🕔Jul 16, 2009

A thick beat drops and a freestyler weighs in, “Nowadays I wonder what the world looks like.”

Typical of teenagers everywhere, Raphael Joseph, a Yekooche youth, raps about growing up in his community in a YouTube video. What’s not so typical is his journey to create his music.

In order to get his story out, Raphael first had to learn to write his lyrics. To produce his music he had to learn computers. And in learning and creating, Raphael was able to channel his energy and produce a poignant and inspiring piece of art. He now wonders about the world outside because of the opportunities provided through the Yekooche Learning Centre.

Yekooche is a First Nation community of just over 200 people, about 230 kms northwest of Prince George near Fort St. James. In 2006, Yekooche faced the same challenges that many northern communities face, including providing opportunities for its children.

“We used to send our kids away to school,” explains Band councillor Dean Joseph. “But they had a difficult time coping and dropped out, and came back with a sense of failure. They were never the same.” The community was rife with depression, boredom and vandalism.
Dean and other leaders decided to find a way to keep their kids in Yekooch—and bring the education to them. They built, with the help of the Province and Royal Roads University, a Learning Centre featuring 12 high-tech computers, reliable internet and access to online courses.

Right from day one the community took ownership of the Centre. Community members helped Royal Roads Mentor Wendy Drummond take the computers out of the boxes and set up the lab.

“I came with several plans for providing training, but there just wasn’t interest in the scheduled classes. I asked the Council for direction, and they told me it was alright, to be patient.” Creating a relaxed atmosphere at the Centre allowed Wendy to observe what interested those who came to use the computers. “I started watching what they were doing online, and looked for ways they could learn through exploring their interests.”

Stone soup
One of the strongest signs that the community supported the Learning Centre was the success of including communal hot lunches in the daily routine. Like ‘stone soup,’ hot lunches at the Centre encouraged people to come and share, making coffee and bringing treats. Over time the Learning Centre became more than just computers: it was about socializing.

Everyone from toddlers to elders started using the Centre to surf the web, hang out, record music or work on projects and courses. Alfred Joseph, an elder in his 70s, having spent time with his family at the Learning Centre, now wants to purchase a laptop for his home so that he can work with his nephew and write his own stories.

The Centre allows Yekooche residents to connect to the world outside their isolated community. “I still have some people’s first emails,” says Dean. “They were just tickled to be communicating with someone hundreds of miles away.” Yekooche kids now regularly jump on MSN to chat with friends around the world.

“Because of the Learning Centre they have an idea of how big an Earth we’ve got here,” says Dean proudly.

“It’s brought music back into the life of the community,” explains administrator Lisa Thomas. “Music was a huge part of Yekooche culture, but it was dying. Having the recording studio has brought music out of the homes and into the community. Now there is always someone in there with a guitar recording a song.” Kids like Raphael are learning how to produce quality tracks with programs like Garage Band and Pro-Tools.

But it’s not just songs that are being recorded. Youth are recording stories of the elders and translating them as part of a program called First Voices. The hope is that these recordings will be used in teaching Yekooche children in the future.

A Gathering Place
The Learning Centre has rekindled hope in Yekooche. It has become a gathering place for the whole community, where there is someone to talk with and listen to. The coffee pot is always on and everyone is welcome. Vandalism has decreased. Kids are able to stay in the community and continue their schooling online.

The key to the success of the Learning Centre has been the ownership the people have taken of the Centre since day one. Right from taking the computers out of the boxes, the Centre has been assembled, used and now managed by the community.

“The emphasis here is on experiential learning,” explains Wendy. “Whatever someone is interested in, we’ll find a way to make it a learning opportunity.”

“Raphael originally started coming in to listen to rap. One day he told me that he’d done rap battles and wanted to get better. I said ‘Great—let’s learn how to make rap music,’ and he replied, ‘Where’s the learning in that?’”

Together they found free beats online, learned how to use the music software, and recorded Raphael’s vocals. Raphael was so passionate about it that he started showing up before the Centre even opened and was the last to leave at night.

Other Yekooche youth have found ways to express themselves through technology. Mitchell Joseph was there from the start, helping to unpack the computers. He showed such a proficiency for technology, and such an interest in helping out, that he was soon asking for the keys so he could keep the Centre open all the time.

Mitchell also showed a natural talent for filmmaking. He has since taken courses on film and is now assisting with a documentary on the Learning Centre. His enthusiasm, drive and responsibility make him a role model to others. He is a prime example of the community’s goal to build knowledge of management, administration and governance.

Learning to Lead
Users of the Centre are learning leadership skills, too. “Mitchell and JD are the administrators of the Centre,” explains Chief Partner Schielke. “They are really taking ownership of it. They are the ones setting the rules and enforcing them. And community members are respecting their authority.”

Chief Schielke hopes to expand the Centre in the future to provide more community access. With Yekooche in the final stages of the treaty process, Chief Shielke’s goal is to make sure the community has the knowledge and commitment to self-govern when a final treaty is signed.

Although some of the youth are thinking about how their skills will support the community, many are just thrilled to be recording their first song, designing their own website, and connecting with people around the world. They are excited to learn.

It’s a huge shift for a community that only three years ago was struggling with drop-out rates and vandalism. By building connections with the outside world Yekooche has created community pride and opportunities for its youth. Since the Learning Centre started, 24 people have graduated from the Life Skills course, attended conferences, and taken leadership roles within the community.

It looks like Yekooche youth are listening to their fellow band member and budding rap artist Raphael when he says, “Do you want some advice? Go to school, don’t act like a fool.” And thanks to the Learning Centre, school is right there.