Citizens Academy: Coaching citizens who want to make change happen

By Judith Maxwell

Maxwell Citizens Academy Nov 2014 logo (one pile) At City Hall on November 11, students in the Citizens Academy’s third Civics Boot Camp presented their Action Plans and celebrated their graduation. Over six weeks, we offer them knowledge about their city, tools for civic engagement and a chance to expand their networks across the city. Most leave with greater confidence and a new sense of purpose.

The Academy’s goal is to help change Ottawa’s civic and political culture. Why are we doing this? Ottawa has trouble grappling with the big intractable issues. The tendency is to announce a bit more funding or appoint a task force rather than join forces with other stakeholders and come up with a long-range plan for joint action. Yet this city is blessed with many able people who want to help make change happen.

So what’s Boot Camp like? First, anyone over 18 can apply for the program. We usually get over 100 applicants and we select about 40 to represent the age, gender, ethno-cultural background and geographic regions of the city. When they arrive the first evening, they have a light supper and get to know their fellow students. It doesn’t take long for strangers to become comrades. The next step is to get to know the city, so we do some community mapping, looking at the differences among six neighbourhoods using Ottawa Neighbourhood Study profiles (www.neighbourhoodstudy.ca). They also select a topic and form a team to work on their Action Plan. Common topics are public transit, affordable housing or an environmental issue.

Participants also get access to our online learning system that first evening. That’s where they can learn the institutional background to the theme of the week. There are four online modules: governance, budgeting, civic engagement and land use planning. In face-to-face evenings, they meet with an expert who provides more depth on the theme of the week. The issues around governance for example could be: What are the powers of the mayor? How does City Council set priorities? What is the significance of the Official Plan? But there is also time each evening to explore the role of the citizen and the engagement tools that help them be effective as citizens.

The Citizens Academy Spring Boot Camp graduation, May 2014. Photo: Mitchell Kutney

The Citizens Academy Spring Boot Camp graduation, May 2014. Photo: Mitchell Kutney

The final session is the practicum. Using their new knowledge, each team presents their Action Plan to seasoned community leaders, who ask questions and offer suggestions. The students are nervous about presenting, but are thrilled by the interaction with the leaders. And the leaders are enthusiastic about what they have heard and seen. They know these students are well on their way to becoming the Ideal Citizen.

And what happens afterward? We eat cake and pass out certificates and send them out into the world. Seriously, they go in different directions:

• Two 2013 graduates were candidates for City Council last month.
• Some of the teams commit to make their Action Plan real. The most visible project so far is GottaGo (see page 18).
• Some decide to join their community association.
• Others decide to volunteer for Citizens Academy. Thank you very much!
• Others take their tools back to the places where they volunteer.

What’s inspiring about all of this is the energy and commitment our students bring to the weekly sessions. One student announced in week three that his brain was “buzzing with engagement.” Several said the program is too short! Maybe, but it is a big time commitment for busy people – six evenings and four hours plus of online study.

Maxwell Citizens Academy Nov 2014 Ideal CitizenThe program has been free of charge so far. All we ask is that people take the time to digest all that we offer. It is now free because it was an experiment. And we managed to make it work because we had 1.5 staff, 150 volunteers and foundations to cover cash costs – the Community Foundation of Ottawa, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the Metcalf Foundation, the Crabtree Foundation and the Awesome Foundation (plus donations from the public). And we get a lot of pro bono support from the City of Ottawa, among others. But this is not sustaining funding. We have to start generating cash, so we are thinking about a fee, combined with scholarships as necessary.

As we develop today’s citizens, we know we are really developing future leaders. Who knows where they will take us. I’m sure it will be somewhere good.

Judith Maxwell is a resident of the Glebe, a co-founder of the Citizens Academy (www.citizensacademy.ca) and the former president of Canadian Policy Research Networks.

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