Last week, I had the humbling privilege of participating in my first indigenous wraparound ceremony for one of our aboriginal learners. If you are not familiar with the wraparound it is similar to a student intervention or integrated case management (ICM) meeting–community and school-based team members supporting an at-risk student come together (sans student)–to devise or review a plan of support. Tingling with excitement at the thought of being a part of something that had been done only once before in our school district, I also held some trepidation. But after releasing my expectations around an outcome (what a relief!), I firmly believe the wraparound ceremony to a healthy and sustainable protocol for families, schools, and community supports to come together to share and hold up our students at-risk.
Bean’s (a pseudonym) story is, sadly, all too familiar to many of us working with at-risk and indigenous youth. A Grade 8 aboriginal student with Anishnabe ancestry, Bean is a tremendously resilient individual. Living in extreme poverty, whose parents are no longer together (but provide support for both Bean and her older brother as best as they are able), she always appears to make the most of her situation. She is very articulate, outgoing, fiercely loyal, and highly supportive of her friends. But Bean also misses a lot of school often only attending when there is an aboriginal event and/or other opportunity to participate outside the classroom. She is easily distracted when at school and her focus on her academics is definitely not a priority (although she recognizes its inherent importance). And in reality, school doesn’t hold much incentive for Bean other than as a place to connect with closest friends. Her teachers have mixed opinions about her character, and her chances of making it in secondary school; talk of the successes and strengths are unconsciously dismissed or downplayed.
Taking Control with a Little Help (from Friends)
Late last year after a community drumming session, Bean approached me and shared that she wanted to dance in the school district’s year-end youth pow wow. And not only that she wanted to make authentic regalia and learn more about her Aninshabe heritage! A tall order. And one that completely caught me off guard. My initial and regrettable reaction was not exactly supportive in nature. It went something like, “It’s too late, it will require too much time to learn a dance, and more importantly, to make the detailed regalia that often takes dancers years to make! How could we pull this off?” Nice support, eh?
In a calm panic (yes, that’s the term I’m using) diluted with excitement and hesitation, I quickly relayed Bean’s desires to our school elder, Donna. Her response was (naturally), “We need to jump on this now.” Donna pushed that we needed to “take advantage of this young person wanting to explore their place in the world.” And added that “Jeff, we need to make this happen.” Gulp. And thus the idea of holding the first wraparound ceremony at our school was born.
An ICM? Hardly!
A common practice in many indigenous nations, the wraparound ceremony provides an opportunity for those that care for (and wish to support) the candidate the opportunity to come together to share their thoughts, feelings, and desire to help. Donna shared that the wraparound is “sort of like an ICM meeting without the ICM”. An ICM consists of family members, social workers, physicians, school psychologist, school counselor, teachers, administrators, other school workers, and any other individual that plays a role in the candidate’s life. In that respect it is very similar to an ICM meeting. But the similarities end there.
The traditional wraparound ceremony focuses on an individual’s strengths and attempts to help capitalize on their desire for change and improvement. The candidate also chooses who they wish to join them in the circle–no conference table here–the most open and vulnerable group sitting environment there is! The selected people are often referred to as guests. In an ICM meeting student of concern does not attend. Nor does the student necessarily acknowledge or accept the support and/or devised plan. The wraparound candidate, on the other hand, recognizes the need for help and readily accepts the support being offered them. They have ownership and agency of their learning. Of their future.
This Ain’t Your Average ICM!
A week prior to the ceremony, Donna and I met with Bean to go over her ‘guest’ list and what the process itself would entail. There are four rounds in a wraparound. The first round allows for introductions and how each person knows the candidate. Round two sees the strengths of the candidate observed by those present as they “speak their truths” (as Donna says). In the third round, each member of the circle shares how they would like to help and/or best support the candidate moving forward. The final round provides opportunity for anyone to share insights and/or other thoughts, feelings, or emotions about the process as a whole or to share with the candidate (and with each other) that came up for them along the way (that this is something you don’t see that happen in an ICM meeting). As a school representative, Donna insisted that I moderate the event and help attendees feel welcomed and a part of the process. I was deeply honoured, but my worry was palpable. “Jeff, do what you do best, speak from the heart, speak your truth,” Donna counselled. And of course, Bean herself would be expected to share her thoughts and feedback during each round (she would even provide the talk stick).
As you can well imagine (otherwise I wouldn’t be blogging this), the ceremony was a powerful and inspiring event. Many tears were shed during the ninety-minute session. It was beautiful to see Bean’s parents come together (they are seeking counselling in order to work together as a team to collectively support their child); they are also looking at a new housing arrangement. Bean’s grandmother–was steadfast to “learn more about to [her] roots”–after admitting she was a “newbie at this thing”. She was keen to support and learn. Most importantly, she was “so very proud of [my] strong and beautiful grandchild.” Yeah, you get the point. Our school principal attended, too. I was so proud to have her there; and she readily supported this initiative from its conception. The other elder in attendance, Ann-Marie, herself a member of the Ojibway Anishnabe nation, offered support with regalia and the related protocols (her daughter was a pow wow dancer). And Donna. Ah, Donna. Our elder did what she does best. Donna held the spiritual container for our group. She brought a quiet strength to the entire process. And me? I cried. A lot.
The wraparound ceremony is only the beginning of Bean’s journey. A rites of passage as such. Something that most of our adolescents so desperately need (and they don’t even know it). Bean will need support and will stumble along the way. But for a strong aboriginal youth wishing to learn more about themselves and where they come from to make sense of where she is going this is what she needed. It’s what we all need. Especially, our kids. Big challenges ahead, but this child will be just fine. She’s got her backup system and we’re not going anywhere.