Driving the conversation forward with youth in Perth County

Across rural Ontario, where youth out-migration to urban centres is a concerning trend; finding new ways to engage young people in their communities is increasingly important. More needs to be done to incorporate the voice of youth in local planning and development processes. 

“Youth will only return home if they feel they have left something behind”

Jacinda Rudolph of LaunchPad at Rural Ontario Summit, 2016

Perth County is one community that is making progress on this front. The county knows that the success of tomorrow’s workforce is deeply dependent on being able to stop the out-migration of its youth population, and they are taking an active approach to ensuring this trend stops.

The communities of Perth County are taking innovative steps to incorporate the voice of youth in the narrative of community development.

“Youth are important contributors to our economy and to our communities’ overall quality of life,” says Meredith Forget, Economic Development Officer for Perth County. “Youth are entrepreneurs, performers, volunteers, mentors, community leaders, employees to small businesses and consumers in our local economies. Youth have a significant impact on the vitality of their communities, and we are looking for ways to support them – in growing, learning, working and making a home in rural Ontario.”

The Perth4Youth Strategic Planning initiative is wrapping up after many months of hard work, community consultations and action planning. This initiative to date has been led by Perth County’s four lower tier municipalities and the cities of Stratford and St. Marys, with support from their respective municipal councils.

To enrich data gathering efforts for the broader Perth4Youth initiative, a unique youth focused, civic engagement process was developed and implemented. This process has brought together multiple community and educational partners to deliver a unique applied learning opportunity for students, and a medium to better express and capture the community’s youth voice. This initiative creates the opportunity to incorporate data collected by youth, for youth, into community based strategic planning.

Three energetic and motivated students from Listowel District Secondary School (LDSS) students took on this project last semester as part of their coursework in this their 4th and final year of high school.

This youth engagement pilot was designed to:

  • Engage students in their communities, and foster an appreciation for the value of civic engagement and municipal governance
  • Support students along the way in “learning by doing”
  • Gather data to inform the Perth4Youth strategic planning process and future community action to support youth.

In carrying out their in-school consultations with their peers, the LDSS student team produced:

  • One online survey completed by roughly 200 LDSS students
  • Five focus groups with a diverse mix of approximately 75 students

“The project provided a valuable and unique opportunity for the students in several respects”, said Ken Van Osch, the LDSS teacher who saw the merit in engaging students in this pilot program. “It gave students opportunity to investigate real world situations that have the potential for creating change in their community. In all respects, these exceptional opportunities pushed the students to develop their inquiry and analytical skills to higher levels.”

Key Findings Presented by the LDSS Student Team

  • Youth feel they are being taught to leave home at a young age, with the lessons, field trips and guidance they are receiving in their high schools.
  • North Perth lacks places for youth to socialize, independently, without structure or oversight.
  • North Perth is not an accepting community towards LGBTQ and racial minorities.
  • Youth feel disengaged from the community. While some, it was found, simply don’t care much about the community, many have never been given a chance to participate in their community in meaningful ways – to help build and grow the strength of the community and to build a real attachment to their home.
  • Youth are unaware of not only local jobs, but the longer term opportunities for career paths close to home.

“When we started this project, we wondered why we were even doing it – we didn’t think anyone was interested in hearing what we had to say”

LDSS Student Team Member

Following from this initiative there have been a number of important outcomes:

  • Students now have a greater understanding of the principles of community consultation, and how these fit within the decision-making process for municipal leadership
  • Students have a greater understanding of municipal governance – how their communities work and how they can get involved to affect change

Most importantly, the students involved have developed a heightened self-confidence and feel as though their voice is important to community leaders and their peers. They have become more engaged in their communities already and have inspired others (both fellow students and community members) to start reaching out and working together.

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