“If I can hear the Djembe drum heartbeats, I know that I am close to The Peaceful Village. This is a place where I am loved even though I am so new to this place. Here I will become someone who will make my new community stronger.”
– Peaceful Village high school student
When you visit The Peaceful Village after-school program, you will find physics tutors who make high-level math sound beautiful and soccer players who defy those same laws of physics. Around every corner a symphony of languages erupts, because a microcosm of the world gathers in this remarkable place each day after school. The cultural commons in Canada is enriched each time a new family arrives, and although many former refugee youth face daunting barriers when they enter the public school system in Canada, many of their settlement stories are filled with powerful lessons about survival, love and resilience.
The Peaceful Village after-school program offers academic, social/emotional, arts, and sports programming across three sites to over 300 former refugee families who live in Winnipeg’s inner city. Since the program’s inception in 2009, every learning activity, conversation, meal, artwork, game, and musical note has been an attempt to contribute to the development of a more critically conscious, healthy, and joyful community. All Peaceful Village community members are strongly encouraged to bring their knowledge and talents to bear in order to enrich Manitoba’s extraordinary cultural mosaic. Program director Daniel Swaka describes this commitment in relation to his own story:
“As a former refugee and a newcomer myself, I easily identify myself with the youth and families and with all the challenges they are going through in their new communities. The diversity in The Peaceful Village speaks volumes. Everyone has a sense of belonging and all voices are heard. Despite enormous challenges, we believe in developing our program from the ‘roots up,’ meaning we build and evaluate our program with students and parents. It is not a top-down approach. And we stay connected with our families after their children leave the program. Once in the Village, always in the Village.”
This article examines a few of the lessons The Peaceful Village staff and partners have learned about making space for newcomer youth to thrive in their new school communities. The four essential tenets that frame our work are: start with questions; open multiple artistic learning opportunities; see the power in intergenerational learning; and challenge youth to drive program direction and evaluation.
Start with questions
The Peaceful Village program was born out of a participatory action research project conducted in 2009 by the Manitoba School Improvement Program (MSIP) to identify the barriers that were impacting former refugee families in two school communities. As MSIP consultant, I spoke with parents, youth, settlement service providers, community leaders, teachers, administrators, and representatives from Manitoba Labour and Immigration. The action research process yielded profound results. The program’s mission, key activities, and evaluations are directly connected to the testimonials given by the families and community leaders during the action research phase. We learned that inquiry processes can build coalitions of committed and passionate community and school advocates who are able to work in solidarity to reduce the “push-out” rates of former refugee youth in high schools.
One of my former Grade 10 students once told me that “the world would be a lot better if people asked questions before they started giving answers. We need to get curious.” Her profound comment continues to influence my work as a teacher, educational consultant, and researcher. All of our partners are continuously asked to critique the program in relation to their own understandings about the gaps in services for newcomer youth. These cyclical “problem posing” conversations ensure a higher degree of resonance between our mission and our practices, and have spread beyond the program itself. As one of our school partners, a high school teacher, stated, “Because of The Peaceful Village in our school, I have become a better informed and conscientious teacher who seeks out others’ viewpoints and experiences and attempts to include them in designing the curricula of my students. It has also caused me to be more aware of various communities in Winnipeg, whose populations are continually changing.”
Offer multiple artistic learning opportunities
Arts-based learning helps us to think more deeply about who we are in the world and the ways in which we are sometimes marginalized by other people or systems. In fact, powerful artworks can compel us to see the world as it is, and then incite us to work towards a more just and joyful future. We invite all Peaceful Village participants to use their wisdom, deeds, beats, and words to make their lives and their communities works of art. For example, The Peaceful Village Drummers use djembe drumbeats to make space for youth empowerment at various community meetings and celebrations. Our hip-hop dancers use movement and their music to disrupt negative social constructions of youth and resistance.
In The Peaceful Village program we also use the language of the theatre to address challenges that cause some of the difficulties in our lives. The students play theatre games, put on plays in the wider community, and invite audience members to wrestle with shared dilemmas. After a recent Forum Theatre performance that focused on the program participants’ struggles with language barriers, one of the youth actors discussed the impact of the work on her personal development:
“I learned a lot about myself and about a lot of other people. And kind of like I’m more to who I am going to become when I grow up. Like I said before, don’t be afraid to stick up for yourself, you know? And I think that really stuck to me. So I think that’s going to be one of the parts that’s going to make me who I am.”
