We are Young Leaders Circle. We are a group of people desiring a change in the ways in which we can work & organize together. YLC began as a research project with the Youth Social Infrastructure Collaborative in 2016. Since May 2018 YLC has received three-year funding under the Youth Opportunities Fund Youth Innovations Stream and is heading into year two. So far this model has been bringing together conversations with young people and adult allies in both Northern and Southern Ontario. As racialized and Indigenous young people who have worked within bureaucratic governance structures, we saw a more natural way of organizing utilizing our different lived experiences and worldviews. For the past year, we have been experimenting with a model for governance we call Spirit Spaces.
“Creating a practice or method that’s replicable, a way to share leadership of organizing meetings and getting work done. How do you define roles, is it based on things that need to be accomplished, or based on the people that are there and ready to contribute? A balance between the two- Different people filling different roles. Because we need to create an environment to address a key thing, which is to reduce burnout. This kind of framework will help generate spaces for these conversations, so people can feel comfortable letting people know when they’ve taken on too much. For each of us we have different lines of not letting people know when we’ve taken too much on, we need to find a way to be more caring for those feelings and thoughts. So that everyone is on the same page, intercept it before it becomes a problem and they say they have to leave. That can prevent affecting relationships, even though it affects the work.”– Jon Cada
The purpose of Spirit Spaces is to divide the work that needs to be done and supporting each other as a whole. When we feel burnout and people leave, we don’t want the memory of that work leaving with them, we don’t want everything to fall on one person’s shoulders. These Spaces are different areas that go into organizing community work, and they help us carry the work while supporting and communicating with one another. We are constantly learning, unlearning and relearning how to engage with each other and the work considering our different cultures, capacities and communities.
How it All Began
Jon Cada: It was in 2012 when I first started getting involved in these conversations. One of the things that people always asked me about was my understanding of Anishinaabe traditional clan governance. It was an exciting time for me to be able to work with the Union of Ontario Indians, gaining knowledge on the Three Fires Confederacy and learning about the alliances of First Nations had throughout history. In this work there are territorial groups; Iroquois Alliance, Six Nations, NAN, up to the Assembly of First Nations. They talk about clan governance in that work, getting back to a place where they are able to use their clan systems and have communities involved in much more meaningful ways. On First Nations, they are called Chief and Council but they’re no different than a City Council with a Mayor and Reeve. It’s very disjointed, it doesn’t feel intuitive and people don’t agree with that system.
In my work with YSI I was given a lot of room to think about this. If we were to learn more about that history we could figure out how we develop different types of leadership, and mentor people coming into this work for the first time. Clan governance holds the keys to how we can engage with our allies meaningfully and address the barriers that we all deal with in our fields of work. Starting from there, the conversation has slowly evolved to the point where I was able to present this idea of clan governance with YSI in 2015. Since then I have been waiting for the opportunity to have conversations with people, to find out where people’s ideas were at.
In March of 2016, we had our Core Team Retreat at Children’s Peace Theatre in Toronto. A young person from Fort William First Nation, named Harley Legarde asked YSI what role they could play in supporting a youth council formation, or how they could support youth councils from different areas to come together. Being on many of these councils in my youth, I knew that would be a challenge. There were few good examples of youth coming together and working as a council or committee. Plus few of those councils left members feeling valued or validated by their work, and often not leaving a lasting change in the community. But even against these challenges, young people were there to accomplish what they wanted to. Except once a version of their goal was reached, they would disband and the knowledge produced would disappear with them. We didn’t know it at the time, but Harley played a pivotal role in the creation of the Young Leaders Circle. The Young Leaders Circle is a group that we formed a few months later based on the mutual desire to bring together the leadership, knowledge, and journeys of young people.
In May 2016 a few of us went to Thunder Bay to kickstart the nest-building work. We wanted to see how we could share our learning from the work in Toronto and Sault Ste Marie to youth in Thunder Bay. In Thunder Bay, in the living room of the Airbnb, we talked about the youth council conversation and we about how could we fix that. We had to ask ourselves “what are the structures and tools that we rely on to move the work we want to do forward?” This was an opportunity to circle back with these ideas to work with traditional governance.
