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A Program for Community Groups to Inspire Citizen Engagement

Strengthening D mocr cy One Conversation at a Time. Thanks to the confidence and support of these funders, many more Canadians now know that they have the right to have an opinion on—and a voice in—their democracy:

Max Bell Foundation An agency of the Government of Ontario Un organisme du gouvernement de l’Ontario

Thanks to Elections Canada for supporting the year-long program evaluation of Democracy Talks at North York Community House. Thanks also to our partners who have welcomed the Democracy Talks approach into their communities and have made it their own: §§ §§ §§ §§ §§ §§

North York Community House, Toronto, Ontario Agincourt Community Services Association, Scarborough, Ontario The Stop Community Food Centre, Toronto, Ontario YMCA of Greater Toronto, Toronto, Ontario Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of Canada, National Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, Vancouver, British Columbia


© Copyright Samara Canada 2015 Publisher: Samara Canada Lead writers: John Beebe and Damian Tarnopolsky Editors: Kendall Anderson and Emily Walker Designer: Photographer: John Beebe Program analysis: Drs Peter Loewen and Daniel Rubenson

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Democracy Talks approach


The problem and its solution


What is Democracy Talks?


A proven program


Next steps


Who is Democracy Talks for? Democracy Talks is for any national or local community group that wants a non-partisan approach to empowering its members and investing in their long-term social well-being. The following groups will find Democracy Talks especially useful:

Groups that work with marginalized people who face economic or social barriers to inclusion.

Groups that work with newcomers who want to understand how Canadian politics works and get involved.

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Introduction: The D mocr cy Talks approach Canadian democracy is in trouble. Voting rates are declining. Canadians have a low opinion of politicians and don’t spend their energy on political activities—they don’t even talk about politics. The division between political insiders and outsiders is widening and, even in this era of instant connection, marginalized communities are increasingly disempowered and left out of the political process. Community groups and charities are stepping in to fill this breach, but the longterm problems our country faces require all Canadians to be involved and politically engaged.

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How can community groups and civic leaders help their members and communities understand that their voice matters? In 2013, using researchi and working in association with community groups, Samara Canada set out to reinvent civic education beyond school walls. The result is Democracy Talks, a flexible, yet structured and tested, approach to getting newcomers, youth and other marginalized communities onto the first rung of the ladder of engagement. To implement Democracy Talks, Samara trains staff and volunteers at community-based organizations, and works with them to reach Canadians where they feel comfortable and spend time. Over the past two years, this proven, non-partisan approach has reached over 1500 participants, showing them that they have a voice in the political system and can take action on the issues that matter to them.

The ladder of engagement

Leading and advocating for your community

Acting on areas of concern to your community

Talking about what matters to you Disengaged and disempowered | 5 |

Talking democracy, doing democracy Democracy Talks turns traditional civics education on its head. Democracy Talks is based on listening, talking and doing, rather than instruction. In small groups, each session starts with a simple question—“What matters to you?”—which provides an opportunity for a non-partisan, positive and safe conversation among neighbours, friends and classmates. In the end, Democracy Talks connects the concerns and aspirations of participants to Canada’s democracy and politics. Democracy Talks reminds participants that they have a voice and that it matters. Even the Democracy Talks learning environment is democratic— participants choose the issues to discuss to ensure that the topics are meaningful to them. This is a simple idea, with profound consequences and measurable results. Led by trusted facilitators, participants get involved in interactive activities—from voting for their favourite fruit or vegetable, to making Democracy Bracelets—making Democracy Talks both fun and memorable. Samara Canada, a national charity, provides training and materials adapted to community organizations’ goals so that Democracy Talks events are easy to prepare, manage and expand.

According to a yearlong independent, third-party evaluation of the program, after participating in a Democracy Talks session, people:

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showed higher interest in politics, greater political knowledge, and they paid greater attention to politics and discussion.

