Bringing our Questions to Families: Collective problem-solving around Children’s Classes and Junior Youth Groups

Children and junior youth participate in a children’s festival in St. James Town before the pandemic.

In both the Springdale neighbourhood of Brampton and the St. James Town neighbourhood of Toronto, youth from the local population who have graduated from children’s classes and the junior youth program are now tutoring, animating, teaching children’s classes, and beginning to coordinate activities.  In both neighbourhoods, the expanding nuclei of friends holding activities are turning to the families around them, raising questions and challenges and directly inviting them into the process of problem solving. One can see the potential that is released as friends from receptive communities bring “special insight into those forces and structures in their societies that can, in various ways, reinforce the endeavours under way.” [1]

The Involvement of Families in St. James Town

At a recent reflection meeting of the team in St. James Town, a number of children’s class teachers and animators shared the challenges of gathering young people online, as well as the many creative means they are drawing on to stay connected at this time. In the summer, over twenty people would attend outdoor devotionals and children’s festivals in the neighbourhood while observing social distancing protocols. The team trusts that when it is safe to gather in person again, there will be strong attendance, but for now, they describe participation in activities as a continuum. An experienced tutor shared how “it’s really about this…trying different things always and never giving up.”

“How do we read the reality of the population?” they asked themselves.  The group noticed how online school is draining for the children, but they also long for social interaction. So how can they still interact online while having it be uplifting and connected to certain principles? 

A strength in this neighbourhood is the way many cohorts of youth have moved through not only the junior youth program but also the Institute courses, for over a decade. As a result of this, a number of youth animators and children’s class teachers are from the population itself. This has naturally led to stronger bonds of friendship with parents and the growth of activities amidst the challenges of the pandemic. 

One of the families in the neighbourhood has been engaged in activities from when their children were small, and their home has been used as a neighbourhood centre of activity. Imay, the youngest son, now in his late teens, has been teaching his weekly children’s class at his home. When it couldn’t be held there, another family from the neighbourhood would host. Once the pandemic hit, it was challenging for the children to come on zoom so Imay consulted with others in the team. He started with one family, and two brothers came at the beginning. It was hard to think of expansion but then these two brothers’ father invited another family to join, and it grew to four. 

Youth from the population teach an outdoor children’s class in St. James Town in the summer of 2020.

In the summer, when restrictions in Toronto were lighter, the children and the junior youth would meet twice a week in the park. As the group met in the park it became a point of attraction, growing to eventually embrace 10 children. Being on his own with all the children, Imay needed support to simultaneously converse with the parents while he was teaching his class. He enlisted the support of his older brother, Sajit, to come to the park during his breaks to talk to the parents. Sajit worked a full-time job starting at 4:00 am every morning. He would rush home to be at the park for 3:00 pm to meet with the children. One of the fathers would drive back and forth, picking up the kids and dropping them all off. The father said he was grateful for the class, exclaiming: “I try to take my kids to the beach or to Toronto Island, but the only thing they ask is if their teacher has texted and if there is a class today.” 

Imay describes his approach to connecting with the parents around his class during the pandemic:

“I’ve been having my class online since September and there’s been no way to expand…but after the updated Book 2, we planned a meeting with the parents to share more about the purpose of the class and what we learn and how it has helped them. I shared the quotation ‘regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value’ and how much this quote helped me to see ourselves and then the children in this way. The dad said that this class has served as a platform to learn all these moral concepts. Back home in Nepal, the elderly people shared these ideas with them, but here in Canada they don’t have those elderly people sharing in the same way. He shared an example of how the class is influencing his children, one of them recently grew out his hair to donate it to cancer patients, it was such a beautiful example.”

Imay also started studying Book 1 with his mother to help her better understand the Baha’i Faith, the activities, and her children’s motivation to serve. 

The impact of the natural connections within a population was also evident when two other youth from the local population in St. James Town, wanted to expand their children’s class. After the impact of the pandemic only one child was able to continue in their class. With the support of the youth, she identified 10 friends to invite. A number of these friends were from a group of Syrian families. One of the teachers is a youth from the Syrian population. He was able to connect with the families and to invite them to the class by describing it in Arabic. 

The group met in the park until late October when restrictions changed. Due to some of the families’ circumstances, the transition online has been challenging. Through a strong pattern of consultation and action the teachers are learning about working with a continuum. Their class has been characterized by creative approaches online, including weekly powerpoint presentations including creative approaches to memorization, humour, and using characters to provide visual examples of concepts such as joy or selflessness.  In an effort to share prayers with the children’s families, the children served as protagonists by interviewing their families about prayers and their meanings. The teachers are also delivering packages with some simple content to families of children who haven’t been able to engage regularly online. 

