Teaching Democracy with Playdough

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Participation Thursday, July 21, 2016 View Count = 3644

Teaching Democracy with Playdough

What happens when you ask newcomers to Canada what they care about, add a question about democracy, and then give everyone some playdough? 

They talk, discuss, collaborate, and create. Ultimately, they build confidence in their democratic voice.

For the last year, that is exactly what has been happening in one of the most diverse regions of Canada. North York Community House (NYCH) and Samara, with the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, have undertaken a major initiative to strengthen democratic engagement by training almost 50 staff members and engaging over 600 community members. 

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Serving newcomers and residents of northwest Toronto for over 25 years, NYCH has come to recognize that improving democratic engagement is essential to helping build strong, healthy communities. By helping participants of all ages and backgrounds find and develop their political voice, Samara’s Democracy Talks has proven an effective tool for engaging and empowering NYCH’s diverse membership.

Democracy Talks takes a different approach than many civic education programs. Instead of inviting participants to a class to learn about Canada’s political system, Democracy Talks activities are integrated into a wide range of existing programs – English conversation circles, citizenship classes, youth programs, and even cooking classes.

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As a result, in North York alone, the program has engaged participants from over 34 different countries and ages 13 to 65. Many participants reported that, prior to this initiative, they had no opportunities to discuss issues they care about in a non-partisan and safe environment. What participants learned was simple but profound. In the words of two participants:

“It’s not just the Prime Minister that has the power, we have the power too.” 

“I learned that things can change.”

Most heartening of all, we have begun to witness a shift in culture such that both NYCH staff and community members value democratic life and have confidence in their political voice. Illustrating this shift on a beautiful evening in May, over one hundred community members packed into the Change Fair, hosted by NYCH and Samara, to talk with each other, share what they had learned, and make sure their political voice was heard. (For more on the event, check out this post.)

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None of this would have been possible without the hard work of NYCH staff.  Samara has worked closely with NYCH to develop training to meet the needs of all staff from language instructors and settlement workers to senior management.  

Shelley Zuckerman, Executive Director of NYCH, adds: 

“I have been so impressed and pleased with the impact that our Democracy Talks project with Samara is having on our organization’s ability to encourage civic engagement among newcomers. As a result, we have been able to provide so many newcomers with their first opportunity in Canada to talk about and learn about democracy, civic engagement and politics in an environment where diverse opinions and ideas are encouraged and appreciated.”

Samara would like to thank the Ontario Trillium Foundation for a grant supporting its partnership with North York Community House and the Democracy Talks program. The Ontario Trillium Foundation is an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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