The Democracy Talks program provides a great first step in engaging our youth in discussions about democracy and personal power, and helps us open the door towards further engagement and participation. A program model that is adaptable and flexible, and the support of the Samara team, have allowed us to embrace the Democracy Talks program and ensure its fit within our organizational context. We will surely continue to encourage and facilitate the provision of the Democracy Talks program in our Clubs in the months and years to come. Marisa Silver, Manager, National Programs Directrice des programmes nationaux Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada Clubs Garçons et Filles du Canada

Community organizations have the power to make politics work for members Through the Democracy Talks program, Samara has worked with over 175 community-based organizations in 25 communities from Newfoundland to British Columbia to the Northwest Territories. This number includes small local organizations, like Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House in Vancouver, and national organizations, like the Boys and Girls Club. Focused on communities where people feel as though their political voice isn’t being heard, Democracy Talks sessions have been successful with newcomers, youth, low-income seniors and other marginalized communities. Democracy Talks has also been integrated into programs for new mothers, community gardening groups and youth in afterschool activities. The Democracy Talks approach works. As you will read in the last section of this report, according to an independent year-long evaluation of the program, after participating in a Democracy Talks session, people showed higher interest in politics, paid greater attention to politics and were more likely to discuss politics. These factors alone are a good first step for individual participants, but they are also known to be associated with higher voting ratesii. Democracy Talks is about giving people a chance to talk about issues that matter to them in an inclusive, non-partisan environment. It’s about giving people a chance to hear and be heard. It’s about people realizing that they have a voice and that it matters. It’s about taking the first step.

Although [the participant] was familiar with the concept of democracy, making these bracelets taught her that openness, fairness, and the other ideas we’d discussed are all integral parts of a democratic system. This was a moment of reaffirmation for me since her statement supported my opinion that the longstanding claim that youth find politics dry or boring is baseless. When given the right tools, most youth and adults alike find it fascinating, not to mention significant, to think and talk about the decisions being made within their civic realm. Mana, University of Toronto student and Samara volunteer

Democracy Talks is making politics matter to people again.

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The problem and its solution Democracy requires engagement Samara Canada’s research on political engagement in Canada paints a disturbing picture: Voting rates have been declining for decades. Satisfaction with politicians and trust in politicians is low—most Canadians don’t know who their Member of Parliament is and, for the most part, don’t care to. A full 39% of Canadians say that they have not discussed a political issue in the last yeariii. Ask a roomful of Canadians what politics means to them and everyone will scramble to change the subject.

Samara Canada is dedicated to reconnecting citizens to politics. Established as a charity in 2009, we have become Canada’s most trusted, non-partisan champion of increased civic engagement and a more positive public life. Samara Canada’s research and educational programming shines new light on Canada’s democratic system; it also encourages greater political participation across the country to build better politics and a better Canada for everyone.


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Canadians are participating in very few activities that keep our political sphere vibrant. In the last year, fewer than 19% of Canadians reported donating to a political party and only 17% reported volunteering on a campaign; fewer than 10% reported being a member of a political party or giving a political speech in publiciv. Newcomers to Canada show the same trend of low engagement. Research shows that they exhibit lower rates of voter turnout, especially those who are younger or come from a more disadvantaged backgroundv. Even newcomers who might have shown interest in participating politically quickly get the message that politics is not something Canadians talk about vi. One Democracy Talks participant, Lowie, moved to Canada from the Philippines eight years ago, at the age of 21, and now studies at Brock University. Though Lowie has always been interested in politics, he said he struggled at first to understand the Canadian system, which seemed “entirely different” to him than the one he knew at home. The one resource Lowie was given, the Discover Canada citizenship study guide, did not provide any information on democratic engagement beyond voting. Harry, who joined a conversation in Brampton, cited the same concern. He spoke of his shock when a friend told him he could join a political party, something no one had mentioned during his settlement process.

When you look at society, for example, the laws, the tax breaks for the big guys, [it] reflects who is important to the government and who is not important… They know about the problems the poor people face, but do they care? If they did we would see it. Young participant, UforChange

Learning about citizenship requires more than a guide and a test— it requires inclusion in a culture of participation. Becoming a Canadian citizen is an ongoing process, which is why, through Democracy Talks, Samara Canada tries to empower communities with the tools to encourage engagement.

