Ivy Blake (left) and Leslie Johnson (right) were selected for two of fifty spots at the Minerva Foundation’s Learning to Lead weekend program designed to teach women leadership skills.

Smashing stereotypes and learning to lead

Local young women among 50 in B.C. picked for unique program

This spring, two students from the Agassiz Centre for Education (ACE) will be a part of changing gender biases—and will also pick up some leadership skills along the way.

Leslie Johnson and Ivy Blake are two of 50 young women chosen from applicants across B.C. who will attend the annual Learning to Lead program held at the University of British Columbia by the Minerva Foundation this May.

“There’s definitely a stereotype [towards] girls that we can’t be independent and we can’t be a leader and I think this conference will be really good – maybe break that stereotype,” said Johnson. “Those skills would be good to be more independent later in life.”

Johnson and Blake will go to Vancouver and will meet and interact with students from around the province, hear guest speakers and connect with mentors and sponsors meant to inspire them.

As ACE administrator Sandy Balascak said, Minerva is about getting women into leadership positions, and she sees both her students as capable of just that.

“Doing it this way is quite wise because they’re catching them at a young age,” Balascak said. “Once you’re out in your career… It might be difficult because you might have the kids, you might have a car to pay for.”

Whether they use those skills tomorrow or whether they use them 20 years from now, it will affect them in a positive way, she said.

Blake already sees a way those skills can be useful in her life. A boost in confidence would help lessen anxiety in situations like handing resumes to potential employers – a step coming soon for the almost-17-year-old.

“Both of these guys, a year ago, would have been too shy to do this,” Balascak said. “So they’ve already come a long way in terms of being outgoing and this is going to help them take that next step.”

Balascak “volun-told” Blake to present at an aboriginal educational committee meeting about a conference she’d attended previously.

“I feel like that boosted my self-confidence to get me out there and sign up for things like this,” Blake said. “I just needed the push.”

And the high grades both students are now getting at ACE have also boosted their self-assurance.

Blake counts off the schools she’s been to before ACE—four or five in her estimate.

But with more one-on-one attention, she’s settled in at the alternate school with As and Bs.

As has Johnson, who said her problems with her confidence had a big part to do with her school work in the past.

“Life experiences outside of school and inside of school helped me grow a lot,” she said. “Especially with liking myself—I was never too fond of who I was and just this past year I’ve grown to like myself and that’s why my confidence is so high.”

That’s led her to feel more capable of trying new and different things, including Balascak’s latest “volun-telling” that resulted in the ACE pair heading to the Minerva weekend in Vancouver.

And as for smashing stereotypes, both young women have personal experience with bias directed at them personally.

“I know that a lot of times these kids do face perception out there about alternate kids,” Balascak said. “I know it’s wrong, a good portion of this community knows that it’s wrong, and so it’s good to change that and these guys are all capable of doing anything that any high school kid is capable of doing.”

So Balascak wants to get them involved in these kinds of initiatives to prove it to themselves. “Sometimes when people think you’re not capable it eventually wears on you so that you think you’re not capable,” she said.

Blake said the misunderstanding can be very pronounced.

“We’re all getting As and Bs and we’re all really nice, and we help seniors,” she said. “And everybody’s got this bad image in their head that because we’re alternate kids we’re bad kids. But in reality we’re good kids.”

Balascak is glad that Minerva is open to taking alternate schools because other conferences have either directly or indirectly excluded them.

In fact, inclusivity is a core value of Minerva, and an important point of the Learning to Lead selection process is to ensure that those who don’t show stereotypical “leader” traits aren’t missed.

As for Johnson and Blake, they’re nervous and excited for the event.

“It’s just a good opportunity that most kids don’t get,” Johnson said. “Ivy and I are really lucky to get into the conference.”

And Balascak sees them someday potentially becoming involved in Minerva as career women and going back to help some of the youth.

“I’ve always known that they have the potential to be good leaders,” she said. “It just took a little bit to convince them.”