The first time Armaghan Keshmiri voted was last fall in the civic election.
Keshmiri, originally from Iran, had lived in North Vancouver since 2012, and wanted to get more involved in the decision-making process for her community, even though she always felt a bit disenfranchised.
“I felt no one wanted to listen to my voice or the voices of younger people,” Keshmiri said. “But I have always been in North Van since moving here. It feels like home and it [became] important to be part of the decision-making for this city.”
Soon after the municipal election, Keshmiri, 30, heard about a project to engage people under 40 in learning about and influencing local government. Spearheaded by the North Shore Community Resources, and led by executive director Murray Mollard, the project is known as the North Shore Young Citizens Forum.
“There is a real absence of young voices at the council table and at council meetings,” Mollard says. “It’s hard to find someone under 40 at council meetings who are not employed there.
“Decisions are being made that will affect young people, but their voices are missing in the process.”
The purpose of the forum is to come up with recommendations on how North Shore’s municipal governments can engage young people, Mollard explains. That could involve anything from giving feedback to council on policies to running for council themselves.
A cross section of participants were sought through a combination of social media, organizations like parent advisory committees and simple word of mouth referrals. Those taking part in the project must be age 40 or younger, work, live and/or go to school on the North Shore and be able to attend eight sessions over the course of approximately four months. The 30 people taking part in the project include teachers, working professionals, business owners, university students and parents of young children.
Participants were invited to presentations such as how municipalities operate and what an Official Community Plan is.
For Keshmiri, it was an eye-opener.
“I didn’t know how everything worked,” she said, adding, “I wasn’t alone.”
Tesicca Truong, co-founder of City Hive, the organization which has been leading the workshops for the North Shore project, says a lack of civic literacy is common.
“Our education system focuses more on federal and provincial issues and less so on municipalities,” Truong says, adding property owners who are primarily older people, are more inclined to visit city hall. “If you’re a renter or live at home, you don’t think you have a reason to.”
On a recent Saturday, over 20 participants of the youth citizens’ forum brainstormed ideas about how to better engage young people during an all-day workshop in West Vancouver.
Ali White grew up in the Seymour area and currently lives in Lower Lonsdale. She hopes her participation leads to positive changes for younger people, especially when it comes to housing. White works for a non-profit sustainability society at SFU in Burnaby but prefers living on the North Shore, a place she may get priced out of.
“My parents had a house at my age, which is absurd to me,” White, 26, says.
Grace Dupasquier agrees housing affordability needs to be addressed, adding not knowing how long one can afford to remain in the community makes civic engagement less possible for young people.
“If you don’t live here, you don’t engage fully with the community and housing affordability is the number one issue,” says Dupasquier, 25, who works in food and beverage at Grouse Mountain. “A lot of the management where I work don’t live in North Vancouver, sadly, because they can’t afford to live here.”
Dupasquier adds it’s disappointing that most of the younger people she interacts with are completely disengaged with local issues. She hopes the forum’s recommendations will be able to change that.
The forum is scheduled to present its recommendations to the three North Shore councils in May.