St John's High School • Winnipeg, MB

How an Empathy-Based Leadership Program Changed a School


In January 2015, Maclean’s magazine boldly declared that Winnipeg was Canada’s most racist city. The problem is not relegated to back alleys and a handful of neighbourhoods. This issue seeps into the fabric of all aspects of civic society, and Winnipeg’s schools are no exception. A week before the article hit newsstands, a teacher from what is considered one of Winnipeg’s best schools posted on Facebook this inflammatory comment about the city’s Aboriginal population: “They have contributed NOTHING to the development of Canada. Just standing with their hand out. Get to work, tear the treaties. Why am I on the hook for their cultural support?” The Winnipeg School Division reacted with immediate damage control, placing the teacher on leave without pay and responding with the statement: “We are committed to providing a safe and inclusive working and learning environment for all of our students and our staff.” This incident is just a daily example of discrimination experienced by Winnipeg’s young people, and it’s a problem that can’t be fixed with a press release or termination. Some Winnipeg residents believe that the solution to these issues might be found in a more proactive and bottom-up approach to healing and reconciliation. And they are taking this responsibility into their own hands.

With the leadership of Vice Principal, Cree Crowchild, guidance counsellor, Robin Wilson, and other supportive staff members, the students of St. John’s High School in Winnipeg’s north end decided they were tired of letting their divisions define them. Instead of taking a reactive approach to dealing with racism and bullying, they implemented positive behaviour intervention and a restorative practices plan, a method that centres around empathy and accountability.

Cree Crowchild sat with us to share how The Empathy Toy helped launch a 21 Leaders program at St. John’s High School, an initiative that empowers students to lead one another in ushering in a new culture of respect and understanding that has, in fact, reduced conflict-based office referrals by 85%.

Find out how YOU can start a 21 Leaders Program in your school

Twenty One Toys:

How did you feel when Maclean’s Magazine named Winnipeg The Most Racist City in Canada? Were you surprised?

Vice Principal Cree Crowchild:

I was pretty upset. To peg one city as being the most racist was shocking because I’ve lived in a variety of cities and all of them seem to have aspects of racism. Racism is everywhere – it’s about how you deal with these issues that sets you apart from other cities. In this case, the lack of what Winnipeg was doing was at the forefront of labelling it the most racist city. But, there is a lot of good things going on in this city that many people don’t know about. And if people don’t hear about the good stuff, those negative comments come to the surface. So for me, this negative article helped in a positive way. I took this negative experience and thought, wow, what a great platform to showcase what we’re already doing, not just what we’re going to do in response to this article.

We need to teach empathy, or unlock the empathy within – not from a textbook – but from experience, nurturing, and leading by example.

Vice Principal Cree Crowchild:

The Empathy Project had been going on at our school for 3 years before the article came out. I think [racism] is bred by a lack of understanding, a lack of empathy, and a lack of acceptance. And we’re trying to use The Empathy Toy in our toolbox to bridge those gaps between the communities about understanding, acceptance, and empathy.

Twenty One Toys:

Tell me about the decision to take a restorative practices approach to addressing bullying and discrimination in your school.

Vice Principal Cree Crowchild:

Restorative practices, for me, is what I feel it is to be a human being. We all make mistakes but we should all have an opportunity to fix those by listening, understanding, and empathizing with people. Does it always work? Not always. Kids and adults have to be ready to use these strategies. You have to have participating individuals and that’s where the teaching comes in. We need to teach empathy, or unlock the empathy within – not from a textbook – but from experience, nurturing, and leading by example. And now kids come in and say, “You know, Mr. Crowchild, if that would have happened to me, I would know why that kid pushed me. Cause I would have done the same thing.” So I know it’s working. Or if kids come in and they say, “I respect you, Mr. Crowchild, and thank you for always being understanding. Even though you had to suspend me, I know why you had to do it – I wasn’t ready to fix the problem.” This all happens through modelling, through creating a leadership group, and by creating a school where it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you have a place and a purpose in this school. This all starts from the general knowledge of what empathy is and the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Twenty One Toys:

Describe a moment of transformation that you saw in the 21 Leaders program.

Vice Principal Cree Crowchild:

The transformation for me is when I talk to parents of kids who are on the leadership team. We had a leadership night where all 21 Leaders brought their parents, which meant all 60 (kids and parents) in the library. We celebrated it by having pasta and salad, and talking about the leadership roles of the kids. You could see the pride in the parents’ eyes knowing that their kids were chosen to represent the school. And when the kids played the game with their parents for the first time, it was amazing!

Kids and parents are working together. That’s the purpose of the game, to find a common language – whatever that may look like. Finding a common ground where you can build an understanding.

Vice Principal Cree Crowchild:

While we were playing with [The Empathy Toy], one family was speaking in Tagalog [a language native to the Philippines] to start, which was fine with me – whatever you’re comfortable with. Then they started having problems, so they went to English and were still having problems. Then, they went to a combination of English and Tagalog to the point where they finally figured it out. That’s what the game does – you do what you need to do until you figure it out. And to me that was, like, wow! Kids and parents are working together. That’s the purpose of the game, to find a common language – whatever that may look like. Finding a common ground where you can build an understanding. For me, it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can still get along.

