Several months ago, while perusing the Globe and Mail‘s education section, I came across a wonderfully-written piece by a student named Jaxson Khan. The article, entitled “Who’s missing from the education equation,” argues that high school students should be empowered to advocate for their educational interests, thus reflecting the values of cooperation and collaboration within the Canadian education system. Khan, the Executive Director of the Student Voice Initiative (SVI) and a former recipient of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 prize, seemed to have something special going: an innovative and timely project that I needed to explore in more depth. I consulted the SVI website, sent an email, and waited for a response.
Within hours, Khan sent his response. And as I read through the email, I was stunned. The SVI launched in April 2012, and over the period of thirteen months has made a significant dent on the Canadian education landscape. The movement has gained significant traction in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. It has assembled a network of provincial organizations and a roster chock full of impressive young leaders, with Khan leading the coordination effort at the Canadian level. Under the website’s “What do we know” section, Khan and company write that “Celebrating the successes of youth who make an impact on their communities will encourage more young people to do the same,” a statement that certainly manifests itself in reality.
The idea behind the SVI is as follows: each province should legally mandate an education framework that sees a student trustee on all school boards, like the Edmonton Public School Board that is soon up for re-election in October. The student trustees serve as bridges between high school students and policy makers, and are supported by a student senate, school-specific school councils and a network of conferences and professional development events geared toward student advocacy skills. In an email interview, Khan writes “it is incredibly tough starting a national policy change movement. Nonetheless, I think one of our main successes has been making this a national – and even international – conversation. We have talked to students and policymakers from nearly every province. One could say that dialogue is fruitless without action, but where else do we start? We need to begin by getting everyone – students, academics, and policy-makers – on board.”
Over the weeks to follow, Khan and I maintained an email chain that provided additional insight into the organization’s successes and challenges. I was soon introduced to Claire Edwards, a University of Alberta student entering her second year of Political Science, and current Student Voice Alberta Director. Though geographical limitations prevented Khan and me from meeting in person, Edwards and I agreed to meet at Remedy Cafe on a weekend afternoon.
Though summer was in its early stages, Saturday May 11 was a scorcher. One of the longest days of the year, I had scheduled meetings starting at 8 am in the morning, spending a good four hours traversing the city on foot. Following coffee with a friend at 6 pm, I made my way down to Remedy Cafe for a 7 pm coffee with Claire Edwards, a second-year student whose CV is much the same as Khan’s: remarkable, something that one would expect out of a thirty-year-old looking to consult for McKinsey. Edwards, a TD Canada Scholarship winner, was recently appointed Student Voice Alberta’s Director, and in a short time achieved important gains in her advocacy efforts.
Our discussion opened with an overview of the trials and tribulations of advocacy in British Columbia. When one consults the SVI website, it is clear that Vancouver has been the scene of an interesting education campaign, with the Vancouver Sun covering much of the progress. While the BC Liberals and NDPs geared up for a wild provincial elections campaign, Khan and several Canadian student leaders were conducting their own strategic planning. Backed by trustee Mike Lombardi, the SVI has lobbied current school board trustees to consider a pilot project for 2013-2014. Though the motion narrowly failed, Khan understands that the project is gaining momentum. Through email, he writes “The motion unfortunately failed in a close vote, but that meant something – students from across a province and across Canada successfully lobbied hundreds of trustees from 60+ school boards (representing millions of taxpayers and students) to nearly support student voice across the province. We have more than a hundred adult champions in the form of policy-makers, educational administrators, and more, and their support, just as much as the countless students behind this cause in Canada, and around the world, is only the beginning of our success.”
As Claire and I talked, it became clear that despite its initial successes, the SVI is making considerable climbs in its advocacy efforts. Their achievements are covered by national newspapers like the Globe and Mail to local papers in Medicine Hat. They’ve authored mental health policies, promoted awareness for cyber-bullying issues, shaped nutritional standards in a variety of schools and fundraised for several organizations. This centralized effort is strengthening, and with individuals like Edwards and Khan at the helm, there is every reason to expect more of the same.
So as Claire and I parted ways, I felt more energized than exhausted. The day was a lengthy one, with little room for repose, but learning about SVI created a spark that kept me smiling as I walked home. Some readers may know of Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED Talk and RSA Animate video on creativity, where he argues that our educational institutions hinder students, discouraging them from asking questions, moving around, demonstrating entrepreneurial spirit and so on. In other words, our society’s young students are passive learners, ingesting material rather than working with it. The Student Voice Initiative seems a counterforce to this, a movement rapidly bringing a voice to students aged 18 and under across Canada.
And really, there is little reason to resist the policies proposed by the SVI. On May 26, I was fortunate to present at the Alberta Student Leadership Conference (ALSC), an event that brings together over 500 outstanding high school students from Calgary and Edmonton to small towns like Stony Plain, Olds and Drumheller. The students in attendance were imaginative, knowledgeable, curious, enthusiastic and engaged. They are talented leaders, and the 16, 17 or 18 next to their “age” category is little reason to distance them from education policy affecting high school administration.
Up until this point, the Canadian education debate has been open to students of ages 18 and up. Khan, Edwards and the SVI team are changing this. And our education system will benefit. If the ASLC is any indication, thousands of students across Canada will put high school trusteeship on the map, not only in Ontario and New Brunswick – which is already the case – but in Alberta, B.C., Manitoba, Quebec and the rest of the country.
CC photograph courtesy of the City of Edmonton.