ChangeMakers conference builds bridges and topples barriers

Some 35 Indigenous Grade 9-11 students come to McGill as part of continuing efforts to strengthen the relationship between Kahnawake and McGill
Learning about the Indigenous Initiatives taking place on McGill campus with guest presenter Kakwiranoron Cook, as he proudly shows the Hiawatha Wampum Belt Flag — a symbol marking unity and peace between the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk nations

In McGill’s Art Hive the drum pounded to the rhythmic arm swings of the high school students sitting around it. The youth on the drum were led by Ben Geboe (Coordinator of the Indigenous Access McGill program & student at the McGill School of Social Work), one of many special guests, as part of the opening ceremonies that kicked off the first-ever ChangeMakers conference that was held on September 26.

Organized collaboratively and interdepartmentally by Anurag Dhir (representing Enrolment Services’ BRANCHES Program for Indigenous Community Outreach), Faye Siluk and Robert Pozeg (of E-IDEA in the Engineering Faculty), and Mido Assran (Director of the Youth Engagement student organization within McGill’s Engineers Without Borders Chapter), ChangeMakers is dedicated to looking at and addressing barriers.

This event was made possible with the help of our partners in Kahnawake, the Kahnawake Survival School and Kahnawake Education Centre, the Indigenous Education Support Team at H. S. Billings High School, and McGill student volunteers. As part of continuing efforts to build the relationship between Kahnawake and McGill, the event is designed to break down the physical divide between our communities and offer the McGill space to students to use and explore (followed by later programming that puts McGill staff and students into supporting roles in high school spaces).

ChangeMakers was a fun, dynamic and inspiring day at McGill for 35 Grade 9-11 students from both the Kahnawake Survival School and H.S. Billings High School. Many of the students are involved in McGill’s Homework Zone After-school Mentoring Program, and this event provided space to explore the University and discover what it takes to make real change in our communities.

Barrier: a circumstance or obstacle that keeps people or things apart or prevents communication or progress

After welcoming youth from the local communities of Kahnawake and Chateauguay, and officially starting with a drum circle, we began the conference by hearing from and speaking with Indigenous faculty, students and staff, including Geboe, Kakwiranoron Cook (Special Advisor, Indigenous Initiatives), and Professor Treena Delormier (Associate Director, Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition & Environment). Each led discussions on the essential and challenging work they do at McGill on Indigenous student support, creating welcoming spaces for Indigenous community members, and social action and research.

An introduction to a STEAM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Arts-Mathematics) problem-solving tool provided students with a way to conceptualize the barriers and opportunities that were introduced to them throughout the day, and that they could apply later in their home communities and individual lives.

In small groups we took part in Community Challenge Stations where youth met with one of five McGill units/departments:

  • First Peoples’ House
  • McGill Office of Sustainability
  • Indigenous Health Promotions Program
  • McGill Writing Centre
  • McGill Student Wellness Hub

Each station presented a McGill-based problem faced by the department. The groups used the problem-solving tool to break down the root causes while also offering perspective solutions based on their experiences and viewpoints.

We concluded the day as a whole group, sharing what we saw and did, and posting our ideas on Instagram using the hashtag #changemakers2019.

Barrier: the starting gate of a racecourse

By celebrating the work of Indigenous faculty, students and staff the ChangeMakers conference is about reducing the barriers youth see to their future opportunities as scholars, professionals, and thriving members of their community. And by engaging youth together with a range of McGill units/departments, ChangeMakers addresses real barriers students and staff are working through and invites youth to see themselves as important contributors as change makers right now.

As the first annual ChangeMakers conference we are only at the start of a long journey. We’ve started to boldly point at barriers that impact youth-adult relationships, in-school and out-of-school learning, and that name the present-future divide. ChangeMakers is about bringing people together, working collaboratively to understand the complex nature of the challenges we face, and doing our best to make lasting positive changes.

The drumbeats got us started, but they echo through the people and places of the annual ChangeMakers conference and the programs and projects it touches.

The following people have come together to find new ways to support community, youth, and topics that matter to them and the McGill community: Robert Pozeg and Faye Siluk from the Faculty of Engineering’s E-IDEA initiative; Anurag Dhir from Enrolment Services’ BRANCHES Program; and Mido Assran from the Youth Engagement student organization.

A sample student-generated causal chain map, which addresses the factors involved in plastic water bottle usage and waste on campus. This exercise is intended to help students identify the root causes of common problems faced in daily life, so that they may take action to improve the situation and reduce harmful impacts moving forward.