building forward. This includes breaking the barriers around us, including racism."