Youth Peacebuilding Project: Sowing Seeds of Harmony in Manitoba

In Manitoba, Aboriginal people have much lower incomes than the population as a whole, and immigrants and refugees are more likely to live in poverty. Those two groups make up the majority of the population of Winnipeg’s inner city, where poverty levels have increased since the seventies – according to a University of Winnipeg study, in 2001 more than four out of every ten households in this area fell below the poverty line. As a result of violence, racism, and systemic barriers [problems in the social system that cause barriers] within these communities, tension between youth of different backgrounds has risen.

In 2008 the Institute for Community Peacebuilding of the Canadian Mennonite University launched the Youth Peacebuilding Project (YPP), a program based on the model of Seeds of Peace –an international group that helps teenagers from regions of conflict learn the skills of making peace. YPP’s main purpose is to promote positive contact between youth from different cultural, religious, geographical and economic backgrounds, and provide the youth with social skills that can improve their chances of success. The program works to help youth who have experienced conflict between identity groups [groups who identify themselves a particular way, such as First Nations, African, Caucasian, etc.], and are at risk of becoming gang members or criminals.

For four years YPP has worked with several hundred kids in Winnipeg, annually selecting 64 teenagers, ages 13-17, to participate in an event they call “the Summer Peace Gathering”. At this week-long camp, they take part in activities involving communication between cultures, sharing of perspectives [how things look from different people’s points of view], training in ending conflicts, and learning by experience.

Canadian Newcomer spoke with David S. Pankratz, Director of the Institute for Community Peacebuilding, to learn more about YPP and The Gathering, which takes place at the end of the summer.

o Where are the origins of the Youth Peacebuilding Project and why is this program needed in Winnipeg?

The program was created in response to a situation that was happening in Winnipeg’s inner city, where there was increasing tension between Aboriginals, refugees –who are mostly African— and what we call “established kids”, white kids. But the reason was that they didn’t really know each other; it was like they lived in separate parts of the world. So, Noëlle DePape, the woman who originally came up with the idea for the project, thought that if we could approach this situation using the Seeds of Peace model, we could get these kids to know each other and we could open doors and create opportunities for

them.

o How do you select participants for The Gathering?

When we first started we had really high ideals about how carefully we would select participants, and the idea was to find kids who had experienced the tension or violence between groups, but not to a degree where they’d be too angry to benefit from the project. In practice, the fact that most of them came from the inner city meant that they had experienced these situations. It isn’t hard to find kids who have had a negative experience with people from another identity group; we didn’t have to be very sophisticated about our selection to find participants for whom this process would work and be useful.

o How enthusiastic are kids about attending The Gathering?

They are certainly enthusiastic about getting out of the city for a week and go to camp, although some of them have never been to camp before, so they may be a little apprehensive. When we ask them why they are coming, they usually answer that they want to do fun things like going swimming, but they understand that they are going there to meet people that they wouldn’t normally meet.

o What does a day at The Gathering look like?

We’ve structured each day so that the kids have to interact in three different groupings. They have a cabin group; they go to their dialogue sessions with a different group of people; and in the evenings they have to interact with everyone in the camp. The dialogue sessions involve many topics, and the objective is for them to gain understanding of their own identity group and appreciation for other identity groups. Obviously they also do typical camp activities like going swimming, playing sports, and creating arts and crafts.

o What does conflict resolution training involve in the context of The Gathering?

It’s training on how to deal with the conflicts that arise in one’s daily life. One workshop section that we do is perspective sharing, where they learn how to see and share something in a way that other people can understand. Our natural tendency when we disagree with someone is to get that person to stop talking so we can say what we believe to be true. We teach the youth how to listen and how to express their opinions in a constructive way, while keeping their beliefs.

o What do participants learn from the experience, and from each other?

They get to talk to each other enough to see how others view the world differently, how they construct their lives differently, and then they begin to think about themselves differently as well.

I’ll give you an example: A young refugee woman who was linked to a gang shared what her life was like, and a suburban kid in her group expressed his surprise that so many people in Winnipeg lived like this, and said that he never thought he’d meet anybody like that. So the young woman responded that she had always imagined that the life she lived was normal, and now by listening to the people in the room she realized this wasn’t the life she was destined to live, and she would find a way to make different choices.

o What would you say is the biggest achievement of YPP?

Getting youth and organizations from very different backgrounds to come back to this event year after year shows that we are doing something that they think is important. We don’t have to go knocking on doors asking people to come on board; it’s the other way around.