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Why is engagement important? The health of any democracy depends on citizen engagement. Politics is how we make decisions together, but if some voices are not heard, how do we know we’re making the right decisions? If youth used their political voice, how would policies about the cost of education and getting into the workforce be different? What job policies would be different if newcomers were invited to the political table? How would zoning by-laws and housing policies change if lowincome people could give advice or be active in decision making? Without everyone at the table, young people can’t reach their full potential, newcomers to Canada can’t find meaningful work that uses their skills, and isolated ghettoes of resentment and frustration will continue to grow. Should this disengagement persist, our diverse country, which has become the envy of the world, will see its vitality and strength diminish.

Community groups are an important part of the solution Every day, across the country, millions of committed Canadians devote their time and effort to making Canada healthier, more vibrant and equitable; many of these people do this work through, or in association with, community groups. Community groups vary in size and formality. Some exist only at the neighbourhood or city level, while others are part of a larger provincial or national organization. Whether they operate as a non-profit or a charity, community groups both reflect and foster Canadians’ commitment to each other and to Canada.

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I think for me it … was reminding myself that I do have opinions and it’s not impossible for me to get engaged because I do care about things. I’m not totally apathetic—there’s hope for me still! Young participant

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer vii, non-profit groups are the most trusted groups—more trusted than business and media organizations, and certainly more trusted than politicians. This high level of trust in non-profits is also seen in how regularly Canadians report participating with them. According to Samara’s research, more than half of Canadians reported doing voluntary work in the last 12 months (53%), and 38% of Canadians described themselves as active in a community group or organization. Young people’s (aged 18 to 34) rates of participation exceed their older cohort in this respect. These statistics confirm that community groups are uniquely positioned to repair political disengagement. Community groups—whether a settlement agency, local YMCA or community health group—empower their members by showing them that their work is part of a larger whole and they are making a difference in their chosen issue. Community groups that provide services to newly arrived immigrants or new Canadians have the potential to lay a strong foundation for later political engagement. Democracy Talks facilitators have observed that participants are initially disengaged from politics, but, as the session gets underway, it becomes apparent that they are not apathetic—most participants care deeply about their communities.

Democracy Talks has definitely invigorated our agency’s work around civic engagement. By centering discussion around what participants need to change in their own community, we have seen a positive shift in their attitudes towards advocacy. Adnan Amin, Settlement and Education Partnerships Coordinator, North York Community House

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What is D mocracy T lks? The program Democracy Talks is an outreach program that motivates Canadians who are not engaging in Canada’s democracy by giving them the opportunity to discover and develop their political voice. One of the reasons why Democracy Talks is effective is that it is embedded into existing programs within trusted community groups. For example, Democracy Talks has been integrated into an afterschool program for low-income youth in Vancouver, as well as a “cook and talk” program for newcomer women in Toronto. In each scenario, the person leading the session has been a trusted leader in the organization—an ESL instructor, a fellow gardener or a youth worker. Through facilitated conversations and guided activities led by trusted, non-partisan facilitators embedded in the community group, Democracy Talks offers people the chance to discuss concerns and look for solutions with others. The end result of these conversations is the realization that the issues that matter to the participants have a political dimension. Democracy Talks is delivered by staff and volunteers from community organizations with support and training from Samara. Designed to be easily integrated into existing community-based programs, Democracy Talks is a sustainable and effective way to engage citizens with politics. Democracy Talks can be tailored to programs with participants from any education level and it’s flexible in terms of time required. The defining characteristic of a Democracy Talks session is that it is participant-led, and based on talking and listening. | 12 |

I like the non-partisan aspect of Democracy Talks. This allowed a safe space to talk about politics rather than a threatening conversation. Senior Neighbour, Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House

What does Democracy Talks do differently? §§ By partnering with community-based organizations and embedding activities into existing programs, Democracy Talks consistently reaches people who are not currently engaged in politics. §§ Democracy Talks also increases democratic engagement through social, community-based activities centred on participants’ interests.

Why does Democracy Talks work so well for community groups? Because Democracy Talks...

