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November 17, 2020
Veronika Bylicki on how we can reimagine traditional power structures by bridging the gap between younger folks and institutions.
Tell us about CityHive. How would you describe its purpose and what makes it unique?
CityHive is a Metro Vancouver-based non-profit organization on a mission to transform the way that young people are engaged in civic processes: in city planning, decision-making processes and urban sustainability issues. As a youth-led and youth-run organization, we harness the energy, experiences, and perspectives of youth to create projects and solutions to make our cities more sustainable, equitable and resilient. We work with civic institutions to transform the way that they engage youth to be more meaningful and inclusive. Our programming areas include building and creating experiential knowledge-to-action civic education programs and Urban Innovation Labs, as well as working with municipal governments and other organizations or institutions looking to design or carry out youth engagement. What makes us unique is that we are youth-founded and youth-led and simultaneously have strong relationships with various institutions, which helps us act as a bridge between youth and their civic institutions and work towards filling the gap of youth participation.
We are all navigating the global pandemic in different ways. What’s a key insight from how CityHive is responding to the crisis?
When the pandemic first hit us in mid-March, we were in the middle of many different projects and processes (from programs in full swing, to hiring processes underway). While some of those got postponed and paused for the first few weeks and months of COVID-19, others were adapted. Our team has been incredible at being adaptive, and truthfully, I think we owe much of our impact as an organization to our ability to be nimble and responsive to what feels most emergent in the world. We transitioned our Envirolab cohort online mid-program. We developed and delivered two online-only City Shapers cohorts through May-July that focused on resilience and what youth wanted the new normal in cities to look like. We co-created a weekly event series on the pressing conversations surrounding this pandemic (Distant, Not Disengaged). We’ve conducted hiring processes, youth engagement workshops, consultation meetings, and more — all in the virtual setting that the team was completely unfamiliar with only months ago. As a team, it created space for us to have deeper check ins and conversations with each other, our participants and partners.
Over the past few months we have seen groups seize this moment of uncertainty to advance racial and economic justice in their communities. How does this relate to your work?
First off, it’s important to remind ourselves that this movement is not new: Black and Indigenous activists and organizations have been organizing and working for decades to dismantle racist systems that give rise to state violence and to rebuild just systems and institutions.
CityHive recognizes and is unpacking how it has benefited from white supremacy and perpetuated racial injustices through its existence, both internally and externally. Our initiatives and learnings in anti-racism work to date have often come at the expense of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) youth members and staff. We acknowledge the deep history of racism that exists in spheres directly related to our vision and mission, including the spheres of “city-building”, public engagement and sustainability movements. We also acknowledge the historical and present role of civic institutions, the non-profit sector and governance systems in perpetuating racism and anti-Blackness.
In acknowledging our complicity, we recognize our responsibility. As an organization whose theory of change exists on the premises of: reimagining our traditional power structures by bridging younger folks and institutions; enhancing representation in decision-making processes; making civic processes more accessible and safe; being responsive to the needs of youth; and building the capacity of young folks to engage in civic processes, our work cannot be done without anti-racism as our guiding principle. Raising critical questions on equity related to city-building is an important part of our work, especially because we are often in spaces where we are one of few youth-led organizations represented.
We have several immediate and long-term actions that we are taking as an organization to ensure that we are explicitly centering anti-racist principles in our work. From our board, to our staff planning programming, to each of us on our personal learning journeys, we’re taking steps to ensure that we continue to learn and grow and create better, safer programs, workplaces, and systems. This plan and these commitments will continue to evolve as we deepen our equity-centred learning and action, as well as our unlearning of organizational structures that reinforce systems of oppression.
We made a full commitment and are holding ourselves accountable to our community, which you can read in full here.
What’s one big challenge you see Canada’s democracy facing? How are you working on this challenge, what solutions do you propose?
With youth at the centre of both our organization and our mandate, the engagement of youth and young adults in our democratic systems is a constant concern. Young folks are one of the most likely demographics to attend protests and sign petitions but the least likely to vote or show up at consultation meetings and town halls. Millennials and Gen Zs are highly invested in activist and social issues, but failing to connect with the traditional forms of engagement within our democracy. There are countless well-researched reasons for this disconnect. Young folks are often in periods of transition and less tied to place. Youth are rarely represented in decision making and the politicians themselves are hard to relate to. Without a strong civic education curriculum, young folks are often more confused about how the systems work.
