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Sagar Grewal wants Canadian youth to know their insights matter, and there might be a trip to Europe in the offing for those willing to enter a policy development competition he is helping to judge.

The Thinkathon Online Challenge is looking for hundreds of young Canadians to develop creative digital projects addressing racism, health, climate change, gender equality and education, some of which will end up in front of Canadian and European policy-makers.

“Not everyone has experience in policy development, but with the right kind of tools, I think absolutely it is something that a lot of youth can engage in,” said Grewal.

He said a subset of “hyper-engaged youth” — like himself — are ready to jump into civic discourse, but other young people who might appear more apathetic mostly lack access, awareness of opportunity and confidence that their contributions are valued.

There is still work to be done “getting these opportunities into those communities,” he said, in order to “show them that really, if you are a youth and you have lived experience in just about anything, you can share your perspective and that's the first step in getting engaged.”

Grewal first became engaged politically while studying at the University of Calgary during the 2015 federal election, when he was just days too young to be eligible to vote. He ended up volunteering to collect pledges to vote from other students and later developed policy, advocacy and engagement skills with the student union, where he served for a year as president.

Thinkathons in Brussels, Milan before pandemic pushed events online

The Thinkathon project is funded by the European Union and run by the Goethe-Institut Montreal, Brussels-based ThinkYoung and Montreal employment support non-profit Carrefour Jeunesse Emploi NDG.

In 2019 and early 2020, several in-person, 24-hour Thinkathons were held in Brussels and Montreal, and then in Edmonton and Milan, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the most recent iteration and an upcoming one online.

In all cases, teams of young people develop a policy proposal during the session and submit a short presentation, with the most promising ones getting paired with a mentor in a second stage to refine the idea. From there, finalists are chosen to present to jurors and a live audience.

Grewal and teammate Manpreet Deol won the first online version of the challenge for Think Outside the Bars, a proposal to provide incarcerated people with better access to educational opportunities, especially digital skills.

The @24H_Thinkathon competition is giving young Canadians the chance to tackle issues related to racism, health, climate change, gender equality and education through creative digital projects. #thinkdigitalfuture

It argues that Ottawa should work out how to provide federal prisoners with digital skills they will need when they are released, noting that facilities prohibit internet access. These could range from the basics of a computer interface through to data analytics, web development, data visualization, coding and front-end software development.

“Hopefully that helps them with employment, and hopefully that helps them with their transition and reintegration into society afterwards,” he said.

Their proposal pointed to existing programs that could be adapted for inmates, whom the government only aims to provide a high school certificate but who may be offered additional education programs "on an as-needed basis," according to regulations.

It recommended community organizations to partner with and, indeed, an entire implementation strategy complete with "hindrance factors" and government-speed timelines for canvassing and piloting a project over two years.

The proposal focused on former inmates who have ostensibly been rehabilitated but face significant stigma and discrimination in the workforce. It argued that helping these former inmates get jobs would lower their chances of returning to jail, citing evidence that correctional education both reduces the likelihood of reoffending and improves the likelihood of gaining employment by 13 per cent.

Patty Hajdu, Canada's health minister, listens to Sagar Grewal speak on a panel at a Universities Canada event in Ottawa in October 2018. Photo supplied by Sagar Grewal

Grewal, a postgraduate student who just finished a two-year term on the Prime Minister’s Youth Council, ended up taking the proposal back to one of the council's virtual meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Attorney General David Lametti and Industry and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, and is hopeful the federal government pursues it.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to Sagar Grewal and others during a March 2020 virtual meeting of his youth council. Screenshot by Sagar Grewal

“Since then, I think we still have to make a bit more progress on what that may look like,” he said. “And we were given some recommendations, even from some of our jurors, about people to get in touch with. So that's kind of where we're at right now.”

The pandemic has meant the latest Thinkathon cohorts miss out on the experience of spending 24 hours in a room and getting “really deep into conversations on what you’re trying to address, or what's the issue that you care about, or how you envision going about solving this thing,” Grewal said.

But with the move online, more young people have gotten engaged and will have the opportunity to do so, he said.

Anyone in Canada or Europe between the ages of 18 and 30 is invited to register their interest and idea by Dec. 1, with development and mentoring running from Dec. 4 until the day before the livestreamed online final on Jan. 22.

Organizers are planning to cap involvement at around 200, which they say will ensure participants receive focused mentorship, exchange and learning opportunities.

Once public health conditions allow, the program will send one of the finalists from Europe and one from Canada to the other region to engage with their local policy-makers.

Grewal said that offers an enticing opportunity that “hopefully shows you can be that participant who ends up travelling across the world to continue to work on this idea and develop the skills to carry this further.”

Alastair Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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