Moving the Mountain: An Education Initiative for High-Risk Aboriginal Females

The Cause

Moving the Mountain (MTM) is an alternative education initiative that focuses on engaging vulnerable youth. MTM aims to provide educational opportunities to youth who are disengaged from traditional school contexts. The program is currently housed in the University of Alberta Faculty of Education building. It includes offices for the youth to have their own space, as well as a kitchen and a large multi-purpose room. The program runs daily, and youth are welcome to arrive at any time. There are facilitators at the space ready to help youth with reading, writing, math, science, art, cooking, crafts, or any other topics the youth expresses interest in. Group projects, which have included youth-led models of a life-sized human body, the solar system, a geographical map of Alberta, and a socio-cultural diorama of Aboriginal peoples, help youth learn to work together. Additionally, many youth are matched with a mentor who works with them one-on-one to help them set and meet educational, employment, interpersonal, and/or health and safety related goals.
By providing learning opportunities that are youth-led, individually tailored, embedded in youth interests, and contextualized in youths’ culture and spirituality, MTM hopes to help youth create building blocks for a successful future. Youth are supported to move in positive directions related to the four domains of functioning in the Aboriginal Medicine Wheel: mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being. MTM is modelled on the following components:
1. Meeting basic needs through provision of food, connection to medical professionals, transportation, and a comfortable safe space.
2. Supporting student autonomy and self-efficacy through student-set educational goals, flexible learning approaches, and integration of student interests.
3. Respecting cultural identity through incorporation of Aboriginal cultures, student mentoring, and utilization of artistic mediums for self-expression.
4. Promoting good mental health through harm reduction principles, trauma-informed practice, and student empowerment.

Who Will it Benefit?

Currently this program serves approximately thirty Aboriginal female youth (aged 12-24), some of whom are homeless, suffering addictions, have endured traumatic experiences, have serious mental health concerns, and/or are impoverished. These youth come to MTM because they have hope for their futures, have an interest in learning, and want to succeed. Unfortunately, the traditional education systems have not been able to adequately meet their complex needs. This program is designed for youth who are unable to attend school, and would not be attending any learning program at all, if not for MTM.
Historical trauma, cultural barriers, limited access to physical and mental health services, and housing instability are some factors contributing to the inability of traditional educational programs to meet the needs of this population, as indicated by the high rate of school dropout by Aboriginal peoples. Moreover, parents of these youth, who may typically be expected to provide a safety net for their offspring, are often struggling to meet their own needs and therefore have difficulties meeting their children’s needs. MTM hopes to serve this vulnerable population, and work with the youth to meet them where they are at.
This program also benefits the facilitators of the program – students and other volunteers, by providing an excellent hands-on educational opportunity to work with at-risk populations, learn alternative education methods, and use trauma informed, harm reduction approaches. MTM has an active volunteer program, and welcomes volunteers of various backgrounds to teach, assist, and support the youth, as well as contribute ideas of their own in order to help the program develop. MTM ultimately benefits both the youth in need of assistance, and people seeking experience working in alternative education and with unique populations.