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Students take ownership of their voice

Flathead Youth Initiative conference planning will focus on breaking down stereotypes and addressing suicides
By Lailani Upham
Char-Koosta News

Lynell Sheperd, a junior at Big Missoula Sky High School engages with the audience on the group’s ideas for a reservation-wide youth conference. Big Sky and Ronan high schools were the linked schools in the brainstorming activity. (Lailani Upham photo)Lynell Sheperd, a junior at Big Missoula Sky High School engages with the audience on the group’s ideas for a reservation-wide youth conference. Big Sky and Ronan high schools were the linked schools in the brainstorming activity. (Lailani Upham photo)

PABLO — Flathead Reservation high school students and one Missoula high school student group met last Wednesday at Salish Kootenai College to connect and brainstorm ideas for an upcoming spring youth conference.

The collaborative theme stemmed from the student teamwork is “Remembering Our Roots in a Good Way.”

Donald Wetzel, Montana Office of Public Instruction American Indian Youth Development coordinator, facilitated the event.

In May, five high school students met at SKC for a Native Youth Leadership meeting backed by Montana School of Promise initiative to come up with solutions to various issues in their schools. The top results focused on suicide prevention.

Mission High School student Patricia Christenson shares the group’s idea on a brainstorm plan for a reservation-wide youth conference. The two schools engaged for the groups were Mission and Hot Springs. (Lailani Upham photo)Mission High School student Patricia Christenson shares the group’s idea on a brainstorm plan for a reservation-wide youth conference. The two schools engaged for the groups were Mission and Hot Springs. (Lailani Upham photo)

“Students came together and developed their own solution and began a process for the next steps in a movement through their own thoughts and voice,” Wetzel said.

Mission High School junior, Patricia Christenson, said theme development came from the acknowledgement of the students realizing many of the traditional and spiritual ways are nearly forgotten in her generation and the collective theme will foster a sense of identity.

Close to 75 students from Arlee, St. Ignatius, Ronan, Two Eagle River School, Polson, Hot Springs and Big Sky High in Missoula attended the Spring Youth Conference planning session.

Wetzel said one of the aims for the planning session and conference is to tackle social barriers and address stereotypes between Native and non-Native students on reservations and in surrounding communities.

Ronan High School junior Veyanna Webster said the theme “in a good way” helps bring communities together to talk about health as well. “It is important to stay grounded in culture,” she said.

Ronan High School student Veyanna Webster talks with Donald Wetzel after the event on conference ideas surrounding the theme “Remembering Our Roots in a Good Way.” (Lailani Upham photo)Ronan High School student Veyanna Webster talks with Donald Wetzel after the event on conference ideas surrounding the theme “Remembering Our Roots in a Good Way.” (Lailani Upham photo)

Webster and another student said the solution grew from the discussion of suicide, drugs and bullying. The students said change in communities would begin with battling the problems in a conference setting.

“The youth have solutions and ideas to share and they are finding their voice,” Wetzel said. “We need them to find their voice.”

Last month Wetzel met with other student groups across the state and said there are three regional youth conferences being planned.

So far a meeting at the Blackfeet Community College was held with students from Browning, Cut Bank, Heart Butte, Great Falls and Valier.

The other region was in Havre where students from Box Elder, Rocky Boy’s, Fort Belknap, Harlem, Hays, Havre and Dodson attended the planning session.

Wetzel said he witnessed at past youth conferences where students gain ideas and learn about each other and then get motivated to do things but they really have no ownership in the plan.

This year the students were asked to plan the conference with the idea of “going to a conference where you want to go.”

Wetzel said the idea is have a more focused effort on making changes with neighboring communities, building bridges and coming together.

“They need opportunities to speak their mind, to share ideas and experiences with each other,” Wetzel said. “To understand how similar we all are as humans no matter where we come from.”

Jim Swan of RJS & Associates talks to students about the basics of grant writing. (Lailani Upham photo) Jim Swan of RJS & Associates talks to students about the basics of grant writing. (Lailani Upham photo)

With that drive, Wetzel said the spring conferences will be developed by students.

Last week’s planning session included a mini grant writing workshop with Jim Swan of RJS & Associates. The workshop got students thinking on how to write grants, appeal to businesses and tribal councils for funding, as well as promote the conference.

In the afternoon, students broke up into groups from different schools for short exercises to introduce themselves and work on a mock planned agenda and theme for a youth conference.

“These events give them practice for what is to come in their life to be able to socialize and find their voice to speak up, speak from the heart and represent themselves in a strong honorable way,” Wetzel said.

The “Remembering Our Roots in a Good Way” youth conference location and date is yet to be determined with March as the tentative month.

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