A youth-led project which allowed a group of high school students to become more democratically involved in the regional school board. The project changed the way high-level school decision are made by including student representatives in the process.
Problems and Purpose
The Democracy Project sought to address inequitable systems of representation within the school and school board of Byrne Creek, located in Burnaby, British Columbia. More precisely, it sought to address the lack of decision-making structures for students to shape their own learning. By giving students the space to re-imagine what their learning experience could be if they were to co-create it, this experience sought to empower students to participate in the governance of their own education.
This project was youth-led and explored how a youth empowerment approach could shape more democratic decision-making structures within the school board, a regional decision-making body. The goal was to provide the opportunity, resources, and structure for a group of youth to explore and experience democratic processes for themselves without the limitations of rigid course learning objectives and grades.
Background History and Context
The Democracy Project emerged in 2015 as a result of two years of discussions between the project facilitator, students, and the former Community School Coordinator that were related to the broad issue of systemic student disempowerment in British Columbia (B.C.) schools.
Student organizing and participation in decision making and policy at the school board level is relatively new in Canada, dating back to the mid-1990s in Ontario (Royal Commission of Learning, 1995). More recently, the Student Voice Initiative (SVI) was founded in 2011 as a national student-led organization striving to help any Canadian school districts create a student seat on their school board (Student Voice Initiative, 2014). Inspired by Ontario’s early work in student representation, SVI used that province’s framework to inspire change in B.C., beginning in 2012.
While in Ontario a top-down process is used to ensure every school board create a seat and hold an election for a Student Trustee, in B.C., SVI worked with student advisory councils to initiate Student Trustee policies from the bottom up, one district at a time. SVI and the Vancouver District Student’s Council joined forces to lobby for the first Student Trustee seat in the province. This bottom-up approach fostered a climate of grassroots action, notably after the first pilot Student Trustee policy gained momentum in the Vancouver School District in 2013 (Vancouver School Board, 2015), and generated interest and influenced student bodies in other districts, such as in Burnaby.
Like the majority of B.C. districts, Burnaby has a District Student Advisory Council (DSAC), a group of approximately 25 students that counsels the Board of Trustees on student matters. By provincial law, all trustees are over the age of 19 and must own property in the province. While the mandate of the DSAC is to provide a platform for student voice, its annual goals have rather focused on organizing district talent shows and providing members opportunities to receive leadership training.
Prior to 2013, there existed neither a mechanism through which student ideas, opinions, or concerns could be heard by the Board of Trustees and reviewed transparently, nor an obligation for trustees to consult students in decisions regarding pedagogy, curriculum, or school policy. The lines of accountability between students and teachers and between students and trustees had never been drawn explicitly. As a result, it was unclear how students could influence or implement change, and how they could be heard by those in decision-making positions. This led to a sense of disempowerment among the youth—a problem the Democracy Project aimed to solve using a youth-led, participatory process.
Finally, no exploration into the intersection of multiculturalism and student participation had been attempted in Burnaby. This is an important consideration, as Byrne Creek High School is located in one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Canada (Todd, 2016), and its student population reflects that diversity. Choosing a school that would address the question of civic engagement and student participation within this context of ethnic diversity was essential.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Conceptualized by a non-student local youth and designed and led by student participants themselves, the Democracy Project originated as a direct result of the OceanPath Fellowship. The OceanPath Fellowship is an experiential professional development and leadership certificate program funded by the Pathy Family Foundation and carried out by the Coady International Institute. As an OceanPath fellow, the local youth leader received leadership training, mentoring, and coaching, as well as financial support to carry out the Democracy Project from September 2015 to June 2016.
Additional resources were available thanks to Byrne Creek High School’s status as a community school; that is, a school funded in part by the school board and in part by the city, and where community services such as social workers, immigration workers, and a community school coordinator are provided. The project also had access to resources provided through the Community Room, a physical space and a human resource hub in the school.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The Democracy Project comprised of 10 Byrne Creek High School students in Grades 11 and 12 (two young men, and eight young women). Students were informed of the opportunity to participate through school-wide announcements and in-class presentations. Students in Grades 10, 11, and 12 were targeted for participation. Interested students were invited to attend information sessions about the 9-month Independent Directed Study (IDS) course (as the project was framed) and the Oceanpath fellowship. Students were then invited to fill out an application form, aimed at gauging their expectations, passions, and level of dedication to see the course through until the end.