[Democracy Talks is] the basis of all the other civic learning and civic participation activities that we do.

§§ works within existing programs so it doesn’t require significant additional resources; §§ is tailored to the needs of the community group and aligned with community partners’ aims; §§ offers capacity-building training for the community groups’ staff; §§ builds and reinforces social bonds between members and the facilitators; §§ allows for controversial issues to be discussed in a safe, non-partisan space; §§ offers modest and flexible time commitments, making it scalable and sustainable; and §§ offers tangible, measurable results.

Beatriz Alas, Community Engagement Coordinator, North York Community House

Why does Democracy Talks work so well for participants? Democracy Talks is meaningful to participants because... §§ §§ §§ §§

they choose the issues to be discussed; everyone can participate; facilitators are trusted and respectful; and it’s fun, engaging and memorable. | 13 |

What does a typical session include? An icebreaker: Participants build trust and get to know each other by sharing something about themselves, from their favourite food to who they would choose to lead Canada. A discussion that leads from the personal to the political: Participants engage in a meaningful conversation about what matters to them. In small groups, led by a facilitator, participants hear from, listen to and learn from each other. At the end, each small group reports its priorities to the whole group and participants are able to see where their concerns are connected to the concerns of the community. A creative, hands-on activity: Participants begin to connect abstract democratic concepts—like fairness, equality, openness and inclusivity— to their concrete concerns and heartfelt values through fun and engaging hands-on activities. Depending on the participants, activities range from creating an ideal democracy out of Play Doh, to making Democracy Bracelets that participants are then able to wear with pride.

The approach is fun and welcoming for those apprehensive to discuss politics or community issues, and supportive in building leadership skills. As a facilitator actively looking for engaging ways to encourage civic participation, I am excited about the potential to continue to adapt the Democracy Talks format for the Davenport community. Angel Vats, Outreach & Engagement Coordinator, The Stop Community Food Centre

Extension: In longer sessions, participants identify appropriate steps they can take on the issues they care about. In one icebreaker, participants were asked to choose a leader for Canada from any time in history. Participants’ responses ranged from Jesus, to their Grade 12 English teacher, to Gandhi. The last respondent explained that he was from China and, since in China they have not had positive experiences with strong leaders, he did not want to choose a person. He chose a system: “Democracy.”

Samara provides: §§ facilitation training to staff/volunteers §§ program management §§ ongoing support §§ evaluation tools The community organization provides: §§ staff to implement §§ adaptation to existing programs §§ feedback on participation rates §§ feedback for program improvement

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A proven program Can a facilitated, communitybased conversation about issues that matter to participants engage Canadians in their democracy? Over the last year, in association with Democracy Talks partner North York Community House and with funding from Elections Canada, Samara Canada sought the answer to the above question using both survey data among participants and interviews with Democracy Talks facilitators. The results from the year-long, independent, qualitative and quantitative evaluation have been highly encouraging of the Democracy Talks model and its potential for growth. The findings of the assessment indicate measurable success both in terms of who the program reaches, as well as its desired impact.

North York Community House (NYCH) is a dynamic neighbourhood centre offering innovative programs and services to newcomers and residents in northwest Toronto— helping build strong, healthy communities. NYCH offers settlement help for newcomers, parenting groups, afterschool programming for kids, youth leadership groups and employment support to over 25,000 people every year.

Bringing people to the table Prior to beginning the program, Democracy Talks participants at NYCH reported lower interest in politics compared to Canadians on average, indicating that the program model can successfully reach disengaged Canadians by going to them within established programming.

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Additionally, the program involved an exceptionally wide range of Canadians. At NYCH, participants, aged 15 to 85, were born in 28 different countries and spoke 24 different languages. Moreover, participants’ evaluations of the program did not differ across language or country or origin, which suggests that Democracy Talks can be successfully implemented across a variety of participant backgrounds. According to qualitative interviews from facilitators, the program was easy to administer and adaptable across a wide variety of groups with various objectives.

Very well done. I’m not into politics at all but I was very interested in this session and will put this into my programs.