Traditional clan governance is about communities and working together. In times past families were a part of different clans like the bear clan, eagle clan or the deer clan. Those clans had roles and responsibilities for their families and within the community. For everyone in that community it was an opportunity to be involved, to grow up with this family and develop those roles. For example, the Deer clan were the people in the community who would be engaging with everyone, making sure there’s food for people to eat, and to welcome newcomers. Loon clan and crane clan were leadership clans that made sure the community was moving forward in strong ways, having good relationships with other communities, and making sure everyone had what they needed to do the work in the communities. Turtle and fish clans were the governance clans who upheld the stories, histories, processes, and protocols for the community; passing these things on to younger generations. Within clan governance there are a lot of different moving parts and responsibilities held by different people in the community.
If you grew up in a clan environment knowing what your role was, no one could take that away from you. You could go anywhere knowing that these are skills you have developed and can offer to other communities. People can also change, they did not have to stay in one role. People in traditional clan governance have the ability to grow to different roles and responsibilities with opportunities to learn further. No one should be able to take the skills and gifts you have away from you, all groups should be able to accommodate your gifts because it’s to the benefit of the group itself. Traditional clan governance operated in a non-hierarchical structure, not one person beared the single burden of responsibility. However, when I think about the ways that a lot of groups operate today there’s a conflict; the work is often held by one or a small group of people who are doing the logistics, or the relationship-building. Those people will be deeply involved in that work, and do an amazing job until they burn out. That person has been doing so much of the work themselves, have had so many people relying on them, and when they inevitably have to step back for rest all of that knowledge and experience will go with them. For groups to be innovative or sustainable, leaders have to learn to share the load and see the value in holding different gifts.
This Spirit Spaces model is an opportunity to learn about governance models and roles, and opportunity to take a look at ourselves and people around us. This model shows people can do the work they feel called to and grow as leaders themselves; sharing work, so that new people coming in don’t see a picture of ‘hierarchical structures vs. here are the gifts I’d like to offer but am too intimidated to.’ Instead, create mentorship opportunities and knowledge transfer opportunities.
Jermaine Henry: Later in December 2016 when we met in Thunder Bay for our end of the year in-person meeting, I expressed my feelings about doing something different. We wanted people to do this differently; everyone should be leading. Candace (Neveau) said we need a template of how we organize together. Taking from Jon’s work over the last 4 years in Anishinaabe traditional clan governance and combining that with our own leadership experience, we created a non-hierarchical spirit space model. How can we do this in a different way where everyone feels the ability to lead? We reached out in the YSI to create a working group. We started having conversations about each of the spirit spaces and how we can apply it, then this opportunity came up in real time to practice it.
How can we organize and support each other without a saviour complex? This model has been created by young people, aiming to be ‘natural-hierarchical’ and has many important spaces to contribute to. Offering everyone in the Collaborative a space, whether you’re called to sending long emails, posting on social, cooking or holding a brave space; it has a place. We’re really emphasizing people’s experience in this Collaborative and it should be reflected in our organizational structure; if something is important and you’re called to it, you should be able to. Dialogue has been really key for us in figuring out what we can offer, and freedom is a really important part too. Some of our members weren’t there, but Jon and Candace said to go ahead and push the work forward, even though it was something they needed to step out of at the time.
We worked on creating the Spirit Spaces Model while asking for feedback from a Working Group within YSI. We asked about what made sense, what was confusing, and how we could improve. We had the opportunity to practice coaching a couple of groups on the model, and in November 2017 we decided to apply to the Youth Opportunities Fund Grassroots Innovation Stream with the Sault Ste Marie Friendship Centre as our organizational partner to test and develop the Spirit Spaces Model with youth groups across the province. We received the funding in May 2018 and have experimented with coaching our YSI network provincially to transition to a different leadership model. It’s a constant learning, unlearning and relearning of what it takes for community and leadership.