City Shapers was an experiential, cohort-based civic education program for Metro Vancouver young adults. Over 2019-2020, 3 cohorts explored pressing urban issues, with an emphasis on the municipal level and local decision-making.
Problems and Purpose
The program explored the roles of both traditional (e.g. voting, running for office) and less traditional/more informal examples (e.g. engaging in online discussions, community activism) of civic engagement and change-making. By developing a sense of agency at the neighbourhood/community level and a deeper understanding of how government works through participating in a cohort model, participants learned how to become more active in their communities and government decision-making.
Background History and Context
CityHive is an organization on a mission to transform the way that young people are engaged in shaping their cities: in city planning, decision-making processes and urban sustainability issues. As a youth-led and youth-run non-profit, CityHive harnesses the energy, experiences, and perspectives of youth to create projects and solutions to make their cities more sustainable and resilient. Youth 18-30 are vastly underrepresented in decision making processes. When municipal governments create bylaws, strategies, or community plans, or an institution generates a new policy, the voices included are rarely representative of all the people who have stakes in the decision being made. Community and civic life lacks the participation of young people and our cities and communities are inherently less resilient because of this gap.
This gap has three key root causes:
- British Columbia’s K-12 education systems fail to prepare children and youth for meaningful civic engagement throughout their lives.
- Ageism, common in Western society, suggests that youth lack the expertise to offer thoughtful insight on complex issues, and is pervasive within decision-making institutions.
- Youth have tenuous relationships with government and are often wary and untrusting of politicians and other decision-makers who they don’t see as acting in their interests on issues that affect them like social isolation, affordability, climate anxiety, and rising housing prices.
City Shapers is a cohort-based civic education program for young adults ages 18-30. This program was created to provide participants with a better understanding of civic processes through the exploration of a specific urban issue – and aimed to address all three of the issues outline above.
The first cohort of City Shapers was held in person on the topic of Social Isolation from October to November 2019. The second and third cohorts held May-June and June-July 2020 both focused on Resilient Communities and were held online as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The project was funded by a 2019 Vancouver Foundation System Change Grant.
The SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue’s Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative is researching what is driving views of democracy and what is shaping democratic culture for better or for worse. The Initiative develops collaborations with institutions, practitioners, and citizens, including CityHive’s City Shapers program. The Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative conducted an arms-length evaluation of City Shapers to explore participant opinions on the program's strengths and weaknesses and its impacts on their engagement and opinions of democracy.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
City Shapers was designed for youth and young adults ages 18-30 from anywhere across the Metro Vancouver region. CityHive has a strong network of youth-serving community partners who shared out the opportunity widely. Applications were submitted through an online form and participants were then selected to represent a variety of backgrounds, interests, and levels of prior knowledge about civic issues and the program theme. The development of a diverse cohort of young people was one of the main goals to ensure varied perspectives and rich discussions.
For the first cohort, 40 applications were received and a total of 34 participants took part in the program. After COVID-19 disrupted plans for a spring cohort on the topic of Public Space, applications were launched for a summer cohort on the theme of Resilient Communities. A total of 81 applications were received, prompting the launch of a second, semi-concurrent program on the same theme in an effort to meet the apparent demand for the program. The May-June and June-July summer cohorts had 31 and 30 participants respectively.
Methods and Tools Used
CityHive programs are rooted in a Knowledge to Action framework, and value a dialogical approach to learning. The process begins by providing all participants with a comprehensive overview of the subject matter. For City Shapers, this involved a deep dive into the program theme through the lens of local action and civic institutions (municipal government and decision-makers). City staff, elected officials, academics, and community organizers were invited in to share their expertise with the cohort as guest speakers and thought leaders. Halfway through the program, the participants formed project groups to address some of the gaps and challenges they were witnessing and learning about. These projects allowed them to flex their civic engagement muscle and learn what it takes to bring an idea to fruition in their local communities.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The initial plan for the City Shapers program was to host all three cohorts in person in fall 2019, spring 2020, and early summer 2020. After the spring 2020 cohort on Public Space had to be postponed (and ultimately cancelled) in response to COVID-19 physical distancing requirements, plans were put in place to host new cohorts online. Initial applications for City Shapers: Resilient Communities revealed overwhelming interest, leading to the delivery of two semi-concurrent cohorts through May-June and June-July on the same topic.
Each cohort centered on a specific topic or theme to provide a lens with which to explore the broader realms of civic engagement and decision-making. The themes were:
· Social Isolation: September-November 2019
· Resilient Communities: May-June 2020 and June-July 2020
This program was based in a knowledge-to-action framework, moving from learning and community-building towards the development of group projects. Sessions were primarily held on weekday evenings. All three cohorts followed a plan similar to that listed below:
- Session 1 (Introduction & Community Building)
- Session 2 (Guest Speakers)
- Session 3 (Guest Speakers)
- Session 4 (Project Ideation)
- Session 5 (Project Development)
- Session 6 (Project Development)
- Session 7 (Final Presentations)
- Session 8 (Debrief)
The program focused on facilitated discussions and group work. Each cohort had several guest speakers that included professionals, elected officials, city staff, and community leaders. They were invited to speak and offer feedback to participants' ideas as a means of exploring traditional (e.g. voting, running for office) and informal (community activism) examples of civic engagement and change-making. Group project work and final presentations focused on developing agency among the participants and a deeper understanding of how government works. Throughout the program, there was an emphasis on helping participants learn how to become more active in their communities and government decision-making.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The evaluation process for City Shapers was established in partnership between CityHive and Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. Evaluation questions assessed: 1) changes in perceptions of democracy and democratic values; 2) whether the program met learning objectives (e.g. participants develop greater confidence interacting with decision makers, build connections with other members of the cohort); and 3) general feedback and suggestions for improvement.
