Ontario youth’s adventure in inclusion continues
Emily Branje finding new opportunities as her passion for shining a light on the gifts of everyone pulls her forward
Friday June 23, 2012 -- Michelle Strutzenberger
It was one of those high-school workshops you have no idea what you’re getting into, Emily Branje recalls. She was in Grade 10 at the time and had signed up for a three-day event called the Character-in-Action Challenge.
Walking into the room, ever conscious of her ranking in the school’s unspoken clique system, she found an appropriate seat. Like most teens, she was facing her share of struggles.
At the end of the day, she says, “everyone was hugging.”
“That was the first time I felt I was in a room where people were completely inclusive; where everyone was there for everyone,” Branje tells Community Living Leaders, noting that understanding came as the students shared their stories of struggle and challenge. They realized like never before just how much pain they all had hidden — and that they weren’t alone in that.
It was that experience that jumpstarted her involvement in a number of leadership activities in the years following, among those the re:Action4Inclusion youth leadership gathering organized by Community Living Ontario.
There, she says, she found her mind being opened up even more, especially to see that what our communities need is not to change people who have a disability or even to change the system. We need to change how community members see others around them.
“When I went to re:Action I realized the severity of the way that people can be made to feel if they have a disability; how segregated they can be made to feel, and I just never thought that that was fair,” says Branje.
“They’re just people who are a little different and everyone is different in some way.” We need to ensure we’re not “putting a cloud” over whatever sunshine they’re trying to bring, she adds.
After her involvement with the re:Action event, Branje and several fellow students organized an inclusion council for Perth County. The group of about 10 youth members facilitated a number of activities geared to shifting young people’s take on disability. For instance, they arranged for disability thought leader Norman Kunc to present at several schools.
Because of their work on this, the group was invited to attend and present at the Toronto Summer Institute, which began the inclusion of youth in the formerly adult-only program.
Back at her school, Branje was elected president of her school’s student council in Grade 12. There she created a position to represent the voice of people who have a disability.
Her firm belief in the gifts of everyone — and thinking how to make those as visible as possible — keeps inspiring decisions like these — as well opening up new opportunities. As another example, this summer she has a job with Community Living Ontario, an opportunity that may have come had it not been for her earlier work with re:Action.
Branje will be continuing these mission-driven adventures as she heads into a third year in concurrent education studies at Queen’s University this September.
Her big dream is to travel the globe, teaching English and helping to make education inclusive for everyone, including those who have a disability.
Community Living Leaders will be running a series this summer with youth who have participated in re:Action4Inclusion and where they are now. If you would like to share your story, please contact the newsroom at 800-294-0051, or e-mail michelle(at)axiomnews.ca.