Raising Their Voices
Student activists who show what “student power” can do
Some students are well able to make themselves heard. The recent large-scale student protests in Quebec may be the most obvious Canadian example, but there are student activists across the country working to mobilize their fellow students and change the status quo, whether the cause is a greater role in school governance, student well-being, or social justice. In this article, journalism student Madeleine Villa introduces three high-school students who have made an impact on their school, region, or province.
Main Activism Focus: B.C. Student Alliance
Dakota McGovern, a 17-year-old graduate of Windsor House School in North Vancouver, has been involved in activism since the age of 11. His work is all about claiming a place for student voice, within schools and beyond.
McGovern credits the student-led learning environment of Windsor House School with giving him the confidence to chair the resistance group he co-founded, called the B.C. Student Alliance.
Windsor House School is the only publicly funded democratic school in Canada. The school runs on the concept that each person within the school is equal. Each week every student and teacher in the school has the opportunity to cast a ballot on school issues. For example, McGovern cast a ballot to teach a Comparative Civilizations class in his 12th year and was voted in. Responsibilities like this are encouraged at Windsor House.
McGovern entered the school in Grade 5. His parents enrolled him after noticing his learning difficulty at his previous schools. McGovern would eventually be diagnosed with dysgraphia and dyslexia.
He thrived at Windsor House, but his parents thought it was not academic enough and encouraged McGovern to switch to a more conventional high school. He did, but for his own reasons: “I didn’t want to be the kid who just went to Windsor House without knowing what other schools were like.” When he switched back to Windsor House for Grade 10, he had a new respect for himself and his disability: “I didn’t say, I go to Windsor house because I have dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADHD. I said, I go to Windsor house because I genuinely believe in what the school is trying to do.”
McGovern’s activism work started in 2010, when the North Vancouver School Board stated that they would amalgamate its five alternative schools into one. This is when the B.C. Student Alliance was born. A group of Windsor House students wrote letters to the Ministry of Education opposing the amalgamation. Luckily, the school was able to leave the North Vancouver School Board and join the Gulf Island School District – but the B.C. Student Alliance, co-founded by McGovern during the protest, remained active and has grown far beyond the boundaries of the school.
McGovern has been president of the B.C. Student Alliance since the fall of 2014. The group is no longer based in Windsor House and is truly provincial, with members from many different schools. Their focus is on educating youth about their power and influencing youth to stand up for what they believe in.
The group has been successful with their work, specifically with their education budget cut protest in May of 2016. The group presented a panel of speakers, including a student environmentalist, an Indigenous student and an elementary student. Each student gave a speech about the importance of education as well as their own thoughts on the school system. Over 100 people showed up in support of the protest. The event gained media attention and a number of politicians attended. Three days after the protest, the government announced that they would be putting $25 million into the education system. While not claiming that decision was directly influenced by the protest, McGovern notes the timing was interesting.
McGovern is now studying Environmental Biology at the University of Victoria. Though he can continue to run as acting president of the B.C. Student Alliance until he’s 19, he hopes that someone else will be inspired to take the lead.
Main Activism Focus: International Aid
Anna Yehia, 18, served as co-president of her school’s World Action Awareness Club (WAAC) and helped mobilize students throughout the school to raise $6,000 for Doctors Without Borders at a benefit they organized.
Yehia, a recent graduate of Mayfield Secondary School in Caledon, Ont., joined WAAC in Grade 9 and became treasurer in Grade 10, continuing in this position in Grade 11. In her final year she was elected co-president with fellow student Alexandria Wilson. She says she continued her work with WAAC all through high school because “it feels good. We are all so privileged. When you start to give back to your community you start to appreciate it so much more.”
WAAC is an extracurricular group run by students and faculty. The group raises money and awareness for charities they choose at the beginning of the year, and for the 2015/16 academic year, they decided to support Doctors Without Borders.
In September, the planning for their big benefit night began. The premise was that participants would pay for a handmade bowl and to fill it with soup. Fittingly, the benefit name became Bowls Without Borders.
Mayfield is a regional arts school and the group tapped into the talent and resources of the students. They asked the visual art students if they would be willing to make pottery bowls and create a ticket design for the event. Music students provided live entertainment. The culinary club cooked soups from countries where Doctors Without Borders work. Yehia and the group was able to engage their student body in a way that they had never seen before. In the end, over 200 guests attended the benefit. With 450 tickets sold and proceeds from a silent auction, they made a profit of $6,000.
Yehia is now studying Life Sciences at the University of Toronto. She hopes to continue working for causes she believes in: “I’m from Lebanon. Doctors Without Borders doesn’t serve there so I’m going to try to bring it over. I’m hoping that with my life sciences background I will be able to do that.”
Main Activism Focus: Student Health
Millwood High School, located just outside of Halifax, N.S., is one lucky school to have Nik Sutherland as part of its student body. While the 17-year-old is nearing the end of his time at Millwood, he has been a large part of Millwood’s community, chairing three groups and sharing presidency of the student council.
