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Creating Positive Spaces for Twin Cities Youth: The Wakanheza Project

By: Emily Kay, Minnesota Alliance With Youth AmeriCorps VISTA serving with GradMinnesota 

Think back to when you were a teenager, around age 15 or 16…  What was life like for you at that time?  What was school like for you?  What parts were enjoyable for you?  What struggles did you have in school?  Where did you live?  Who did you live with?  What were your friends like?  Did you have a best friend?  Did you involve yourself in additional activities outside of school?  Was there anybody during that period of time who acted as a role model and mentor and looked out for you?  Think back to who this person was for you…what characteristics did this person have?  How did that person make you feel?
The Wakanheza Project logo
The above questions provided the initial guidance for the first training session of the Wakanheza Project, held in Minneapolis.  Started in Ramsey County, this project is now being expanded to Minneapolis, one neighborhood at a time.  This first training supported the work of the Youth Coordinating Board to create Positive Youth Corridors around Roosevelt High School and the Standish-Ericsson neighborhood.  The Wakanheza Project teaches individuals, agencies, businesses, and communities to use principles and strategies that prevent or de-escalate stressful situations in public to create more welcoming environments for children, young people, families, and adults.  Wakanheza is the Dakota word for child.  Its English translation is “sacred being.”

As an AmeriCorps VISTA member serving with GradMinnesota, I had the opportunity to attend this first Wakanheza Project training on February 9th, 2017.  Each of the approximately 30 educators, administrators, county workers and neighborhood residents in attendance were given the opportunity to explore the actions and behavior we bring to our community, and how our actions impact youth in a positive or negative way.

A Unique Approach

Individuals who participate in Wakanheza Project trainings are encouraged to think creatively to implement simple and sustainable changes that have been proven to reduce the intensity and incidence of difficult solutions.  The project is focused on six principles:

  • Judgement: Recognize, and then suspend, our judgements of others. If you approach a situation or person with a preconceived negative judgement, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for you to connect in an understanding and helpful way.
  • Culture: Open ourselves to all cultures and the opportunity to better understand differences so that we may share kindness with all people.
  • Powerlessness: Understand that many/most acts of violence arise from a sense of powerlessness. This appreciation can change our perception of people’s reactions during times of high stress.
  • Empathy and Respect: Embrace our ability to show understanding and genuinely offer to help.
  • Environment: Recognize that environments have significant impacts on behaviors. Create physical and social environments that enhance people’s sense of feeling cared about and welcomed.
  • The Moment: The Wakanheza Project is about freeing ourselves to suspend judgement, understand the impacts of powerlessness and environment, appreciate culture, and practice empathy and respect in the moment.

Helpful Strategies

The Wakanheza Project has several strategies for community members to create welcoming environments and diffuse challenging situations. Some of the strategies include:

  • Act in the moment: We cannot change the past or predict the future. What we can do is offer genuine empathy and help in any given moment.
  • Offer assurance through a smile or a nod.
  • Show empathy and imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • Distract or redirect attention away from the stressful situation.
  • Offer encouragement about something positive that you see in the situation.

Learn more about the Wakanheza Project, or find more resources to implement in your work!

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