The methodology for the evaluations included four steps for each cohort. Participation in each step was voluntary for participants.
- First, cohorts were offered a pre-survey online on the application form for each cohort. The survey asked about participants’ level of community engagement, feelings of belonging, self-efficacy and trust in democracy.
- Second, cohorts were asked to complete a post-survey online that asked the same questions as the pre-survey, plus an additional set of questions related to the learning tools and experiences students used and took part in throughout City Shapers.
- Third, participants were asked to participate in in-depth interviews with Centre for Dialogue Research Coordinator over Zoom within a month of each cohort’s completion. Interviews provided a deeper understanding of participant’s experiences in the course and their general opinions.
- Fourth, participants were asked complete a follow-up post-program survey approximately six months after each cohort ended with the same questions as the second survey. The purpose was to measure what concepts and learnings had longevity after the program.
The results of the research included:
- Participants grew their confidence in developing their networks and engaging in change-making. After the program, 91% of participants surveyed reported City Shapers gave them a more optimistic view of civic engagement. Interviewees also expressed having more confidence to reach out to organizations and speaking with decision-makers. They also mentioned interacting with guest speakers and peers of the program gave them a starting point for future connections.
- Participants found the guest speakers and working with peers created the strongest impacts. Guest speakers and group work were consistently rated as the most important parts of the program. In post-surveys, 88% of participants surveyed believed discussing and hearing other participants' views had an impact on their views on civic engagement. Being able to have honest conversations with speakers and each other contributed to increased knowledge and commitment to engagement.
- Some participants found the program too theoretical or wanted more formal civic education components. While the emphasis on ideation was helpful for participants, some participants were looking for more hands-on change-making to see the results of their efforts and felt let down that the program stopped after presenting ideas. Participants also left the program with varying levels of step-by-step understanding of how cities and policy change work. Members of each of the three cohorts requested more civic education be integrated into the program.
- Many participants gained a better understanding of policy processes and strategies for talking to decision-makers. Leaving the program, participants understood they needed to do their research and understand both the problem they were trying to impact and find others already working on the issues. Some interview subjects were able to express how they would strategically approach decision-makers to create change.
- Impacts on participant opinions on democracy were mixed and mostly focused on civic engagement. Participants in the program entered with very high levels of democratic activity and commitment. After the program, participants' noted their increased capacity to participate and their appreciation for diverse perspectives in the program. However, almost no participants volunteered connections to democracy without being directly prompted, and a few resisted connections between the program and their definitions of its meaning. The program results point to a need for overtly connecting values of democracy to the program components.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The evaluation came up with the following recommendations and lessons learned:
Create more formal civic education components:
Some participants held a strong expectation that they would be learning more about how to navigate city processes. They left the program feeling like they did not gain as much as they expected in this area. Based on these suggestions, it is recommended adding a more formal, step-by-step teaching component to help participants better understand local government.
Make overt connections to democratic cultural competencies, processes, values:
The evaluation found that most of the levels of democratic commitment among participants were unchanged by the program. During interviews, some participants also resisted a connection between City Shapers and democracy in general, choosing to focus on civic engagement. To help normalize and build trust in democracy in Canada, it is recommended inserting overt connections for participants between their work in the program and key competency of democracy such as flexibility, evidence-informed advocacy, and multicultural knowledge.
Find ways to create more time in the program:
One of the most popular suggestions from participants in any program is a request for more time. It was the same for City Shapers. More time for conversations, project work and presentations were suggested by different participants. The online cohorts also expressed that they felt the program was too compressed over too short a time. Some suggested holding more than one session a week would be helpful.
Create more “solutions-oriented” programming for younger adults:
Data from the evaluation suggest an appetite among young adults for what they called “solutions-oriented” or knowledge-to-action based programming like City Shapers. Before the program, survey results showed participants had a strong commitment to democratic engagement, and in the interviews it was reported that they noticed a lack of programming options for young adults. Participants mentioned there are often programs for college students, teenagers and seniors in their local communities, but few options for younger adults, which they identified as a barrier. Others noted that most educational opportunities focus on learning what is going wrong; thus participants found strength in the City Shaper’s knowledge-to-action framework and the focus on positive solutions. The participants' takeaways lead us to suggest that funders, community organizers, and communities should explore creating more solution-oriented programs for young adults to help strengthen democratic engagement and culture.
See Also/References/External Links
- See full SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue’s Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative’s evaluation report: https://2caa86ae-d93b-45c1-bc2e-07277517228f.filesusr.com/ugd/f79cdf_eb6a9f0963d34d6cbc6126a2d9f36b9c.pdf
- More information on City Shapers: https://cityhive.ca/city-shapers/
- Cohort 1 Report: https://cityhive.ca/city-shapers/cohort-1/
- Cohort 2 Projects and Report: https://cityhive.ca/city-shapers/cohort-2/
- Cohort 3 Projects and Report: https://cityhive.ca/city-shapers/cohort-3/