Learning to create change

Grade 10 students discuss issues directly with municipal government

Carrie Debrone

What city issues are important to 15 and 16-year-olds? Rarely does anyone ask them.

But on April 24 at Kitchener city hall a pilot project gave 62 students from Resurrection Catholic Secondary School‘s (RCSS) civics classes the chance to directly speak with councilors and civic leaders about what they consider to be important city issues.

Youth Forum 2013, funded by the Rotary Club of Kitchener and created by volunteers from Compass Kitchener and with the help of Kitchener staff and councilors, is the first event of its kind to be held in the city.

Its goal is to help young people learn how to create change in their community, build positive relationships with members of council, the mayor and city staff.

RCCS’s civics and history teacher Carol Watkins said she believes forums of this kind are really needed and that high school civics courses should be expanded to allow more time for students to learn about municipal government.

“Young people aged 18 to 25 don’t vote. I think the government is really worried about that,” she said, adding that the reason youth have a low interest in their community is a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ issue.

“Young people don’t listen to what’s going on in the city and don’t feel involved because they believe no one listens to them. If democracy’s going to work then we have to get people involved in and interested in their community and voting,” she said. “I tell my students that people have died in history to give you the right to vote. Don’t squander it.”

Members of the Compass Kitchener’s Youth Engagement Committee began planning the forum about a year ago based on a similar event held in Ottawa.

James Howe, committee member, said the goal of the day is to help young people feel more connected to municipal issues and that ideally, future forums would be open to a larger group of grade ten students from all area high schools.

Working in groups, students had about an hour to narrow in on an issue they felt is important in the city and produce a visual display. The displays were then set up around the perimeter of the city hall rotunda and in Dragon’s Den style, city councilors and civic leaders visited each booth to hear the students pitch their ideas, ask questions and give them immediate feedback.

Issues identified included fixing potholes, building an outdoor pool at McLennan Park, providing more job opportunities for youth, creating programs for the treatment of mental illness, adopting trees and pathways in the city, traffic calming measures in neighbourhoods, teaching roundabout safety, installing outdoor information kiosks throughout the city that would list information on bus routes, bike trails and restaurants, and saving the soccer fields at Budd Park.

During the day, students also heard from keynote speakers like blogger and community builder Hilary Abel who works in Kitchener’s economic development department; business development professional, real estate entrepreneur and community evangelist Ramy Nassar; project manager and planner Sarah Brown and Executive Director at Sustainable Waterloo Region, Mike Morrice.

“Youth should feel included in decisions made at City Hall and we need to hear their voices and their opinions. The Youth Forum was a great opportunity to collaborate with young people to improve our community,” said Mayor Carl Zehr.

“Compass Kitchener understands that there is great value in supporting youth to be civically engaged in the City of Kitchener. This engagement will not only benefit the city today but in the future,” said Holly Duff, member of Compass Kitchener.

“Rotary has long been involved with youth in our community through programs such as our International Youth Exchange, a youth leadership training course called the Rotary Youth Leadership Award, and Camp Enterprise, a program about business and entrepreneurship. This Youth Forum further extends Rotary’s involvement with youth and our community. The Mayor and Councillors’ tremendous participation illustrates the strong support for this kind of youth-oriented program in Kitchener,” said Rotary Club of Kitchener President-Elect, Martin Jones.