Standing Bear: Social Innovation Driven by the Wisdom of Youth


There’s a lot of talk these days about the need for innovation. Unfortunately, when tackling complex social issues we too often overlook

the advantages of having youth involved in leadership roles. Typically when we do involve them, it’s more often a minimal or value-added role.

While I’m not proud of it, I used to be one of those who under-estimated the importance and value of youth. That is until, I was invited to serve as a community leadership coach for what has ultimately become Standing Bear.

The often messy work innovation requires not only works best when tapping the wisdom of many, it’s also strengthened when youth bring their unjaded, can-do, fresh perspectives, as well as their energy, willingness to embrace change, and exceptional understanding of how to market and engage others using social media.

Standing Bear, an initiative of ISWO (Indigenous Sport and Wellness Ontario), is a leadership initiative by-youth, for-youth that is resulting in Indigenous youth leaders who are firmly grounded by the traditions and values of their ancestors with the competencies and sense of identity needed to face the future with confidence.

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With start-up funding provided by Ontario’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, Indigenous youth across the province were rallied to apply a collective impact approach to the initiative that potentially could involve multiple organizations with ISWO serving as a catalyst.

Collective Impact is a phrase coined by Stanford Social Innovation Review. In essence, the idea behind it is that organizations put aside their individual agendas in favour of a collective approach. A group made up of representatives from different sectors commits to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. Ideally this leads to transformational change (rather than change that simply reforms) and more of an inter-dependent eco-system rather than an ego-system.

While the original intent of collective impact aligned with the idea of having Indigenous youth select a specific issue and then mobilize them as well as other stakeholders to work on it collectively, the youth were reluctant to choose just one issue.

As the feedback from over 500 indicated, they raised many issues – mental health, addictions, literacy, family violence, environmental challenges etc. Additionally, they reflected an understanding that their communities were dealing with many complex, inter-related issues that would require everyone working together - not just within their individual silos such as health, education, social services, or recreation. However, when pressed to choose, youth determined mental health as the most critical issue. However, as the project evolved, it became clearer that to honour the by-youth, for-youth approach it would be necessary to back up and identify the issue as being about much more than mental health.

Instead, it was about the need for a (1) holistic model of wellness that aligned with Indigenous values as well as the need for a (2) more integrated system to help make it a reality.

In others words, more of an approach to Comprehensive Community Transformation or Systems Change

For Standing Bear that meant facilitating the development of youth leaders who had the competencies to bring a neighbourhood or community together to address community from a more holistic. Of greatest importance is that this thinking aligned far more readily with traditional Indigenous values and culture, particularly the emphasis on an integrated holistic approach where power and leadership was typically shared.

To their credit, senior staff at ISWO demonstrated the leadership necessary to think beyond the restraints of what had been a focus on sport and wellness to instead embrace and become a catalyst for a more expanded framework.

For youth this expanded framework addressed the youth priorities reflected in the six streams they identified (creative arts, community changemaking, cultural education, exploring job and life skills, health and wellness and leadership in sport and recreation).

As such, it means Standing Bear went far beyond Collective Impact for a number of reasons because they:

  • approached leadership from a strength-based or assets approach rather than a needs perspective (they are youth-at-promise, not youth-at-risk);
  • saw there being two sides to a successful equation for individual and community wellbeing - economic development and quality of life;
  • promoted an inclusive community-driven, grassroots-up movement that needed to involve everyone – people who live in the community, organizations, government, businesses, and elected officials; 
  • understood the need for power to be shared using a community development approach, and; 
  • identified a need for youth to be future-focused, and because they lived in both the Western and Indigenous worlds, when they did so it would be with their ability to see the best of both worlds reflecting two-eyed seeing. 

While there's no doubt it has been messy at times and sometimes it feels as if the “track is being laid as the train is rolling", it is innovative, leading-edge work that will position Indigenous youth in Ontario as leaders who are firmly grounded by the traditions and values of their ancestors and yet are prepared to face a future that hasn’t yet been invented yet.

If you are interested, you can read more about Standing Bear at this link. 

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