This article is part of Empowerment Squared’s Community Voices series, which highlights the stories, aspirations, and accomplishments of members of the Empowerment Squared community – in their own words – through interviews.
Ann-Marie Anie knows school should be a welcoming, nurturing place where kids are given all the tools to perform at their very best. As Manager of Educational Programming and co-supervisor of the Student and Family Advocate Department at Empowerment Squared, she is making sure every child she encounters can successfully navigate the system and gain access to a great education. She recently spoke with volunteer Amy Schaefer about her passion for helping kids and their families.
Amy: Just to start off, why don’t you tell our readers a little bit about yourself.
Ann-Marie: My name is Ann-Marie Anie and my role at Empowerment Squared (E2) is that I’m the Manager of Educational Programming, and co-supervisor of the Student and Family Advocate Department. I’m responsible for creating, planning and coordinating curriculum, which I really love – the creation side of it and seeing how it unfolds. I manage volunteers and participants, and liaise with community members. I do wonderful talks like this to share what we’re doing at E2. And I also direct, manage, and collaborate on projects, processes and systems to ensure that educational programming is efficient and effective.
You started out as a teacher. How did that come about?
I have really, really vivid memories of my educational past. Looking back, it’s connected to my passion for education and learning. When I was a kid, both my parents needed to work, so my sister and I went to daycare. And the daycare was just so lovely, such a loving environment, to the point that the staff felt like surrogate parents. You remember feeling that warmth. They served food, and the quality of the food was really good, the activities that they provided were amazing; the atmosphere was beautiful – all you can think of that you would want in place when you’re learning.
I remember the excitement of going to kindergarten, right? Like going into the big kids’ school. But then when I got there, it wasn’t that same warm fuzzy feeling from the daycare. Something changed. And when I became a teacher, I always wanted to replicate that sensation of comfort and belonging in the classroom because then I knew at least that would be a place the kids would always want to return to, and once they wanted to return to that space then I would be able to teach them. Having that in mind is what inspires me when I’m creating these programs and the curriculum. At a very young age, I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to teach. I didn’t know who I would teach nor which subjects I would teach; however, I had the desire to teach others and continue learning new experiences for my own personal development.
What prompted you to make the switch from teaching to E2?
It was a journey. I worked for HWDSB (Hamilton Wentworth District School Board) for about seven years, and I remember seeing that there were always kids in the system that needed extra support, and we as educators didn’t always have the tools to support them. The systems didn’t have the tools.
By nature, I’m a person who likes to try new things and learn new things. So after I had gained my experience from HWDSB, I decided to try teaching internationally, which was a really great experience. I lived and worked as an international teacher in Qatar, and learned so much, so much. I met so many wonderful people, learned a different curriculum. It really satisfied my need at that time. However, there came a point where I wanted to return back home to reconnect with family and friends. I had some ideas of what I wanted to do in terms of programming but I didn’t know how to get there, so I took a sabbatical and I volunteered and shared some of my thoughts in terms of working with kids in the community. I shared my thoughts with my late mother, Dora Anie, who was a community leader, Founder of Schools of Dreams Charity, and she suggested that I connect with Leo Johnson, who is our executive founder and director of E2.
I shared with Leo what my thoughts were and I shared my proposal with him, and my ideas resonated with what his vision was for this organization. I started volunteering at E2 at the Homework Circle program. I realized it felt like the right place to be, where I could use my skills to help those families and the kids to succeed in the educational system, because I knew that they needed that. When E2 got a grant we were able to hire some staff; I applied for the job and I became a successful candidate.
You provide direct support through things like Homework Circle, but also help families navigate the system. What do you do in terms of advocacy for students who need it?
Through the Ministry of Education, we – not only us as E2, but provincially – we realized that black and indigenous students, racialized students, are over-represented – not only in the child welfare system, but also in our criminal justice systems, and they also have higher rates of dropping out when it comes to our educational systems.
We introduced the Student and Family Advocacy (SFA) program based on observations that more and more families were in need of direct support with navigating the education system. The SFA’s primary objective is to work alongside students to assist them with educational pathway support and guidance. We’re really thankful that the Ministry had realized the need for this as well, because it takes funding to run these types of programs.
Some of the interventions that we do happen when participants reach out to us directly. For instance, “I’ve been suspended,” or “I’ve been expelled. What should I do?” We are there first of all to take the call, validate all of their feelings, to listen to what it is that they’re going through, and then we start to have conversations about how do we get them back on track, managing what their needs are, as well as what their wants are, so that they are an active participant in the whole process. Using that example of suspension or expulsion, sometimes we end up having school meetings with the participant or with the parent, meaning speaking to the teachers, or maybe we have to take it up to the next system, like the school board, or sometimes we refer to external agencies.
