By Madison Van West, Democracy Talks Coordinator at NYCH
How will you take action in 2016? This was the question we posed to the 100+ participants at last week’s civic engagement celebration: Change Fair: Community Voices in Action.
Co-organized by Samara Canada with support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, participants (representing more than 20 countries across the globe and a range of ages from children to seniors) were challenged to test their knowledge, connect with their neighbours, and share their views in a series of games and activities designed to make politics accessible, interesting, and most of all, fun.
In one corner of the packed community room at the Bathurst-Finch Hub, people were “building their democracy” out of Play-Doh, at the same time describing which aspects of the democratic system were most important to them. As John Beebe, Manager of Outreach at Samara Canada, said, “My favourite part of the Change Fair was watching a young teenager work with her grandfather visiting from Iran to create a Play-Doh creation of her ideal democracy.”
Across the room at the Vote Pop-Up, an activity that originated at North York Community House (NYCH) and was widely shared by Samara during the last federal election, participants were asked to use a ranked ballot to vote on their favourite activity of the evening. Results forthcoming.
One of the most popular activities was the “Write a Letter to A Politician” table, complete with custom postcards designed for the event. Using the resources provided, participants could choose an issue currently affecting their lives, find out which political representative is responsible for that issue, and share their story - a direct act of political engagement that far too few of us make in our lives.
The overarching message of the evening was that everyone has a voice, all of those voices are needed to help our democracy thrive, and there are so many ways to be involved.
Even the date of the event — a regular Thursday in May — reflected this message. We thought about trying to connect the Change Fair with a big political event like an election, but it seemed even more important to celebrate the ways people are political every day, especially when considering the number of permanent residents, refugees, and youth for whom voting isn’t yet an option.
The event was also a celebration of the many NYCH staff and volunteers who have embedded civic engagement into their work, and as Executive Director Shelley Zuckerman shared in her welcoming remarks, there is certainly a lot to celebrate there. For example, more than 50 staff have been trained in Democracy Talks, a program developed by Samara that encourages participants to practice sharing their political voice. Democracy Talks has been an essential part of NYCH’s approach to civic engagement since 2013, and since August alone, more than 600 people have been engaged to talk more about the things that matter to them.
For participants who want to go further and learn more, NYCH’s twice-annual Leadership and Community Engagement training offers just that, including in-depth lessons of the structure of government, field trips to City Hall and Queen’s Park, and a practicum project on a civic issue of their choice. One recent group has garnered over 20,000 signatures on a petition supporting their cause: basic income for all Canadians.
In addition to these targeted programs, NYCH’s support of countless community initiatives through the Lotherton Action for Neighbourhood Change project, youth programs such as the Village Bloggurls, and more, ensures that change is happening at the most local level.
The sheer energy in the room at Change Fair and the enthusiasm for the many ongoing programs at NYCH demonstrate that supporting civic engagement as an aspect of settlement work for newcomers is a welcome and important part of developing a truly inclusive and representative democracy.
Special thanks to the many staff and volunteers from NYCH and Samara who made this event possible!