Youthful and full of promise: exploring how Youth in Politics is promoting grade 10 students’ civic engagement

Young people play a vital role in the political and civil life of Canadian society through traditional and non-traditional forms of activism and community engagement.  However, there remains a strong need to promote more civic engagement among young people at an earlier age. There is a necessity for more systematic mapping of youth community and civic engagement.  Facilitating civic engagement at a young age in Canadians as well as systematically charting a picture of youth civic and community engagement will challenge the socio-normative notion of young people as being apathetic to community development and civil life.

#YiP fulfils this need to engage students in civil and political life from an early age and allows them to showcase their civic engagement. Dr. Nombuso Dlamini and Dr. Uzo Anucho co-designed the YiP project to engage grade 10 students in the October school board trustee elections. #YiP also builds students’ capacity to involve their families and communities in local governance issues. Moreover, #YiP facilitates youth action projects that are connected to youth learning about the governance of schools and their communities. #YiP sees youth as having the power to examine their schools and communities, to decide what is good in them and what they want to change.

#YiP does three main activities – 1) designing and leading student civic engagement workshops; 2) designing and learning teacher professional development workshop and 3) funding student mini-projects.

  1. Student Civic Engagement Workshops

We have facilitated a series of youth-led, student-focused 3-day workshops in Ontario to stimulate student interest in community and civic engagement. Our youth presenters engaged students in a conversations and workshops about how they can be change agents in their communities and how to be civically engaged citizens.

  1. Teacher Professional Development Workshop

We also hosted a workshop for teachers and leaders of experiential learning with student representatives. We engaged our participants in conversations about reframing the Civics curriculum to make it more connected to the students’ lived experiences and community knowledge.

  1. Promoting Student-led Community and Civic Engagement

What differentiates #YiP from other civic engagement projects is we propose to provide financial support for students to design mini-projects, which would have facilitated the participation of our student participants’ families and communities in the school board trustee elections. Unfortunately, due to logistical reasons, our funding for the project was reduced, and we could not fulfil this aim. To compensate for this, we have provided a series of online resources such as our “Hosting a School Board Trustees All Candidates Meeting: A Student’s Guide.” These online resources provide students with practical ways in which they can host the trustee meetings and encourage their parents to become more politically aware and active.

We learned some vital lessons from #YiP;

  1. Students are engaged in their communities. The majority of our student participants actively participate or led community/school projects. They were members of their student councils, organisers of community activities such as barbecues and summer camps, and volunteers at their public library. They also advocate for issues in their communities.
  2. Students are concerned about social justice issues. They showed great interest in Canadian and global social justice issues and how it affects their local communities. Our participants are passionate about finding solutions to social justice issues such as human trafficking, gender-based violence, environmental racialization and precarious unemployment. They also commented that due to ageism many young people’s contributions and voices are not taken seriously.

#YiP has taught us numerous lessons from which we can posit the following suggestions. This list is not exhaustive but rather acts to stimulate a more in-depth and thoughtful conversation about youth civic engagement.

Our first recommendation is for more systematic research to ascertain the impact of the work that young people are already doing. Second, we need to find exciting ways to increase students’ political engagement. Politicians and their political machinery need to find intriguing ways of connecting with young people about issues that matter to them. Third, we must listen to youth voices and engaging students should go beyond using them as tokens on committees and boards. Our student participant shared with us that on the one hand, this resulted in their opinions being ignored or meaningfully used to impact policy changes while on the other hand, it made them more reluctant to voice their views.

In sum, any real efforts to increase young people in civic engagement needs to be research-led and multifaceted. These efforts also need to be informed by and for youth to impact policy changes and practices rather than attempts to solely increase the youth vote.