Out of the classroom education

Students from the Cree community of Waswanipi roasting marshmallows around a campfire as part of one Youth Fusion’s programs.
 

Sometimes the best learning happens outside of the classroom. That’s the philosophy held by Youth Fusion, one of the Suncor Energy Foundation’s (SEF’s) community partners. 

The Quebec-based organization, which was founded in 2009, provides experiential learning opportunities for youth in rural, urban and Indigenous communities. With locations in Ontario, New Brunswick and France, as well as Quebec, about 8,000 students each week benefit from Youth Fusion’s programs. 

Under the organization’s model, coordinators—recent university graduates—design learning programs in their field of study to work with students on projects in the arts, science and engineering, design, and leadership and entrepreneurship. Local businesses and community professionals are also part of the programs as mentors. And in the case of Indigenous communities, there is also a local community member to support the work and to promote cultural and linguistic pride.

“Through our relationships with community members, we learned in Indigenous communities, there was more interest in engaging educational experiences than school perseverance and dropout rates,” explains Lydia Risi, Youth Fusion Senior Director of Operations and Philanthropy in Indigenous Communities. “So, we shifted our approach to be less about preparing for university and more about empowering youth to find their passion.” 

This is evident in the science of the land program, which takes the learning outside based on feedback from Indigenous youth who wanted an outdoor science class experience.

“We design every program in partnership with experts,” says Lydia. “For science of the land, we work with local hunters and Elders in each geographically diverse Indigenous community because they have the knowledge and expertise of the lands’ unique characteristics.” 

Youth Fusion puts an equal amount of intention and thought into learning for its coordinators as it does its students. Using an immersive approach, coordinators working with Indigenous students actually live in the communities for the entire year. To prepare for this, they receive cultural training about language, spirituality and religion, sexuality and politics.

This training is delivered by a member from the community they’re working with to ensure they’re able to offer a “safe space” for Indigenous youth.
Additionally, Youth Fusion offers access to mental health resources to all employees.

“The coordinators are positive figures for youth and show up every day consistently,” says Lydia. “We’ve seen youth sharing things they are excited about, as well as trauma and issues they’ve been dealing with. No strings attached funding from our partners meant we were able to be agile in our services to meet the needs of the community.”

SEF has funded Youth Fusion since 2015, and in 2018 began supporting the organization’s Canadian Indigenous School Engagement program, currently only offered in Quebec. Through this program, Youth Fusion works with over 4,400 Indigenous youth in remote Cree and Inuit communities, in the First Nation communities of Mashteuiash, Kahnawake and Gesgapegiag, and at the Indigenous Student Centres of John Abbott and Dawson Colleges in Montreal.