MANITOULIN – Students in Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS)’s equity and social justice class have spent a semester planning and executing a wide variety of community projects, turning their minds toward virtual initiatives to address many of the social challenges that have emerged in the past year especially.
“I’m always pretty amazed at how the students do have a good sense, in a lot of ways, of some of the larger issues in the world,” said MSS teacher Jill Ferguson, who serves as the social studies program lead and recently concluded teaching the elective course for the second time.
‘Equity and Social Justice: From Theory to Practice’ is a Grade 12-level social sciences and humanities elective that MSS offered in the 2018-2019 school year and again for 2020-2021.
It aims to let students grow their understanding of ongoing social justice and equality issues while providing broader historical context as to why certain conditions persist.
The significant final task of the course is to put a project into action that addresses a social issue. This was even more challenging when trying to design activities that could run in a virtual format, in line with public health measures.
“I was absolutely amazed. It took them a little bit of time to get their brains wrapped around not being able to do the in-person things they originally wanted,” said Ms. Ferguson, “but they seemed to take the restrictions with relative ease and were quite creative in how they were going to work around them.”
Each of the 29 students in this year’s cohort approached the assignment in a unique way. The activities ranged from a bake sale (in support of the Manitoulin Family Resources food bank) to informative class presentations, mental health awareness campaigns, clothing and toy drives, selling embroidered clothes to support missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) and advocacy for victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence.
They began their projects in late October and they concluded at the end of the semester last month.
Grade 11 student Lisa Ermilova launched ‘Manitoulin for Mental Health,’ an online campaign to foster discussions about mental illness and advocate for related supports. She said this has long been a passion topic of hers and said grassroots campaigns can have much different impacts.
“It brings comfort to them, knowing that there’s someone they just see as a normal person who can be struggling or speaking up about these issues as well,” said Lisa.
She intended to use a social media campaign from the start to draw a wider audience, so the pandemic did not have massive impacts on her execution. More than 100 people each started following her Instagram and Facebook pages.
Beyond the class, she said she wanted to keep the campaign going, adding guest speakers and expanding her campaign to include mental health in public schools.
Zoe Redmond, also a Grade 11 student in the Grade 12 class, took a mental health angle for her project but focused it on connecting across generations around Christmas.
She contacted Central Manitoulin Public School and students created 121 pieces of art from cards to paintings, all with a Christmas theme.
About half of the art went to Community Living Manitoulin, with the other half going to Manitoulin Health Centre’s Mindemoya site. She took inspiration from her grandmother, who spent a few months in hospital near the start of the pandemic and was not able to have visitors. They both share a passion for art, so they started exchanging artwork to stay connected.
“It really brought up her spirits and reminded her of home. She suffers from severe depression so it’s hard for her to connect with things. It was one of the only possessions she was able to keep at the hospital,” she said.
Community Living shared photos of its residents with their art online, and family members living far away said they were delighted to see their loved ones’ faces again. Nurses at the hospital spent an evening together to hang up the art throughout the halls.
“I hope to do this again next year and a lot of people have asked me to do it again as well. I wanted to show public school students that something they could do every day, such as a drawing or just writing, how far it could go and how impactful something small could be on a larger scale.”
Ms. Ferguson said this spoke to one of her key takeaways for this class, that one does not have to be a global icon like Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi to make an impact.
“I want them to take away the idea that they can do something small that has a really deep impact. They don’t have to change the whole world, they can just make one little part of it a bit better,” she said.
Ethan Theijsmeijer, attending the class virtually, addressed the problem of men’s mental illness and the strong stigmas that tend to make men feel less comfortable speaking about their struggles.
“A lot of the time, they can be seen as weaker or ‘lesser than,’ and are taught to repress their emotions. The goal of my account was to collect testimonials and stories from men, anonymously, and post those online to show other men that others go through those struggles like them and it’s easily treatable,” he said.
Ethan’s Instagram page drew a lot of positive messages from people who said it was very beneficial, especially for people his own age in Grade 11, to hear from their peers about finding strength.
The students were all quick to give kudos to Ms. Ferguson for her work in keeping the class organized, despite having half of her students attend virtually.