Dragonfly moderated a panel session at last week’s ArtsSmarts 2012 Knowledge Exchange, held at the University of Calgary’s new downtown campus in Calgary, Alberta. Panelists Fran Alley, head teacher at Spectrum Alternative School in Vancouver, and Marcel Petit, an independent filmmaker and youth worker based in Saskatoon, discussed how they use arts education with at-risk youth to facilitate healing, identity building, increased life skills, and improved school achievement. Entitled First Nations and Community Development: A Place for Arts in Education?, the session connected community development to school achievement for one simple reason: the Aboriginal youth population is increasing at anywhere from three to six times the national average, depending on how stats are collected. With 60 percent of Canada’s total Aboriginal population aged 24 or younger, it’s clear that Aboriginal youth will play a major role in the future of Canada. Creating a positive future for Canada means creating positive futures for Aboriginal youth, especially in urban and off-reserve communities, where the majority of all Aboriginal peoples now live.
Alley showed a slide show that documented the programs at Spectrum Alternative, and Petit, a Métis, played excerpts from two short films, including one that he made with youth in Saskatoon. Their approaches are very different – Alley’s is based in the public school system, Petit’s in the non-profit/social service agency sector – yet they reflect the same basic philosophy: that recovering voice is central to learning and development. When youth analyze the complex symbols in art, they develop critical thinking skills. When they create their own artworks, they learn how to communicate meaning.
Both Alley and Petit’s work reflect the basic values of Aboriginal cultures and traditions, including the importance of storytelling through art and other creative work. The Spectrum program prioritizes peer influence and support within a circle of caring adults who use their own stories to illustrate growth and change, mirroring the reciprocal and intergenerational nature of education in Aboriginal societies. Petit uses his own life story to connect to youth, and his journey from survival to healing reflects Aboriginal oral tradition. Petit’s whole-body approach to storytelling and performance also reflects the holistic nature of education in Aboriginal societies, giving youth the opportunity to balance mind, body, spirit, and emotion. When we consider the similarities between arts education and Aboriginal cultures and traditions, we must arrive at the following conclusion: arts education isn’t new! Aboriginal peoples have been using arts in education for millennia. At long last, it seems the rest of the world has caught up with us.
We will not close the Aboriginal achievement gap or facilitate youth engagement in school or society until Aboriginal youth feel like their lives matter. Art provides opportunities for youth to develop a sense of voice and gain insight into the world around them. Once they have that insight and that voice – when they see how their lives matter – they can start dismantling the systems that marginalize and oppress Aboriginal peoples and communities. This combination of dialogue and action is a hallmark of social justice, and it’s why arts education is integral to the process of social change.
Cick here to view Petit’s five-minute video This Is Our Voice, which features students at Oskayak High School speaking about the human trafficking that targets Aboriginal girls and women for the sex trade.