Public Affairs

GENERATION ACTIVIST?

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 accomplishing together.

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 Network society).

“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 United States.

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 campus of
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 and compassion.”

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 and perspectives.

“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 others’ experiences.”

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 actions.”

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 good hands.

Tom Sandborn  welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos@infinet.net

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