On Friday it was announced that the Ontario government was cutting $25 million in specialized education funding. These cuts hurt because they signal the erosion of student voices playing a role in Ontario. We urge the government to reconsider this decision. We also ask the public for support by reaching out to elected officials and financial support as well look to fill the gap created.
One part of this cut was a multipronged initiative called SpeakUp. SpeakUp project grants empower students to take action and lead projects that make a difference in their school. To date, thousands of students in grades 7–12 have actively led or participated in more than 10,000 projects in hundreds of schools across Ontario.
I was one of these students.
When I was in high school, I received a SpeakUp grant with some peers; it changed my trajectory in life and has lead to my success as a leader.
I went to a non-semestered high school where anxiety and stress levels were high. After seeing a peer have a mental health breakdown, my friends and I started talking about what we could do to support each other. We came up with the idea to run a “Body, Mind and Spirit” day. We recruited students to facilitate workshops and brought in outside facilitators. This was a completely student-led initiative. It was a great opportunity to break the stigma surrounding mental health issues at our school. It also provided leadership opportunities for several students. It was the first time I truly felt like my opinions mattered and I had the power to change things for my community. Since elementary school, I had been trying to start projects in school and had not been successful so this meant a lot to me. Having the SpeakUp grant gave us confidence but was also a signal to others that students have the support we need from the government and no one should get in our way of success. It was a transformative experience in leadership and I am not sure if Helping Hands would exist today if I did not get that opportunity.
Last year, Helping Hands helped raise awareness of the program, assisted several students in writing grants, and supported students in their projects regardless of whether or not they ended up receiving the grant. We supported projects such as mental health makerspaces, career advice initiatives, helping peers make healthy choices, art clubs and more. All designed by students, for students.
I did all of this using my own funding as I realized the importance of student-led projects and student voice.
During Helping Hands workshops, I always ask students to share changes with the group that they would like to see in their school and community. Not everyone puts up their hands. I then say “If you have your hands are down you are saying your school is perfect.” Hands shoot up quickly!
When youth are asked for their opinions and when those opinions are truly valued, they can have a great impact. After hearing from students about various issues in their schools, I started seeing common themes across schools, which indicates larger issues with the curriculum and the support system within education.
That is why we also ran a webinar for youth across Ontario to raise awareness of the Minister’s Student Advisory Council (MSAC) is a group of approximately 60 students, grade 7–12, from all regions across the province. These students share their ideas and provide advice to the Minister of Education on a variety of topics regarding Ontario’s publicly-funded education system. The previous government even phrased it as “MSAC is a place where all students have a voice and where they will be heard.”
There were 10 cohorts of MSAC. They have had impacts on increasing Indigenous perspectives in curriculum, mental health care and more. You can read about each year here.
The youth we have worked with have told us how grateful they were to get SpeakUp grants and the impact it has had on their communities.
We have heard from multiple students who have been on MSAC on how glad they were to know they had an impact on the education systems for hundreds of thousands of students across the province.
The decision to shut down SpeakUp — the project grants, the student council and the Students as Researchers (StaR) program is reckless and needs to be reversed. Ontario is better due to these. We have amazing leaders across public, private and non-profit sectors who got their start in these programs. Students today are healthier due to these programs.
We urge the government to reconsider this decision. We also ask the public for support by reaching out to the Minister of Education or their MPP. We are seeking financial support from foundations, corporations and donors so we can administer a social entrepreneurship program ourselves as well as supporting youth councils. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org more information.
Stay tuned! We will be sharing stories through our blog and on social media about the impact SpeakUp, MSAC and our work has had on youth across the province for the past decade.
Helping Hands is on a mission to increase youth community engagement through building technology and in-person activities. We are building a platform that matches students with volunteer organizations using a skill development based matching model. It provides students with a way to gain employable skills such as communication skills.
We offer several services: Workshops on the importance of volunteering and skills development, mentorship, showcasing youth and their volunteer activities online, hosting volunteer fairs, awareness of initiatives youth can apply to and support for the application process like Minister’s Student Advisory Council, Premier Council on Youth Opportunities andSpeakUp grants, as well as voter engagement and assistance in engaging local politicians
For more information:helpinghandsapp.com