Youth engagement is both needed and often elusive at the municipal level. During the Covid-19 pandemic, young people who would have otherwise been engaged in their school’s extra-curricular activities have not had suitable outlets to engage in community building.
This presents a unique opportunity for municipalities to develop an innovative format for youth engagement that is meaningful to young people.
Municipal government can provide leadership in facilitating a sense of belonging for young people in their communities by creating meaningful experiences that empower youth advocacy and involvement.
Municipal staff also can facilitate connections between youth from different communities and create potential pathways for young people to return to their communities after leaving for work or study. What is needed is focused attention on how to structure and resource a youth engagement program that is authentic.
Something is missing…
I had the opportunity to meet with Laura Fullerton, the Municipality of Arran-Elderslie’s Community Development Coordinator, and discovered what a focused and committed professional with local ties can do to catalyse meaningful youth engagement.
“I was born and raised in Arran-Elderslie, went away to University and returned to the community for my first job as the Community Development Coordinator for the municipality. I returned home because I had strong ties to my hometown—something that I saw was lacking in my friends who did not feel a strong will to return to Bruce County.”
Laura shared that when she thought critically about why youth were hesitant to return home after completing post-secondary education, she realized that they may not have had the same sense of connection that she did to the region. Laura had always been active in the community, volunteered on committees, and in turn was exposed to potential job opportunities.
The experience of having to leave Bruce County to study at a post-secondary institution is common for young people. Anyone looking to complete a diploma or degree in the region has limited options, and most often need to move to larger urban centres to access the education that they seek. I also know that there are those like Laura who leave to complete their studies that feel a strong affinity to the region and have an interest in remaining connected.
“As an Economic Development professional, the lack of youth returning home to our communities worries me as they are the ones who are going to help us to continue to grow and thrive,” says Laura. “It is my hope that helping youth to engage with their community and increase belonging will in turn impact youth retention.”
Model program: Youth Council in Arran-Elderslie
Laura’s passion for youth engagement was the fuel that the Municipality of Arran-Elderslie needed to become actively engaged in providing youth in the communities of Tara, Paisley, and Chesley with coaching and space to be meaningfully involved in local projects and issues. Working in partnership with the Trinity Theatre Group, the Municipality has generated a model for youth engagement that can be replicated in each member Municipality in the MIC. They refer to the youth group as the Arran-Elderslie Youth Council (AEYC).
“Overall, it is our hope that the Arran-Elderslie Youth Council helps to bridge the gap between young people who are spread out in our communities, deepen ties to Arran-Elderslie to increase retention and belonging, as well as increase activity to help our communities thrive. Along with Trinity Theatre, the Arran-Elderslie Youth Council came to life and we are so proud of our progress so far.”
Critical partner in the community: Trinity Theatre
Trinity Theatre was first established in 1982 by Sandra Crockard and Alan Richardson in Toronto, Ontario. The initial mandate for the group was to provide socially active theatre, but as of 2003 it has focused its attention on leadership programming for youth.
Working in partnership with the Toronto District School Board, Trinity has supported capacity building in underserved neighborhoods through a six-pillar curriculum that positions youth at the centre of social change. Examples of Trinity’s efforts include a mentorship program embedded in Toronto schools where senior high school students “adopt” grade nine classes to support their transition to high school and encourage community-focused volunteerism.
Senior students have also been engaged in school mediation through partnerships with administrators such as vice principals. Trinity’s work to foster inter-generational engagement is worth noting, and the impact that their program has on community engagement and connection is cause for celebration.
Trinity’s work with youth in Arran-Elderslie has been structured differently from the Toronto chapter. Instead of working within schools, Trinity and Arran-Elderslie have created space outside of schools for youth to find opportunities to engage and be meaningfully engaged.
The Arran-Elderslie Youth Council is for people as young as 12 years old to gather and address pressing issues such as:
speeding and calming measures in high traffic zones,
mental health resources and programming,
a community holiday event,
increasing youth use of libraries,
developing a volunteer and job directory for young people,
partnering with the Paisley Artscape Society,
youth hangouts, and
working with the Arran-Elderslie recreation department to co-develop the Recreation Master Plan.
An administrative team made up of Laura, Sandra, and Alan meet weekly, and the AEYC meets every two weeks on Wednesday evenings.
Laura shared that “the partnership with Trinity has been instrumental in bringing this group to life. Through Trinity, we have been able to apply for a number of grants and bursaries to hire youth to assist us with the management of the Council, take on unique projects and support our youth volunteers through providing leadership and skill development opportunities.
