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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

As part of a national discussion series entitled Democracy Talks, Samara, a charitable organization that works to reconnect citizens to politics, recently convened five groups of youth in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and St. John to talk about their experiences of politics and gather ideas for making the political system more relevant and responsive to them. Organized in partnership with community groups across the three provinces, these gatherings were primarily made up of newcomer, low-income and visible minority high school and college-aged youth groups often labelled as apathetic and disengaged when it comes to the political process. However, early findings suggest that these young Canadians are more attuned to politics than we might expect, engaging in ways were perhaps not used measuring. In Ontario two key themes have emerged from Samaras early discussions. The first reinforces much of what we already know about the disconnect between youth and the political process and is cause for concern: young Canadians, especially newcomers and lower -income youth, feel politicians do not represent them or understand their needs. As one 19-year old English-speaking Montrealer said: I think in politics its like children should be seen and not heard, and I think some people going into politics have the intentions to make a difference, but along the way it becomes very corrupting and you get what you see today. Participants articulated a deep sense of powerlessness as individuals facing a world of complex problems the environment, the education system, gentrification, violence - many of which they perceived to be directly related to if not exacerbated by the political institutions meant to support them. I feel that there is not much really that I can do because its like I am not part of society, said one Nicaraguan-born participant. I feel that we live in a society here where politicians represent the residents of the country, the people that can vote, so if you cannot vote, you dont mean much to them. However, the second theme reveals thatwhile they dont see their reality reflected in the world of capital P politicsthey recognize the political implications of their lived experiences and want to contribute to a positive change. When asked what kind of opportunities they would like to see in place, one Francophone Montrealer said: Personally, I think more programmes should be provided for people like me; programs for youth who would like to participate on their free will. [Free transl.] Really, for me to be convinced, countered another, they should talk about the basic values, such as honesty and respect, and not always remain utopic. I think all these people are utopic. [Free transl.] In response to the various concerns they cited, nearly all participants were taking small steps, in subtle yet deliberate ways, toward what they viewed as a greater societal good. Some were using photojournalism as a means of social commentary; another was studying career counselling, while others used word of mouth to talk about violence in their community. In each case, these youth took a do-it-yourself approach to effecting change, often despite the limited resources at their disposal. The bottom line, as put by one young woman, is if its about us, include us. To these ends, participants frequently cited their involvement with local grassroots or nonprofit organizations who provided the first point of access to change. I think that where [the community group] succeeds and where some politicians fail, said one new Canadian, is that were not looking for power. While non-profits are critically positioned to support and mobilize citizens to influence government policy, the overwhelming sense of alienation individual youth feel from government and politics remains a problem with grave implications for the future of the country. Solutions from youth To begin unpacking this multi-layered issue, Democracy Talks asks young people, among others, to share their insights on where things could be improved, and who should be involved in the process. While naive about certain aspects of the political system, the participants were not unreasonable in their expectations of what governments should or could do to help them become more politically active. Their suggestions focused on:

Project Coordinator Samara

Creating opportunities that would enable youth to learn, act and communicate effectively as members of a group, for example through national and international youth exchange programs.

Politicians offering more consistent, relevant, and direct opportunities to interact in their communities, for example, through local visits or information sessions not just during election time.

Developing more practical civics education such that its more attuned to young peoples lives.

Cultivating honest and accessible political leaders who arent afraid to talk about real issues, like racism, in ways that youth can understand and relate.

While still early days, Democracy Talks points to young Canadians desire to better understand and engage with issues affecting their communities, country and world. To me, thats something worth celebrating, and offers a refreshing counter-narrative to the notion that young people today are somehow lacking in civic conscience in ways that past generation of youth did not. Ive found it encouraging to hear from people who, despite feeling decidedly detached from politics, see the solutions to their greater involvement in the political process as not so far off. Clearer information, better education and more meaningful communication, they noted, are a few good starting points basic improvements that even the over-25s might be inclined to agree with! All this raises important questions about the role of governments and political leaders in helping to lift youth out of their cynicism and into political empowerment in short, meeting them half-way to show that their efforts to learn, engage and act will count in the long run. It also reinforces the role of community groups in showing young people that their concerns are political in nature, and have the potential to be resolved through existing political channels, as imperfect as they may be In making the case that young peoples political potential is vital to the country, both now and in the future, were seeking input from others in the sector on how governments, politicians, and non-profit practitioners can best work together to revitalize political participation. We know that the insights generated in a series of two-hour discussions can only be strengthened and scaled into meaningful programming with the feedback and suggestions of those of you working on these issues day-to-day, and Samara invites you to post and share your ideas below.