See the power in intergenerational learning
We are committed to building assets across families. Each of The Peaceful Village sites operates a “Learning Centre,” which students and parents both attend to access tutoring and mentoring supports. Over 84 percent of the youth participants receive an additional 15 instructional hours per week. On Saturdays, parents and grandparents can gather together for three hours to work on their own literacy development goals. Children often learn new languages more quickly than their parents, so many newcomer children act as interpreters and liaisons for the family. This gives too much power to the children and undermines the leadership capacity of the parents. Therefore Peaceful Village staff members work hard to ensure the parents are able to access the settlement and literacy supports they need in order to be successful. As one of our parent participants noted,
“The multicultural parenting classes organized by Peaceful Village are really important for us to learn about many positive things. It helps me a lot to improve my language and it promotes my ability to deal with several school challenges that might come up in my family.”
Each month we host Village Kitchens to provide parents with another opportunity to advocate for their children’s education and to build relationships with other families in their school community. Interpreters are available to break down communication barriers. On average, there are over 150 parents and children who attend each community feast. According to one of our high school participants,
“The Village Kitchens are the best moments to be in The Peaceful Village. Every Village Kitchen is unique, different guest speakers motivate us, seeing my family present, the fun games, and different cultural displays from the villagers. The food is always great. I love the Village Kitchens.”
These events build bridges within the community and have fostered the development of several informal parent support networks. According to one of the parents in the program,
“The Village Kitchens give me an opportunity to visit the school of my daughter, and see her drumming. It gives me joy and smiles. Through the Village Kitchens, I get a chance to meet other newcomers and to make new friends.”
Youth-driven program development and evaluation
The Peaceful Village program is committed to youth empowerment and mentorship. A number of our junior community development tutors are graduates of the program. Just like our senior staff, all of our junior staff are multilingual and understand the unique challenges facing former refugee youth in Canadian public schools. One of our junior community development tutors eloquently explains the importance of mentorship and her commitment to the ethos of the program:
“In 2010 I started going to Peaceful Village as a student in order to get help with my studies. I loved Peaceful Village since it was the only place where I felt equal and I could fit in. There were many different students from very different countries and cultures. As a student in Peaceful Village I had some expectations such as having healthy snacks, and being tutored individually which I always got from PV. In 2011 I finished high school; before graduating high school I did some volunteering during my second year in PV helping other students. A few months after graduating, I wanted to be part of PV. It was easy for me to get to know other kids and give them the attention they deserve. My role in PV has changed. My past experiences as a new student taught me how to take care of these kids. I know what they are going through as new students and as people who are new to the country. I know what kind of help they need because I’ve just been through it and I’m also a student myself at university.”
Each Peaceful Village site has a youth leadership team that is responsible for ensuring students’ voices legitimately inform program planning and evaluation. Students collaborate with staff to assess the effectiveness of their tutoring supports in relation to their successes and challenges in their school subjects. Another example of student voice in the program is that all summer and spring break activities are determined by the youth participants. Students are able to provide their feedback in numerous ways. Program staff use image theatre, forum theatre, interviews, focus groups and photo-voice to gather information. Recently, several of the students used poetry to share their thoughts and feelings on the program (See Sidebar).
In Canada, public schools are one of the few social institutions where children, adolescents, and adults have the potential to gather together to become living expressions of the codified dreams and judgments about what constitutes the “good life.” They are places where students and families share a myriad of experiences that promote both community renewal and the individual questioning of the status quo. It is imperative that former refugee families are given the opportunity to influence the method and matter of education in their new communities.
The Peaceful Village
Very calming and silent
Until we arrived…
I’ve learned much
Quizzes were given
We got ice cream treats
The village helped me
Solve many of my problems
Keeping me more calm
I am not perfect
The people in the village,
No one is perfect
In my lonely room
Or in the peaceful village
I am not alone
My experience here
Was a long learning pathway
It wasn’t easy
But totally worth it all
I love The Peaceful Village
– a Grade 7 Peaceful Village student
For more information about The Peaceful Village Program, contact Program Director Daniel Swaka at email@example.com or 204-949-1858.
Photos: Courtesy The Peaceful Village
First published in Education Canada, January 2014
EN BREF – Le patrimoine culturel canadien s’enrichit chaque fois qu’arrive une nouvelle famille. Bien que de nombreux jeunes qui étaient des réfugiés soient confrontés à d’importants obstacles lorsqu’ils intègrent le réseau d’écoles publiques du Canada, de puissantes leçons de survie, d’amour et de résilience caractérisent souvent leurs récits d’adaptation. Cet article examine certaines des leçons apprises par le personnel et les partenaires du programme parascolaire The Peaceful Village au sujet de la façon d’encadrer les jeunes arrivants afin qu’ils s’épanouissent dans leurs nouveaux milieux scolaires.