No quick fix: community leaders take deep dive into issues plaguing youth at Communities Building Youth Futures conference

Pamela Teitelbaum, Tamarack’s consulting director for evaluating impact, speaks to attendees during the Communities Building Youth Futures conference at the Bernice Sayese Centre on Monday. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

After five hours of presentations, debates and discussions, one thing is clear to the community leaders who’ve packed into the Bernice Sayese Centre gym on Monday, Jan. 20: there are no quick fixes.

Representatives from a variety of non-profits and community groups have spent the day mulling over everything from addictions to housing to graduation rates as part of Communities Building Youth Futures. It’s an ambitious five-year plan coordinated by the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement, and Prince Albert is one of just 14 Canadian cities invited to take part—if they want to.

“We want the community of Prince Albert to come together and consider this as an opportunity,” Tamarack Consulting Director Sylvia Cheuy says during a discussion break.

Today, the main focus is education, specifically the number of youth who drop out of high school. Across Canada, the national high school drop out rate is around 9.4 per cent, and Cheuy and others worry that’s part of a larger problem: the failure of so many young people to make the transition from being a child to being an adult.

Tamarack has identified a number of smaller urban centres, Prince Albert among them, who lack big city facilities and funds, but face big city problems. Those communities range from Grande Prairie and Chilliwack in the west, to Sudbury and Gatineau in the east, to Yellowknife and Iqaluit in the north.

Cheuy says the solutions for these smaller more remote communities may be different from what works in larger centres like Edmonton and Winnipeg. With that in mind, Tamarack has offered support for up to five years to help get those solutions flowing.

“There are a growing number of young people under 30 who are not in school,” Cheuy continues. “They may not have even completed high school, and they’re not sort of moving forward in terms of post-secondary education or training or trades. They’re not employed either.

“When you’re tackling an issue that’s as multi-faceted and as complex as the many reasons why young people may be struggling to make that next transitional step to adulthood, rarely will one organization, or even one program, be the silver bullet that’s going to fix it for everybody. It’s going to actually be the weaving together, in all likelihood, of a number of different supports and initiatives.”

This isn’t Tamarack’s first time stepping up to the plate. The registered charity first opened their doors in 2002 when founders Alan Broadbent and Paul Born sought to create an organization that could better understand how communities change for the better, and how they could assist local organizations and citizens in making those changes.

When it came to goals, they decided to swing for the fences. The first was to establish a learning centre to provide research and documentation. The second was to apply what they learned by trying to end poverty.

The first was a resounding success. These days, more than 20,000 members participate in the Tamarack learning community, which provides nearly 14,000 days of training every year.

The second goal hasn’t been as smooth, but there are significant gains. Through its vibrant communities initiative, Tamarack has more than 330 municipalities represented by 80 regional partners working together to end poverty.

With momentum in their favour, Cheuy says they want to build on what they’ve learned and expand to other areas and other communities, like Prince Albert.

“These things can go on,” she explains. “They can spawn a bigger wave.”

However, Cheuy cautions people not to look to far down the road. Large parts of the day are given over to basic discussions, like what constitutes a youth. Cheuy and her colleagues start the discussion by floating the idea that it’s someone between the ages of 16 and 30, but everyone has a different grouping. It’s an important detail to hammer out because it gives everyone much needed direction. Who do community groups target with their youth programming? Are 14 year olds youths? What about 32 year olds? Or 12 year olds?

A few of those answers come from the teenagers and young adults in attendance, some of which make presentations while conference goers take notes and sip cups of coffee.

However, even before that there’s a much bigger decision: will Prince Albert take part in the first place. Those in attendance are not obligated to take Tamarack up on their offer.

“What Tamarack can then do is accelerate (their progress) by giving tools and drawing on our experience of community change to say, ‘these are the steps that you need to take,’” Cheuy says. “We can provide coaching support. We can provide consulting support, but more importantly for the communities that say yes, we can actually bring them together face-to-face once a year to learn from each other.”

Cheuy stresses that it’s an opportunity, but also emphasizes that community leaders have the right to say no. The strongest theme of the day is the need for community autonomy. Just because a specific plan works in Prince Albert, doesn’t mean it works in Grande Prairie and Chilliwack, or vice versa.

Cheuy says communities need the freedom to alter programs to fit their specific needs, but adds there is still great value is seeing what works in other communities and what doesn’t. She’s hoping they can at least help in that area.

“Don’t overthink,” she says. “If you’ve got a good idea, you jump in there and you try it and you will learn from that. Will it be perfect? No. Will every experiment pan out beautifully? No. There’s always a tension between getting it perfect before we roll something out, which is not what we want, and just ad-hoc diving in and creating a Band-Aid, which is also not what we want, but there’s the healthy medium in the middle.”

Community leaders from housing, addictions, health and anti-gang organizations participated in Monday’s event. If they agree to join Tamarack’s initiative, they’ll have a choice of being part of phase one, which is limited to six communities, or phase two, which will start a year or two later. A final decision is expected later in the week.