CCPA’S NEXT UP PROGRAM IS
GROOMING A NEW COHORT OF PROGRESSIVE ORGANIZERS
“Kids. What’s the matter with kids today/Why can’t they be like
we were/Perfect in every way?” from Bye Bye Birdy, a musical by Michael
Stewart, Charles Strause and Lee Adams
A local program that is training a new generation of Canadian justice
and environmental activists may put the lie to the age-old knock on the
young voiced in the classic song “Kids.”
The lyrics, from the 1960 Broadway hit musical “Bye, Bye, Birdy,”
certainly don’t represent the first time the perennial and plangent
complaint about the next generation going to hell in a hand basket was
heard. We have accounts from at least as far back as fifth century BC
Athens of the dismay felt by the old as they viewed a new generation
sadly lacking in the virtues that had allegedly distinguished the
city’s elders. The young had no respect and no work ethic, and no
appreciation for what the older generation had accomplished or the gods
they worshipped. No doubt one day soon some archeologist will decipher
a cuneiform scribble on a clay tablet recording similar disappointment
among Sumerian elders.
And make no mistake. Commenting on the defects of the next generation
is a great comfort to the old, some small recompense for the knowledge
the young will still be dancing to their weird music and frenetically
social networking long after their Baby Boom elders like me have faded
away into geriatric irrelevance. Even on the political left, where I
have spent most of my life, it is not uncommon to hear cranky musings
about how passive and selfish the next generation has been left by a
lifetime exposure to commodity mass culture and capitalist
triumphalism. We had Woodstock, feminism, the civil rights movement and
anti-war mobilizations, runs the complaint, and they have Grand Theft
Auto, internet porn, Facebook and flashmobs.
Comforting as these self righteous musing may be, there is mounting
evidence in Western Canada that older folks get it wrong if we assume
that the prospects for social change in our country have attenuated
along with our own youthful energies.
Some Canadian young people are currently engaged in an attempt to
create a national network of well trained, committed activists who may
end up making the efforts of my generation look like a warm up for the
main event. The Next Up Program, (http://www.nextup.ca/) sponsored by the Canadian
Centre for Policy Alternatives (http://www.policyalternatives.ca/),
has just completed its fourth year of training events for young
activists between 18 and 32 held in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton
and Saskatoon. Already, four years after the program was founded, the
hundred plus graduates have created a network of serious activists that
spans Canada and they were excited to tell me about what they are
Next Up operates in partnership with the CCPA, the Columbia Institute
Centre for Civic Governance (http://www.civicgovernance.ca/)
and the Parkland Institute (http://parklandinstitute.ca/). Next Up is hosted
by its founding organization, “genius” (The Global Youth Education
“Next Up has been an incredibly useful program for me in that it has
connected me to amazing people, in my own community and across the
country, who are doing some really incredible work. Prior to the
program, I did not have any family or friend "ties" to the activist
community and so engaging in "activist" work was a little daunting. The
program has given me the community connections to draw upon, but also
the confidence to make those connections and offer my own contributions
as well,” said Karen Rooney, who recently graduated from the program’s
first year of operations in Saskatoon.
Taylor Yee, another grad of the Saskatoon Next Up program, told
me about a project he had done together with Rooney.
“I worked on with another Next Up participant, Karen Rooney, and my
first attempt at trying to make change. Next Up participants were
paired or grouped together to work on "Action Projects", which were
various assignments in the community. Our group's Action Project
was to meet with Charlie Clark, a progressive city councilor here in
Saskatoon, to discuss various local issues and to learn about municipal
government. Recycling had come up on the city's agenda, whereas
Saskatoon was deciding whether or not to have comprehensive curbside
recycling, a debate that had been going on for almost five years.
At the time, we were one of the only major cities that didn't have such
a program, and Karen and I decided to do something about it.
"Our idea was a long-weekend phone-a-thon to try and get citizens to
encourage their councilors to vote in favour of this program. The
story is quite complicated, and we never anticipated that the weekend
phone-a-thon was only the beginning of a longer campaign, but the
overall idea was to promote citizen engagement in local politics.
We were able to get help from people we met through Next Up to promote
and participate in the event, and we were able to draw from ideas we
learned about, such as George Lakoff's "framing" method ("Don't Think
of an Elephant"), a concept mentioned by a presenter. Most
importantly, Next Up itself gave us the confidence to move forward with
a project, rather than sit there and think, "I could never change
anything... I don't even know where to start". Fortunately, our
efforts didn't go to waste, and the councilors did end up supporting a
comprehensive recycling program, and if all goes according to plan,
we'll have a program by 2012,” he said.
Next Up held its first training sessions in Vancouver in 2006-2007, and
has since then expanded to Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon. The
program, which is offered tuition free to its young participants,
involves seven months of training events, meeting once a week for an
evening class and once a month for an all day weekend event.
Participants are chosen because they have already begun some form of
activism in their own community, and are offered training in activist,
organizing and communication skills.
Operating on a shoe string budget of around $130,000.00 a year and lots
of donated time from older community activists who serve as mentors and
advisors, the program has already graduated over 100 trained
organizers, most of whom are now engaged in leadership roles in grass
roots groups and NGOs across Canada and abroad.