Sutherland says that his passion for activism began in Grade 9, when he participated in Guys’ Group – a club for the male student body to talk about health problems specific to men, facilitated by faculty. “That got me talking and made me realize what you can do with the power of your voice and your opinion.” Since then the group’s discussions, which range from sex and relationships to distracted driving, have become part of the Grade 9 curriculum and is led by Sutherland and a friend.
Student health has become one of Sutherland’s main priorities for Millwood High. He joined the United for Health program in Grade 10 and chaired it the following year. This group works to educate the student population on all aspects of health. The group has collected data using a health-focused census to identify the students’ needs. They then focused their attention on these specific issues. The group has introduced de-stressing tactics such as playing music during class changes as well as providing healthy fruit snacks to hungry students. During exam time, United for Health hosts exam prep for students who may be stressing over their upcoming examinations.
Most notably, the group ran the first-ever Health Leaders Forum in 2016. The United For Health program organized a day for Millwood and other high schools in the area. The 30 students who participated listened to three reputable speakers: Dan Steez, the local CMHA representative; Sarah Dobson, former newscaster and local mental health ambassador; and journalist/entrepreneur Ross Simmonds, better known as @TheCoolestCool on Twitter. The students brainstormed how they could better their own student body’s health and finished the day with personal letters written about the goals they made during the day, to be mailed out to them as a reminder the following September.
What’s next for this passion-filled activist? Sutherland hopes to expand the program: “I want to take what we have learned in our school and spread a program like that into other schools. I feel like a United Health program in every school would be greatly beneficial for student body health, because I have seen how it has changed how health is viewed in our school.”
In the future, he hopes to become a teacher, saying, “I want to teach high school because I feel like my high school years have given the most to me. I feel like if I go in and help create that experience for other students, that would be a very positive change I could make.
Q&A with Dakota McGovern
In conversation, Dakota McGovern is confident and friendly, with much to say:
Do you believe that people are unhappy with the regular school system?
It’s a gradual feeling of discontentment, and I think the solution to the problem is to give students a larger voice. It’s the role of students to speak out on that and realize that they do have a unique platform that is not being utilized to its maximum.
What is your goal for the B.C. Student Alliance?
I want to foster a culture in which resistance against the status quo is more mainstream, and where students who don’t like certain things know how to address the issues they find as problems, and therefore actually foster youth activists to their full potential much earlier. By doing so you can have large impact on social justice issues. I think our social justice movements are lacking the youth voice. I think you can’t change the world without respecting the voice of the youth, because those are the people that you are trying to represent. You wouldn’t necessarily care too much about the earth if no one were going to inherit it. So that’s why it is so important to really foster and grow that voice right away… to pass on what you have learned to younger people so they can fulfill that role.
It’s about changing the paradigm of teaching across British Columbia. It’s about teaching people that they actually have power and that they should use it to speak out about things they view as wrong. Children are trained to be quiet; they show up at school and they are told not to be loud and to sit still and to stare at a chalkboard. After five, six or seven years of that it can be really hard to find enough self-confidence to take on initiative in your life. We want to give the maximum amount of tools possible to foster that growth.
I’m sure it wasn’t easy at first. Were there any lessons you had to learn while leading this group?
I think the first lesson you have to learn in any form of change making is the fact that it is more about people than about policy. For example, in the education system right now, we do not have a lot of restrictions – in comparison to other countries – on what students can and can’t do. Students can drop out of high school when they are 16, which is a very big tool that not a lot of people really understand. If you can choose whether or not you want to participate in the school system, you can effectively amplify your voice. I think that if students realized how much power they really had, they would understand that they could organize a rally, or host various public speaking events. It’s not about the laws that we’re trying to change, it’s about giving people that baseline experience of empowerment. Simply put, if you are going into activism in the future, as a young person, what you need to understand is that the most important thing you can do is change other people. We already have so much power that just needs to be uncapped.
What would you say to students who want to get involved but don’t know how?
You shouldn’t spend a lot of time worrying about what you should do. You should do what you can, and perhaps you will accomplish what you should. The biggest obstacle to hurdle over is to actually decide you want to start.
What would you say to teachers or faculty?
That they do need to listen a lot more; that in general students are not contented and that the school system is not going in the direction it should. A lot of that is because of government policy and solidarity, and not how teachers do their job. However, they should keep in mind that in order for humanity to reach its full potential, in order for us to become a just society that repairs people to become functional members of our culture, teaching is an important job. And the most essential key to that is respect and freedom for the students.
And is that what you would say to the government?
What I’d say to the government is that they should lower the voting age if they would actually like the youth vote.
En Bref: Certains étudiants sont tout à fait capables de se faire entendre. Les grandes manifestations étudiantes récentes au Québec en sont sans doute l’exemple canadien le plus éloquent, mais partout au pays, des activistes étudiants s’emploient à mobiliser leurs condisciples et à changer le statu quo, préconisant un rôle plus important en gouvernance scolaire, le bien-être des élèves ou la justice sociale. Dans cet article, l’étudiante en journalisme Madeleine Villa présente trois élèves du secondaire qui ont eu un impact sur leur école, leur région ou leur province.
Photos: Courtesy Madeleine Villa
First published in Education Canada, December 2016