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Inspire Democracy Workshop Series
Highlights Report – Edmonton, June 17–18, 2014

The sixth Inspire Democracy workshop was held on June 17–18 in Edmonton, Alberta. The purpose of the workshop was to help youth-serving organizations understand the issue of declining youth civic engagement, equip them with tools to address it, and invite them to take action to ensure youth are ready to vote in the 2015 general election.

A total of 21 participants representing 15 organizations attended the workshop (see appendix for a list of participating organizations). Participants were active throughout the workshop and contributed to discussion on the causes of declining youth participation and the actions that organizations can take to reengage youth in civic and democratic life.

Below is a short summary of workshop highlights. Reports for other workshops held to date are also available on the Inspire Democracy website under Events. A final report of the Inspire Democracy Workshop Series will be released later in 2014.

Day 1: Tuesday, June 17

Participants began by developing a common understanding of youth civic engagement and the barriers that prevent youth from participating fully in civic life.

Participants pose for a photo
(photo taken by John Beebe)

Several themes were raised, including the following:

  • Civic engagement goes beyond the ballot box. All forms of civic engagement are important (though they should not replace voting) and all groups in society can be involved, not just those who are already politically active. Engagement should be inclusive and should promote diversity.
  • Civic engagement is about making a difference in the local community. It also means thinking globally and trying to improve the quality of life for all.
  • Values, knowledge, skills, and abilities are more important for engaging than money. However, it takes resources to develop these, and no one should be excluded from participating because they are less knowledgeable. The act of being engaged can help develop these attributes.

Barriers to civic engagement were defined as follows:

  • Older generations can monopolize political power. There is a generational divide that prevents common understanding. Political leaders do not always authentically reach out to youth to bridge the divide. The contribution of youth is not always valued.
  • Civic engagement is not always accessible. The language used by those who are engaged and in politics in general can be difficult to understand. There can be economic and gender barriers to participation. Political conversations are not always relevant to youth.
  • Lack of role models. Without civic engagement role models, it is difficult for youth to understand the value and importance of being involved.
  • Participation is not a priority. Youth have many other things to focus on (and technology can be distracting). The proliferation of information sources can be overwhelming.

Day 2: Wednesday, June 18

Day 2 of the workshop included presentations and discussions on good practices in youth engagement and actions that organizations can undertake to encourage youth to participate.

Morning session

Elections Canada presentation and discussion on what the research says about civic engagement (Neil Burron)

  • Research shows that youth face both access and motivational barriers to participation. Organizations can take action to help youth overcome these barriers.
  • Participants inquired into the types of outreach conducted by Elections Canada during elections. There was strong interest in the Community Relations Officers (CRO) program, through which field outreach officers disseminate information on where, when and how to vote. A representative of Elections Alberta discussed the agency's equivalent program.

Samara – Democracy Talks presentation and experiential activity (John Beebe)

  • John Beebe led participants through an experiential activity based on Samara's "Democracy Talks." As individuals and in groups, participants identified what they felt were the four most important attributes of democracy. After in-depth discussions, groups were asked to reach consensus and create "democracy bracelets" that represented the attributes using different colours.
  • John explained the other components of Democracy Talks and indicated how youth-serving groups can use the tool to host their own discussions.

Apathy is Boring – Presentation on Apathy is Boring's approach to engaging youth (Youri Cormier)

  • Youri Cormier spoke about Apathy is Boring's approach to engaging youth, emphasizing the importance of using humour, not being patronizing, and involving 'cool' people.
  • Many different tactics to reach youth are required – including in-person and online. 'Street Teams' that draw upon youth to reach out to youth are particularly effective. Youth who are already engaged can be used to reach those who are not; many interactions with young people are required to build their interest.
  • Youri spoke of the importance of using non-partisan messages to mobilize youth, and how to plan neutral events by inviting all parties and candidates and consulting them on policy issues to be discussed beforehand. Participants were guided through an activity to distinguish between partisan and non-partisan messages.

Afternoon session

Youth engagement – Discussion on what works and good practices

Participants think about their organization’s best practices
(photo taken by John Beebe)

Participants identified the following good practices for engaging youth:

  • Incentivize participation. Serve food at events! Provide awards.
  • Make civic participation a social experience – bring friends, involve the entire community.
  • Move civic engagement online. Make information available online, use website widgets, documentaries, social media, and technology like Google Maps to show where voting polls are located.
  • Partner with youth leaders/organizations that work with youth. Buy in from these leaders can influence youth and cross-partnerships will prevent duplication of efforts/resources.
  • Celebrate youth participation.
  • Involve youth in meaningful ways. Ask about their ideas. Avoid tokenism. Create spaces that are youth-friendly and where it is ok to ask questions.
  • Build youth role models.
  • Host events with low barriers to entry (i.e., that are not just for those who already have high-levels of understanding).
  • Promote experiential learning, such as mock elections and candidates' debates.
  • Promote inter-generational partnerships.

Mobilizing youth to action: actions that organizations can undertake

Participants discuss actions they can take (photo taken by John Beebe)

Participants discussed actions that can be undertaken to increase youth engagement on an ongoing basis and during the 2015 general election. Organizations recommended and/or committed to undertaking the following actions:

  • Facilitate a discussion on voting and civic engagement at an AGM. Involve youth leaders who are already active in civic engagement.
  • Promote community activity, building a sense of pride and ownership.
  • Network with other youth serving agencies to avoid duplication of activities. Post civic engagement related links on organizational websites.
  • Develop service learning projects with a civic engagement focus.
  • Linking civic engagement to human rights education.
  • Conduct youth focus groups.
  • Train staff in civic engagement so they are able to effectively reach out to youth.
  • Produce a documentary to raise awareness on youth and voting.
  • Organize a candidates' debate.
  • Disseminate information on where, when and how to vote.

Participants identified a need for the following tools to support these activities:

  • Partnerships with like-minded organizations. Meeting other civic engagement organizations and finding out who's doing what.
  • Teachers willing to participate and bring students to events.
  • Funding!
  • Accessing tools, such as those found on Inspire Democracy.

At the end of the workshop, Elections Canada Policy and Research Analyst, David Le Blanc, reaffirmed the agency's commitment to reaching out to youth to ensure they know how to register and vote in the upcoming 2015 federal election. David emphasized the importance of building an engagement community and working together to advance youth participation in the lead up to the 2015 election. Participants were also encouraged to provide Elections Canada with feedback on the website. The report for the event will also be posted on the site.

Appendix: Organizations that participated

  • Alberta Committee of Citizens with Disabilities
  • Boyle Street Community Services
  • Boys and Girls Club - Leduc
  • Canadian Native Friendship Centre
  • Edmonton Public Library
  • Elections Alberta
  • Jasper Place High School, Global Café
  • John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights
  • Metis Nation of Alberta
  • The Candora Society of Edmonton
  • Council of Alberta University Students
  • University of Regina's Student Union
  • Wecan Cooperative
  • YMCA – Edmonton