Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Experience of Urban Circle

In 2012, I taught Early Childhood Education at Urban Circle Aboriginal Training Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This week, my colleagues (Marc and Anne) and I were asked to speak at a faculty event, describing our experiences teaching in a community-based program. 

Here is my attempt...

“Lock your doors girls,” instructed my well-intentioned dad as we drove south on Main Street approaching the Logan Avenue underpass.

“Are your windows rolled up?” warned my protective mom as we stopped at the red light at Higgins and Main.

And my sisters and I peered out the windows of our ’64 Dodge at the imagined terrors lurking in Winnipeg’s north end.

We were small town girls in the big city.

This is where I learned to be afraid.

I wasn’t sure why. I only knew that “seedy neighbourhood” meant dangerous and poor.

As I grew up, this underlying fear followed me and frustrated me. I felt stuck…caught in a box that I couldn’t climb out of. Sometimes I conformed, but more often, I rebelled. Something just wasn’t right.

So in December, 2011, when I was offered work at Urban Circle, I was intrigued. I was terrified. It was a community-based program but in a community that I had learned to dread.

"I want to but I’m scared," I said to my boss. "Oh you’ll do great," she assured me. So I dragged myself out of the safety of my windowless office and headed over to Selkirk Avenue. I parked my car and RAN to the classroom where I was immediately welcomed with a circle of smiles and the smell of sage. All of a sudden, the fear disappeared.

I was accepted, respected, included and, most importantly, teased! As the newcomer to the group, arriving at the start of the second year, I easily found my place, working side by side with colleagues and students. We all learned together.

Our community was based on trust.

So much so that, only a few months in, I found myself close to naked in a sweat lodge at Thunderbird House (yes, at Higgins & Main!), curled up like a baby, dependent on the guidance of the traditional teacher to get me through. And he did.

Our community was based on equality.

So much so that I opened my home to workshops and feasts and celebrations. And my family joined in too, with my son sharing his musical talents and instruments, my husband sharing his carpentry skills and tools, and even my mom sharing her special tablecloths for our occasional parties!

Our community was based on respect.

So much so that we all tried to reach out to others. To the women and children imprisoned in shelters. To new Canadians trying to find their way. To neighbourhood kids in schools and child care centres. To each other during tough times.

Our community was based on learning from each other.

I could offer my early childhood education experience and sometimes my motherly advice. But I could also receive wisdom….a new respect for nature while medicine picking with elders, a personal perspective on missing and murdered women and children from their sisters and cousins and aunties, and a renewed ability to laugh at myself and at all of our differences and similarities. Some of my nicknames were “the hippie love child of Marc and Anne” (because I was perceived as the balance between two polar opposites), “Half-mark Conni” (when I got too picky) and “Neechi White Lady” (which I consider a great compliment bestowed on me at our final get-together)!

Idle No More!

And so this community-based program taught me to unlock my doors and open my windows. For the first time, I walked on North Main from Higgins to Memorial Boulevard, encircled by grandmothers. And I cried. Because I was out of the box. And I was safe. And I wasn’t afraid. And everything felt right.

©Conni Cartlidge, 2013

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