HOW DOES YOUTH ENGAGEMENT DIFFER IN THE ABORIGINAL COMMUNITY?
The different characteristics that exist between cultures need to be understood. Each culture reacts differently and when considering Aboriginal youth substance abuse prevention, efforts need to reflect that. While youth engagement amoung Aboriginals has similar aspects to that of the Euro-centric counterparts, differences need to be acknowledged. Youth engagement is defined as the sustained and meaningful involvement of youth in an activity focusing outside him or herself. Research studies prove that proper youth engagement is successful in decreasing the rate of risky behaviour, such as substance use, amoung youth. So how do we engage our Aboriginal youth?
The prevalence of risky behaviour amoung Aboriginal youth in Canada is significant. The rate of drug use, violence and suicide is much greater amoung Aboriginal youth than their non-Aboriginal peers. It is clear that youth engagement is needed in the Aboriginal community, especially in urban communities where 49% of the total Aboriginal community lives. The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal People’s Report, Urban Aboriginal Youth: An Action Plan for Change (Chalifoux and Johnson 2003), highlights the fact that urban areas lack the defined Aboriginal governance structures of their on-reserve counterparts. Since urban areas lack established urban Aboriginal governance structures, youth engagement in Aboriginal communities is more difficult. The creation of a youth council or having youth representatives on a Board of Directors, and providing real capacity for youth to have complete control over youth-specific endeavors is a positive step in the right direction but rarely happens. Addressing the specific needs of Aboriginal youth will create protective factors that will prevent them from turning to risky behaviour. Protective factors such as the following are important; keeping traditional culture and values, including spirituality, contact to community Elders and healthy, strong family and community connections.
Before Aboriginal youth can be engaged the cultural aspects of their identity need to be understood. Research has shown that a strong cultural identity can be a powerful protective factor for youth and decrease the rate of substance abuse. Bicultural competence is a theory related to cultural identity in that youth who have the skills, values and attitudes necessary to be successful in their traditional community as well as in the dominant culture will be better able to make positive and healthy choices in many aspects of their life.
Cultural identity is a significant measure to how we see ourselves and the world. Over the years many Aboriginal youth, parents and communities have lost their culture identity through attempts to fit in the Euro-centric way of life. Aboriginal youth need to maintain a healthy sense of identity and what it means for them to be an Aboriginal living in Canada. A rejection of anything seen as part of the dominant culture may result if the youth doesn’t properly understand this. It is common that a rejection of institutions, such as school, will occur. School provides youth the important skills and opportunities for positive and healthy growth. Therefore, incorporating healthy and positive messages about cultural identity is an essential part of providing appropriate and good service to Aboriginal youth. Strong relationships need to exist between youth and their older generations to keep them involved in their community and have a sense of importance and support. A youth needs to feel that they have a sense of belonging, identity and self-esteem.
Educators play an important role in engaging youth. Educators who care and have high expectations for Aboriginal youth will contribute to academic success. Ensuring that classroom lessons reflect Aboriginal learning styles is imperative. Always remembering to consider the Aboriginal culture and their language is a crucial part in the practice of youth engagement. School communities that have a meaningful and strong relationship with the Aboriginal community will also succeed in effectively engaging youth.
The Council on Drug Abuse (CODA) has a Drug Abuse Prevention Program project underway for Aboriginal and Vulnerable Youth in Northern and Prairie School Communities. The program will engage youth in grades 7, 8 and 9 from 117 schools in Aboriginal and vulnerable communities throughout Nunavut, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. This prevention program helps youth make healthy decisions through a better understanding of the harmful effects of drug abuse.
The goal of youth engagement is to empower youth, give them constructive activities to participate in and reduce risky behaviour. Youth have a chance to live a healthy lifestyle and make independent and positive decisions. But it’s not only youth that benefit from this practice. The ideas that youth bring to organizations and adults strengthens the community in which they live. Strong relationships are formed, a sense of connection to the community and a safe environment for new generations to come. Youth engagement needs to happen now if we want to prevent substance abuse amoung our youth and create safe communities for all.
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