Empowering people, from Haida Gwaii to New York

| June 5, 2012
Mekelle, Ethiopia: Alison Fraser with women from the Healing Hands of Joy Center. (Photo: Lulseged Beyene)

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This is the fourth installment of the 'Made on Haida Gwaii' feature series, by writer April Diamond Dutheil. Each week we showcase the story of a talented young person who calls Haida Gwaii home. In this vast country, our major urban centres tend to soak up most of the attention. This collection of success stories, about young people living on these beautiful but remote islands off the Pacific coast, aims to disrupt the dominant myths of what it means to grow up in Canada's North.

"It just shapes who I am," says Alison Fraser, 25, when discussing what it means to be from Haida Gwaii. "When you live there you see the world in a different way." 

Fortunate to work with communities around the world, including in Kenya, Guatemala, Mexico, Ethiopia and, most recently, inner city New York, Alison stays true to her roots, "Everywhere I go I tell people about the magic of these small islands," she says.

With a passion and talent for social development, Alison has made a difference early in her career. She has worked in international refugee camps, with youth from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and with women in trauma and conflict situations.

A first-hand witness to how aid is distributed in refugee communities, Alison is critical of how traditional aid relief often leaves the recipient with limited agency or voice. "How do you provide restoration? What is it like to empower someone?" she asks. Alison wants to see the narrative of dependency change in these communities: "I don't have all of the answers, but I can contribute and learn." 

One way that Alison has been contributing is through her work with Healing Hands of Joy, an organization that supports Ethiopian women with childbirth injuries. Identifying a need for this work to continue, she would eventually like to set up a similar program to support mothers from refugee camps around the world.

For the past three years Alison has been working as a teacher in New York City, through Teach for America. Named one of Fortune magazine's 100 Best Companies to Work For, Teach for America works with recent university graduates to provide high levels of education in under-resourced urban and rural public schools.

Alison is currently teaching math to third grade students at an Achievement First Charter School in East New York, Brooklyn. "I never thought I'd be teaching math," she jokes. Discovering a talent for transforming math education, Alison is helping to support math classes from across the Achievement First network by writing and giving feedback on math lesson plans. "The kids are my cause," she says, noting her classes' latest exam averages ranged from 93-95 per cent.

She recently decline her acceptance into law school for the fall. "I decided to continue teaching," she says. Alison is passionate and invested in her work. "I've grown so much," says Alison, "but it has been hard work- I get up at 5am every morning!"

With a Bachelor's Degree in Honours International Studies from Trinity Western University in Langley, BC, and a Master's Degree in Education from Hunter College in New York City, Alison will spend her summer studying forced migration at Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre.

"It might seem like I'm doing a lot of random things," she says, but at the root of her work is a deep commitment to social development.

When asked if she will return to Haida Gwaii, Alison doesn't hesitate: "Absolutely, I would definitely go back to live there and raise kids - there's no place in the world like it."

Growing up on Haida Gwaii was an adventure, "These experiences don't exist in the suburbs," she says.

 

April Diamond Dutheil is a social advocate, entrepreneur, scholar and researcher of northern and Arctic issues, one of Canada's Top 20 Under Twenty and a recipient of the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies' Northern Resident Research Award. April is committed to strengthening knowledge and understanding of the social issues facing Canada's North.

 

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