What would happen to suicide rates if we focused on life promotion instead of suicide prevention? How much safer would pedestrians be if we could 3D-print sidewalks in high traffic areas instead of waiting for traditional construction? Why don’t we charge refugees the same tuition rates as domestic students?
These are just some of the public policy questions put forward by the young participants of the Vancouver Foundation’s seven month Level Youth Policy Program, which culminated with a group policy presentation at the Musqueam Cultural Pavilion on Sept. 23.
The program brought together 16 Indigenous, racialized immigrant or refugee youth ages 19 to 29 to learn how to create and promote public policies that reflect their experiences and help our communities.
“As a young Indigenous woman, I never viewed myself as someone who could make change and participate in meaningful change in my community,” said Savannah Wells, a past Level participant who emceed the event.
“This program, it’s really helped me to step into my role and it's helped me to change the direction of my career to be policy-focused.”
The program’s participants gave five-minute presentations on their ideas, including Jimmy Ho, a Richmond resident born in Taiwan who proposed an affordable housing and homelessness strategy for the city.
Ho’s policy proposal included establishing partnerships between Richmond and the First Nations on whose lands they live; creating a community land trust for non-market housing, meaning housing charges would be below the market rate for units of that size and location; and focusing on the role housing plays in the social determinants of health.
Ho told The Tyee he appreciated the Level Youth Policy Program met participants where they were at, not expecting them to have prior policy experience or skills.
“The youth decides what path and endeavour they wish to take on, and the Level team finds ways to support our decision while mentors are there to help us critically reflect and learn from our decisions," he said.
Level “nurtured” participants, Ho added, providing him with the opportunity to meet Ahmed Hussen, the federal minister of housing and diversity and inclusion, and liaise with local leaders like the head of the Richmond Poverty Reduction Coalition.*
First Nations Elders also helped to ground the program and its participants. Each Level participant was paired with a mentor who helped hone their ideas into usable policies they could present to governments, businesses and community organizations. Each participant received $1,500 towards their research through the program.
Policy is not only about working with colonial governments, the event’s keynote speaker Hawa Mire, national action co-ordinator for Amnesty International Canada, told the young policy-makers.
“You don’t have to write policy for elected officials,” Mire said. “They enact it, but you don’t have to do it for them. You can do it for your community or yourself.”
Kimbaya Carriere, a Franco-Métis and Mexican-Mestiza descendent born and raised in Treaty 1 territory, took that to heart in the policy she presented for a B.C. First Nations Water Declaration.
Carriere’s proposed policy, she said, reflects the traditional and ongoing role of First Nations peoples as water stewards and guardians, protecting this resource, which provides cultural, nutritional and spiritual benefits, for future generations.
Provincial and federal water laws either permit industrial exploitation of the resource for profit or protect the water and related ecosystems from the environmental damage that resource extraction creates.
While some B.C. First Nations already have their own laws around watershed revitalization and protection, Carriere proposes the creation of a provincewide First Nations water declaration outlining the “sacred responsibility and relationship that First Nations have with water” that could then be adopted and supported by settler governments, communities and water protection allies. This policy would move away from the binary of industrial exploitation or protection, towards resource usage that respects and rebuilds watersheds while also respecting Indigenous rights.
Carriere told The Tyee her next step is to take her policy back to her community in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as well as to Indigenous communities in Mexico and the United States to see if there is broader interest.
Reflecting on her experience in the program, Carriere said it was clear that staff had put time and energy into creating a space that was meaningful and intentional. Non-white people are too often treated as a monolith, she added; Level offered a space in which youth from different backgrounds could come together.
“We need that space to be able to talk with each other, to be able to understand each other's struggles but also each other's uniqueness,” she said.
Level participant Fernanda Díaz-Osorio’s policy tackled the opaque difference between food best before and expiry dates in Canada and how they contribute to food loss and waste.
If adopted, Díaz-Osorio’s policy would force food manufacturers to be more specific about what these dates mean and their relation to the safety and quality of the food. As a result, she hopes people will throw away less of the food they buy and consume more.
Originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, Díaz-Osorio found out about Level from friends who were past participants.
“Our voices matter,” is the lesson she’s taking away from her Level experience, Díaz-Osorio told The Tyee. “And not being afraid to speak up, our lived experiences are experiences worth sharing.”
The idea for Level was born out of a youth-focused former Vancouver Foundation program, Fostering Change, which brought together young people in and from the child welfare system together to create and promote policies to achieve better outcomes for young people like them, said Kevin McCort, president and CEO of the Vancouver Foundation.
“It really worked on the premise of ‘nothing about us without us,’” he said, adding the experience taught the Vancouver Foundation that there were young people across B.C., particularly in Indigenous, racialized and migrant communities, who had the desire, knowledge and experience to get involved in public policy.
“In my work at the foundation, you’re not supposed to have favourites. But this is really one of my favourites,” McCort said of Level, now in its third year.
The Foundation hopes the program will be adopted or emulated by other public policy programs after it wraps up at the foundation in its fifth year.
“We’re looking at the future and saying, ‘How can we use this very successful model of engaging young people in public policy work and have that expand?’” he said.
* Story updated on Oct. 11 at 10:06 a.m. to correct that only one member of Level, not multiple, got to meet with federal Minister of Housing Ahmed Hussen and the head of the Richmond Poverty Reduction Coalition.