By Lisa Loiselle, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON

One of the key things that happen when young people participate in decision-making is that they become engaged in the life of their communities. Meaningful youth engagement produces benefits both to youth and to the community in which they live.

Through engagement, youth gain a sense of empowerment and form healthy connections to others, which are reflected in the reduction of risk behaviours and increases in positive activities by youth.

In addition to the social benefits of these behavioural changes, the community gains through the energy, ideas and values that youth bring to organizations, activities, and their relationships with adults.

Through their annual youth conference, the Students Commission (SC) has found a unique approach in which to engage young people in a meaningful way. This on-site evaluation summary will describe how youth conferences can foster the engagement process.

Research and Evaluation

Anecdotal evidence suggests that conferences such as Creating Change 2001 are successful in engaging youth; however, until the Creating Change 2001 Kemptville conference on-site evaluation, neither the program process nor its outcomes had ever been formally evaluated

The process component of the Centre of Excellence for Youth Engagement's evaluation at the conference was designed to examine the particular aspects of the program that made it successful, with the assumption that despite the changing topics of the annual conferences, there are critical processes of engaging youth, which are consistent throughout the conferences each year. It is these processes, and not the specific topics themselves, that lead to desired positive impacts on delegates.

Since the core value of the Students Commission is to engage youth, young people were recruited to be involved in the data collection phase of the evaluation. In total seven youth were assigned to the research team (3 males, 4 females) in addition to 4 adult researchers (2 males, 2 females). The research team also had an even representation of French and English speaking persons. The research group developed a multi-faceted strategy for obtaining feedback from participants at the conference, which involved collection of the following data:

- Information about the conference process and events, consisting of field notes and videotapes of activities;
- Photographs of important conference activities taken by participants and research staff, with commentaries to be obtained by telephone interviews following the conference;
- Video interviews with conference participants focussing on conference expectations and experiences;
- "Letters to self" in which we asked participants (both delegates and staff) to tell us about their experiences and impressions of the conference. We received a total of 100 letters (63 in English and 6 in French were included in our analysis; the rest declined to include their letters in the analysis).

A conceptual model, the Conference Process Framework, was developed to summarize the main processes through which the program, Creating Change 2001, was believed to have achieved its goals, and was developed based on an examination of the field notes, letters to self, and interviews gathered during the event.

As illustrated in the framework below, the conference was built on three main processes: Values Structure (4-Pillars), Learning Structure (Educational Philosophy), and the Conference Structure (Program).

Figure1. Values Structure (4-Pillars)

Figure 2. Learning Structure (Educational Philosophy)


Figure 3. Conference Structure (Program Activities)

Conference site
Conference topics
Cultural and linguistic diversity of conference participants/staff/facilitators
Training sessions (staff/facilitators)
Adult/youth staff/facilitators/national project leaders
Consecutive/concurrent translations
Panel presentation (youth and invited speakers)
Warm-up/icebreaker activities

Group discussions/open sessions
Production session/technology
Evening activities/workshops
Brainstorming session
National projects
Guest speakers
National project presentation in Ottawa
Unstructured time
Closing ceremonies
Final report produced
Follow-up with delegates

Values Structure/4-Pillars

The foundation of all SC programs and events are the 4-pillars - Respect, Listen, Understand and Communicate™. Similar to the concrete foundation of a building, which establishes the entire structure, metaphorically speaking, the 4-pillars grounded the whole conference process. According to SC, "when we truly respect another person, we can really listen to what they are saying; by listening we can understand who they are and what they mean; by understanding each other we open the door for real communication, learning and growth" (The Students Commission, 2001). Making reference to the Values Structure (4-pillars; see Figure 1) consistently throughout the conference gave all conference participants - delegates, staff, and facilitators - a benchmark for behaviour when gathered together. This process also provided a structure where youth and adults worked collaboratively, and created an atmosphere for young people to develop skills and enhance knowledge.

One of the mandates of the conference and SC was the emphasis on developing good listening and communication skills, particularly patience in learning to hear and understand another person different from oneself. As a result, considerable energy in the design of the conference was dedicated to building this Values structure, which guided the communication practices during the conference. Creating a conference environment with such diversity in culture and language was the most salient process through which this directive was achieved.

