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Inspire Democracy Workshop Series
Highlights Report – Halifax, April 28–29, 2014

The first Inspire Democracy workshop was held on April 28–29 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, coinciding with the launch of the new Inspire Democracy website. 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.

Twelve participants representing eight organizations attended the workshop, including three youth delegates (see appendix for a list of participating organizations). Participants were highly engaged throughout the workshop and provided valuable feedback on both 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. A final report of the Inspire Democracy Workshop Series will be released later in 2014.

Day 1: Monday, April 28

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

Several themes were raised, including the following:

  • Civic engagement is about action and trying to improve your community and democracy. It encompasses many different activities and includes multiple dimensions.
  • Civic engagement requires knowledge and skills to participate effectively. It is also based on a willingness to learn and exchange with others and be open to their perspectives.
  • Civic engagement transcends political views. It is a commitment to a greater good, however defined.

Participants identify barriers to civic engagement

Barriers to civic engagement were defined as follows:

  • Lack of education. Youth often lack information to participate (and/or can be made to feel that they don't know enough to participate by older adults).
  • Not seen as a priority. There is sometimes a perception that participation is boring or not important.
  • Fear of being ridiculed or bullied for expressing views. There are few spaces or supports for youth to have open political discussions.
  • The process of engagement can be intimidating. Youth can feel overwhelmed or that they can't make an impact, especially if they have few opportunities to practice civic engagement.
  • Lack of resources to participate, including knowledge, opportunities, time, and skills. This is also related to a lack of role models, including having parents who are interested in politics.
  • Lack of a common frame of reference to engage youth around national or provincial issues. Also related to the proliferation of technology, which can distract (even as it provides new opportunities) and prevent collective discussions.
  • Lack of incentives for politicians to reach out to youth.

Day 2: Tuesday, April 29

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 (Miriam Lapp)

  • Research shows that youth face both access and motivational barriers to participation. Organizations can take actions to help youth overcome these barriers.
  • During the discussion, participants recognized that the problem is deep and that motivational barriers outweigh access barriers. Multiple players need to take action to motivate youth to participate.
  • The characteristics of an "engaged youth" were discussed. Young people who are engaged develop a positive identity that gives them the confidence to engage around particular issues. They build connections between their personal experiences and a greater common goal. Adult mentors are important, as are opportunities to engage.

Samara's John Beebe explaining "Democracy Talks"

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.

Democracy bracelets (photo taken by John Beebe)

Springtide Collective – Getting Engaged (Mark Coffin)

  • Mark Coffin spoke about the challenge of engaging youth if the system is not responsive. Politics is seen as a private party, and electoral agencies are among the few that seek out the views of youth.
  • We need to: 1) find ways to strengthen the relations between politicians and citizens; 2) look at engagement beyond just voting; and 3) transcend political differences through a sense of collective responsibility.

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

Afternoon session

Youth engagement – Discussion on what works and good practices

Participants identified the following good practices for engaging youth:

  • Using popular cultural issues as a way of framing more important and meaningful discussions linked to civic engagement.
  • Having genuine conversations in simple language.
  • Meeting youth "where they are at," listening to their experiences and linking these to civic engagement.
  • Making civic engagement fun through festivities.
  • Building relationships of trust and following through on commitments.
  • Using social media.

Mobilizing youth to action: actions that organizations can undertake

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

  • Invite politicians to dialogue with youth through programs. Build closer relationships with politicians and strengthen the capacity of youth to have discussions with them.
  • Use social media to showcase youth who are voting (e.g. "I voted" picture).
  • Raise awareness of how youth can work at polls – federally and provincially. Help with transportation.
  • Organize a bus of youth going to vote for the first time. Use social media to promote.
  • Engage youth in developing organizational terms of reference and roles.
  • Incorporate Democracy Talks in ongoing programming and empower young leaders to facilitate.
  • Provide funds to youth organizations to support civic engagement programs.
  • Organize pre-election mock campaigns to get people involved.
  • Expand youth-focused activities, including those dealing with civic engagement.
  • Help develop a youth engagement community.
  • Host civic engagement workshops to inform youth about civic issues.

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

  • Ongoing access to the Inspire Democracy website.
  • Visuals to convey information on civic engagement (e.g. infographics, information trees).
  • Partnerships and ongoing dialogue with other participants. Contact lists.
  • Visuals or information explaining the voting process – e.g. a YouTube video?
  • Local youth engagement officers to work with local organizations on complementary goals – 2015 and ongoing civic engagement.
  • Funding!
  • Guides that can be handed out (how, when and where to vote; where to find more information).
  • Community spaces where youth can have open dialogues.

At the end of the workshop, Elections Canada Senior Director, Susan Torosian, 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, and to sharing research on youth civic engagement with youth-serving organizations. Susan encouraged participants to introduce or strengthen civic-engagement programs for youth, deepen their partnerships with other organizations, and explore the Inspire Democracy website as a tool to inform their activities. Susan also discussed the agency's plans to host a National Conference later in the year to assist organizations in developing action plans to engage youth in the lead up to the 2015 election. Participants were encouraged to provide Elections Canada with feedback on the website and any ideas they might have for the National Conference.

Appendix: Organizations that participated

  • Boys and Girls Club of East Dartmouth
  • Chebucto Connections Pathways to Education
  • Elections Nova Scotia
  • Heartwood Centre for Community Youth Development
  • LeBrun Recreation Centre (Halifax Regional Municipality)
  • Samara
  • Springtide Collective
  • Students Nova Scotia