Collective Problem-Solving in Brampton

In Brampton, the group has a pattern of looking at the list of junior youth and children at the end of each summer to see who has graduated and how the program can best adapt and evolve with the community. This year, one 11-year-old had completed the children’s classes and was invited to think about starting a junior youth group with her friends. She started having conversations with her friends and she was so excited. Martharoot describes the following experience:

“She lived kind of out of the neighbourhood though and we didn’t actually have an animator, so we were kind of like, ‘Oh no.’ I remember we were all sitting in our garage thinking: “Who’s going to be the animator with this very eager girl and her friends?” 

So, we decided to ask the family. “Why don’t we actually bring this question to the family?” we asked ourselves. “We’ll just tell them, we don’t know who will animate this junior youth group, so how should we do it?” 

The family immediately responded. They offered to provide transportation for the animator or the junior youth and said that if a space was necessary then their home could be available. The team saw how this welcomed the family into consultations that had usually only occurred among a smaller group of friends, drawing in greater insights and resources.

The spirit was, “How can we allow for this to happen, not just for our child but for her friends and the community?” The mother said she would have loved to have been in such a group when she was young. “I wanted it for my daughter,” she explained, “but I also wanted it for other kids in the community.” So, after that, the family talked about this group everywhere they went. The mother described how her daughter’s involvement in children’s classes over last year pushed her into a new way of being: 

“She has always had a group of friends that she was comfortable with but was shy around others. When we came to that first children’s class in the park, she asked me ‘can I go see what those children are doing?’ I said ‘okay’ and watched from the side. From that day, this little attraction she had grew and she gained confidence to talk to others and make friends with others. The teacher, the prayers and lessons from the class are what transformed her.  When we thought about who to invite to the new group, she looked for people everywhere. At this party, she asked me ‘do you think those people are junior youth?’ I said ‘yes,’ and she just went over there and said, ‘Hi, there’s going to be this group at my house. It’s going to be fun, and I think you should come.’”

In this way, the mission to find a way to begin this group belonged to everyone. Martharoot notes that this particular parent has been very involved with the children’s class and was also part of a group of mothers who began studying Ruhi Book 1. This study circle began somewhat informally as a natural outgrowth of sitting together in the school gymnasium during the children’s classes with Melanie Vafaie who has been actively serving in the neighbourhood. Through their study, involvement in Holy Days celebrations and other core activities, this group of mothers reflected on the contributions they could make to offer spiritual education to the children in the community. When the children’s class wanted to expand, these moms naturally brought the children themselves to visit their friends’ homes and describe the nature of the classes. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the friends in Brampton noticed that it was not easy to gather the children on Zoom as they would in person. The children’s class teachers saw this as an opportunity to decentralize the children’s classes and accompany a parent or an older sibling to carry out a class with a child in the context of their own home. Martharoot describes how: 

“We saw that many people have the capacity to lead a lesson, in whatever way or pace they want to move through it. We began to see that parents aren’t just the ones that give permission for their child to attend these activities, but we had to learn how to foster an environment where they saw how they were contributing as well.” 

Martharoot also says a study of Ruhi Book 10: Accompanying One Another on a Path of Service was crucial for their collective understanding of the notion of how the path of service “can be experienced and known, not only by one or two but by scores upon scores; it belongs to the community.”[2] One participant shared, with both humour and honesty, “I’m not gonna lie, I thought it was more like we knew what the path looks like and we’re going to bring others to it.” 

The team noticed how subtly a process can become insular. Martharoot shares how limiting it is for a team to think only its members can offer insights into the development of the community. “So now, if we have questions about particular things, we can bring them to other people, and they can help us understand. We offer one another advice and contribute to this learning process together.”

The experiences of these friends bring to mind the words of the Universal House of Justice describing the dynamics of an attitude of learning:

“Learning as a mode of operation requires that all assume a posture of humility, a condition in which one becomes forgetful of self, placing complete trust in God, reliant on His all-sustaining power and confident in His unfailing assistance, knowing that He, and He alone, can change the gnat into an eagle, the drop into a boundless sea. And in such a state souls labour together ceaselessly, delighting not so much in their own accomplishments but in the progress and services of others.” [3]

Youth in Springdale, Brampton walking together, before the pandemic.

[1] Universal House of Justice, December 29, 2015

[2] Universal House of Justice, 12th December, 2011

[3] Universal House of Justice, Ridvan, 2010

Get in touch with the neighbourhood team in this story, or share your own learning with Ontario Baha’i here.

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