I spent today at DisengAGEd Chch, an awesome one-day symposium on youth political engagement organised by politics students from the University of Canterbury with support from the Ministry of Youth Development.
Young people from local high schools interacted with university students, MPs from the Greens, NZ First, and National, and staff from the Electoral Commission to discuss why youth are not participating in the voting process and how to get them engaged in civil society, which is particularly important in post-quake Christchurch.
Refreshingly, the key speakers were not MPs (we were there to listen and learn from breakout discussions) but from academics, young local body representatives, and electoral officials.
I went through the day with a fantastic discussion group of high school and university students. In our discussions of politics at local and national levels and why and how youth could be encouraged to participate more, some key themes emerged: a strong desire for more education at all levels about civil, political, legal and consumer rights and responsibilities (my group was halfway through drawing up a Civics Education curriculum by the end of the day), frustration that young people’s good ideas and intentions often run into confusing bureaucracy and are not taken seriously, and the importance of personal connections for effective political engagement, either with politicians themselves, or between young people to engage each other.
Sam Johnson, famous for starting the UC Student Volunteer Army after the Christchurch Earthquakes, and now a member of the Riccarton/Wigram Community Board, shared the interesting insight that in some cases all it takes to engage large numbers of young people is a small catalyst. The Volunteer Army gave young people permission and an avenue for community engagement at a time of crisis, and helped to translate confusing bureaucratic processes which they may not have been able to negotiate as individuals. I think there are important lessons in that experience for future youth engagement in civil life and society.
I’m looking forward to the report synthesising the day’s proceedings that is due out in about six weeks, and hope lots of politicians from across the spectrum will read it and take its lessons on board. It was certainly encouraging to see the Electoral Commission there actively engaging in the discussion, as well as MPs from NZ First and National.
Massive props to UCPols for organising such a vital and stimulating discussion, and to my group for the day, especially Brad from Kaiapoi. I promised him a shout out in Parliament next time I talk about Civics Education but this will have to do for now!