"The experience that Alan and Sandra and their team have working with youth and organizing similar groups in Toronto was extremely beneficial to the Municipality as we looked to start this project from scratch in Bruce County," she says. "The youth have benefited through Trinity’s experience with encouraging youth leadership and engagement and providing skill development opportunities. It is a great partnership.”
Trinity has sourced funding for the program entirely through grants from the Canadian Service Corps, the Laidlaw Foundation, RBC Futures, and Canada Summer Jobs. Under the supervision of Sandra and Alan, Trinity Theatre has hired a Youth Development Coordinator, Communication Specialist, and Social Researcher from May to October 2021 with funding support from the Canada Summer Jobs grant as a means of advancing AEYC initiatives.
What has changed in Arran-Elderslie because of the AEYC?
Fullerton and Trinity Theatre have created new space for youth from otherwise disconnected communities to come together and co-construct a new future for themselves and their neighbours. The Youth Council is authentic in its intent, is structured in a way that is meaningful to its members and generates the enthusiasm and energy that the municipality sought to create.
“We now have a strong network of active and engaged youth within our municipality,” says Laura. “There hasn’t always been a strong engagement with youth because we didn’t know how to reach them. Now, departments are looking for ways to include youth and actively seek their opinion.”
For example, the Recreation Master Plan identifies specific projects in which youth are going to assist with implementation and will work closely with the Recreation department. Laura describes it as a win-win situation. “We want our spaces to be tailored to the youth who are going to use them, and youth are more likely to be engaged, use the facilities and take care of the facilities when they have had a hand in bringing projects to life. We are excited to have a network of excited youth to partner with on projects to come.”
The following video gives a preview of what meetings have looked like over the last year, the level of engagement from the community in the work of the AEYC, and the leadership skills being developed.
Why does Arran-Elderslie’s work with youth matter?
My last question for Laura was direct: why does this work matter? Her response illustrates the impact of her strong leadership on community well-being and capacity building, proving to be as critical to the successful youth engagement as the structure and partners involved.
“Leadership training and meaningful community engagement opportunities are limited in rural Ontario—and we definitely see a void in this type of programming in Arran-Elderslie and Bruce County. The youth in our Council have been given extremely unique opportunities, from applying for grants, writing a reoccurring column in the Paisley Advocate, making presentations to intergenerational groups, leading multiple projects at once, managing budgets, meeting with our member of parliament, working on projects with community groups, connecting with municipal councillors, providing input on community projects, sitting on committees, and much more.”
It is evident that the opportunities provided to youth to have a real impact have been plentiful. These skill development opportunities are so unique and will benefit young people immensely as they tackle their future goals. Along with the benefits to the youth involved, the visible impact that these youth are making in our community makes Arran-Elderslie a better place.
Says Laura: “I would encourage a project such as this in any community if you are looking for ways to encourage youth retention, increase youth engagement, and provide unique opportunities for young people.”
Arran-Elderslie Youth Council and the Ten Types of Innovation
The AEYC is a good example of an innovation that integrates multiple “types of innovation” (see my previous blog post) requiring multiple partners to co-construct a meaningful experience. The Youth Council is a combination of many of the ten types of innovations, but I will briefly focus on the funding, network, structure, service, channel, and customer engagement innovations that are present with the AEYC.
Funding: The AEYC has been funded through multiple grant programs and seed funding from the municipality.
Network: The AEYC has been co-developed and co-supported by the Municipality of Arran-Elderslie and Trinity Theatre. The expertise of both entities has created additional value for community members.
Structure: The Municipality of Arran-Elderslie has stepped away from conventional meeting structures and committee assignments to allow for youth to co-construct their own Council experience.
Service: The AEYC reflects a new service area for young people that, by extension, enhances service to the entire community. With the Municipality and Trinity Theatre’s resources and leadership, a new service area has been defined for the foreseeable future that supports the development of youth.
Channel: The AEYC represents a new channel for municipal leaders to engage with young people in the community. As outlined above, the Council has provided community leaders with access to the voices and perspectives of young people.
Customer engagement: The work that the AEYC did on the Recreation Master Plan is a clear example of how the municipality is engaging its current and future customers in sustainable ways. A person who helps to design a service or facility is more likely to engage with it on an ongoing basis.
Thanking Laura Fullerton and Trinity Theatre
The Municipality of Arran-Elderslie has prioritized the engagement of all members in building inclusive and inspired communities. The Arran-Elderslie Youth Council is notably successful in rural Ontario and should be considered by other regions as a model to learn more about as they think about engaging young people.
Thank you to Laura Fullerton for providing insightful reflections about the Council, and to Sandra Crockard and Alan Richardson who have been critical partners in the development and facilitation of the AEYC.
Dave Shorey is the Innovation Officer at the Municipal Innovation Council.