By Senator Art Eggleton and Senator Raymonde Saint-Germain
In recent years, Canada has seen a spike in youth engagement in the volunteer sector. That’s very good news. This has largely come about because of high school programs that require a minimum number of volunteer hours to graduate. The idea is that youth have plenty to offer and their engagement creates stronger community bonds — and better services.
Youth can both learn and lead when they are involved in their local communities.
Now, a new federal initiative — the Canada Service Corps.– will invest $105 million in national volunteer organizations with the goal of encouraging young Canadians to stay involved in their communities.
Why is this significant?
If youth can be effectively engaged beyond their high school years, they could play an important role in strengthening and developing the voluntary sector, as well as increasing community participation more broadly. They could help us create meaningful civic engagement for a new generation.
A recent Open Caucus in the Senate brought together leaders at non-profit and charitable organizations to offer insight and tactics on working with the next generation of leaders. What emerged were three ways we can get youth engaged in community building – for a better Canada:
1. Youth Want Authentic and Meaningful Engagement
The key to authentic engagement is to dispense with stereotypes about millennials, according to Lily Viggiano, Youth Engagement Specialist with Volunteer Canada’s Pan-Canadian Volunteer Matching Platform.
“Youth are not self-involved, rather, they have incredible empathy that leads to action.” She noted that youth may be motivated to gain life experience, work experience or to develop a sense of their own identities.
Andy Garrow, Director of Youth Development at Katimavik, emphasized the importance of leaving space for youth to come up with their own ideas. Youth will stay engaged if they are supported, listened to and are given the space to develop their own paths forward.
2. Include Youth from Diverse Communities
At one point, volunteers were usually those with extra time and money; middle-class retirees willing to give back. At the Boys & Girls Club Canada, Marlene Deboisbriand, VP of Programming and Member Services, noted that youth in underserved communities don’t often see themselves in leadership roles. The organization works to foster a sense of belonging in youth so that they develop a desire to serve society.
Viggiano said her organization often goes right to underserved communities to engage youth, rather than asking people to travel to a volunteer organization, thereby removing a barrier. She said the value in meeting people where they are helps to foster long-term bonds. She also noted that volunteer organizations need to consider various physical abilities and accessibility issues when organizing opportunities for youth.
When youth are engaged by their communities, they will feel included and see themselves as potential community leaders.
3. Foster Intergenerational Leadership
Intergenerational leadership means seeing youth not as the leaders of tomorrow, but as the leaders of today, Garrow noted.
Viggiano said it’s important to recognize the impact of small actions and to create pathways for youth to grow their volunteer experience within an organization even if it is more event-based or episodic.
This might also mean mentorship from an older generation in a way that is not unidirectional, but recognizes that young people have as much to teach as they do to learn.
Intergenerational leadership may also mean stepping back, as Colin Jackson noted. The chair of ImagiNation 150 said youth have a formidable capacity, but that “we must promote and encourage their expertise,” which he did when he deferred to his 19-year-old colleague Safira Teja, a youth ambassador.
Teja noted volunteer opportunities should be fun and socially engaging, so that youth can prioritize them within their other time commitments. “Give them agency,” Teja said. “Allow them to have accountability, rather than just giving them a task that is overseen by an older person.”
Young people are keen to make a real difference and we need to harness that desire. Positive youth engagement can have a multiplier effect. Those engaged in the voluntary sector are shown a path to civic engagement, which could lead to increased voter turnout and develop positive advocates for social issues.
Senator Art Eggleton is a member of the Canadian Senate from Toronto. He currently serves as Chair of the Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.
Senator Saint-Germain is Deputy Facilitator of the Independent Senators Group. She was appointed to the Senate in 2016, after two terms as the Québec Ombudsman and a distinguished career in the public administration.
The Open Caucus is a forum for discussion on issues of national importance and is co-chaired by Senator Art Eggleton and Senator Saint-Germain. This non-partisan discussion is open to all Members of Parliament, Senators, parliamentary staff, media, and the public.