Features

The Activists In Our Midst


An introduction to our new Canadian School Counsellor feature Movers and Shakers* from across Canada.

Back in 2007, Travis Price and David Shepherd told their principal they had come up with a plan to end bullying at their Nova Scotia high school. He advised them not to go ahead with it.  “(Our principal) was trying to keep the peace. I think it was a mixture of him worrying about us, and us getting beat up — because that definitely was a possibility — but, also, we were about to change the status quo, ruffle a lot of feathers,” explains Price.

Undaunted, even by the prospect of being expelled if things went sideways, the exasperated grade 12 students refused to back down, knowing a younger boy had been bullied on his first day at high school — just because he was wearing a pink polo shirt. Having decided “enough was enough,” Price and Shepherd used MSN Messenger to appeal to their fellow students to take action en masse with an intentional wardrobe choice.

The next day, the majority of the 1000 kids at their Annapolis Valley school arrived wearing something pink, while Price and Shepherd handed out dozens of pink tank tops they had purchased at a local store. With that, the two mavericks had unwittingly founded what is now the largest anti-bullying movement in the world – Pink Shirt Day.

The bullied boy did not wear pink to school that day, but the look on his face as he waded into a sea of pink spoke volumes. Word of the success of the peaceful, pink-coloured show of solidarity spread rapidly — locally, then nationally and even internationally.

Principal Pearl – who Price describes as one of his favourite people – eventually came around. Thrust into the role of Pink Shirt protagonist, he fielded a stream of media interview requests on his students’ behalf and handled invitations for them to deliver speeches and attend conferences. He helped manage their time – away and at school. “I ended up calling him my agent for the first year,” chuckles Price, now 30, who continues to head up the global, anti-bullying movement from his home in Coldbrook, Nova Scotia.

Movers and Shakers*

Canadian educators – like B.C. high school teacher Michael Iachetta — and parents – like Candace Alper in Ontario — can relate to the Pink Shirt Day story. They know what it’s like to have an impassioned activist in their midst, to assist and provide guidance when that youngster commits to making change happen.

Across Canada, this generation of young people is stepping up and stepping out to lead change on social, environmental and equality fronts, buoyed by online connections and social media. And, by ϋber-activists like Greta Thunberg – today’s ultimate mover and shaker.

Canadian School Counsellor first introduced you to one of these passionate change-makers, Alper’s daughter Hannah, in our 2020 Winter Break issue.

In this issue in our new Movers and Shakers* department, you’ll meet Iachetta’s former student, 18-year-old Abhayjeet Singh Sachal — a charismatic environmentalist with a strong social bent.

Going forward, Canada’s young movers and shakers will be showcased in every issue of the magazine.

*People of energetic demeanour who initiate change and influence events.

Legacies

Youth activists, such as Sachal, Alper and Price, often depend on support from teachers, counsellors and administrators to figure out how to balance their requisite schoolwork with their commitment to a cause. While that can translate into extra work on the part of educators, the rewards are worth it, says Iachetta, noting there can be spin-off benefits you never imagined.

The inspirational legacy that Sachal left behind when he graduated from Delta’s Seaquam Secondary last year will pay dividends for years to come – for current and former students, his school and community.

“The biggest thing with a student like Abhay is the impact they have on our (school) district. It brought a lot of students into our clubs. It makes them want to be here, take ownership of their school and that’s when we see them at their best,” Iachetta offers.

“We’re seeing the true legacy of Abhay and other students of his era who have graduated. We now have over 100 students in our Green Club alone, and a lot came from the elementary schools where Abhay had gone so many times to speak and to work with them on their projects.”

 At Seaquam, when a teacher comes across a student with a particular passion, they do their best to empower that student to take action in their community. “You have to ask the student what they are prepared to do and then find ways to support them,” says Iachetta. “It is our ultimate goal for youth to lead the change; we mentor them on the positive impact they can have. We work with passionate students, and what makes the job even better is connecting a student who isn’t.”