Our work exists to bring together decision-makers and young folks to break down those barriers and make plain how the systems of power, especially in local governance, work. Relationship-building, in particular between decision makers and youth, is embedded across everything that we do so that we are actively experimenting with and creating spaces for trust-building. There are so many incredible youth-centered organizations across the country doing this democratic mobilization at various levels of government. While our focus remains local and municipal, groups like Apathy is Boring, Future Majority, Gen Squeeze, among others are activating and educating young people on their power within our structures and systems.
Could you share an idea or initiative related to increasing civic engagement or democratic participation that inspires you? This could be related to your work or something you see happening in the sector.
Civic education is one of the most exciting projects that we’re currently working on. BC schools do not teach civics. While students may learn about the provincial and federal levels of government, civics is not a mandatory part of our curriculum — in fact the same is true for all the other Canadian provinces except Ontario. BC’s curriculum (alongside all provincial Canadian curriculums except Ontario) does not include a course or unit on civic education, let alone integrate it throughout schooling. How can we expect young folks to be inspired and engaged in civic life, if they’ve never been taught to. While provincial and federal levels of government are taught, municipal governance and decision-making (arguably the easiest to affect) are left out.
In tandem with our civic education cohorts for those ages 18-30, we at CityHive are currently working in partnership with Urbanarium and other local organizations to develop a civic education program for children and teens. We are very excited for the possibilities that this opportunity presents to engage more young folks with the ideas and creative opportunities of city-building.
Tell us about how CityHive is making its work more inclusive and building engagement with different communities. Any tips or lessons to share with others in the sector about decreasing barriers to participation?
The core of what CityHive does is decreasing barriers to participation for young people; and in doing so, we hope to model what decreasing barriers and increasing pathways to engagement looks like for all. Making engagement truly inclusive and making sure all communities – especially those that have been traditionally excluded and marginalized – is a constant process, and one that we are constantly learning to do better.
The biggest tip or lesson (which we are also still in a process of enacting) is to consider who you centre in program design or in your work. When we centre the experiences of folks who face the greatest barriers to participation at every stage of a program — from ideation and design to implementation and facilitation — we’re able to run programs that are inherently more inclusive. When we centre the experiences of those who already have access to opportunities to engage and who tend to be more engaged in traditional ways, we end up perpetuating the same systems and processes that exclude other communities in the process. Also, quite tangibly, CityHive only exists because of the partnership and relationships we hold — we are able to reach a much wider range of youth through working with partner organizations that serve different communities of youth.
Are there specific asks that CityHive has for the broader sector — things you need help with, problems you’re trying to solve or wishes you have?
Our first and more nebulous ask, is to consider how in your work, you can model the outcome you’re hoping for through the process you undergo. How, in every engagement process, program project, can you model meaningful inclusion, centre equity, build trust and relationships? That’s something that we aim to do in our work — make sure that through every engagement opportunity, youth have the opportunity to build their own capacity, build relationships with each other and decision makers, and slowly through the process shift the needle on what youth participation looks like.
Our second ask: it will take a collective effort to shift the ageism and lack of youth participation in decision making. We’re always looking for partners, experts, thought leaders and others, who are interested in exploring how we can bring civic education into classrooms and for young people. If you’re wanting to support civic education for youth under 30 or looking to engage youth meaningfully in your work, please get in touch!
For people looking to engage with you, how can they get involved? Who can they contact?
CityHive’s mission is to transform the way young people shape their cities and the civic processes that engage them. We envision cities where youth are actively involved in civic planning, shaping, and decision-making. A youth-engaged city is a resilient, sustainable, and livable city—not only for young people, but for all current and future generations.
This is an unprecedented moment for democracy in Canada so we created Sector Spotlight to learn about how leading practitioners are responding to it. Have ideas for our next Sector Spotlight? Get in touch!
Veronika Bylicki, Executive Director and Co-founder of CityHive
Veronika is an engagement innovator, community builder and sustainability strategist, and the Executive Director & Co-founder of CityHive. A lifelong Vancouverite, she is passionate about creating more sustainable, equitable cities and amplifying the meaningful engagement of citizens, particularly youth, in addressing urban challenges. Veronika completed her BSc in Global Resource Systems at UBC, with a specialization in Urban Sustainability, Policy and Planning. Her experience includes working in sustainability education, environmental policy and participatory planning. She was awarded as a Top 25 Under 25 Environmentalist in Canada in 2015, has delivered a TEDxYouth talk on Urban Sustainability and was a Social Innovation Fellow at RADIUS SFU. Veronika is currently a Commissioner on the Vancouver City Planning Commission and Board Member for CityStudio Vancouver. Veronika is an outdoor enthusiast and can often be found zipping around the city on her bike.