Another example is a 6-year-old black boy who has some self-regulation challenges within the school system. The school decreased the amount of time that he can be at school. He was at school for about an hour and a half daily. So that means that Mom – who is a single mother – has to leave work or leave classes to go and pick him up and bring him home, and there goes her hope for any type of future for the family because of her absenteeism.
In the most recent case, the mom was called by the school to come and pick up the child immediately. Mom tried to let them know: “If I keep leaving, I’m going to lose my job,” and then who’s going to take care of her family? So then the school threatened: If you don’t come, we will call the police.
Exactly: you’re sighing. This is it. “We will call the police,” and I’m not sure what their plan was, but these are some of the issues that we work with on a regular basis. With our longstanding relationships within the education system and other external agencies, we have been able to effectively respond to these situations through the SFA programs ensuring that there are positive outcomes for everyone involved in a culturally competent way. Our mission is to make sure that no other families go through a similar experience because this is not okay.
No. And I want to say that I’m sorry that that job is necessary at all, but I’m so glad that the kids and families have you and E2 doing this for them and being a partner in helping them through the whole process. Because it’s unacceptable. There’s nothing else you need to say about it. It’s unacceptable. That’s not how we do things.
Absolutely. We help our participants in any way so that they can be successful, and sometimes it’s just a matter of just being with them when they’re going into these spaces.
We recognize the inequalities of the educational system, and we know that it takes collaboration in order to move forward and to innovate. We’re really excited to be working on the School Readiness Academy. The idea is to improve learning outcomes for Black and racialized newcomer youth between ages 12-29 in Hamilton. The model has a particular focus on the impact of streaming in schools, age-based placement, discriminatory punishments, and the lack of culturally relevant support within the formal education system. The goal is to develop a support framework that complements the existing education ecosystem.
So, for instance, the journey of the newcomer – which is a very common story – is that they were forced to leave their homeland. Many of the parents were illiterate in their first language; they communicate with their kids orally. They’re very good at that. However, they can’t teach them how to read or write in their first language. They move to a refugee camp and there, if they’re lucky, there might be some sort of schooling or education. Then, again if they’re lucky, they come to Canada. They go to the ESL Assessment Center, where they share their story. We assess them briefly based on their oral communication, reading, writing, and a little bit of mathematical skills. Depending on the availability of the resources, they may be assigned an ESL teacher, or they might be connected with an agency such as the YMCA, a SWIS worker (the Settlement Workers in Schools program) who could maybe help them to navigate some of these systems. Or maybe, because of lack of resources, they wouldn’t have that. In the classroom, the teacher might assign them to have a buddy. And they might give them some, from our point of view, simple tasks or for instance give them an iPad where they are meant to maybe listen to some videos. However, if you have no concept of technology or how to use an iPad, this is a challenge. This is one way that the School Readiness Academy could help.
For instance: translanguaging. This is a new term that we learned as staff. Translanguaging – do you have an idea what it means, translanguaging?
No, I don’t.
Keeping a perspective of ESL in mind, it’s having kids learn English in conjunction with their native language, using a speaker’s full language repertoire to facilitate their learning of a new language. That includes all languages that one speaks, including different levels of formality within each language. Research shows that translanguaging strongly influences refugee participants’ willingness to participate in daily discussions, story reading, and activities.
In the E2 context, when we work with some of our Arabic-speaking kids, we have Arabic-speaking volunteers who work with them. It’s a beautiful thing. Some people think that if I speak to them in Arabic, they’re not going to learn English or not going to improve, but it’s the opposite. The kids are the ones that are driving the conversation that they want to complete their English homework because it’s from their classroom teacher and they want to be part of this new environment. Sometimes it’s just a phrase, a word that they need in order to push them through and understand.
I think you don’t realize how many idioms there are in your own language until you’re learning a new language and you discover what a phrase means literally is not right at all. You need help to decode those things.
Right; exactly, exactly. And when you’re in the class and you are around people that are not speaking your language, you tend naturally to tune out right? You just create this bubble in your head because you know no one is going to talk to you. So through translanguaging or interpretation services of the School Readiness Academy and working in collaboration with the school system, helping these kids to build some of these schools regain their confidence. Work on all those soft social skills that I mentioned earlier and then transition back into a classroom. We’re hoping that these kids will have additional support and have better outcomes when it comes to the educational system.
That’s what it all comes down to: better outcomes. And that’ll look different for different kids.
Yeah, you got it. The educational aspect is part of our primary objective. Secondary objectives are things like helping them navigate the immigration system, completing immigration application forms, or completing housing application forms, banking. All those other little – well, I shouldn’t even say “little.” Those processes that can really be cumbersome and difficult and sometimes just make you wanna give up. And if we don’t have the answers or we can’t support them, we’re also connected with other organizations, not only ethnocultural organizations but also other agencies that could support these folks.
