Empowerment & connection in North York

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Happening Now Monday, April 20, 2015 View Count = 4503

Empowerment & connection in North York


360 blog series
In this Democracy 360 blog post, North York teacher Marilyn Kleiman digs into the reasons why Canadians don’t participate in politics before painting a picture of political conversation in action. Read all about the organizer of this series of workshops, North York Community House, at the bottom of this post.

If you’re reading this post, chances are you have an interest in politics. You’ve probably had discussions with family, friends, and colleagues about things like ranked ballots, Bill C-51 and Mike Duffy. But according to Samara Canada’s Democracy 360 report, 39% of Canadians say they haven’t had a single political conversation in the last year.

Whether this is an indication of apathy, ignorance, or an outright rejection of the topic, one thing is certain: a large number of Canadians aren’t connecting politics with their everyday lives, and as a result, they aren’t talking about it.

For over a year, North York Community House has partnered with Samara Canada on a program called Democracy Talks–an initiative that encourages political participation through conversation. These facilitated discussions have been an effective way to engage the residents we serve in northwest Toronto.

There are a number of reasons for the disengagement these residents experience: they are newcomers to Canada; they are navigating through unfamiliar systems in a new country; they are overcoming a language barrier; and they can’t vote. What Democracy Talks does is provide an opportunity for them to share their voices and, more importantly, to be heard.

Marilyn's picture of DTThis past winter, in a small classroom tucked away in our offices at the Lawrence Square Shopping Centre, an enthusiastic Democracy Talks workshop took place among 30 or so English language students. The participants from our evening LINC (Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada) classes–all newcomers to Canada, from all over the world–came together in conversation, invigorated by talk of democracy. And a rather raucous time was had by all.

First, the students were divided into groups of about four, with the more advanced students sitting with newer students to encourage conversation and provide support with vocabulary.  We handed out worksheets, consisting of questions that are meant to spark group discussion on the topic of democracy. When we brought the groups back together for a collective debrief, students were given a forum to share their opinions.

Next, we took a pretty heated vote. The question posed was, “Should we finish this workshop earlier?” I knew this would be a somewhat controversial topic, and yet safe enough in a room that contained such a vast range of nationalities. We handed out the ballots with simple yes or no options and asked students to circle their response. I picked up the folded ballots and left the room to count the votes, while the discussion among the students continued.

When I returned, one student felt the need to make a speech advocating for his position.  All smiles and confidence, he stood up and suggested not to finish early because it was an interesting subject and they were all there to study English. Then a student from the opposite point of view stood up proudly, and presented his side. Laughter, giggles and smiles accompanied all the speakers. Some spoke from a seated position, some rose up and some heckled the speakers (a very parliamentary debate!).

After the vote count, we also discussed the fact that a majority wanted to leave, but there was a significant minority who wanted to stay. The question then became, “What do we do about such a large minority?” This prompted more chatting and laughter. By the time the discussions had finished, it was time to end the workshop.

Some students felt so energized by the experience that they decided to stay a little later, and a conversation took place between about 10 students and three teachers where different issues and questions were discussed. For the most part, the students seemed interested in understanding some of the stories currently in the news.

The Democracy Talks workshop was a huge success because the participants experienced the spirit of democracy and saw that talking to one another can be a great way to spend the evening.

Personally, I felt privileged to be part of it all–and I know I speak for all the evening teachers when I say that the conversation left us feeling gratified–because it is through these “talks” that we can see individuals becoming empowered, neighbours becoming connected, and communities becoming vibrant places to live.

MarilynMarilyn Kleiman is an English Language Teacher at North York Community House. Along with teaching LINC classes, she also leads a workshop on Canadian workplace culture and skills.

North York Community House (NYCH) has been serving the residents of northwest Toronto for 25 years, and is committed to the development of strong neighbourhoods and the residents who lead them.  In addition to assisting newcomers to Canada with settlement and integration, NYCH also supports the positive development of families, the promotion of healthy lifestyles, and skill-building that leads to employment and personal growth.

To find out more about Samara’s Democracy Talks program, head here. To learn more about the findings of the Democracy 360, check it out here.

(Top: LINC teacher Franca Pelaccia in the classroom. Photo credit: Howard Sato. Lower left: Marilyn Kleiman's Democracy Talk. Photo credit: Marilyn Kleiman.)

On the Samara BlBlog logo representing the letter 'o'g