The challenges (and rewards!) of championing younger voices
I’m a civic engagement specialist and Co-Founder of The Starfish Canada: a volunteer-run organization that amplifies Canadian youth voices. Since 2010, we’ve been working as the nation’s youth forum for responsible decision-making regarding Canada’s environment, inspiring young Canadians to take leadership roles in their communities, and to celebrating those contributing to the movement.
When you run a nonprofit that celebrates young leaders, you naturally build a strong network of people around you. You start understanding the gravity of the environmental movement across the country. You meet some courageous young folks doing amazing work, and you can’t help but feel inspired.
So naturally, when Environment and Climate Change Canada invited me onto the Expert Panel on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience Results as a youth representative to propose indicators to measure progress on climate adaptation, I felt like I had the chops to help them out.
I was also looking for an opportunity to start activating youth voices on the federal level, and believed this would be a great opportunity to dig deep into what that work could look like.
Taking action to adapt to climate change will help protect the health, well-being, and prosperity of Canadians, and manage risks to communities, businesses, and ecosystems.
Preparing for the effects of climate change before they happen will make our communities stronger and healthier for this generation and the next.
After launching an online engagement tool in November of 2017 to understand the views of those in Canada under 30 years of age, I felt ready to make our recommendations essential to monitoring and evaluating continuous improvement on climate adaptation within Canada. The panel held a series of meetings in Toronto and Ottawa, where the conversation felt honest and useful — I felt they were genuinely excited for everyone to be there.
Overall, I believe we did a great job of coming up with climate adaptation indicators: our summer 2018 final report was widely-read, and had real utility for policy-makers and those working on-the-ground. What was most challenging (and enlightening!), was bringing that younger perspective into the room.
Making space for meaningful dialogue
With strong intergenerational and cultural dynamics at play, one of the other major challenges in the conversation was making space for everyone’s contributions. In a room full of older and more experienced panelists, it was a difficult situation when people were talked over. I was taken aback when one panelist declared that I’d better interrupt, too, because nobody was going to give me space otherwise.
To be perfectly fair, I think the comment came from an honest place, and that the individual was trying to be helpful — but the sentiment really stuck with me. Getting youth and Indigenous perspectives was important to the group and to the government, but despite building community agreements, the group hadn’t built a process that kept principles for insightful conversation top of mind.
This work on building indicators for climate change adaptation is important and innovative in the public policy space (no other countries have done what we have!). With that accomplishment in mind, there are ways we can improve government engagement to ensure we best represent younger Canadians:
Remember that younger Canadians aren’t a homogenous group. When you bring in an ‘expert’ advocate, it’s still a struggle to speak for such a broad demographic that’s nuanced with varying perspectives.
It’s not enough to have just one seat for younger Canadians at the table. It’s an important step, but not the finish line.
Training and support for intergenerational conversations could help working groups. Challenging assumptions about how we have conversations with each other can be impactful, and can help us take up meaningful space at the table.
Unfortunately, the panel didn’t identify youth as a vulnerable population in our report, although we believe they should have been. We’re working to determine how we can measure the progress of climate adaptation for young people, and the discussions from this engagement serve as a great starting point.
In the end, I felt the consultation was largely an exercise in being able to value the viewpoints of others outside your age bracket. Genuine inclusion of younger voices in processes that are generally held by older, more experienced individuals who sometimes (but not always) see themselves as experts is incredibly important, and can always be improved upon.
That's why I'm excited to continue this work for young Canadians.
About the author
Kyle is a civic engagement specialist with a masters degree from Simon Fraser University's School of Resource and Environmental Management. Kyle hopes to bring guidance and mentorship to The Starfish Canada as it grows and develops into a common source for youth engagement for Canadians. In his spare time, Kyle likes to swim, run and cycle (although has yet to attempt a triathlon).