"Smells like Teen Spirit" echoed through Surrey City Hall as hundreds of young people gathered to share and celebrate their community achievements as part of the Surrey Steps Up Youth Engagement Campaign.
"It's definitely the first time that song has ever played at city hall," says David Sadler, youth and community engagement coordinator for Surrey, B.C. "The level of excitement and the vibe at the showcase is quite something. I've never been a part of anything like this before."
From February to April, kids across the city worked on projects to improve their schools and communities. These included action-based projects to stop things like bullying, and expression-based projects to share positive messages through video, art, poetry and dance. The program finished its second year with a showcase celebration at city hall.
"Often, not enough attention is paid to the really positive things youth are doing in the community and how much of an asset they are to Surrey," says Sadler. "This initiative acknowledges everyone, not just the high achievers, who make a positive difference."
Four years ago, Surrey RCMP began the initiative as an anti-bullying film contest. After two years, Rosy Takhar from Surrey RCMP Crime Prevention and Community Services and her team decided to expand the focus, letting kids choose their own medium and message.
"We wanted to enhance civic involvement and get youth more active in their schools," says Takhar. "And we wanted to translate those ideas into impacting the community."
Projects ranged from youth creating a "Surrey Positive" Instagram account to highlight positive aspects of the city, to the launch of a mixed martial arts program called "Yo Bro" that helps youth build self-esteem, to the creation of a Surrey Youth Safety Council for those concerned about the well-being of young people in the city.
The showcase highlighted submissions students, who created booths and presentations to share their ideas. The entire initiative turned into a civic movement among Surrey youth, expanding beyond those involved in the showcase to engage more than 6,000 students from dozens of schools across the region.
"This city was literally buzzing, we are a young, rapidly growing community and to empower this collective energy was amazing," says Rob Rai, safety manager of Safe Schools for Surrey.
Building a partnership
The Surrey Steps Up youth initiative is led by local RCMP in partnership with the City of Surrey and the Surrey School District.
"We don't have the three different agencies doing three different things," says Rai. "We are combining our resources and creative minds to improve the entire city as a united front."
And Takhar says all the partners involved are vital to the program's success, including the young people themselves.
"The idea is to create the next generation of leaders, getting youth to look at problems and solve them," she says. "We have empowered youth to work alongside us. We're building this community together and we really value the role that youth have in educating and influencing other youth."
Surrey has one of the youngest populations in Canada — a quarter of the city's residents are under 19 years of age. As a result, the school district has a big role to play in the program with the highest student enrollment in the province – more than 70,000 students in 127 schools.
"On a school-base level, we support our staff to support the young people. We don't want ideas dying on the vine," says Rai.
The program was so successful last year that kids asked to get involved in planning the initiative. This year, a youth subcommittee helped advertise the campaign and plan the final showcase.
"We as adults in the community have kick-started it. But now we want to hand it back to the youth," says Rai, indicating that young people's voices are critical to the success of the initiative.
Although Surrey Steps Up primarily targets high school-aged youth, this year, elementary schools also got involved. On the same day as the showcase, younger students were invited to city hall to partake in tours, activities and a meet-and-greet with police officers and city councillors.
Takhar says the goal is to get youth thinking about things that they haven't had exposure to before.
"Kids have this energy and capacity that when focused, really makes change," she says. "And all they need is a little bit of guidance and support."
Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 4, 2015).