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How Red Fox Makes Community-based Leadership a Priority

Posted by SVP Vancouver
Red Fox Healthy Living Society active play session

Through its youth programs, Red Fox Healthy Living Society helps youth to break through barriers and enter community leadership roles

In a community centre, children are participating in group games and jumping around on pogo sticks. At a neighbourhood park, a community meal is taking place. And at a local school, the steady beat of a drum keeps rhythm as children dance. That’s a regular day for the Red Fox Healthy Living Society. Across eight municipalities in Metro Vancouver, their youth leaders, staff, and volunteers host up to six activities each day for inner-city and Indigenous youth.

For Red Fox founder Emma Sutherland, it’s been a 13-year journey to get to this point. Prior to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, Sutherland was working at an East Vancouver neighbourhood community centre where she ran after-school activity programs. She was approached by the Vancouver City Parks Board which had been tasked to establish “active communities” programs in the lead-up to the Olympic Games. The aim was to get Vancouverites more active, particularly marginalized citizens. But Sutherland, an advocate for social justice, wanted to do more than simply engage people in activities—she wanted to empower them, and she thought she had a way.

When government funding for her East Vancouver neighbourhood programs were cut in the early 2000s, Sutherland was left with a problem. “Lots of the people who used those programs were immigrant families, people working two or three part-time, low-wage jobs to make ends meet, who really needed these programs from 3-5pm to help them take care of their kids,” she recounts.

Instead of cancelling the programs, Sutherland decided to draw on the community. She found parents with skills that they could offer courses for—art, dance, music, etc. This enabled the programs to stay open, but it did more than that. As Sutherland explains, it turned client families—families who were using the community centre services—into contributors and community leaders.

“It can be infantilizing to feel like you’re being taken care of,” says Sutherland. “But it can be empowering to be given training, skills, responsibility, leadership, and be encouraged to grow, develop, and take risks.” When Sutherland left her work at the community centre to establish her own program, she employed the same model of empowerment which she calls the leadership continuum. Here’s how it works.

In Red Fox programs, youths join first as Participants. As they enter their tweens (11-13) they can become Junior Leaders, who assist Leaders during activities. “When we decide who to ask to be a Junior Leader, we talk to school support staff, see who is coming out all the time, and consider any barriers the children face,” explains Sutherland. “Then we try to elevate those who face barriers into positions of leadership.”

Junior Leaders can, when old enough, become Youth Leaders, leading program participants through games and activities directly. From there, they can move on to become Youth Interns, working at Red Fox and/or with partner organizations to explore further education, training, and work opportunities, and Red Fox has had fair bit of success getting its interns into community and non-profit roles as well as entry-level jobs in construction, culinary work, and office work.

Some interns go on to become Red Fox Staff. In this way, the program’s participants become its leaders. And having leaders who are not only dialled into the organization but into the community enables Red Fox to better respond to the community’s needs and requests.

“The foundation of what we do is employment skills,” says Sutherland. “I firmly believe that youth need to find their way in the world and be able to support themselves, and that true empowerment comes from financial freedom—the ability to pay your rent, buy your groceries, or the pair of shoes you need.”

These employment skills aren’t offered through simple training courses. As Sutherland notes, you can take a course and still not master the skill, and this doesn’t help youth who face barriers. “If you take a course, apply for a job, don’t get it, or do get it and fail miserably, it sets everything back three steps. The youth lose confidence, and the employer is less likely to take a chance on youths.”

Instead, Red Fox emphasizes putting knowledge into practice as a means of building comfort and confidence with new skills and behaviours. Employment skills are therefore embedded into the Red Fox activity and leadership process, and in this way, Red Fox takes its cues from Indigenous ways of being and traditional apprenticeship methods:

  • Listen to elders
  • Learn by doing
  • Learn by making mistakes
  • Work communally and collectively
  • Give back, help others

For Red Fox leaders and interns, the day starts with a check-in. As a group, they decide who is going to run which station. After the activity session is over, they participate in a debriefing, sharing what they feel they achieved and what they feel they need to work on. To run an activity or game, Leaders need to develop their teamwork, conflict resolution and communication skills. Being a Youth Leader or Youth Intern also means showing up on time with a clean Red Fox t-shirt, staying focused on the task, and putting forward a positive attitude.

Check-ins and debriefings create a flexible, rather than rigid, structure that teaches adaptability and, importantly, empathy. Boundaries are clearly established, but “we have a lot of carrots, not a lot of sticks,” laughs Sutherland. One of Red Fox’s first Youth Leaders came from a “challenging family,” as Sutherland describes it. At one point, things became quite difficult for her, and it began to impact her ability to lead. “I told her that she could come to the activities but not do work shifts because the attitude just wasn’t there,” recalls Sutherland. The choice was hers … and she kept coming.”She was with us for seven years,” says a still beaming Sutherland. Eventually she became an intern, doing two days a week with Red Fox and two days a week at a local community centre, which hired her full-time after the internship.

Accessibility is a core aspect of all Red Fox programs. Activities are held where the children already are—schools during the school year and community centres and parks in the summer—and no fees or equipment are required to participate. “We want less advantaged kids to have the same experience as middle class kids. It’s about evening the playing field,” says Sutherland.

Eliminating barriers to participation also helps eliminate barriers to leadership, sometimes in profound ways. “For Indigenous people, schools are not seen as a safe place, and Indigenous people are often not represented in leadership positions. Having Indigenous youth at schools leading school programs is a way to disrupt the system and show the community that this is possible.”

Representation is important, and Red Fox actively looks for opportunities to integrate people into spaces they haven’t been before. “We send youth to city forums, to sit on committees, or to take part in conferences,” says Sutherland. These opportunities give youths the chance to learn from people who are further along in their careers. “It also says, ‘You have the right to be here and to contribute.’”

Issues of representation apply to the non-profit sector as well, which has long been criticized for being too white and too middle class. People from the communities being served have often been absent from the non-profits and community organizations providing those services. It’s a problem Red Fox has tackled head on. Today, most Red Fox employees are former participants, who now have a voice in what programs are offered and how programs are run.


Emma Sutherland, Red Fox Executive DirectorA LITTLE HELP FROM SVP

Over three years, Red Fox received a total of $115,000 in grants from SVP which allowed them to hire part-time communications and operations managers. This enabled Sutherland to get out from behind the desk and pursue networking and growth opportunites for the organization.

In addition, Red Fox was able to update their strategic plan, streamline their financial systems, improve the efficiency of their internal operations, enhance their communications, and more. Says Sutherland, “We got lots of help with things that, as a small organization, we wouldn’t normally have been able to do.”

A big thanks to Lead Partners Nicole Geyer and Cathy Brown and all of the other SVP Partners who leant their time, knowledge, and expertise.

Interested in meeting Emma and learning more about Red Fox? She’ll be participating in our upcoming Alumni Investee Panel at the SVP Fall Mingle 2019.