Measurable impact

Jamaican-born youth worker, YMCA of Greater Toronto

Both facilitators’ and participants’ impressions of the program were overwhelmingly positive. When asked about the most enjoyable parts of Democracy Talks, 40% of participants said that conversations with other participants were the highlight of the program, while 32% chose learning about democracy and 23% chose talking about issues that were important to them. Only a tiny percentage (2%) said “nothing.” As well, 70% of participants indicated they had learned “a lot” or “a great deal.” Six months after participating in a Democracy Talks session, people 1. showed higher interest in politics, 2. showed greater political knowledge, and 3. paid greater attention to politics and discussion. The level of self-reported interest in politics was 34% higher among NHCH participants who had experienced Democracy Talks compared to a similar group who had no Democracy Talks experience. Overall, the evaluation found that participation in the Democracy Talks program is significantly associated with both increased interest in, and attention to, politics—the first step for many onto the ladder of engagement.

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Next steps In the coming years, Samara will partner with national, regional and local community-based organizations, settlement agencies, English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers and youth-led groups to continue to facilitate conversations that open up the world of politics to Canadians who are too often left out of political discussions. Over the past 30 years an increasingly smaller proportion of the Canadian public have been taking part in the political realm. If new voters are offered a place at the table, and Democracy Talks participants learn that they have a voice, together we can tackle the real roots of citizens’ disengagement and create a more inclusive and resilient Canada—ultimately, a better Canada for everyone.

To learn more, get involved or support this work If you’re interested in hearing more or partnering with Samara to run Democracy Talks programming in your community contact For Democracy Talks resources and curriculum visit If you are a foundation or an individual interested in supporting civic engagement within community groups, please get in touch with Executive Director Jane Hilderman at or (416) 960-7928.

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Methodology The Democracy Talks program evaluation measures the implementation and impact of the program as it was implemented by North York Community House (NYCH) in 2014. The implementation evaluation utilizes interviews with facilitators to probe their experiences, as well as results from the first wave of data collection. The impact evaluation uses comparison data from the Canadian Election Study (CES) to quantify the magnitude of the success of the Democracy Talks program. The impact evaluation was completed in two parts: (1) a first-wave survey immediately after the program’s conclusion and (2) a second-wave survey six months later. Both surveys measured concepts related to democratic citizenship: political discussion, political interest, political voice, political knowledge, voting and overall engagement. Due to various practical limitations with the program’s implementation, randomized controlled trials were infeasible. As a result, participants were matched with non-participants as similar as possible on a range of characteristics to test the effects between the treatment and control groups. Poor matches were excluded from the analysis. Due to a limited sample size, matching was not performed on the second follow-up survey (n=20 treatment and n=24 control). Due to methodological restrictions, the evaluation’s findings should be considered descriptive, rather than causal.

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Footnotes i

“Real Outsiders: Politically Disengaged Views on Politics and Democracy,” Heather Bastedo, Wayne Chu, Jane Hilderman and André Turcotte. Samara Canada, 2011

ii For information on “political interest” see “Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-voters,” Jon H. Pammett and Lawrence LeDuc. Elections Canada, 2003. For information on “political discussion” see “Social Networks and Political Participation: The Role of Social Interaction in Explaining Political Participation,” Scott D. McClurg. Political Research Quarterly, 56(4), 2003 iii “Samara’s Democracy 360: A Report Card on How Canadians Communicate, Participate and Lead in Politics,” Jane Hilderman, Kendall Anderson and Alison Loat. Samara Canada, 2015 iv Ibid v “The Electoral Participation of Ethnocultural Communities,” Livianna Tossutti. Elections Canada, 2007 vi “Samara’s Democracy 360: A Report Card on How Canadians Communicate, Participate and Lead in Politics,” Jane Hilderman, Kendall Anderson and Alison Loat. Samara Canada, 2015 vii “2015 Edelman Trust Barometer: Canada Results.” Edelman Canada, 2015

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Profile for The Samara Centre for Democracy

Samara's Democracy Talks  

A program for community groups to inspire citizen engagement

Samara's Democracy Talks  

A program for community groups to inspire citizen engagement

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