Our Communities’ Indigenous Learners - Asking the hard questions.

Odette Lloyd, Community Learning Network

1 7 10 April 2018

This week's guest blog comes from Kelly Schram, Executive Director at Manning Community Adult Learning and Literacy. Kelly shares some of her reflections on Manning's journey, learnings and experiences as they have worked to create safer spaces in the CALP model and better engage Indigenous learners.

Indigenous Learners make up part of virtually every community in Alberta yet they comprise a very small part of many of our program participants. Have you ever wondered why? For many of us that question can seem overwhelming, and with limited time and budgets, finding out the answers can be a big challenge.

“We don’t have any Indigenous Learners.”

Does that mean they aren’t in our community or they aren’t coming in for help in our programs? Different questions but the same answer applies to both in the vast number of CALP communities in Alberta. Yes. They are in your community. Yes. They aren’t attending programs.

Finding the whys of those questions can be the first steps. I have found that the process of being comfortable with discomfort very useful. Are Indigenous people walking down the street? Are they living in your community? If the answer is, and it likely is, “yes”, and you don’t have them in your programs, ask yourself why? Ask your schools, your local food banks, your hospitals, “Do you see Indigenous individuals and families in your space?” Sometimes we only look for what we already know. We tend to recreate the familiar. For example, we may have ELL learners asking for programs, and they will be enthusiastic about traditional learning models we are familiar with. So, with limited time, budgets, and training resources, we do what is simple.

If you understand Indigenous Learners are part of your community, the next question is, “Why aren’t they attending and staying in your programs?” These questions are difficult and they are important.

First, never underestimate the impact of residential schools and intergenerational trauma. Alberta had more residential schools than any other province and these schools were open into the nineties. This means people in your community attended themselves, or were raised by individuals that have good reason to be suspicious and fearful of our European style of education. We have a lot of ground to make up before they will even think about attending programs.

How do we address this complex and emotional issue? The answer is often found in a complex mix of historical wrongs, cultural misunderstandings, and individual insecurities - our clients and our own. Understand that our educational model is not the only model of value. Indigenous models are more about community than one single person being an expert. Get your learners involved in teaching their skills to you and to others. It’s more about sharing knowledge to the community than one person being in charge.

Rethinking our definition of community is also key. Attitudes towards the elderly, children, the importance of feminine wisdom, their connection to the land, and tolerance towards minorities is profoundly different than European values and if you are aware, it can be good for the soul. Encouraging these concepts in our educational paradigm can only help all of our program participants.

In the Indigenous perspective, culture is embedded in education. This is a reality. But in a world that grows increasingly complex, clinging to the European model we have used in the past may not be the best way to the future we are trying to make with our Indigenous neighbors.

These are a few things we have learned that you can use today:

  1. Cultural differences are bigger than you think. The way we communicate and the assumptions we make about social assumptions between Indigenous and non-indigenous people can be very different. Often we may assume we understand the differences better than we do. On the plus side, it can be an entertaining exploration getting to know each other.

  2. Humor and compassion go a long way.

  3. Community Building takes time. Be prepared to spend months and years getting to know people and let yourself be known. Getting to know another culture you have lived next to for decades is fascinating. It is challenging to open your eyes to new information and perspectives, but there is much we can learn from the Indigenous Culture.

  4. The Elders in your community are precious. Everyone says getting Elders involved is paramount but it’s not as easy as you think. Take time to get to know people.

  5. Bring food. Breaking bread with the members of the Indigenous Community is important.

  6. Take time and be casual. They will come and go and their participation in your programs may be spotty. Be prepared to have newcomers once they are sure of the intent. They will leave and if you are patient, they will come back.

Stop. Look around you. Pay attention. Don’t assume because you aren’t seeing something it isn’t there. Don’t assume that because Indigenous Learners aren’t attending programs that they don’t want to learn. Be open to change. Be patient. And most importantly, open yourself to an adventure of learning about something that has been in your community all along. Be prepared to challenge your assumptions about how you do things and why. But also be prepared for beautiful surprises in a myriad of situations. This is not for the faint of heart but it is well worth it.

I can say that even though it has been a challenge getting Indigenous Learners engaged in CALP programs, it has been worth it. I have laughed more than I ever thought possible. I have learned more about a culture I was raised next to, than I would have believed. Who knew what a lip point meant? I know a little Cree. I have found that almost anything can be accomplished with children around.

I have learned that I have something to learn from every single human being. I have learned more about balance. I have learned to slow down. I’ve learned to throw away the agenda and relax. Mostly, I have learned that building community is well worth it.

Kelly Schram, Executive Director
Manning Community Adult Learning and Literacy


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