Having moved to other countries myself, I understand how much paperwork is actually involved in setting up a life somewhere new. And if you’ve also got language barriers, it’s a mountain to climb trying to get through all that.
How do you put kids in the right frame of mind to participate in E2’s programming?
When we work with our kids, there’s a phrase that comes to mind that one of our volunteers shared with us: You need to be educable before you can be educated. Meaning that you need to feel safe. You need to want to learn. You need all of your basic needs met – your shelter, food. All of that kind of thing needs to be met first in order for you to even begin to think about becoming educated. And I really love that, because at E2 we do all of those things. When we met in person, we provided snacks. We provided school materials. We provided enough mentor support. We provided the space and so many other things, all free of charge. The only thing that child needed was to show up. And we deliberately situated ourselves in neighborhoods where these kids could walk to our programming, or the parents could drive them.
One thing that I really, really love about E2, is that, not only do we provide educational programming and sports and recreational programming to help these folks, but we also provide the financial empowerment, meaning that all you need to do is show up. You don’t need to have a uniform if you want to play soccer or you don’t need to have your school materials if you want to take an educational program – we take care of that. We hope in the future we’re going to be having a financial literacy workshop for adults. In the past we’ve had financial training for post-secondary. How do you fund post-secondary? And we also have our scholarships and awards that help with these families that are struggling.
There’s a quote from Trevor Noah, who is a South African comedian. He wrote a book entitled Born a Crime, and in his book he describes the proverb that if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he eats forever. But then he says: there’s something missing with that proverb. What if the man doesn’t have a fishing rod or the fishing net to go fishing? Sometimes we also need to provide the person the tool in order to do this activity for them to be on their way. I always keep that in mind when we’re doing these different things.
When kids come to our programming, we believe in an asset-based approach. First of all, we know that many of them have been labeled in some way, such as ESL, ADHD, and so on, or are a couple steps behind in the school system. We know that they could have English as a second language, or they could have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
However, we also know that they have so many assets, so many positive qualities about them, so we try to help them to remind them of that. For instance, many of them are bilingual. Many of them have educational tools outside of the academic realm. They might be really good with their hands, or they take care of their siblings at home, or they have really good memories. Almost everyone has really, really good oral communication skills – they’re excellent negotiators, naturally. This is one of the things we always tell the volunteers: you need to be firm and fair, because these kids could talk you out of anything. Which is a skill!
I love looking at kids from that point of view. That’s such an important place to start, saying: you have assets. When you come at it from that place, they really can flourish. A kid might be struggling with something, but everybody reminds them: there are things you can do, and we’re going to make this another thing you can do. Maybe you can’t do it yet, but you’re going to get there.
Exactly, that healthy growth mindset approach. In terms of our outcomes, we see improved academics and improved social skills. They improve their learning skills. They build more confidence and their abilities to take risks and answer questions. Improve their perception and or their belief in education.
Why do you think education is such an important tool to help empower newcomer, racialized and marginalized communities?
Education – and I’m not not only limiting it to academic education, but education in general – it provides access. Access to information or to spaces. For instance, somebody approaches us with a question or they need help with certain things, let’s say: immigration. So we say: “Okay, here’s a website to get you started,” but if you don’t know how to read the website, then you’re stuck. Education also about your new environment, of where you’re living, to know that, for instance, there are various agencies that can help you with so many different things. Learning English and helping you find a job, knowing that if you need clothing, food, that sort of thing. From a social aspect, it helps you to build your confidence when you’re going into these different spaces. It’s a tool. It can be life-changing.
In our household we always say: education gives you choices. It lets you open the doors you want to open in this world, and it’s one of the things I love about the E2 mission to help give these kids more choices and more access. All the things you know they need and deserve in this world.
Yes, it’s true. And we understand that, along with academic education, it could also be a position of power when somebody knows something and the other person doesn’t. That’s one example of how we see it in a negative way. For instance, we see a lot of our kids who want to apply for scholarships to go to post-secondary education. However, they’re not given the chance. They’re not told about the opportunities when they’re in school, whereas other people are told about these opportunities. We need to become more aware of that and spread those opportunities to those people that we know would necessarily know these things.
What sort of educational inequalities do you see in our community? What is E2 doing to help address some of these inequalities?
We know that, from our experiences and as well as from research that there are institutional policies and governance structures that perpetuate racism. For instance, labeling kids as “delinquents” or “dropouts,” if that’s written into the policies. How do we change this language so that people in positions of power can help those kids and see them from a positive perspective as opposed to a negative: the problem. Like, who willingly wants to work with a “delinquent?” That’s gonna be work.
That’s where language is important, right?
Yes, exactly. Looking at the way that different metrics for evaluating success – how kids are assessed and put into their different grades and classes. For instance, we know in the Hamilton system that kids are placed in the grades at school based on their age and not necessarily based on their achievements or their abilities, which is problematic unto itself. We also don’t hold back or fail kids anymore so they continue to ascend these different grade levels whether they’re ready or not.
