“Lighting The Fire” of youth organizing

The following was written by Tracy Fraser, Project Coordinator of Thinking Rock Community Arts. You can see the original posting here

We are in a significant time in history.  Across all nations, people are coming together to create a new way of  being together in this world.  It is a time foreseen by our Anishinabek ancestors in the Seventh Fire Prophecy, which states:

“In the time of the Seventh Fire New People will emerge. They will retrace their steps to find what was left by the trail. Their steps will take them to the Elders who they will ask to guide them on their journey. But many of the Elders will have fallen asleep. They will awaken to this new time with nothing to offer. Some of the Elders will be silent because no one will ask anything of them. The New People will have to be careful in how they approach the Elders. The task of the New People will not be easy.”

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The first regional gathering of the Youth Social Infrastructure Collaborative, held in Algoma from May 29th – June 2nd at Chiblow Lake Lodge in Mississauga First Nation, was said by the Elders and youth alike to be part of the realization of that prophecy.

Thirty five young people and adult allies were asked to come “Build a Fire” of youth-led organizing in Algoma. The guiding question we wanted to explore together was “what would it look like to build a community of support for young people in Algoma”?

The gathering had been designed over a year and a half by over 20 young people and adult allies who had been convened twice by the Algoma Core Team of seven young organizers.  In each of these meetings we considered what conversations we should be having at the gathering.  The infrastructure for this process was offered by Thinking Rock Community Arts with support from members of the provincial YSI Core Team as well as YSI Coordinators Chris Lee and Cathy Dyer. The gathering was funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Laidlaw Foundation, with funds being stewarded by Children’s Mental Health Ontario.

The Algoma Core Team greeted our mentor hosting team, who flew in from Toronto and Ottawa, the night before the gathering to review the agenda and make any last minute adjustments. We broke bread together and got to know one another since some of us hadn’t met each other before, and prepared for the days ahead.  But all the planning in the world could not have foretold the depth of raw emotion that would emerge, the strength of the resilient bonds that would form, and the level of energy that would be created. It was a magical time, with magical people, in what seems to have been a ‘magical’ forest on the sacred territory of Mississauga First Nation.

It was a magical time, with magical people, in what seems to have been a ‘magical’ forest.

As we arrived, the sun was as high above the clouds as our aspirations were for this event. The main cabin, referred to as “The Nest”, was the meeting place for meaningful discussions and heart-felt, land-based activities.  We began by asking ourselves what it means to be in right relations with each other; to be respectful, to hear each other’s voices, to be accepting of all.  We co-created a document using words and images that described how we could create this safe space of respect and love that would guide our interactions throughout the weekend.

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At the “Algoma Café”, we hosted one another in conversations where we asked: What story about your community do you find yourself telling most often?  What are we not talking about that we should be? And what’s in your heart for your community?  The World Cafe facilitation technique of breaking into small group discussions allowed every voice in the room to be heard.  Hearts were beating and tears were shared, connections were created and the first silk of web was shaped.

I learned that even if your town is not a community there are people all over that make up a community.

Through powerful love and harmonious bonding, the dialogues brought many creative minds back to the core of why they do their work.  Important issues were raised like abuse, addictions, suicide, discrimination and missing and murdered Aboriginal women.  The web extended to participating youth, some as young as fourteen, who were given the opportunity to co-host important discussions.  In doing so, we intentionally shared leadership and power while co-creating a shared dialogue that honoured all contributions and perspectives.

The youth were enthusiastic about sharing their voice to the collective audience and walked out feeling valued, with a lighter load to carry.  As one participant said, “I learned that I’m a part of something other than myself” while another said, “I learned that even if your town is not a community there are people all over that make up a community”.

We created space outside of the intense discussions for people to connect with each other and the land.  Some went swimming, canoeing, fishing and on nature walks while others meditated and gained rest for the next event.  Participants Sophie and Emily Edwards from 4elements Living Arts on Manitoulin Island led us in a land art activity of raft making with natural objects.  We played a giant form of jenga we  termed ‘YENGA’, where every participant decorated a block with their many skills and strengths to build a metaphorical tower combining all of our strengths into one.

Two Elders, Linda and Leona from Sagamok Anishnawbek, led us on incredible medicine walks where we learned about the medicinal and healing properties of many native plants. Elsie, another Elder from Serpent River First Nation, helped us create beautiful medicine pouches and shared some of her experiences and teachings with the group. She shared with us how important it is to ask our Elders for their stories and said, “It seems like a whole new world has opened up for you young people that was never possible before.” Algoma Core Team member, Candace Neveau, led us in making our own dream catchers, including the harvesting of willows – which was a wonderful experience, except for the bugs! The group took part in sun rise ceremonies and sacred fires as the spirits danced to the drum of our new gifted song from a respected Elder.

It seems like a whole new world has opened up for you young people that was never possible before.

The days turned to nights which turned to camp fires and merry-making. There was a dance off with tunes provided by participant DJ Seith, some accordion playing by Rihkee StrappShannon Moan strumming the guitar and ukulele, fire-dancing by Shruti Ravi, story-telling, drumming and singing and a whole lot of star gazing! The nights also shared much laughter and round dancing to traditional drumming from local youth artists Liam Stevens, Jade Nawehgahbow, Taymor Day and Quinn Meawasige around the fire. The positive energy radiated and we were gifted with a new friend; the silver fox. Our temperamental friend made an appearance every day throughout our time at Chiblow Lake Lodge.

Chief Reggie Niganobe, from Mississauga First Nation, was in attendance on Sunday to encourage youth to step up and lead change in their communities. The Youth Social Infrastructure was also presented a plaque recognizing the receipt of funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation which was presented by local OTF representative Sally Hagman.

For youth and adult allies alike this was a new, innovative and invigorating experience. A new generation of leaders has awakened with strong voices, creative minds and loving hearts. It feels as if all trials and tribulations led us to this point. The lighting of the fire led us to find ourselves, and within ourselves to find each other.  We followed the synchronicities that led us to our spiritual beings that led us home. Now that we have connected with the lights of the spirits of one another, we can take the light and pass the torch to the rest of our people in right relations with our friends.

Your insight to see that Algoma needed this, and the drive to make it happen… amazing, powerful, and again, thank you!

The four days spent together ignited a flame within each of us that no one can put out. Youth walked away feeling encouraged, heard and empowered to make positive change and organize within their own communities.

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As one participant said, “I have not had a time in Sault Ste. Marie where my feelings and emotions have been so raw.  You should feel immensely proud of what you and the hosting team achieved. Words do little justice. Your insight to see that Algoma needed this, and the drive to make it happen…amazing, powerful, and again, thank you! You are right, we do need this in Algoma.”

To my brothers & sisters, we are the change-makers, the edge-walkers and the light-workers of our time. Chi- Miigwetch!

*twinkle fingers*