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“Decolonize our minds” with Yanna Joanne Papadopoulos of Teenacers

Decolonize our minds; We fear change because we believe it will contribute to loss of power. Understanding that power and privilege were not rightfully anyone’s to keep. We are in an arena that is modeled after colonialism. It only benefits those already in power. If we don’t identify “other” as an identity, we will become […]

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Decolonize our minds; We fear change because we believe it will contribute to loss of power. Understanding that power and privilege were not rightfully anyone’s to keep. We are in an arena that is modeled after colonialism. It only benefits those already in power. If we don’t identify “other” as an identity, we will become more and more oppressive in our systems to maintain power.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Yanna Joanne Papadopoulos of Teenacers.

Yanna has been a teacher for the public board, in Calgary, for 15 years, she is a college instructor, a professional development workshop facilitator for educators, the Vice president of Seeds Connections Organization, and founder and owner of Teenacers, where she offers academic and leadership coaching for teens and young adults moving through their academic careers and entering the workforce. Yanna holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts, a Bachelors of Education, and a Masters in Educational Leadership from Gonzaga University and teaches teens the leadership strategies that have been successful among leaders in becoming resilient and empowered change-makers in their lives; she inspires them to have an impact in their schools and communities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Iwas born in Canada, but at the age of 8, my parents moved back to Greece. There, I grew up in a small village. I didn’t speak the language when I entered the 3rd grade. Living in a small village of 1000, we grew up without any real restrictions. The village watched over us. At a very young age, I gravitated towards people who inspired me with their stories. When we moved back to Canada, 9 years later, I was in grade 11, and I quickly realized how different life was here. I had lost the “village” that shaped me and had such an influence over me. Looking back now, I was desperate for connection, and I found that in teachers, mentors, and colleagues. Am I an “immigrant success story?” Not really, but I get that a lot. Although I was born in Canada, I am always asked the question of “where are you from?” I usually respond with “I’m Greek.” I am the “Greek girl,” when I am in Canada. The irony in this is, that when I am in Greece, I am referred to as the “Canadeza” which means the “Canadian girl.” This might seem harmless, but essentially, I don’t feel like I belong in neither my place of birth, nor the place I grew up in. This is one of the reasons why I am so intrigued with identity, stories, and how they shape our sense of belonging.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Decolonize Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit by Marie Battiste

This book played a major role in structuring my graduate work on Indigenous Education. Battiste investigates the Eurocentric education systems and the impacts these have on Indigenous Peoples. She discusses how education normalizes invisible racism and maintains power politics in the shaping of national identity; the ones who succeed in school have the matchups to do so. Indigenous students only do so by denying their own story. The school system they attend is one of a different country. This book empowered me to advocate for equitous education.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Discrimination is when the government does not believe you’re worth the money.

– Cindy Blackstock.

Blackstock is a member of the Gitksan First Nations of British Columbia. Her mission is to change the discriminatory policies and actions toward Frist Nations children in Canada. Her work advocates against the systemic racism and underfunding of Indigenous healthcare and education, and the misconceptions — lack of education about the statistics of the fastest growing population in Canada. I came across her work when I was doing my masters’ research on Indigenous Education in the documentary called We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice by Alanis Obomsawin; Cindy Blackstock’s court case against the federal government of Canada for underfunding social services to children living on First Nations reserves. This documentary affected me in so many ways. I felt the anger and the pain that came from silencing the Indigenous Peoples in Canada. I realized that one can draw a direct correlation between government funding of healthcare, education models, and systemic racism in our society. Blackstock’s work compelled me take a closer look at education and political platforms. I started to see the patterns. In order to create an inclusive society, we need to look at systemic policies and funding that continue to marginalize certain groups of people.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is to know who you are, what you stand for, and have the ability to enable others to join you in your vision. It sounds simple, but it surprising how many leaders are not introspective and aware of their own values. Leadership requires self-esteem, not only to lead, but to let others challenge you, and lead the way, as well. One must need to have healthy self-esteem to accept challenges and criticism as opportunities to grow within the team. It requires vulnerability and courage in being able to share one’s experiences, as a leader, and to encourage others to learn from them, and be open to learning from others.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I facilitate workshops for educators and I teach high school and college level students. Public speaking is one of my favorite things to do! However, I feel tremendous stress in timed interviews or timed workshops, which I facilitate. I practice timing myself, while presenting a trial run, out loud. I am an auditory learner, so I usually record myself and then I play the recording over and over, until I have it memorized it like a poem or song. I find interruptions or questions from the audience very distracting and time consuming, but sometimes unavoidable, therefore I practice my presentations from multiple start and stop points. That way I don’t feel completely derailed when I am sidetracked. These techniques make me feel at ease. Prior to a high stakes meeting, or talk, I try to do something completely different with my brain, like cleaning, or listening to music, or going for a walk. I try to play out the presentation or meeting and envision it going well. This helps me feel the excitement and relief; in a way, I trick my brain in feeling like it is over and now I am looking back on it and reflecting. This is called metacognition and, in a way, it engages me in a process of being grateful for having the opportunity to be part of something, rather than getting caught up in the anxiety around it.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

