In January 2015, Maclean’s magazine boldly declared that Winnipeg was Canada’s most racist city. The article was written in the wake of numerous incidents of racial discrimination and violence that took place everywhere from schools to local election campaigns and disproportionately targeted Indigenous people. The community was struggling, and had just sworn in a new mayor. While some people were hopeful for change to come from people in traditional seats of power, many people had been taking action on their own; long before the Macleans article, Winnipeggers of all ages were taking action to combat racism and discrimination in their own community.
With the leadership of Vice Principal, Cree Crowchild, guidance counsellor, Robin Wilson, and other supportive staff members, the students of St. John’s High School in Winnipeg’s north end decided they were tired of letting their divisions define them. Instead of taking a reactive approach to dealing with racism and bullying, they implemented positive behaviour intervention and a restorative practices plan, a method that centres around empathy and accountability.
Cree Crowchild sat with us to share how The Empathy Toy helped launch a 21 Leaders program at St. John’s High School, an initiative that empowers students to usher in a new culture of respect and understanding that has reduced conflict-based office referrals by 85%.
How did you feel when Maclean’s Magazine named Winnipeg The Most Racist City in Canada? Were you surprised?
I was pretty upset. To peg one city as being the most racist was shocking because I’ve lived in a variety of cities and all of them seem to have aspects of racism. Racism is everywhere – it’s about how you deal with these issues that sets you apart from other cities. In this case, the lack of what Winnipeg was doing was at the forefront of labelling it the most racist city. But, there is a lot of good things going on in this city that many people don’t know about. And if people don’t hear about the good stuff, those negative comments come to the surface. So for me, this negative article helped in a positive way. I took this negative experience and thought, wow, what a great platform to showcase what we’re already doing, not just what we’re going to do in response to this article.
The Empathy Project had been going on at our school for 3 years before the article came out. I think [racism] is bred by a lack of understanding, a lack of empathy, and a lack of acceptance. And we’re trying to use The Empathy Toy in our toolbox to bridge those gaps between the communities about understanding, acceptance, and empathy.
Tell me about the decision to take a restorative practices approach to addressing bullying and discrimination in your school.
Restorative practices, for me, is what I feel it is to be a human being. We all make mistakes but we should all have an opportunity to fix those by listening, understanding, and empathizing with people. Does it always work? Not always. Kids and adults have to be ready to use these strategies. You have to have participating individuals and that’s where the teaching comes in. We need to teach empathy, or unlock the empathy within – not from a textbook – but from experience, nurturing, and leading by example. And now kids come in and say, “You know, Mr. Crowchild, if that would have happened to me, I would know why that kid pushed me. Cause I would have done the same thing.” So I know it’s working. Or if kids come in and they say, “I respect you, Mr. Crowchild, and thank you for always being understanding. Even though you had to suspend me, I know why you had to do it – I wasn’t ready to fix the problem.” This all happens through modelling, through creating a leadership group, and by creating a school where it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you have a place and a purpose in this school. This all starts from the general knowledge of what empathy is and the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Describe a moment of transformation that you saw in the 21 Leaders program.
The transformation for me is when I talk to parents of kids who are on the leadership team. We had a leadership night where all 21 Leaders brought their parents, which meant all 60 (kids and parents) in the library. We celebrated it by having pasta and salad, and talking about the leadership roles of the kids. You could see the pride in the parents’ eyes knowing that their kids were chosen to represent the school. And when the kids played the game with their parents for the first time, it was amazing!
While we were playing with [The Empathy Toy], one family was speaking in Tagalog to start, which was fine with me – whatever you’re comfortable with. Then they started having problems, so they went to English and were still having problems. Then, they went to a combination of English and Tagalog to the point where they finally figured it out. That’s what the game does – you do what you need to do until you figure it out. And to me that was, like, wow! Kids and parents are working together. That’s the purpose of the game, to find a common language – whatever that may look like. Finding a common ground where you can build an understanding. For me, it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can still get along.
Tell me about Mayor Bowman’s connection to this program.
The mayor has been a great supporter of our school in general. After the [Maclean’s article] was published, we reached out to [Mayor Bowman] and said “Hey, this is what we’re doing”. We sent one of the 21 Leaders out to city hall and lent the Mayor [an Empathy Toy kit] to play. He thought it was wonderful and instantaneously jumped on board when we talked about the Everybody Has The Right Conference. He came out and spoke at [the Winnipeg School Division’s kick-off to Everybody Has The Right week]. There were 77 schools in attendance and the media was there. We talked about how important the game was in building empathy and understanding.