We also know that the current school systems are lacking in funding to support this influx of youth, newcomers, that are coming into the system, so there is a lack of educational support in the classroom. Many of the classroom teachers are doing their best to support the kids that they have. However, the classroom teachers aren’t necessarily always trained to deal with the intricacies, the complexities that come with a newcomer child, i.e., if they have trauma or if they have mental health issues, or if they’re ESL students.
One major concern that comes up in the Student and Family Advocacy department, which we didn’t think would come up as often as it does, is a lack of housing or the quality of housing. It’s atrocious that we are living in a so-called developed nation and folks are living like this. One family has many children, kids with special needs, physical as well as mental. They live in an apartment, let’s say on the 12th floor, and the elevator always breaks down. So heaven forbid, there’s a fire in this place. How is this family going to get all of these people out in a safe way? Food insecurity – that’s another big concern, especially now with the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic a lot of folks were struggling with food insecurity, but midst-pandemic these problems have been exacerbated. I’m sure you’ve noticed when you go grocery shopping, the cost of food and gas and whatnot has just gone through the roof, and it’s not likely that the prices are going to go back.
So the poor physical and mental health conditions of so many of these folks who live in apartment buildings. They are not getting out to do physical exercise. We know that amongst black and racialized families, many of them suffer from health-related issues; for instance, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure.
We see inequality for many of the kids who have come into the country, based on what they’ve experienced, or, when they arrive, things that they will experience. For instance, isolation, not knowing the language or not being able to communicate with the dominant group. And figuring out navigating your new environment. Many of these folks have come from tropical countries, and now they’re living in this very cold, white world right now because of the snow. So these little things that we don’t even think about.
You run a lot of programs and wrangle a lot of volunteers. How do you train and support the people who help out at E2?
In order to make all of these programs run, it takes a lot of resources, not only staff resources, skilled, passionate staff. It takes mentors, volunteers as well. None of our programs could run the way that they do if it weren’t for our volunteers. They are super passionate. The kids – time and time again when we do our feedback forms, they always say hands down that they are the best part of the program. So we’re so grateful for them. My role is to make sure that the volunteers continue to be supported, create their training curriculum for them, build relationships with them so that they feel comfortable to share their needs or concerns.
Keeping sustainability in mind, I know I can’t be everywhere at all points in time, but I can replicate some of the things that I say and do through training. Getting those volunteers, teaching them who we’re working with and why and the impact that we’re having. Speaking to their hearts. It’s transferred there. The compassion and empathy is transferred.
Within our training curricula, we teach the volunteers what to do when they have a challenge. First of all, we let them know that there will be challenging experiences. That’s just the way life is. So we prepare them for it, and then we let them know that when you do approach a challenge first, while you have the support of staff.
But you can also, if you choose to engage with it, approach it with curiosity rather than judgment. So for instance, if the child comes to Homework Circle without any homework, rather than saying: “You didn’t bring your homework again, you’re always doing this!” why not ask them: “Why didn’t you bring your homework? How are you doing in that class? What is it exactly that you’re working on?” That comes from a different place. It’s a more heart-centered question, a loving question as opposed to judgment.
As I’m talking, because of all of my experience and because of my personality enjoying this type of work, I am conscious that this type of work isn’t for everybody and it’s a lot. You can start small if you choose. If you make the decision to contribute to your community, you can start small. For example, volunteering in Homework Circle on a Thursday is an hour and a half plus your training. Most people can find an hour and a half out of their time. Most of us are watching a lot of Netflix shows or on social media, right? Scrolling through all of these things where this could be something where you can literally transform someone’s life. And if working with people isn’t your thing, you can become a donor, or contact our agency to see if there’s other ways that you could support in small ways. Feel free to call our staff and have a conversation and just say: I’m interested in helping, but I don’t know how. We can help you tease through it and if E2 isn’t for you, finding something else in your community that brings out passion that fuels you.
I think people underestimate how important little actions can be. I was listening to a CBC interview with an actor, Ray Strachan, who’s in a play about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. right now. And he made the point that we can’t all be MLK. But if all of us do a very little bit, we can add up to an MLK. I thought that was a beautiful way of looking at it.
Yeah, I like that. I do, I agree.
I think we covered a lot of ground. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I really appreciate that.
You’re welcome, you’re welcome and thank you. I’m excited to see what we come up with.
For more information please contact:
Ann-Marie Anie, Manager of Educational Programming
Phone : 905-393-5370
Amy Schaefer is a Hamilton writer and Empowerment Squared volunteer. When she isn’t teaching math and reading, you’ll find her curled up on the couch, buried under her hedgehog, her kitten, and a good book.