Supporting the exploration of Citizenship & Disability


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Project Citizenship Learning Year 1

Project Citizenship

Wow! We can’t believe it’s already been a year of working on this exciting project. The designing and undertaking of Project Citizenship has been an exhilarating time with lots of learning and inspiring stories.  What started as brainstorming about how to celebrate SKILLS’ 30th anniversary has evolved into an initiative that is changing the way we do our work.

Project Citizenship came about when SKILLS was awarded a two year Partnership Grant from the University of Alberta Community Service-Learning (CSL) program. Our awesome academic co-applicant is Dr. Nancy Spencer-Cavaliere from the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation. Our community partner is the Nina Haggerty Center for the Arts. The project entails:

  • Using citizenship as a lens for viewing our work and the people we support.
  • Using “story” as a net for capturing what is important about people and their connections.
  • Asking students to lend their talents and perspectives.
  • Using the stories and the activities of the project to drive organizational learning and transformation.
  • Working with Dr. Spencer-Cavaliere and her research team, using Participatory Action Research, to learn from our work and move that learning throughout the organization.

We’d like to share some of the project’s milestones from the past year and talk about some of our plans for Year Two.

Think Tanks
Last summer SKILLS started “think tanks” with key leaders of the organization to learn together about how we could support the work of enhancing the citizenship experience of people with disabilities. We recognized the importance of committing to consistent times in which we could focus and reflect. In a safe and creative forum we thought together about our values around citizenship, new ideas, and what it was going to take to document the emerging stories about journeys and accomplishments around citizenship. Some 40 think tanks later, we are getting our legs under us and have amassed a substantial body of inspiring stories. On our website ( you can see a video of SKILLS Team Leader John McDonald sharing insights about how these sessions work.

The Official Launch and World Cafe

In October 2011, we officially launched our project with a large World Café. Over 250 citizens from the Edmonton community attended, including SKILLS staff and board members, students from MacEwan University and the University of Alberta, families of people with disabilities, staff from Edmonton region PDD, other community allies, and our CSL partners. Lewis Cardinal, a well-known aboriginal scholar and community activist shared his story of citizenship from a First Nations perspective and conveyed just how powerful story telling is for effecting positive change. Many people expressed how great it was to have someone from outside disability services help us to think about citizenship. The whole group had enthusiastic and thoughtful discussions about citizenship and we later posted the themes from the conversation on the website.

Documenting Emerging Stories of Citizenship

In the first semester we had 11 students help document emerging stories of citizenship. We learned early on that story telling through film, photographs, painting and scrapbooks can be pretty tricky, both as art and science. For that reason, we were grateful when professional filmmaker Yvonne DuBourdieu of Art House Productions provided us with extremely helpful instruction. Our amazing academic partner, Dr. Spencer-Cavaliere, drawing on her teaching and research experience, also made significant contributions to our learnings. These tips are also available on the website, along with some of the stories.

Mid Year Check-In and Sharing Stories
In December 2011, SKILLS hosted another large World Café with the growing collective of people connected to Project Citizenship. It was touching to hear about the powerful impact that some of the stories had made on families. Some family members stood up and were kind enough to share their thoughts. A school librarian read some moving poetry about a young man who volunteers as a basketball coach at an elementary school. Always focusing on learning, we also had discussions about what we have collectively learned and could all do to make the rest of the first year successful for Project Citizenship.

Moving Along for the Last Half of Year One

By the second semester we had more clarity about how best to engage CSL students in this complex project. More SKILLS employees had valuable experience and knowledge to share with others about documenting good stories. We had another 11 students during the course of the second semester and they did a great job of being our allies in exploring and documenting. In January, we began to reflect on how “being curious” about what other citizens are doing can be one of the really important actions one can take in relation to civic engagement. Engaging in this kind of curiousity is particularly important for the staff SKILLS employs, as it better equips them to be allies to individuals in their personal quests for meaningful “belonging.” In large and small groups, we brainstormed and undertook action on this dimension of citizenship exploration.

The Mural Project

In June or July—when the Alberta weather becomes more friendly—we will be having a one-day event where everyone connected with Project Citizenship will be invited to the Nina Haggerty Center for the Arts to take part in painting a large mural of our logo. This mural will be hung outdoors on the east wall of the centre. Food, fun, festivities, music, and collective activity will lead the day. A short film of this event will be produced and given to everyone connected to the project. This will help each of us to understand the collective nature of the project and our individual contribution to it.

The Gallery Event

Currently we are getting ready for a gallery event that will showcase Project Citizenship stories from Year One. The opening Gala will be held on September 24th, 2012 at the SNAP Gallery (which has generously donated their space to us). In preparing the stories to be shown publicly we are conscious of the fact that people we support and their families need to be at the helm, directing how they would like their contributions to look and be shown. Over the summer there will be much editing, conversation, and learning about putting together a stellar show of these awesome citizenship stories. At the end of Year Two we will produce a coffee table book with included DVD about the project. The book will be another way to celebrate the stories and our collective learning.
Creating a New Arm of the Project—the Citizen Action Hall

Late in our first year, we began a dialogue with Dr. Michael Rowe, a highly regarded researcher from Yale University who saw our project on the internet. Of particular interest to us were his experiences with developing a “non-traditional” citizenship course that his researchers teach in the inner city.

We have married some of Michael’s ideas with our own learnings and are planning our own course. We will launch it in September and it will be housed somewhere on the University of Alberta campus. The course will run twice a week and will coincide with the academic semester. It will be designed for people with disabilities and their support staff and will focus on learning about citizenship. Participants will be provided with cameras, sketch books and photo albums (along with the requisite Citizen Baseball Hat) and will have weekly assignments to explore a wide variety of community and citizenship matters.

The course will provide another access point for students to participate in the Citizenship Project. Participants will be awarded certificates for completing the course and opportunities for valued roles will be enhanced—both through people with disabilities sharing their experiences during the term, and through coming back as “alumni” instructors in subsequent semesters.

In relation to our organizational transformation, we think the focus on people supported by SKILLS learning in tandem with their support staff will contribute significantly to moving knowledge out through the organization and will translate into positive outcomes and deeper civic engagement.

Stay Tuned
In learning about increasing citizenship experience for people with disabilities, we are learning about what being a contributing citizen can mean for all of us. We are also enhancing our organizational understanding of “citizenship work.” With all the links we are creating with our World Cafés, website, university partners and upcoming gallery show, these stories have a real shot at shifting the perception and values of the greater community around the valuable contributions people with disabilities make. Stay tuned and engaged with this exciting work.

Ben Weinlick, Senior Leader of Research and Organizational Learning

Debbie Reid, Senior Manager of Community Supports