Responses to the application could be provided in writing, as illustrations, or verbally. Selection criteria included students’ genuine concern for, and willingness to explore difficult and contentious systemic issues, and their desire to design the content and structure of the course. Students were selected based on their diverse perspectives.
Methods and Tools Used
As a paradigm that seeks to identify and build on the strengths and opportunities of a system or community, an Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) framework guided the implementation of a democratic or 'participatory' educational model throughout the Democracy Project (see also Coady International Institute). Within this approach, methods such as participatory project management (PPM), motivational interviewing, Deep Democracy, and storytelling were used.
Participatory Project Management (PPM): Students were taught an experiential, place-based curriculum that focused on celebrating their lived experience as pillars of knowledge, or assets. PPM, in other words, was used to create a space for participants to inform the direction of their learning and the overall curriculum within the Democracy Project.
Motivational Interviewing: As a goal-oriented approach that seeks to inspire the interviewee to make changes in behaviours/actions, this approach was used to focus the students to identify goals and make self-directed decisions to achieve them.
The qualitative data used for this case was gathered over a 9-month period, using grounded theory to unearth key patterns. While not a participatory method, this research method seeks to identify emerging patterns in data and was used to capture data generated through participatory actions. The facilitator interpreted the qualitative data from storytelling, interviews, and participant observation into theory and relied on this to explain key findings. A mid-point survey was administered to measure learning indicators set collaboratively at the beginning of the course by both the students themselves (i.e., what skills they wanted to learn) and the facilitator’s own participatory research goals. All 10 students responded to this written survey. To capture additional perspectives and outcomes after the project, Participedia surveys were used through telephone interviews with participants and observers involved directly in this process. Five of 10 students and the sole observer responded to their respective surveys.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Deliberations and decisions within the group
The Democracy Project group was run as an IDS course, so participants could gain school credit for their participation. Workshops were held twice a week during the lunch hour and regularly after school. Initial course content mainly focused on citizenship and democratic theory and practice. However, the students themselves collectively decided on how they wanted to learn. They experimented with peer-to-peer learning, working in pairs to teach the group on a subject of their choosing, and voted on topics and themes they wished to explore more deeply. All deliberations were done in a dialogue circle, challenging participants to listen deeply to one another.
In the third month, the group grappled with their first collective decision-making process around how to structure roles and responsibilities within the group in an effort to establish lines of accountability. Two of the students were frustrated with the lack of accountability from other members, which gave way to a week-long deliberation to determine the group’s “legislation” on accountability. The students co-created their own governance rules, prompted by the facilitator with questions to frame this group mechanism.
From this point forward, all decisions were made using consensus or majority rule. When deliberating on their action project for the year (i.e., their initiative to create a Student Trustee seat at the Burnaby School Board), the students made the decision using dot-mocracy—an experiential democratic activity based on the principles of majority vote and derived from PPM.
Deliberations, dialogue, and interaction with the administration
Once the students decided they wanted to tackle the mechanisms of student governance, the Byrne Creek Community Coordinator set up a meeting with the school administration and the District’s Director of Learning. Though the Administration stated they were in support of the group’s aspiration, they never publicly offered this support. The Director of Learning engaged with students through monthly meetings, in which the students were expected to present their findings and proposals. During these meeting, students used the Director of Learning’s feedback to inform their own deliberations and consensus-making process. Including the Director of Learning in their decision making brought about noticeable changes to the discussion students had with their peers and teachers. Some complaints were now brought forward directly to the administration.
