New program trains environmental leaders of the future

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Rooted in concern for the Earth, a new Faculty of Education program will teach youth who are concerned about the environment the leadership skills they need to champion their cause.

Rooted & Rising is a certificate program that grew out of the interest Toronto-area youth showed in part in the Fridays for Future environmental demonstrations inspired by teen Swedish activist Greta Thunberg

Rooted & Rising is a certificate program that grew out of the interest Toronto-area youth showed in the Fridays for Future environmental demonstrations inspired by teen Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, including the Climate Strike Teach-In held last September. It is a response to the call by youth to take the current climate emergency seriously.

“There are so many passionate young people craving formal leadership training, stronger networks and boosts of confidence,” said Roxanne Cohen, a PhD candidate in education at York and the program lead. “They want mentors, communications skills and to be treated as collaborators in change, and I want to support them.”

With the backing of her PhD supervisor, Faculty of Education Professor Steve Alsop and committee member Kate Tilleczek, Canada Research Chair in Youth, Education & Global Good, both well-versed in the key issues and methods of education and working with young people, Cohen assembled a 10-person steering committee with diverse experiences and skills to design and teach the Rooted & Rising course.

In addition to Cohen, Alsop and Tilleczek, the steering committee members include Blake Poland, a professor from the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health; Doug Anderson, a York PhD student with extensive consulting experience in Indigenous education; and York PhD candidate Joseph Smith, founder of the non-profit Generation Chosen, which helps black youth in Toronto improve their emotional intelligence and mental health; and a variety of other community members with experience in community development and leadership: Andrea Bastien, Bella Lyne, Kristen Alaan Sison and Sarah El Halwany.

The curriculum is based on seven key principles that were carefully developed by the steering committee:

  1. Gratitude
  2. Care
  3. Inspiration
  4. Resilience
  5. Disruption
  6. Joy
  7. Uplifting Transformation

“The curriculum will set the students up for deeper actions with people who have the power to change things,” Cohen said. “We will explore what climate change is and engage in project-based learning that will allow the youth to learn about setting goals and determining what’s achievable. They’ll learn to connect small actions to big ideas, and they’ll find their own leadership and communication styles.”

“It’s quite thrilling,” said Tilleczek, founder and head of the Young Lives Research Laboratory, who has been involved in many other youth-led curriculum projects. “The steering committee members have such great instincts, developing principles first and then creating content. They’ve considered what the youths’ interests are and created projects related to that.”

Smith believes Rooted & Rising is unique and, in a position, to make a dramatic difference to the students’ lives and, ultimately, the world.

“It’s looking holistically at what is required for actual change to occur in the environment and in living sustainable lives,” Smith said. “What must a person do to transform lives and systems? We will give students the knowledge they need. They’ll need to be emotionally rooted to follow through with change and make it sustainable.”

Alsop says Rooted & Rising is unlike any existing university-based program. With its focus on youth, not only on university students, it is a unique partnership for both the Faculty of Education and York. Thanks to funding from Young Lives Research Laboratory, the David Suzuki Foundation, Dragon Academy and DUCA Impact Lab, no tuition will be required.

The program will teach youth who are concerned about the environment the the leadership skills they need to champion their cause

Although the pilot of the program was slated to take place this term, the COVID-19 pandemic means the start date has been pushed back until the fall term. The three-month course consists of 12 sessions, held solely on weekends, because many of the participants attend school or work during the week. Rooted & Rising will begin and end with intensive weekends spent along the Humber River in Toronto, where urban Indigenous people have been reclaiming their relationships with and responsibilities to the land, and are asserting their rights under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The other sessions will be held on Saturday afternoons, allowing time for far-flung students to commute to Toronto, as needed.

“We begin the program on the land with Indigenous Elders and protocols,” Cohen said. “In doing so, we are rooting ourselves in the wisdom of those who have come before us and have successfully cared for life. Elders will help youth direct and focus their passions by listening deeply and sharing stories.”

Anderson, the expert in Indigenous education, says this grounding will be very valuable. “We wanted to bring in Indigenous points of view and blend them into the course in ethical ways,” he said. “These young people are individuals we need to support and nurture. It should help us in turn to restore relationships with the land as Indigenous people.”

Cohen said the program will finish with a community symposium where the participants are able to share their work with everyone who has been involved or has a relationship to the project. It will be a way to involve the community in discussions about next steps.

Her own next step will be to turn the experience into the foundation for her PhD dissertation using a narrative inquiry approach. Cohen’s dream is for the course to be a rousing success, leading to the opportunity to add it to the University curriculum as a longer, in-depth course or program.

“It has been heartening to see that a university-community partnership can happen quickly to reflect the urgency of the issues,” Cohen said.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus