Reconciliation through Experiential Learning: YouthUnited@Winnipeg

Like most large urban centres, Winnipeg is complex and in many ways divided. Geographically, Winnipeg has a long history of racial and class lines, with poverty and the problems poverty creates concentrated in inner-city and North End neighbourhoods.

Many Winnipeg residents, exposed only to negative stereotypes, are fearful of these neighbourhoods and rarely, if ever, spend time in them. It is also the case that many inner-city residents, especially those who are indigenous, feel safest in the inner city, where they are less likely to experience racism.

The University of Winnipeg’s Department of Urban and Inner City Studies, located in the heart of the North End on Selkirk Avenue, is creating a new bridge across this divide. Beginning on May 3, students from across the city are coming together in a safe and open learning environment where they can discuss the complex issues of our city and learn from each other.

YouthUnited@Winnipeg is a new pilot project funded by the City of Winnipeg. Twenty students from diverse cultural, inner-city and suburban backgrounds are beginning a unique four-month university program aimed at fully engaging in the process of reconciliation.

As described by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), reconciliation requires “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples… In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes and action to change behaviour.”

YouthUnited@Winnipeg puts reconciliation into action by bringing indigenous and non-indigenous students together in an experiential learning environment. Experiential learning means moving beyond academic theories. It is “learning by doing.” It challenges students to reflect on their experiences so that they not only develop new skills, but also question the attitudes and beliefs that can serve to perpetuate racial, geographic and class divides.

Community-based organizations are an important part of this new program. Students will have an opportunity to apply what they learn in the classroom through paid work placements at different organizations in the inner city. Students will be exposed to different cultures and experiences and they will be challenged to more deeply understand the historical roots and contemporary contexts that serve to perpetuate our city’s divides.

The hope is that students interested in eliminating Winnipeg’s divides realize they have the power to participate in positive change through civic engagement.

Many U.S. cities have an “urban peace corps,” such as the City Year program, which invites young people to work in the inner city for the public good. When City Year representatives visited Winnipeg in 2014, they emphasized our city needed to create a youth service program. The University of Winnipeg and the city have now developed a “made-in-Winnipeg” model that can serve as an example for the rest of the country to replicate.

YouthUnited@Winnipeg is deeply inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report that calls for reconciliation to include “sustained public education and dialogue, including youth engagement.”

We cannot simply be tourists looking “in” and “at,” but people working “with” and “for.” Once students return to their neighbourhoods, they will be better prepared to challenge stereotypes when they encounter them. Students will gain a broader understanding of inner-city realities including resiliency, hope and strength.

The TRC reminds us that the journey toward reconciliation will be long and that collectively, we have much work to do. The TRC shows us the path forward. YouthUnited@Winnipeg, in a small and humble way, aims to follow that path.

Shauna MacKinnon is associate professor in the department of Urban and Inner City Studies at the University of Winnipeg. Brian Mayes is a city councillor, St. Vital Ward.This article appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on April 24th, 2017.

Read more by Shauna MacKinnon and Brian Mayes.

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