During this period, certain challenges and setbacks were blocking progress towards the group’s goal of establishing a student seat at the Board of Trustees. While keeping this longer term vision in mind, the group then decided to tackle another governance issue at the district level: inclusive student representation on the DSAC. The students launched a campaign to change the application process for District Student Advisory Council representation, forgoing formal structures and directing their complaints to the school administration. In contrast to the existing process that was based on teacher-nominated candidates, the group sought to establish a more democratic process whereby all students are made aware of the opportunity, all can apply, and the criteria are broadened so more diverse students may apply. This significant shift resulted from the students’ strengthened relationship with the Director of Learning. Because their work caught the attention of the Burnaby School Board, the school administration made this change a priority, reinforcing the understanding that having allies in positions of influence is important in effective advocacy for policy change.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Though the measurable outcomes of the Democracy Project were few at the systemic level, the influence and lasting effect of the students’ work within the student body and DSAC was significant. The Democracy Project managed to change the outlook of trustees, teachers, and other school district officials, and changed the process through which students of Byrne Creek High School become representatives of student voice. Finally, at an individual level, the Democracy Project enabled for student participants to deepen their self-awareness and empathy, as well as construct a critical analysis of the world around them.
Change of attitude at the district school board
The school district’s Director of Learning admitted that while he was initially apprehensive about the group’s demand to reform student representation, he later changed his mind. During a dialogue in April 2016, he admitted that the students’ outlook on representation challenged his Board’s culture of top-down communication. He expressed his gratitude to the group of students in the final meeting, highlighting that their passion and assertiveness challenged the status quo he was used to managing. He admitted the group forced him to step out of his director’s role and remember the teacher’s role, which was about empowering, not managing, youth. To have an influential decision-maker change perspectives underscores the importance of using a relational approach in both civic education and youth empowerment work. In other words, the students’ work to build a relationship of trust with the Director of Learning changed not only his perspective, but also led him to take actions that were integral in achieving a policy change.
Change in district policy for DSAC student seat
The Democracy Project opened a space for all students to pursue the opportunity to represent student voice in school governance bodies. Before the project, each school principal would privately nominate the students they felt were most worthy of sitting at the DSAC table. The opportunity to be on DSAC was restricted through an exclusive and private nomination process, and therefore tended to lack diverse representation. There was no publicizing of the opportunity, and no district-wide policy existed to make applications available to all students. The youth influenced the school’s administration to create an open and accessible application process that was made available to all students, including students in the alternate education program, a program for students with various learning difficulties. This application process was eventually adopted across the Burnaby School District by means of an official policy put forth by DSAC and implemented in all schools.
Impact on student participants
Finally, the impact on individual student behaviour was great. One student’s story illustrates the effect this participatory process in building self-awareness and a more critical perspective on the world (names and personal details changed for confidentiality).
When Lillian showed up to the first Democracy Project info session, she was quiet and shy. She had recently moved to Burnaby from Southeast Asia with her parents, and it was her first time in a North American high school. Though she spent her childhood in Vancouver, and had excellent command of English, she had much insecurity with her mastery of the language. The culture change was just as challenging as her courses. Within the first two months, Lillian only gave her opinion when asked and never spoke over anyone. She was often the first to complete projects and the personal journal assignments. During her phone interview, she recounted that at this stage, she did not feel she played an important role in the group discussions.
After the third month, the group collectively decided they wanted to focus their project on implementing the student trustee seat. This phase of the project required much personal accountability within the group as they navigated consensus-based decisions and goal setting. It was during this phase that Lillian began to speak up in group discussion, to disagree with common threads of thought and to suggest differing ideas. The collective pressure of collaborating and owning her own participation enabled Lillian to change her perspective of herself from a quiet cultural outsider to someone whose opinion and ideas needed to be heard. She began to arrive early to class to chat with the facilitator, which revealed an outgoing side to her personality. The collaborative space and emphasis on personal ownership in participation very clearly affected Lillian’s sense of personal agency.
At the mid-point, she spoke of how her cultural norms were challenged heavily by the group. For instance, she had never been encouraged to be outspoken, to share a first-hand idea, or to participate in a group that was not academics-related. After the project, she stated, “I would have never joined a group like this, but the idea of changing systems power got me hooked. Then later, it was the only space where I always felt respected and like my ideas were valued” (personal communication) .
Analysis and Lessons Learned
In analyzing the data from both mid-point and post-project surveys, three key lessons emerged along with insights into strengths and limitations of the approaches taken.
