Shania Sandoval-Cross is Mohawk from Kahnawà:ke and Maya from Guatemala. In addition to being part of this year’s cohort of the Youth Policy Program, she’s also a third-year student at UBC majoring in First Nations and Indigenous Studies. She recently moved to Ontario and is currently working as a client support worker at a healing lodge in Treaty #3 Territory.
Shania created a policy proposal on safer spaces in post-secondary institutions for racialized students:
In this interview, Shania shares her passion and commitment for supporting Indigenous youth and how her experience in the Youth Policy Program is an extension of it. She shares her experience in being part of this year’s cohort: the opportunity to connect with other Indigenous communities and learn about policy so that she can offer tools, resources, and relationships to other youth so they may pursue systemic change too.
LEVEL: In your bio, you mention you work and volunteer with Indigenous youth in creating or participating in culturally relevant art and activism-based curriculum and programming. Can you share more about that?
SSC: Art and activism is my thing. I was the Manager of the Native Youth Program at the Museum of Anthropology. It was a student posting at UBC that I applied to. I made curriculum for six Indigenous youth that live in the Lower Mainland and we had a student come from Haida Gwaii. We taught them how to do tours around the museum, where they were able to speak their language and open up tours with their traditional song. We also taught them different forms of art including traditional artwork such as beading and connected them with Indigenous elders and artists.
The students got to choose artifacts and art pieces to contextualize them in present relationship to the nations, tackling current events and issues like Indigenous self-determination and land claims with visitors who otherwise wouldn’t understand that Indigenous people are not static. We’re still living. The issues that affect our communities are still in play and our cultures aren’t stagnant. Students got a chance to speak life into these things. It was powerful to see them take charge of their narratives and express themselves through different forms of art.
The goal is not to shape students. You’re just there to offer opportunities and support them in the process of them realizing the gifts they already hold. The moment their confidence clicks, and you see them realize how amazing and valuable they are is always my favourite part. You’re being constantly humbled and learning by working with youth all the time.
LEVEL: Why art and activism?
SSC: That has just been the theme throughout my life. I was raised by Mohawk women. My family was very much involved in the Oka Crisis and that was just the way I was raised. Activism has always been a part of my life. Art has always been my therapy and a way of connecting to my culture; my ways of connecting to my family and community. It’s a powerful way of getting your point across. It’s a powerful teaching tool and way to connect with people. Art makes things less intimidating and more accessible. It’s the biggest part of learning, especially with community. You want to make information accessible to everyone.
LEVEL: And why did you join the Youth Policy Program?
SSC: I applied because I figured I could learn a lot. And I really did. I got to connect with community I had always wanted to. I’m Indigenous from so called “north america” but also “latin america”, which I don’t usually get to connect with. There are just different types of colonialism, activism, social and cultural interactions, and ways of knowing and being that you don’t really get to experience without connecting to community. YPP provided the chance to be able to see how all our communities understand one another, support one another, and relate to one another. To see how people were building relationships was so powerful.
The other part of it was also to be able to find feasible solutions to the issues that were directly affecting my community; to be able to pass that on to the youth I work with and give them tools to do the same. I wanted to put myself in a position where I can hopefully better understand policy, to make this knowledge, experience, and tools accessible for everyone including people who have barriers to settler colonial institutions and academia that are hard to stay in because they weren’t created for us.
LEVEL: What are the issues you want to see systemic change in?
SCC: Right now, a lot of the big ones are land claims, Indigenous self-determination, and Indigenous governance.
Policies that affect me, youth, and community are frustrating because we don’t understand them. You have these people that use these terms over you and invalidate your community, culture, and intergenerational experience—knowledge that is equally, if not more, valuable. These policies are made for people who are not us. They can never support people who have our experience. They’re created to oppress us or exclude us. To be able to access these tools, knowledge, resources, community, and relationships is valuable because you don’t know these types of things are out there.
LEVEL: In your words, why does it matter to have young people’s voices around the table?
SCC: Young people are the ones that have to live in this world, they are impacted at a greater level by the generational gap and lack of representation in policy makers that have carried generational biases without the same want to understand how these policies are ineffective or oppressive for the generations they’re in effect for. Youth are one of the most vulnerable, therefore their experiences and interactions with the systems that are social, political and otherwise are important to learn from in order for things such as policies to affect inclusive and equitable care. An older generation of people are in charge of creating and implementing policies that aren’t necessarily holding themselves accountable to unlearning and leaning practices like our youth are. Youth are experiencing this world in a way that makes them leaders for this social justice framework that is needed. They critically engage with things the way adults don’t because they’ve been socialized not to push against the norms. Young people inherently do because they’re still learning and pushing boundaries to learn where and how they’re supposed to be. To have students learning new things and then teaching things in return is really beautiful.
LEVEL: What has the experience of being part of YPP meant for you?
SCC: These programs are so valuable. The time and resources dedicated to us to create community was so valuable. This is something that I will carry with me forever and hopefully these relationships will carry on as well. You have the power to make these policies, to get into government, and make that policy change for you and your community. You don’t have to feel frustrated. Here’s a tool to fight back.