Looking back at history, we have learned some harsh, but obvious, lessons about the stages that lead to a revolution, depression, movement, or a crisis. These factors include social, political, economic, and environmental. In the past, the dynamic between these factors would have been more of a “one thing led to another,” meaning that populations would have experienced a drought, then inflation, then a bank run, then an economic crisis, etc. In this case, the economic downturn, and the dipping price of oil, combined with a pandemic that threatened our lives, a lockdown that required social distancing from our loved ones and massive loss of employment, along with the mental and emotional strain placed on individuals, led to a heightened awareness of what is going on in our world and the injustice that exists. People started to question, not only the validity of our news, but the validity of our systems. The timing of these events created a sense of fear, scarcity, and distrust. With all our attention on social media and our survival, we started paying attention to unclear roles and responsibilities, from the economic perspective, and this attention joined forces with the brutality and the sobering truth of systemic oppression. We were a captive audience of the “real world.” This was a recipe for disaster, but also for recovery; we decided that it is time for radical change. Nations have self-esteem. We can’t unpack the global situation if we don’t understand leadership at a personal level. Everyone is acting from shame, blame, pain, loss; players of a political football to claim power to which each has a sliver of ownership. This is when leadership comes into play. Leadership is at the forefront of change. The buck stops at the leader’s office. Where do we stand as leaders and who’s story are we not getting a chance to hear? When people are not being heard or valued, their whispers turn into rage. As Glennon Doyle states in her book Untamed, “marching is praying with your feet,” and as Martin Luther King states, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” We need to listen in order to heal. We need to walk towards change.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

I have been working with the Seeds Connections Organization for the last 8 years. This is a nonprofit organization that offers leadership opportunities to students and raises awareness on diversity, cultural awareness, and environmental stewardship. It works with multiple school boards and its initiative is change making and creating social impact and justice. My involvement with Seeds Connections led me to my graduate work on decolonizing education and how we can educate our way out of discrimination and systemic oppression. I have committed to sharing my work and resources on many platforms, to support educators and leaders on how to design professional development in order to eliminate the achievement gap, create inclusive classrooms, and build work culture. My work at Teenacers focuses on coaching through the Indigenous ways of knowing and being. I implement the Indigenous model for self-esteem, living principles, teaching strategies, and best practices in engaging and building leadership skills. My mission is to create a movement towards community mentoring through storytelling, another Indigenous way of knowing and being. I have also partnered with LoopEducation, a nonprofit organization founded by first generation Canadians, who offer academic support to teens, young adults, and new Canadians. Their mission is also to enable accessible and affordable academic guidance through, and after, teens’ high school careers.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Everyone on a team is a culmination of their cultural, professional, and personal values. A successful executive team is able to frame their decisions from a symbolic, political, structural, and human resources perspective. When a team lacks diversity, from a cultural and professional standpoint, it lacks perspective. Decisions that impact a diverse population in an institution, or organization, that haven’t been made through these 4 frames and from a diverse team, will create apathetic and hostile workers, because they don’t feel like they have a voice. A hegemonic, colonial style of leading, perpetuates narratives of oppression and stereotypes that maintain the status quo. What ends up happening is workers begin to create coalitions, “parking lot” meetings, and tokenistic behaviors in order to keep the peace. As articulated by Bolman and Deal in Reframing Organizations, you’ve changed the window coverings but you didn’t change the weather.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

The Eurocentric historical narrative that has formed the basis of our education system has created an impenetrable layer of perspectives of Indigenous and Black People, not as the founding peoples of our nation, but as obstacles that need to be overcome. These obstacles are the depictions of Indigenous and Black People as intruders of history, only depicted when they are obstructing the nation building process. Teaching and leading through multiple perspectives is a two-fold challenge; first, to unpack the historical narratives that drives people to the deeply rooted preconceived notions of these populations; and second to create a climate of support in our schools and workplaces where educators and leaders feel confident in their capabilities and cultural competence in order to build an inclusive environment. Recognizing the misconceptions of BIPOCs’ history, exploring the statistics of these populations, and mindfully acknowledging the factors that are hindering success in the day to day life of BIPOC living under the legacies of colonization, we can learn how, we as educators and leaders, can eliminate the achievement gap in education and create work cultures through cultural proficiency, professional development, diversifying staffing, advocating for BIPOC education, and recognizing bias.