Iachetta reports that counsellors at his school will recommend that a student who is struggling get involved with a school club in hopes they’ll flourish among a stronger group of peers with strong work and study habits. “The student has to want to do it; we don’t force. Everything is bottom up. It isn’t for everyone, but we’ve turned around the lives of a lot of students when it puts them in a better direction or has them feel that when they graduate they can go out and make a difference.”

For Iachetta, the best part of his job is seeing former at-risk students go on to post-secondary after connecting with impassioned leaders like Sachal.

A dozen years ago, Travis Price was aware not all teachers at his school were on board with the burgeoning Pink Shirt campaign, and some were unwilling to make accommodations when it came to schoolwork. Yet, Price knew they had changed the status quo; what they did was working.   

The teachers who applauded their extracurricular efforts went out of their way to help.  “My grade 12 math teacher would stay after school to make sure I got caught up on my math when I was back. She knew I wanted to go off to university and do something with my life because maybe this wouldn’t be my life,” says Price, who continued to expand Pink Shirt Day while attending university.

Communication

Hannah Alper, the grade 11, Toronto-area activist profiled in our last issue, spoke about the invaluable support she received from her counsellors, teachers and principal beginning in elementary school. Their willingness to accommodate her passion to lead social and environmental change allowed her to share her message with thousands of youth throughout North America and beyond, and write a book for kids about the activists who inspired her.

Life for a high-profile activist like Hannah is similar to that of an elite, young athlete. Much of their day is dedicated to non-school activities and they often miss days or weeks of school at a time.

There are special schools for elite athletes, but not for activists. The Alpers had to forge their own path, establishing communication channels with Hannah’s educators at every step. “Before Hannah started high school, we set up meetings with the vice-principal. He totally supported us. He thought it was amazing and loved that she was doing this. He said, ‘you take care of Hannah at home and I will take care of Hannah at school.’ It was incredible.

“Right from the very beginning, we have always engaged the school about the work Hannah was doing. Some of it was because she would be away a lot and we needed their support helping her work ahead or preparing work to take on the road,” explains Alper, who graduated with an education degree but wound up taking a different career path. “For me, it was respecting that having someone like Hannah in their class was both a blessing and a burden. Preparing work for somebody to take with them, marking stuff that is not marked at the same time as everybody else’s, or giving them a different assignment puts extra work on the teacher.”

Much of what Hannah was doing, she was able to transfer into school to engage her classmates, teachers and principal – and sometimes the whole school. When WE Day was in Toronto, Hannah’s principal and teachers were invited to attend as special guests, giving them a personal view into what she did as a WE Day speaker and allowing them to see what they were supporting.“A lot of it has been a partnership, as a parent and as a teacher, helping Hannah along and giving her the tools and resources, the time and the space, the knowledge, the confidence and the opportunities. This wasn’t something I did alone,” Alper says. “Most of the day, she’s at school in their very capable hands.”

Alper believes that many kids are looking for an outlet to share the things they’re excited about. Schools can support them in finding ways to use their voice, she suggests, by providing the space to talk about their passions and opportunities to share them – whether in their classes, the school newspaper , at an assembly or by creating clubs.

Made or born?

Travis Price is certain no teacher could have looked at him and presumed what he would accomplish. “It’s hard to identify those Terry Foxes, those Viola Desmonds because they can be anybody. It’s so situational. There’s so many factors that play into it — timing, understanding, maturity. I don’t think a guidance counsellor can look at someone and say, ‘they’re going to change the world some day.’

“They can look at them and say, ‘that person’s a leader,’ and steer them in a direction that could help people and could influence people down the road. Me and David were two, lower middle-class kids who enjoyed playing volleyball. We weren’t the two kids who were supposed to do this, but here we are,” concludes Price, who was awarded Canada’s Meritorious Service Medal in 2016 for his work in bullying prevention and mental health advocacy.

By Laurie Nealin


For the latest from Travis Price and Hannah Alper, follow them on Twitter and Instagram – @thepinkdeal  @thathannahAlper

Learn more about Seaquam Secondary’s environment club here https://deltalearns.ca/iachetta/opp-green-accomplishments/

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Contact Stephanie Duprat for more information at
1-888-634-5556 x106 or stephanie@mzpinc.ca.