Learning Structure/Educational Philosophy

The values structure, which grounded the conference not only provided a benchmark for behaviour, but also created a learning environment that fostered respect for others. The respectful learning environment born out of the values structure provided a safe setting where the developmental and learning needs of adolescent Canadians could be met. As such, the second process through which the conference was believed to have achieved its goals, and built a framework on the initial foundation of the values structure (4-pillars), was the Learning Structure (see Figure 2). An important function of this conference, the learning structure provided a context, which allowed for the needs, challenges, and potentials of Canadian adolescent development.

Without opportunities for participation, young people cannot develop to the fullest extent. As a result of the conferences educational philosophy, the conference became an environment where young people’s developmental and learning characteristics and needs were recognized, and were used to build the learning structure of the conference. This structure provides the potential for positive adolescent development through: Active, meaningful participation, Youth driven nature of the conference, Social Network developed, Leadership/Skills development, being Recognized for involvement, having time for Critical Reflection/Examination of relevant issues, the Flexibility of program, having Supportive staff/facilitators, Youth voices being heard, youth being treated with Equality/Reciprocity, and having opportunities for positive Adult/Peer Interactions.

Conference Structure/Program

The Conference Structure (see Figure 3) is recognized here as the third, and most visible process through which the program achieved its goals. These were the specific activities and events throughout the conference that were identified by this evaluation, and also by the delegates, to be highlights of the conference and were basic elements through which the conference realized its objectives and led to its success. The activities also built on both the values and learning structure presented above. In fact the conference activities emphasize the importance of the values and learning processes.

Specific program related highlights identified by conference participants and through participant observation included: the conference site and topics, cultural and linguistic diversity of conference participants/staff/facilitators, training sessions (staff/facilitators), adult/youth staff/facilitators/national project leaders, consecutive/concurrent translations, panel presentation (youth and invited speakers), warm-up/icebreaker activities, group discussions/open sessions, production session/technology, evening activities/workshops, brainstorming session, national projects, guest speakers, national project presentation in Ottawa, unstructured time, closing ceremonies, final report produced, and follow-up with delegates. This list is not organized in order of importance; rather it is listed chronologically as the activities would have presented themselves during the conference.

As defined by the Centre of Excellence for Youth Engagement, "youth engagement is the meaningful participation and sustained involvement of a young person in an activity that has a focus outside of him or herself. Full engagement consists of a behavioural component, an affective component, and a cognitive component" (TG Magazine/The Students Commission, 2001). The SC conference provided a number of opportunities throughout the week with respect to each factor of the definition: behavioural (by involving youth in direct action), cognitive (critical awareness) and affective (receiving positive reinforcement for, and deriving pleasure from participation). As a result, one could conclude that Creating Change 2001 has the potential to increase positive and sustained youth engagement.

As a result of the three structures of the conference (values, learning and conference), which positively engaged youth (behaviourally, affectively, and cognitively), young people achieved a sense of confidence, a critical awareness, self-efficacy and self-esteem which would presumably lead to a young person being positively empowered and subsequently experience positive development (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Mediating factors/Outcomes

This research was funded by Health Canada through the Centre of Excellence for Youth Engagement. The Centre of Excellence for Youth Engagement focuses on effective strategies for engaging youth in making decisions for healthy living. This includes providing support for youth in research, policy, and communications activities, as well as "walking the talk" - making the Centre itself a working model for youth engagement. More information about the Centre can be found at http://www.engagementcentre.ca. The opinions expressed in this summary are the author’s and not necessarily those of Health Canada. The author would like to express her appreciation to the research team and others who helped so much at "Creating Change 2001": Maria Koumarelas, Maude Lamarre, Damien Alvarez-Toye, Leah Mae Francisco, Gisou Nourollahi, Stephanie Lajeunesse, Junior Therriault, Jean Paul Desjardins, Martin Latulippe, and Gabriela Pierre; to Rhonda Barron and Sarah Heger for their assistance in data coding; and to Stoney McCart and Barb McIntosh for their feedback.