  1. We can begin walking together as a society by understanding that leadership is as much about leading others, as it is about letting others lead. It is collaborative, not authoritative; the ability to see lives and texts are braided together, rather that separate and independent.
  2. Multiple perspectives; reframing the organizations, government systems, and decision making to include multiple perspectives and to hear from voices and stories we didn’t have a chance to hear from.
  3. Unmaking the dominant narratives; challenging and unlearning the narratives we have been taught through mainstream education that has taught the structures of power that perpetuate stereotypes and maintain the status quo.
  4. Culture Continuity; creating cultural continuity in the workplace and education systems. Embracing a level of cultural integration beyond the level of “reasonable accommodation” or “cultural appropriation.” Amplifying leadership at the grassroots level.
  5. Decolonize our minds; We fear change because we believe it will contribute to loss of power. Understanding that power and privilege were not rightfully anyone’s to keep. We are in an arena that is modeled after colonialism. It only benefits those already in power. If we don’t identify “other” as an identity, we will become more and more oppressive in our systems to maintain power.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

We treat each other differently because of the lack of shared experiences. As an educator, I have a thorough understanding of the power teaching history has in shaping a nation’s identity. In order for us to make the walls disappear, we need to decolonize the education system and then we need to decolonize our minds. We also need to understand that a clearly articulated definition of national identity does not currently exist, which makes the teaching of national citizenship becoming problematic, in terms of not acknowledging difference. Education requires a postcolonial re-reading. Creating an ethical space that enables a collective rethinking of our shared pasts. We need to address the dichotomy between “us” vs “them.” We need to separate people from the problem and focus on change at a systemic level; transformational commitment to equity in creating a social just world by amplifying voices we haven’t had a chance to hear from. We now have a big decision to make: we will either decide to remain comfortable, or to become courageous. We are afraid of being called out as racists in our views, but we need to admit that racism is systemic, and it has been rained upon us, as Dr Kendi describes, all of our lives; we don’t even realize we’re wet. Admitting that we all have been conditioned in this way, will make conversations more vulnerable and less aggressive. Aggression silences those who are unaware of their unconscious bias. Silence and “sitting this one out” mentality is lethal during this time. Underfunded education and healthcare create a permanent underclass in any society. Silence, and “sitting this one out,” does not grant anyone immunity against the short and long-term impacts of systemic racism. We are all connected. If we don’t see that in today’s crisis, we haven’t been paying attention.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

One person I have really grown to admire is Mark Groves with Create the Love at https://markgroves.com/. He is a human relationship and communication specialist. Create the Love is a platform that unpacks human behavior and discusses the power of boundaries, communication, codependency, and relationships. Mark Groves is from Calgary, but lives in British Columbia. I met him at a retreat I attended with my little sister in Calgary, when he was first starting out as an influencer. I remember we had to write a self-addressed letter that was mailed out to us later that year. I wish he knew the impact that letter had on me when it made it to my mailbox. Besides following his podcasts, Instagram and Facebook posts, YouTube videos, courses, etc., I feel if we could ever have a conversation, it would be about how does he have the ability to relate to so many people and emotions? I also want him to discuss his drive and his personal mission. He is the most articulated, fierce, and courageous speaker I have ever come across. It’s a true gift. He is vulnerable and compassionate. I would like to ask him how he envisions himself in the next 5 years, or what does he want his legacy to be? I don’t think I go a day without quoting him. Mark Groves has shaped the way I communicate with my students, clients, and on social media. He is someone from my direct community who is empowering, impactful, and I hope that his work reaches every corner of this planet. My dream is to create a course with Mark Groves, that will help teenagers build healthy self-esteem and strong relationships.

How can our readers follow you online?

I post a weekly blog at www.teenacers.com and I offer weekly tips on leadership coaching for teens on my YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbV_pts560kf6eC07RLwHVQ/featured

You can follow me on Facebook and join our group page at https://www.facebook.com/teenacers/ for shared resources that help with teaching and coaching teens.

I am also active on these social media platforms:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.co/in/teenacersyannapapadopoulosjoanne/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/teenacers

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/teen.acers/

You can contact me directly at [email protected] for coaching sessions and questions.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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