Council connecting youth to their local government

Adela Talbot // Western News

“The majority of the organization lives in the people,” said Matt Ross, London Youth Advisory Council (LYAC), executive director. “The largest influence that the LYAC has made is in the council members themselves.”

When high school student Olivia Smith Rodrigues moved from Victoria to London last year, she didn’t expect her Thursdays to be as busy as they are.

She gets up early for school, and finishes her classes at 2:30 p.m. She then heads to work at Über Cool Stuff in downtown London for three hours. After her shift, Smith Rodrigues runs home, quickly grabbing a bite to eat before heading to a council meeting at 7 p.m.

Although Thursdays are her longest days, they’re also one of her most rewarding.

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“I’ve never really connected with my city like this,” Smith Rodrigues said.

The organization that is responsible for Smith Rodrigues’ bond to her community is the London Youth Advisory Council (LYAC), a collaborative team of youth representing London’s younger generation on public policy issues.

The Grade 12 student, who is one of 14 council members, has always been active in clubs and fundraising, and is motivated to do more in London.

“I’ve done the high school side of things and I want to connect with my community on a greater scale,” she said. “I wanted to be a bigger part of a city.”

And with the LYAC, Smith Rodrigues is doing just that.

It all started when a family friend suggested the organization to Smith Rodrigues. She was then introduced to Matt Ross, executive director, and Adam Fearnall, council director, who told her more about what the role of the council is.

“I didn’t even know I was going to run until the week before,” she said. “I was like, ‘You know what, I’ll just do it!’ and I’m so happy I did.”

Western student Ross, 26, founded the LYAC in 2011. A year later, Fearnall, 24, transitioned from his University Students’ Council (USC) presidency position at Western to the LYAC team.

“I started noticing the poor representation of youth in the municipal government,” Ross said.

Ross decided it was time the opinions of youth in the community were heard when it came to public policies.

This has been done in several ways since the LYAC’s inception. A recent event one of the councillors ran was a three-on-three basketball tournament, Fearnall said. The councilor wanted to work on increasing youth knowledge on the criminal justice system, so the event aimed to do just that.

Fearnall added the idea was to use basketball to their advantage. The councillor found a way to bring people together to discuss important issues, such as the justice system, during the tournament.

LYAC candidates can be anywhere from 15-25 years old to apply, and anyone over the age of 13 can vote. The LYAC works on a ward voting system where candidates apply to be council members for their own ward and only citizens of that ward can vote for them.

This year, 21 candidates ran for elections. During last year’s election, there was double the amount of candidates who ended up running.

Although the LYAC isn’t a part of Western, some council members are Western students. The council also works closely with the USC on different programs, such as the Get Out and Vote campaign.

In addition, the LYAC is introducing Western as its 15th ward in its 2015 council election, Fearnall said. This council member will represent the university, and bring forward issues that students are facing.

In its three years of existence, the LYAC has opened the door for youth voices to connect to the local government.

“Our goal is to create an environment where youth can learn about politics, public administration, the press, and the relationship between these things and citizens,” Fearnall said.

Amir Farahi is a great of example of this. Farahi, who is a past LYAC councillor, ran for municipal government in Ward 6.

“The majority of the organization lives in the people,” Ross said. “The largest influence that the LYAC has made is in the council members themselves.”

Although Smith Rodrigues has only been on the council for a few short months, she still sees the influences that other members have had on her.

“It’s inspiring being on the council, and being around people who are passionate for change, just like me.”