Increased agency, cooperation, and accountability in all students
First, the dialectic and participatory approach resulted in all respondents reporting increased agency and cooperative skills in the post survey. Further, all reported that they perceived themselves to play an important role in the process, indicating they understood themselves as agents of change. All respondents also reported an increase in their ability to cooperate from the mid-point survey onwards. In fact, when asked by the facilitator what their biggest learning was, every respondent cited “cooperation.” “Accountability” was the second most cited learning, with 80% of respondents reporting that “democracy is about accountability and making sure everyone’s voice is heard, often before your own.”
Deepened sense of empathy among students
The second lesson came from the emphasis on team building and interpersonal respect. At the beginning of the process, the facilitator led a process to reach community agreements, which challenged students to identify what each needed to participate fully. From that point on, participants were bound to uphold these agreements. All students reported an increase in empathy after the course concluded. This deepening of empathy enabled each participant to take this new lens into collaborations with peers and friends outside the Democracy Project group.
Importance of inclusive decision-making processes
Ninety percent (90%) of respondents to the survey reported that they now “listen to all sides before making a decision” and that they “feel strongly that it is important to listen to all sides even when making individual decisions” because they saw the value in deep listening when working within participatory processes.
Participatory pedagogy as a catalyst for action
This experience also illustrates that education—and, in particular, participatory pedagogies—not only builds learners’ knowledge and skills, but also contributes to the attitudinal changes often required for individuals and groups to take action. In other words, the successes the group had in changing district-wide policy was closely linked to the methodology used for learning about citizenship, democracy, and inclusive representation in the Democracy Project learning space. Through this approach, bonds were strengthened between students, a crucial relationship was initiated with the Director of Learning, and trust was built over time such that students’ collective demands were seen as legitimate and ultimately were acted upon.
Limitations of consensus-based dialogue
Despite the success at individual and district levels, the dialectic, consensus-based approach was not effective in producing broad change at the Board of Trustees level. The experience reinforces that structural change often requires efforts that are sustained over time. In other words, the overarching goal of introducing a new student trustee policy, which would affect the entire school board, was not achieved in this timeframe. The process proved too slow and offered decision-makers opportunities to opt for “further dialogue” with the students rather than to implement a new policy that would make space for a student to be elected to the Board of Trustees and to be granted equal voting power. In efforts to overcome this challenge and ultimately achieve this change, students pushed DSAC members to commit to working towards a Student Trustee position into their mandate, ensuring their efforts would be sustained. The work initiated by the Democracy Project group with the school administration to secure a new district-wide DSAC application process represents a step in this direction.
Summary of outcomes
Overall, outcomes from the Democracy Project highlight the importance of building the trust needed to cultivate strong mutual accountability amongst students. Relational and experiential pedagogy was effective in empowering students to use their own lived experience to understand concepts, to develop the soft social skills required to sustain participatory processes, and to generate action that led to the design and establishment of a more inclusive process for student representation. Considering the project’s initial question—How can we empower students to be more civically engaged in schools and post-graduation?—the participatory process used was successful in empowering students with a heightened sense of personal agency. All students reported that they see the value in, and would want to join a collaborative civic movement. Lastly, as a complement to the changes in policy and district-level governance structures (i.e., DSAC), the students themselves also developed the life-long skills to practice principles of cooperation, empathy, and accountability.
Coady International Institute. (2017). About ABCD. Retrieved from http://www.coady.stfx.ca/themes/abcd/
Deep Democracy. (n.d.). Deep democracy: The Lewis Method. Retrieved from https://deep-democracy.net/draft/
Ontario Royal Commission on Learning. (1994). For the love of learning: Report of the Royal Commission of Learning. Retrieved from https://qspace.library.queensu.ca/handle/1974/6880
Student Voice Initiative. (2014). Student Voice Initiative: Student trustee handbook. Retrieved from http://studentvoicei.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Student-Voice-Initiative-Student-Trustee-Handbook.pdf
Todd, D. (2016, November 2). East Burnaby is Metro Vancouver’s most multi-ethnic ’hood’. Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from http://www.vancouversun.com/life/east+burnaby+metro+vancouver+most+multi+ethnic+hood/11485109/story.html
Vancouver School Board. (2015). BK: Student Trustee. Retrieved from https://www.vsb.bc.ca/district-policy/student-trustee
 Lillian gave her consent to share her story.
*The first submission of this entry was produced and submitted by a graduate of the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University with the support of J. Landry & R. Garbary.