Twenty One Toys:

Tell me about Mayor Bowman’s connection to this program.

Vice Principal Cree Crowchild:

The mayor has been a great supporter of our school in general. After the [Maclean’s article] was published, we reached out to [Mayor Bowman] and said “Hey, this is what we’re doing”. We sent one of the 21 Leaders out to city hall and lent the Mayor [an Empathy Toy kit] to play. He thought it was wonderful and instantaneously jumped on board when we talked about the Everybody has the Right conference. He came out and spoke at [the Winnipeg School Division’s kick-off to Everybody has the Right week]. There were 77 schools in attendance and the media was there. We talked about how important the game was in building empathy and understanding.

Vice Principal, Cree Crowchild (back row), Guidance Councellor, Robin Wilson (far left), and Winnipeg Mayor, Brian Bowman (centre) pose with members of 21 Leaders at an Everybody Has the Right event

Vice Principal Cree Crowchild:

[Mayor Bowman] played the game with a student and said, “Wow, this is so great! It’s such a simple idea!” I could tell he was interested in exploring it further. So, when he [hosted the Mayor’s National Summit on Racial Inclusion, in response to the Maclean’s article], we were asked to meet with him in his chambers. When we arrived, he had the toy set up to play with. Other politicians were there to see the game. That told me that he believes [The Empathy Toy] isn’t just a one-and-done type of thing. He’s supporting the spread of knowledge and sees the impact and potential [The Empathy Toy] can have. When he spoke, he mentioned multiple times the great things we’re doing at the school in regards to the empathy project. He even posted it on his social media.

Twenty One Toys:

What advice would you give to other educators who would like to start a restorative practices program?

Vice Principal Cree Crowchild:

It’s really about first understanding your kids and the community you are serving. I believe that’s my role as an educator: to serve the community and understand who the people are and what needs they have. The better you understand your community, the easier it is to support and model restorative practices. And the more tools you have, the easier it is to promote, because you can’t teach empathy from a textbook, you’ve got to experience it. Tangible things like [The Empathy Toy] are tools that can help support a movement. Once you know your community, what tools you have, you can streamline everything around the concept of empathy. Empathy is where it starts. It’s right at the centre. If you can’t build an understanding of what empathy is, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.

We started this program with grades 7/8, but the younger you start this type of program, the more capacity you have to build for success as they get older. Starting with younger kids really sets the tone for the future of your school. If I worked in an elementary school, I would be starting The Empathy Toy with the kindergarten classes. I would make sure that by the time they grew up and left the school, they had a clear understanding of what empathy really means, in their words, not what I think it is. The earlier you start with kids, the bigger opportunity you have to mould your community and your school. Empathy is behind everything. If young people can use these strategies at home or in their communities, they can make situations a little bit better, and one day, teach that to their kids.

One of our aboriginal student leaders here, who I’ve done some workshops with and has been invited to speak at Manitoba Education conferences and the mayor’s office, was talking to me about what we can do better for the different generations. He said to me, “Mr. Crowchild, I think we even need to forget about my generation now and start focussing on the next generation of little ones.” And it’s true! To foster change in society, we’ve got to think about the new generation of young leaders.

poster at St JohnsPlastered prominently on the walls of St. John’s High School are posters reminding students of the values that guide them: empathy, trust, accountability, patience and respect. Through their service inside the school and throughout the community, the 21 Leaders have become proud embodiments of these principles. Empowered with the Empathy Toy Educator’s guidebook and the support of the Twenty One Toys team, the staff at St. John’s were able to provide the 21 Leaders with important facilitation tips and tools to lead Empathy Toy sessions with their peers and younger students at other schools. This training gave students practical leadership skills and most importantly, instilled in them a sense of confidence, purpose and pride as they stepped out into the greater community and declared themselves as leaders.

It is heartening to witness the incredible impact initiatives like 21 Leaders have had on St. John’s High School. Since the inception this program, the school has seen an astonishing 85% drop in conflict-based office referrals. And the students’ influence has not stopped at the walls of the school. Accompanied by 21 Leaders delegates and Cree Crowchild, the Twenty One Toys team travelled to Winnipeg City Hall where founder, Ilana Ben-Ari was honoured with a Certificate of Appreciation for “creating empathy games and educating students around the world about the importance of empathy.” This award is shared with the incredible young people at St. John’s who have harnessed the power of The Empathy Toy to make a difference in their community.

Winnipeg’s problem with racism is, in a sense, a microcosm of what is happening on a national scale. In April 2016, Attawapiskat, a First Nation community in Northern Ontario with a population of 2000, declared a state of emergency when 13 young people attempted suicide in one night. In a country where First Nation’s issues are pushed to the back of the newspages, or worse, not covered at all, this time, Canadians were forced to take notice. This was largely due to a Huffington Post article that went viral. It describes a moment the youth in the community came together in a school gym and stood up for themselves and their futures. Like the 21 Leaders, they imagined a world where justice, respect and accountability are possible, a world where the conflicts of the past do not define their future.

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