Thursday, 10 November 2011

Defending the Toronto Youth Cabinet

Two days ago, Councillor Shelley Carroll led a discussion at City Hall about the role of social media in engaging citizens. Yesterday at OCAD the city’s economic development department held a forum about getting citizens to engage in events and their city through unconventional ways. But in a twist of fate, today the Toronto Youth Cabinet (TYC) will have to justify their existence to the city’s Budget Committee.

The TYC, like the Toronto Seniors Forum which will also be debated today, is one of many potential cuts in the city’s measures to balance its operating budget. According to its website, the TYC is a youth driven advocacy organization which strives to improve the quality of life for Toronto’s youth. Among other things, the cabinet has:
  • ·         Developed strategies to liaise with squeegee kids in the Mel Lastman years
  • ·         Independently conducted a review of graffiti in the David Miller-Rob Ford years
  • ·         Provided financial literacy workshops for youth
  • ·         Taught hundreds of individuals of how to use City Hall avenues to have their voices heard, like giving deputations.

In fact, they’re goals that Rob Ford largely campaigned on. Speaking about youth engagement at the Scarborough Mayor’s debate in March 2010, Ford said
“[We need to] go across the city to talk to principals, to talk to youth, to see what they want...if it gets them an education, if it gets kids out of the gangs, off the street, off the drugs and puts them on a positive pursuit [it’s good].” 
Despite this, there are three main challenges that the ~300 member Youth Cabinet faces in justifying themselves to the Budget Committee.

Currently the Youth Cabinet has an annual budget of just under $27,000. Executive Cabinet members have indicated a willingness to decline their stipends or to seek private funding if it means keeping the Cabinet. In fact, a 2007 study by planner Rachelle Ricotta suggested that one of the principal obstacles in the cabinet’s effort to expand outreach was a lack of funding and permanent staff, not poor management or wasteful spending.

It’s difficult in defining the real value the city derives from the Youth Cabinet, whose positive outcomes are mostly intangibles. After all, what’s the value of an engaged citizen? But another 2007 report, this one by Brenda O’Neill for the Canadian Policy Research Networks, sheds some light on that. 

O’Neill points to the abysmally low voter turnout (federally) among 18-24 year-olds in 2000 and 2004 (25 and 37%, respectively). At the same time, this same age-group has relatively high participation in other direct-action political activities, like petitions, boycotts, protests and volunteering. This suggests that there’s a gap between embracing politics and working within institutions.

It’s one that was a chief discussion point at the ICE economic development conference at OCAD yesterday. The room full of city bureaucrats, most of whom want to incorporate innovative techniques to involve more youth, is juxtaposed by the Budget Committee today, showing that dissonance isn’t limited to 18-24 year-olds.  

A criticism of the youth cabinet that goes beyond the value argument asks, ‘why have a youth cabinet in the first place? Why can’t they work within the same means as any other citizen?’

It’s a fair question; what makes youth (and seniors) special in their need for representation? For one, the sociological research indicates that youth are disaffected by and disconnected from traditional institutions. In turn, they require a bridge to connect them to these institutions and to realize their value.

It’s a challenge that Ange Kinnear, Adam Vaughan’s Executive Assistant, knows from her first-hand involvement with the Metro version of the youth cabinet. “With the Youth Cabinet you’ll have people who join when they’re 17 or join when they’re 21, and check out when they go to university or turn 24. People’s life situation at that stage changes drastically and sometimes they have time to give and sometimes they don’t.” 

Kinnear adds that youth are often in the process of finding their voice in this period and their priorities change over time. These various challenges highlight the importance of a stable liaison like the TYC for individuals to come back and re-connect with.

Cutting it would make it more difficult for the city to achieve its aims of connecting youth to its representation and getting them involved. That’s not a small constituency either; youth (13-24) are 300,000 of the least represented people in Toronto.

But there’s another argument against the Youth Cabinet, one that is more insidious. It’s an accusation nicely represented by a September Sue-Ann Levy column in which she says that, “...the TYC- a pet project of NDPer Olivia Chow initiated in 2001- is nothing more than a breeding ground for left-wing activists who hang around City Hall like Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler.” (Note: It was re-introduced by Chow in 1998, not 2001 and a metro version had existed) 

This argument states that the Youth Cabinet is too political and that it’s essentially a recruiting grounds for the NDP. Executive member Keegan Henry-Mathieu and Claire McWatt reject this outright, “If any councillor, no matter their political background, asks us for advice, we’re not going to say no...we serve at the pleasure of council.” Adds Mathieu-Henry, “It’s unfair to paint the youth cabinet with one brush when so many people pass through it.”

While it’s true that there has been left-wing representation from people like Kinnear or Kristyn Wong-Tam, there have also been many conservatives who have come through the cabinet, including a Cesar Palacio staffer, a number of people who have since run for the Conservative party, and various conservative bankers and lawyers.

Kinnear agrees that Levy’s criticism of the Youth Cabinet being manipulated is misplaced. She shares a story of going into a Youth Cabinet meeting just after becoming too old to participate and being shooed away by Chaleff-Freudenthaler, who feared the meeting would be controlled by non-members, “I’ve never met a youth cabinet who was willing to say yes to outsiders. They’ve always been very independent and committed to telling their own story.” Kinnear goes on to explain that it’s one of the strengths of the Cabinet, that their combination of independence and proximity to Council allows for the complementary growth of the participants and valuable advice for Councillors.

Two days from now, the Youth Cabinet connects with other institutions in their annual celebration The Cause. It’s their biggest event of the year, with workshops on advocacy, a chance to meet councillors and learn about art. But moreso than that for Henry-Mathieu, working on things like The Cause for the TYC has taught him larger lessons about identifying values and learning to fight for them, “For me, the Youth Cabinet has instilled a sense of service. That sense that if I really have an issue with the way the city is being run then I actually have to make the time to do something about it.”

McWatt has had a similar experience. She went from someone who was apathetic and withdrawn in high school to a fully engaged and informed citizen due to the Youth Cabinet, the kind politicians want more of. But the challenges and frustration of defending a tool that offers institutional access to that very institution has caused some disappointment, “The TYC is a good thing, it’s a teaching tool. And degrading it just seems ignorant.”  

So the questions for the budget committee today become, ‘what connections can we make between the questions city staff try to solve and the solutions the Youth Cabinet offers,’ ‘is the Youth Cabinet a cause worth fighting for,’ ‘What price and value do we put on youth engagement,’ and, most importantly, ‘what kind of institution is City Hall?’      

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