Youth Engagement from the Inside

Youth Engagement from the Inside
By Genevieve Allen Hearn

We met at Cotton Tale Café with our babies and toddlers in tow. It felt like an interview disguised as a playdate. Or perhaps the reverse. Either way, this is how working mothers can balance their professional and domestic lives – meeting in a space where children can run, crawl or wriggle while talking over coffee and intermittently jumping out of seats to diffuse a toy theft situation.
I wrote an article about youth engagement in municipal politics last September before the municipal elections. Emily Lutz and Meg Hodges were two interviewees for the article – both young mothers running for a seat on Kings Council at the time. One year later, I sit before the Kings Deputy Mayor and District 7 Councillor (Emily) and District 1 Councillor (Meg) to learn about what youth engagement looks like from the inside.

Barriers to Engagement

Before I jump into our conversation, allow me to reiterate the main points in last year’s article. Some people believe that youth don’t participate in municipal politics because they’re apathetic. Through a survey of hundreds of young people aged 13-30 across Kings County, the Kings Youth Engagement Working Group found that this was only one tiny piece of the issue. The primary reasons youth gave for not participating in the political process were; not knowing how to participate, not feeling as though their voices were valued, and not feeling like issues that affected them were given serious consideration. Another major barrier was time deficiency; many young people are starting careers and families, which is an impressive balancing act in itself. Attending Council meetings, showing support at events, and writing letters about their concerns just didn’t fit into their hectic lives.

Breaking Down Barriers

Speaking of hectic lives, let’s return to Emily and Meg. When asked if they felt they bring a perspective to the table that wasn’t in the Council Chambers before, the question was met with an emphatic “Yes!” “Every person brings their own unique background and experiences to the table, and as a young mom under thirty trying to make a life for my family in rural Nova Scotia I recognize how my perspective on things can be a lot different than my colleagues”, said Emily. She continued, “This becomes even more obvious looking province-wide where there aren’t many young people on Councils, and other municipalities are curious why we decided to run and how we became successful. [Meg and I] have accidentally become the experts on youth engagement in the province”.

Emily is looking beyond County borders and is pushing for more youth presence on the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities (UNSM). “Things like maternity and paternity benefits shouldn’t be debated on Council. There should be a parental leave policy that comes from the Municipal Government Act”. This is uncharted territory to navigate, as historically there have not been many young people on Council starting families.

Meg said it’s challenging for Councillors to connect with youth during their day-to-day activities, as meetings and civic events can be intimidating to young people or new members of the community. She feels that there should be more welcoming and accessible activities to help young people feel comfortable and forge connections in their communities. Meg commented on how youth find out about things in a different way, so traditional methods of promoting events are not always reaching the younger demographic. Both Meg and Emily are working on building a stronger social media presence on Council. They are also finding ways to get into schools to talk about municipal politics. Emily believes that they are relatable to students looking for young role models in leadership positions. ”We’re doing the things young people do, so it’s easier to connect”.

Kings Youth Council

Since becoming Councillors, Emily and Meg both joined the Kings Youth Engagement Working Group. The group, comprised of young leaders in the County, is currently in the process of forming a Kings Youth Council. By bringing the voice of youth into how decisions are made by Municipal Council, the Kings Youth Council (KYC) will work at advancing the interests and welfare of youth across the County.

The Kings Youth Engagement Working Group will dissolve once the Kings Youth Council is formed, and it will be the responsibility of the KYC to ensure that the voices of young people in Kings County are heard. Meg and Emily will continue to be involved by sitting on the KYC as Council representatives.

There is an open call for interested applicants for the Kings Youth Council. It will be made up of Kings County Youth (including youth living in the Towns of Berwick, Kentville, and Wolfville) aged 13-30 who are passionate about working to address issues relevant to young people and helping to inform decisions of Kings Council. There is an application form online, or applicants can submit an expression of interest by way of video, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram with the hashtag #KingsYouthCouncil. The deadline to apply is October 13th. For more information or an application form, interested applicants can contact nominatingcommittee@countyofkings.ca. There are also two information sessions for anyone who is interested in learning more on September 19th at the Aylesford & District Lions Club 7-9pm and September 21st at the Port Williams Community Centre 7-9pm. Contact richelle.nova@gmail.com with any questions about the information sessions.

After my interview with Emily and Meg it was clear that there is still a long road ahead when it comes to engaging youth in municipal politics. It’s an important topic in our region, as listening to youth and involving youth in decision-making processes may help reverse the trend of outward youth migration. The Kings Youth Council is a major stride in the right direction, and has the potential to be a game-changer when it comes to better understanding what is important to younger generations.