In honor of International Children's Day, people in countries around the world will be celebrating children and raising awareness about the issues that uniquely affect them. For Natalie Fletcher, the director of the youth charity Brila, the best approach is to recognize children as the innovative, spirited thinkers they already are.
What inspired you to start a charity that focuses on youths thinking?
I embrace the chaos of multiple interests so I try to find ways to fuse the things I love: philosophy, creativity, and the spirit of youth—that whimsical sense of curiosity about this strange thing called life. During my masters, I was doing creative consulting work on various government projects, including Aboriginal youth initiatives. I was given free rein to create a magazine with a brilliant group of kids, helping them pick concepts that matter to them and experiment with their ideas through different art forms. What inspired me most was seeing how excited they got about waxing philosophical—they were clearly not used to being taken seriously or being asked what they thought without feeling censored. It was such a great experience that it motivated me to start a charity so I could help foster the kind of intellectual risk-taking youth need to think and live creatively.
Brila’s programs blend philosophy with the creation of digital zines. We organize week-long “boot camps” where youth take on a flurry of creative projects alongside practicing artists, and we also host clubs and workshops for kids to delve into philosophical dialogue. The zine idea really appeals to me because of its revolutionary, do-it-yourself roots. The aim is to have youth leave not only with their own publication, but with a sense of responsibility about what they say, how they say it and who they affect.
To some, philosophy seems like a very grown-up subject. What approach do you take to make it accessible to younger learners?
Philosophy has this reputation of being irrelevant to contemporary reality. But if we think of it as a life orientation—one that asks us to reflect on the kind of world we want to live in and the people we want to be—then it’s not just for grown-ups. Kids wonder about these questions, but they’re not often given the opportunity to tackle them. That’s where the Philosophy for Children (P4C) program comes in: it provides a great pedagogical model to make philosophy accessible and pertinent to younger learners. There’s nothing more stimulating than being in a room with kids engaged in dialogue about what puzzles, worries and enthralls them. It’s like a philosophy playground for them… and brain candy for me!
What 21st Century skills do your participants develop through these activities?
I think what’s promising about the charity’s P4C integration is it encompasses the critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity that comprise 21st Century skills through live and digital interactions among youth. Plus, the participants develop various literacies simultaneously: in addition to reading and writing, through critical and visual literacy, they practice formulating complex thoughts with others and assessing the imagery to which they’re constantly exposed. As a result, they are better able to “read” the world and protect their mental environments.
That’s tough because I am constantly surprised and intrigued by what our youth participants express, both in their discussions and their art! I learn so much from watching them deconstruct in a matter of minutes what philosophers have debated for centuries. I think we underestimate young people’s capacity to make connections between their experiences and their philosophical concerns. At the end of our May camp, one of them wrote: “I really am a philosopher at heart.” To have them self-identify as budding philosophers after just five days… it’s priceless.
What would you like to see happen with your programs—and P4C more generally—in the next decade?
I have witnessed firsthand how P4C programming can help youth become more thoughtful, articulate and confident versions of themselves, so I just want to continue offering a space for them to stretch their intellectual and creative limbs. I am truly honoured to be part of the international P4C community—it took me a long time to find what I now consider my academic and professional niche, and hopefully I can contribute to its originality and integrity in my own little way.
Find out more about Brila on its website, its Facebook page and its Twitter page. Natalie Fletcher is a full-fledged philosophy geek living in Montreal, Canada. Besides her work with Brila, she teaches in the humanities department at John Abbott College and is pursuing interdisciplinary doctoral research on P4C at Concordia University.