I’ve been reflecting on citizen engagement, all the forms that it can take, and what has compelled me to be involved.

I believe this conviction has been built steadily over time through many experiences and a need I see for all citizens to step forward and participate in their communities. However, there is one specific set of experiences I had when I was a teenager that I think set me on this path.

I participated in something called the Bronte Creek Project. For one semester of high school, I left the conventional classroom and joined 14 other students, 3 co-op students (that graduated from the program the semester before), a TA and a teacher at an outdoor education centre at the Kelso Conservation Area outside of Milton. I learned and earned 4 grade 11/12 credits in English, outdoor education, environmental geography and interdisciplinary studies, and spent a month of that time teaching basic ecology and environmental conservation to grade 4 and 5 students. I shared in leadership and team building exercises, learned winter survival training skills, and completed the semester with a 5-day winter camping trip near Temagami.

I’m glad that I participated in the project, for many reasons. Though I continue to be shy, I think the program helped me come to a much greater acceptance of who I am, and discover the types of leadership I’m capable of. It taught me a great deal about our local ecology as well as about our entire planet, and taught me how to in turn share that knowledge with others, including how to teach grades 4 and 5 students in the outdoor education centre environment. I learned a great deal about how to prepare healthy meals and about personal fitness/wellness, as well as outdoor survival training that we as a group used in our trip in mid-January to Temagami.

The project is all about stepping out of our comfort zones, building life and leadership skills, and challenging ourselves to do and be more. I continue to look back at this time as I struggle to become more active in my community against shyness and reservation. What Bronte Creek taught me is that we’re all leaders in our own way.

With these thoughts, I was deeply saddened to hear yesterday that part of the 2012 federal budget was eliminating funding to the Katimavik program (as posted here). The organization’s mission statement is/was “Engage youth in volunteer service and foster sustainable communities through challenging national youth learning programs.” Although I didn’t go through the program, I had the pleasure of working with students from all over the country during high school in Wiarton, an experience that helped shape who I am, and in time helped to lead me to enroll in Bronte Creek. As well, the experience of seeing and experiencing different parts of Canada and assisting vulnerable members of those communities helped build future leaders, while the students that joined our community through Katimavik volunteered for many of our community and charity groups. My concern is that, through saving short-term by cutting the funding to this program, it is depriving both the students that would have continued to benefit from the program, as well as the communities that work with them and would benefit from their future leadership.

However, the discussion continues. If you have experiences with the Katimavik program, you can share them here. As well, the organization is asking for their supporters to contact their local MPs to push for a reversal of this decision. This article features some of the social media reaction to the announcement, while the organization’s plea to be spared the budget ax is also covered here. The article includes a statement by a former participant about the formative experience he had with Katimavik:

Halifax resident Calvin Horne, who grew up in Calgary, said he was grateful that Katimavik gave him a chance, as a 17-year-old participant in 2005, to live and do volunteer work in small towns like Wawa, Ont., Trois-Rivières, Que., and Deer Lake, Newfoundland.“I wasn’t too sure about what I wanted to do with myself. It gave me great insights,” Mr. Horne said. “I am really disappointed with this decision. It deprives communities and young people of an opportunity to grow and build something together.”

I believe that we as a country should continue to support organizations like Katimavik, Bronte Creek and any others that help train our youth to become our next leaders through personal growth as well as outreach and support for their communities – the more connected we are with our communities and our entire nation, the better.

Ultimately this is a citizen engagement issue for me – I continue to struggle to find my place in my community, and where I want to focus my time and energy. We should encourage and promote programs that support our youth and empower them to step out and grow their leadership skills while working in communities across the country. We should also work to step out of our own comfort zones, try something new and different and connect with those around us. I’m still on that journey, but have been very glad for the experience this far – I’ve met many amazing people in our city, re-connected with our civic process and learned about many of the terrific art and culture projects happening in our community. I firmly believe the more we talk, debate, learn from and encourage one another, the more differing opinions we take in, the more we sharpen ourselves and our beliefs while working in our communities, the stronger those communities will be. We are all unique with our own talents and beliefs; where we live, work and play can benefit from all of our input.

The simple motto of the program that really started me on this path of citizen engagement, City Symposium, is “Be Curious. Do Good.” While I and everyone else involved continue to ask what this means and discover/live out that truth in their own way, I can say the journey so far has been deeply rewarding. I hope we can all continue it together.