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Four young activists on community: ‘We’re the first generation that knows things are probably going to get worse’

Chris Penrose, left, Amara Possian, Jonathan Glencross and Humera Jabir.

In a six-week series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This instalment deals with building healthy communities.

On Sept. 1, Adam Kahane of Reos Partners interviewed four young activists: Jonathan Glencross, consultant at Purpose Capital; Humera Jabir, law student at McGill University; Chris Penrose, executive director of Success Beyond Limits; and Amara Possian, campaign manager at Leadnow.ca.

Kahane: What keeps you up at night?

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Glencross: I'm particularly concerned about people's inability to imagine an entirely different future, as individuals but also as a country. Some of my most connected and engaged friends spend a lot of time defending their current activities against the narrative that was given to them when they were younger: Go to school, get a good job, work hard, start a family, settle somewhere nice, and be able to tell a simple story about what you do. This preoccupation prevents them from dreaming about new modes of operating.

Possian: I think a lot about the inability of our political candidates to provide compelling visions for the future. The places I find most inspiring and energizing are those where there are young people having conversations about what the future could look like. But we're not the ones with power. The political system – where formal decision-making power is held – seems like a barrier. That makes it easy to disengage. At the same time, our social movements are fragmented. We agree on 99 per cent of the things, we acknowledge that we're up against systemic forces, but sometimes it seems as if we're never going to be able to work together. We might share goals, but we don't necessarily have the collective capacity to act.

Kahane: If things turn out badly in 20 years, what would have happened?

Penrose: We didn't change direction. We continued to rely on things that compromise our environment. The same type of people ended up making decisions and serving in public office. We fell behind in building the infrastructure we need. We continued to operate from a narrative of scarcity, which ended up hurting the people who are most affected by social inequities.

Jabir: Our leaders didn't recognize the value in everyone moving together, including those who are less wealthy and less powerful. That's a risky way to go. If we continue on the trajectory of dismantling many of our social structures and welfare supports and making drastic changes in our laws, we might create the sort of entrenched inequality that we see in the United States and Britain.

Kahane: If things turn out well, what would that story be and how would it come about?

Glencross: For Canada to be on a positive trajectory in the future, our systems would need to become more porous and more responsive to emerging ideas and disruptions. Right now, it seems like the existing structures don't have the capacity to metabolize good ideas and new narratives, even if we were to come up with them.

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Kahane: What I notice from the conversation so far is how much more despairing your initial comments have been than those made by many of the other interviewees. I wonder whether your position as young leaders enables you to see something that older people are missing.

Jabir: Maybe we're just more attuned to the different barriers than an older generation who may have already found their way. There is a strong sense of anxiety among my generation. You see that in terms of the number of people who seek mental health counselling in universities and those who are stressed about finding jobs. Many people in the 20- to 30-year-old range don't know what their next step is or how they're going to get to where they want to go.

Possian: We're the first generation that knows things are probably going to get worse. Sure, we can make it slightly less bad, but even if we stopped pulling any fossil fuels out of the ground tomorrow, there would be irreversible climate change that would impact how we live. We're trying to figure out what to do about it.

There's an acknowledgment that if we build solutions in a way that changes the way things have been done before and challenges power dynamics, then we might come out of this even stronger.

Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. For longer versions of these interviews, or to join the conversation, visit possiblecanadas.ca

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