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Global Youth Assembly: Apathy is Boring, Politics is Not

(From Left to Right) Lewis Cardinal, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, Don Iveson, Ilona Dougherty

(From Left to Right) Lewis Cardinal, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, Don Iveson, Ilona Dougherty

Friday afternoon at the Global Youth Assembly featured a panel discussion on politics and building community. Hosted by Apathy is Boring (Executive Director Ilona Dogherty emceed), it featured Edmonton City Councillor Don Iveson, Edmonton community activist and past/present candidate for office Lewis Cardinal, and community activist Nazanin Afshin-Jam. This is the only session I’ve seen focusing directly on involvement in politics; following some of the thoughts in my head after Thursday’s sessions, I was keen to see what came out of this.

Ilona Dougherty started by giving an overview of her organization, then turned it over to the panelists. First up was Don Iveson, who had the best and most relevant things to say about the topic at hand. He focused his opening remarks on two ideas: first, that you should be asked to run, rather than desiring to do so yourself, and second, that when you run early in life, mentions of your name will be prefaced with “young”, the key is to achieve a desirable second adjective behind that. Lewis Cardinal focused his comments on the idea that everyone is unique, and has their own journey and voice. Nazanin talked about the situation in Iran, and some of the history dating back to the revolution of 1979.

Following the opening remarks, they opened up the floor to questions from the audience. In her remarks, Nazinin used the term “Islamist” to refer to the Iranian regime. She received pushback on this from a couple of audience members who stated that this creates negative stereotypes about Muslims. Nazanin defended her comment by claiming that “Islamist” is used to differentiate those who use religion as a tool from true followers of Islam. She expressed her frustration with those who use religion to oppress others, and correctly pointed out that it can give all followers of that religion a bad name.

Some of the other highlights from the Q&A:
• Both Nazanin and Don gave good answers to a question about how democracy could fit in with the ideas and beliefs of people worldwide. Nazanin stressed that you cannot impose democracy, you can merely empower people within a country to take control of their own situation. Don talked about how democracy looks a little different from place to place since the local characteristics need to be respected, saying that it’s not something that can be put on a pamphlet (Thomas Paine might disagree).
• In response to a question about lowering the voting age to 16, both Lewis and Don expressed support for this.
• This was followed by a question about having designated “youth representatives” in government, which Lewis and Nazanin support. Don gave a thoughtful response arguing that this wouldn’t address the root of the problem (ostensibly that the views of youth aren’t being represented well), and it raises the issue of who else do you extend special representation to? He also correctly pointed out that elected officials should represent everyone, not a specific group that they fit in with demographically.
• In closing comments, Don pointed to the power of online organizing, noting that social media played a big role in Edmonton City Council’s recent decision on the City Centre Airport.

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about how I can best affect change on issues I care about. Given the number of different avenues (such as politics, government, non-profits, media, academia, etc.), it’s tough for anyone to easily figure out where they can best apply their skills. One thing that never came up was the issue of why the panelists are in politics (and chose to run for office in a couple of cases), as opposed to pursuing a different path. In fairness to them, though, the question was never posed directly. It’s just something that struck me after the fact.

Certainly a number of the delegates present are involved in politics. For example, I got to know one who is an organizer of the Canadians for a Progressive Coalition campaign, and another who works for a non-profit in Mozambique that monitors government corruption. Nonetheless, in most of the sessions, politics was an after-thought, and most delegates I encountered were more likely to talk about their own projects, or about initiatives they wanted to start to affect change – most of which had absolutely nothing to do with the political process. This isn’t uncommon for leadership conferences I’ve attended in the past (save for the ones put on by political advocacy groups), and there is rarely more than a token participation from political parties or their staffers. If you’re asking ‘should there be?’, I would say if nothing else a lot of decision-makers and their staff would have benefited from being in the room at this conference. When I started formulating this post on Friday night, I was watching Richard Florida on The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos. At the end of the segment, Strombo asked him when he’ll run for politics. Florida laughed, and said he’s having too much fun in his current role. I wonder how many activists in the room on Friday might give a similar answer when they get that question.

This was an excellent session, but if there was one more thing that could have come out of it, I wish it had been more about the ways in which you can make an impact in politics. Not just in attaining office, but in what you can achieve once you get there. It’s not the answer to every issue, nor is everyone well-suited for it. But on some issues you can get a lot done working as a political advocate/activist, a public official, or in the civil service. I hope talented people don’t lose sight of that.

More GYA: My post about Craig Kielburger’s speech.

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