Edmonton Gamechangers

These passionate youth are building a more positive, inclusive future, with the help of ECF’s Young Edmonton Grants

They’re passionate, inspired and motivated to create positive change. They’re the young leaders who are working to help Edmonton grow as a more inclusive, supportive and sustainable community. From supporting mental health and wellbeing, to creating a stronger sense of belonging for students of diverse backgrounds, these young people are working to build a brighter future for Edmonton.

They are some of the recipients of Edmonton Community Foundation’s (ECF) Young Edmonton Grants (YEG) program, and are working hard to help Edmonton become the community they want to be a part of, for the long term.

Alberta GSA Conference 2023
University of Alberta

For more than a decade, the Alberta GSA Conference has been helping gender and sexual-diverse youth from across the province come together to gain knowledge they can use and bring back to their home communities.

“For some students, it might be the first time they ever get to feel safe in their life, which is massive,” says Evan Westfal, education coordinator at the Fyrefly Institute for Gender and Sexual Diversity at the University of Alberta.

Many of the youth who attend the conference come from rural areas, and don’t have access to many of the supports and resources that would be available in larger centres.

“We get to have many youth and teachers from rural areas of Alberta, they get to feel affirmed in their identity, and feel safer and connected. It has a positive and profound impact on their life,” he says.

Image supplied.

The 2023 conference, set to be held on November 4, also comes at an important time for 2SLGBTQ+ youth across the province.
“There have been a massive amount of hate crimes in Alberta in recent years. It’s really scary,” says Westfal. “So this is a really important way for people to learn and develop some safety skills, and to build some community support intrinsically, so we can help the youth navigate spaces that might be less safe and give them strategies to be safer and healthier.”

Inclusivity is a core tenet of the GSA conference, and support from YEG allowed conference organizers to strengthen that mandate. ECF provided $3,000 to support ASL interpretation during the 2023 AB GSA conference — funds which Westfal says helps to make the event more inclusive by default.

“We don’t want a student to have to email us and say, ‘Hey, I need this, this, this and this, otherwise I can’t come.’ We would rather just have that exist and be there, ‘cause for a lot of students who live with disability, that’s gonna be a barrier,” he says. “So it’s exciting for us to get this grant because it removes a really big barrier in entry for folks who experience disability.”

Braided Journeys Program Mental Health Break
St. Alphonsus Junior High School, Edmonton Catholic Schools

As the Braided Journeys program coach at St. Alphonsus School, teacher Rhema Kennedy is used to working with young Indigenous students and helping them to succeed in the classroom. Her role is to encourage students in the program to develop their leadership abilities.

“We’re committed to assisting student success by cultivating a caring, welcoming and positive place for Indigenous students,” she says.

As part of her work with the Braided Journeys program, Kennedy wanted to encourage the students to come up with their own incentives to motivate their success. Early in the school year, she asked the 25 students in the program what they would like to get out of it.

“One of the things that came up was how being in the inner city they’ve been feeling the effects of COVID and mental health and feeling like they’re disconnected. It’s like they don’t get to have fun with each other as much,” she said. “So I asked, what ideally would you want to be able to do? And they said, ‘Could we go to Galaxyland?’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe!’”

A field trip to Galaxyland wasn’t a typical outing for these students, so Kennedy saw it as a great motivator. She encouraged them to apply for ECF’s YEG program, and over the next few weeks, helped them develop their plans and a pitch for the trip.

As part of the application process, they discussed the motivations for their trip as a mental health break. They developed project management skills, researched prices and options for the trip, and created a budget — all while working together.

In the end, their hard work paid off with a day of fun. ECF awarded the students $1,585 for an afternoon at Galaxyland at West Edmonton Mall. When the day finally arrived, the kids were thrilled. And Kennedy says, it couldn’t have gone better.

“They loved it. Those were some of the biggest smiles I think I’ve ever seen them have,” she says. “They were really great about it. It was just so exciting to see how receptive and excited they were for it.”

Young Climate Leaders Climate Summit
Edmonton Public Schools

After hearing about student-organized events to promote sustainability, Michelle Jiang was inspired. As a Grade 11 student at Lillian Osborne High School, she wanted to create a similar event in her own school community. She brought the idea up to some classmates, and before long, that spark of an idea became a reality.

“It originally started with me and one of my friends, but over time it grew to be a club with a bunch of us,” she says. “It was all a huge team and we all worked together to facilitate everything from speakers to activities to help people learn about sustainability.”

The group planned a one-day event to be held in the library at the school: the Young Climate Leaders Climate Summit. The goal was to educate students about the effects of climate change and the actions they could take to improve sustainability.

It was all made possible thanks to a $3,000 grant from ECF through its YEG program.

“We knew we really wanted to put on a big event and be able to have an impact in our community, and because we got the grant, we could do that,” she says. “We could teach a bunch of students from our high school about sustainability, about our current climate situation, but also let them learn from the different perspectives that are within our community.”

About 50 students registered for the event, but Jiang estimates there were closer to 100 in attendance. At the event, they heard from community leaders, including Dr. Paulina Johnson, a University of Alberta professor who shared a presentation on Indigenous perspectives on climate change, and students who were starting their own sustainability-focused businesses.

The summit was a success, but Jiang isn’t done yet. She hopes the summit will repeat in future years, as the first of what she calls a ‘lasting legacy’ of sustainability-focused initiatives at the school.

“Since we have some Grade 10s in our club, as well as some Grade 12s who have graduated, we want to be able to carry this on through the school generations,” she says.

My Favourite Holiday Children’s Book
Edmonton Public Schools

As students at Old Scona Academic high school, Ameena Taher, Nabeeha Irfan and Jonelle Li have all excelled in their studies.

But through their experience in the public school system, they have also come to realize one common issue they often faced: they never really felt included in much of the content they studied.

“We were having a conversation about racism in the school system, and about how some of the curriculum we’re fed is alarmingly Eurocentric,” says Taher. “What we wanted to do was change that, and work to foster a sense of multiculturalism and helping students feel like they belong in their school system.”

The three attended the Building Schools that Listen: Cultures of Belonging summit — an event where Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) students were given the support and resources to develop an antiracism project. At the meeting, they came up with the concept of creating a book of belonging — a children’s book which could be taught in elementary classrooms, and better reflect the diverse backgrounds of students in Edmonton.

“Fostering that sense of community at a young age is so important and powerful, because it makes you feel like you can do things and you deserve to be in that space,” says Irfan.

They settled on creating My Favourite Holiday, a 20-page children’s book which showcased eight popular holiday celebrations from different communities, including Eid, Diwali, Lunar New Year and Indigenous Peoples Day. It’s the type of book Li says was missing from her own early education.

“It would have made a really big difference to see Lunar New Year or other holidays included in our curriculum,” she says. “It shows representation. It shows that you belong in this school, and in this country.”

To bring the book to classrooms, they applied for a Young Edmonton Grant. The funding will be used to create physical and electronic versions of the book, which can be used as a teaching resource in schools across the city. Ultimately, it’s about helping students feel like a part of the greater community.

“Planting these seeds early shows that you’re an important person, and that you belong here. It means you’re not growing up with internalized racism,” says Taher.

Edmontonians aged 13 to 24 can apply for YEG funding on our YEG webpage. Applicants must partner with a registered charity, which can include their school. The final application deadline for 2023 is October 15.

Apply for a Young Edmonton Grant