Politics is an Everyday Endeavour: How to be an Active Citizen

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Thursday, October 10, 2019 View Count = 274

Politics is an Everyday Endeavour: How to be an Active Citizen

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In this week's What to Expect When You're Electing explainer, we describe how you can get involved when it comes to elections. Our Program Manager, Yvonne Su, tells her story of how she became an active citizen in Canadian politics and public policy - and how it made a difference in her community.


As a Chinese immigrant to Canada, I’ve always placed a high value on democracy. Coming from a country where the people’s voices were often silenced, I feel that civic engagement is paramount to a healthy society.

With this belief in mind, I’ve been heavily involved in my community since I was young. I really felt like my friends and I were making a difference, and it made me hopeful for our future.

But this hope took a hit when it came time to vote for the first time. I’d been really excited to cast my first vote as a Canadian with my friends. We’d constantly rallied together for clean-ups, food drives and community service; I was convinced that we were really making a difference for our future. But when it came time to vote, nary a one stood with me at the polling station.

Why? It was so hard for me to believe that these same friends who had volunteered with me and were heavily involved in social causes didn’t care about the future of our democracy. But I soon found out that it wasn’t that they didn’t want to make a difference. It was that they were convinced that their vote alone wouldn’t make enough of one.

I knew then that it was time to act. It’s not enough just to cast your vote on Election Day. I needed to take my commitment to community and step it up to the next level. No more standing by and letting others decide our future: as youth, the future’s in our hands. And that’s how I founded Vote Savvy – a way to show youth that their voice counts, and matters more than they think.

This simple act of engaging with youth across Canada led to my nomination as a Samara Everyday Political Citizen in 2017, and through that process, I learned that politics is an everyday endeavour. Being an active citizen requires constant engagement in the things that matter.

Sound overwhelming? I thought so, too. But I learned that while it’s easy to put off being a better citizen, it’s important that we all take part when we can. For those who don’t know where to start, here are a few practical strategies.

DECIDE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

We now live in a world where many of the most pressing issues, such as the climate crisis or unfair distribution of wealth, are of a global scope. Consequently, to many people these issues seem too large to do anything about. But the response to them can, and should, be broken into smaller steps and individual actions.

Together is always better than alone,” says Kendall Anderson, Acting Executive Director of the Samara Centre. “At Samara, we operate on the idea that working together as active citizens can truly make a difference. Concrete actions help people feel supported in making a difference in their communities.”

And these actions do appear to help Canadians feel more engaged. According to the 2019 Samara Citizen’s Survey, a biennial survey conducted by the Samara Centre, where I work as a program manager, Canadians are increasing their participation across a range of activities. For example, 31% of Canadians have attended a political meeting or speech, and 70% have donated money to a charitable cause. These actions show a modest rise in engagement over the last two years.

However, the research found a surprising downturn in broader civic engagement over the same time period. But that doesn’t mean that these citizens aren’t out there, wanting to help build a better community. It’s that Canadians seem to want to feel like their actions are making a difference, but they also want to know that their time and energy are being well-spent. That’s particularly true when it comes to politics, where most of the rise in engagement was seen.

But as Kendall says, there’s so much more than just political participation at stake when it comes to civic engagement. “Voting is only a small part of what it means to be an active citizen. Civic involvement outside of politics is one of the building blocks of a healthy democracy. Citizens should know that they can improve society by simply participating in the things that they care about – this makes an enormous difference.”

EDUCATE YOURSELF

If I’ve learned anything about becoming an active citizen, it’s that my efforts carry more weight when I’m aware of what actually needs to change. Knowing how our democracy works is one of the best ways to make it better.

According to Dave Meslin, author of Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up, the act of “knowing the battle” is the biggest contributor to being able to start influencing the community around you. But, as he says, the old ways aren’t working. What’s needed is change – and radical change.

“We need to stop boring youth by teaching the same old dry ‘civics’ classes and presenting the same old ideas,” he says. “Empowering them to really shape the world or challenge the powers that be is the key to getting youth interested in their society. You don’t stop innovating the most important institutions in our lives.”

So if getting to know how democracy works is the key to rebuilding it, then how do we get Canadians interested? The answer here seems to be in everyday conversations – and I don’t mean the nasty ones that happen online.

Bob Sutton, a 75-year-old former teacher in Sarnia, Ontario, has been facilitating conversations about how democracy works with people of all ages since he retired from formal education. He’s done with discussions that lead nowhere – for Bob, what matters is initiating dialogue that encourages people to ask questions and get to solutions.

“Too many people jump to conclusions when it comes to conversations about politics,” says Bob. “What matters here is asking questions and listening carefully enough to ask more. We have to think, discuss, and ultimately act as if we are to be real citizens in a real democracy, because that’s exactly what we are.”

But the buck doesn’t stop at casual conversations over coffee or your family dinner table. People of all ages need to brush up on their civic literacy in a concrete way, and that’s particularly apparent when you skim any social media conversation focused on Canadian politics. So how do you get there without taking a high school civics class?

The Samara Centre partners with many organizations that host discussions and workshops for citizens of all ages. Everyone deserves to be an active participant in their society – even those that consider themselves fairly civically literate. The more you know, the better you act!

TAKE ACTION IN YOUR COMMUNITY

It definitely sounds like it’s easier said than done when it comes to taking action in the community – I know this for a fact. But being an active citizen, at its core, just means being a better neighbour. According to Dave Meslin, taking action can be as simple as creating projects that help to build stronger bonds between neighbours.

“I’ve been experimenting with some fun projects in my own community,” Meslin says. “We do art projects together. We tap our maple trees. We have outdoor potluck dinners. It’s about doing activities outside your own comfort zone – creating collective actions that bring citizens together to share experiences.”

And for Meslin, it goes beyond just neighbourhood camaraderie. “Communities build up into cities and provinces, which build into entire countries,” he notes. “Imagine what we could do as a society if every citizen within a country felt like their voices were heard and their actions were noted as making a difference.”

In all, becoming more engaged doesn’t just help our democracy – it helps us as people who live in a community. Those who engage with activities that help them feel a greater sense of well-being are generally happier, and this is certainly true when it comes to my experiences. Through my experiences as an engaged citizen, I found that at the core, my sense of community has been heightened. I feel like I belong. And for a Chinese immigrant thrown into the mosaic that is Canada, that alone has been worth it for me.



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