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Closing the Distance in Thunder Bay

"Supporting Youth Voices Against Racism"

"A student workshop is being held in Thunder Bay tomorrow to help eliminate racism. It will not seek to prevent racism from starting in city schools because it's already there. How it got there is a matter for all of us. . . . The new neighbour, the person on the street, the people in the car in the mall parking lot can be singled out in derisive terms and tones by adults who need to consider the example they are setting for children who need them for guidance. It takes quite a bit to deflect youth from their natural inclination to like all people; it's going to take more to get that trust back. A workshop like Wednesday's gives us hope it can start in our schools." (The Chronicle-Journal, April 13, 2004)

On April 14, 2004, a group of about 65 youth and adults spend a day together at a conference entitled "Racism in the Schools". As participants enter the meeting room, each is given a colourful "Closing the Distance" T-shirt, with "racism - stop it" printed on the back. Spontaneously, almost everyone changes into the T-shirt before the conference begins.

Participants include teachers and guidance counsellors from local high schools, staff from community agencies and about 50 young people, including high school students and young people who are not in school. Young people and adults are paired to co-facilitate small group discussions at the event.

They discuss the issue of racism in Thunder Bay, focusing on how it plays out in local high schools. Several Aboriginal speakers tell some emotionally powerful stories of their school year experiences of discrimination and racism. In groups and as a whole the conference participants explore and create a picture of the "root causes" of racism in Thunder Bay schools.

The graphic portrayal of racism is compelling and generates a resolve among the participating youth and adults to work together to end racism in Thunder Bay schools and neighbourhoods. A list of ideas for action is produced before the day is done.

The Project Steering Committee, which includes school board officials, meets to review the results of the Racism in the Schools Workshop. A report coming out of the meeting says: "It is the consensus of the Steering Committee that not only was the workshop a success, but that the committee should continue to meet to help implement some of the recommendations identified by the participants or other strategies that will foster a safe, inclusive school environment for all students and build relationships between youth and adults." (E-mail communication of Lakehead Social Planning Council Board member to Steering Committee members, May 25, 2004)

A year and a half earlier, on December 9, 2002, the Thunder Bay Closing the Distance Project had begun its journey with a community visioning session. At this session, young people from the Thunder Bay community met with staff from community organizations working on youth issues, and other community leaders working in the health, social, and education sectors. They talked about how young people can become distanced from their parents, adults in the community and their schools, often leaving them out of high school, without a home, or without a job. They discussed how young people have dreams and goals, but often need help to make them a reality. From here, the Closing the Distance Project began the journey towards "building community connections" between youth and adults in Thunder Bay.

This story is about why the journey began and then progressed on to that exciting Conference in April 2004.

Anti Racism TShirt
Graphic and message on T-Shirt distributed at Racism in the Schools Conference, Thunder Bay, April 14, 2004

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