There are Next Up grads hard at work currently at the Wilderness
Committee, Forest Ethics, Co-Development Canada, the Pembina Institute,
the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Canadian Youth Climate
Coalition, the University of Calgary’s Student Union. Shark Truth ( an
NGO founded by Next Up grad Claudia Li), the Carnegie Community Action
Project, which fights gentrification in Vancouver’s Chinatown,
and the Dusty Flowerpot Theatre in Canada, to name a few, and some
grads are doing international social justice work in Uganda and the
Next Up grads meet annually for a gathering that allows them to renew
their contacts with each other and their commitments to long term
activism. The most recent gathering was held in June and attracted more
than 60 of the program’s 100 graduates.
Tria Donaldson first learned about Next Up when she saw a poster on the
BC’s Thompson River University, where she was studying journalism. She
applied and became one of the group she laughingly describes as the
“guinea pigs” of the program’s first sessions in Vancouver.
“Next Up was a remarkable opportunity,” Donaldson said. “It helped me
see what was possible, and made me feel connected.”
Donaldson said she saw the evidence of Next Up graduates’ work in a lot
of the high profile efforts to mobilize the youth vote seen across
Canada in the last federal election.
“Next Up folks were involved in Lead Now and Vote Mob actions, bike
rides to the polls and other vote promotion events,” she said. “For two
weeks, there were nightly TV news items about vote promotion, and half
of them were organized by Next Up grads.”
Donaldson says she got her current employment with the Wilderness
Committee through her Next Up contacts and experience. Ben West, one of
the Committee’s senior organizers, told me that he has been enormously
impressed with Donaldson and the Next Up program acquired skills and
perspectives she brings to her work.
“I really like the way Next Up recognizes the linkages between
environmental and social justice issues,” West said, “and Tria really
gets that crucial point. I am really impressed with her. She has a good
analysis, and she’s a great communicator, full of overwhelming energy
Carlos Carvalho is a young trade union activist who just finished the
Next Up training in Vancouver. Already an eight year veteran of union
work at 28, Carvalho is on the executive of his CUPE local and works as
a charge hand in construction for the city of Surrey. He told me that
one of the things that impressed him about the cohort of young people
who went through training with him was their diversity of backgrounds
“Next Up found a way to grab kids from so many walks of life,” he said.
“We all learned the importance of networking with other activists.
We’re ready now to take it to the next level and learn from each
Carvalho said he hopes many other young activist from unions and civil
society groups will take advantage of the Next Up experience.
“I really enjoyed Next Up. From the first meeting, I felt I was in the
right place,” he added.
Seth Klein, of the CCPA’s BC office and co-founder of Next Up with
former youth activist and environmental educator Kevin Milsip,
emphasizes that Next Up is the right place for young activists who have
already made a commitment and demonstrated willingness to work for
progressive change. ( Full disclosure. I have known both Milsip and
Klein since the days when the now venerable pair were eligible to be
called youth activists.)
“You can’t get into Next Up on a vague hunch you’d like to be an
organizer,” Klein said. “You have to already have put some time and
energy in on justice and environmental issues. This is a program for
people who are asking themselves what it looks like to make a life
commitment to this work. Next Up provides them with mentoring and
coaching and an opportunity to network with others who share their
commitment. They can organize and call each other out to their various
Next Up co-founder Milsip says that the body he and Klein invented
together is a necessary addition to progressive life in Canada. He said
that right wing think tanks like the Fraser Institute have been very
successful in recent years in recruiting and training young
conservatives to promote the values of the political right. He said he
hopes that Next Up can compete successfully with those efforts and help
create a new generation of progressive leaders and organizers.
Testimony from program grads suggests that has begun to happen.
Vancouver grad Claudia Li told me that Next Up had changed her life.
“When I started Next Up, I thought recycling and hybrid cars would save
the world. It took what was my hobby and turned it into a lifestyle and
career choice. It gave me a sense of community, challenged me
intellectually, and brought out my inner activist,” Li said.
Every Next Up participant who spoke to me mentioned their
excitement about connecting with other young activists and forming
networks that would stay active for life.
For Taylor Yee in Saskatoon, the networking was the most important
element of his Next Up experience.
“This includes meeting people who I might collaborate with in future
projects, as well as the deep relationships I've formed with the other
Next Up members.” He told me. “I have only extreme respect for the
people I've met through the program; they are just amazing. I've
learned a lot from them, and they give me hope that this world can
change for the better.”
Andrea Curtis, who was a participant in the first Next Up sessions in
Vancouver and now serves as BC co-coordinator for the program, agrees
with Yee about the importance of the network among graduates.
“The grads have created affinity groups and support each other in their
work for social change. These people are tight,” she enthused.
Curtis says she expects that Next Up is going to provide many of the
mayors and CEOs and other leadership figures for Canada in the decades
to come. She might be right, and after speaking with many of the Next
Up cohort in preparing this story, even my long settled crankiness
about the young and their many faults has to yield to the overwhelming
evidence. If Next Up represents the future of Canada’s social justice
and environmental movements, as it may well do, then that future is in
Tom Sandborn welcomes
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