Toronto , Canada

DiverseCity’s School for Civics

Maytree Foundation

January 13, 2011

Preparing diverse leadership for political life

Why does it matter who walks the corridors of power?

For Alejandra Bravo, the question goes to the heart of democratic institutions and values: “Elected leaders are powerful symbols of participation and inclusion and, for future generations, of what they can and cannot aspire to become.”

Leaders in public office have influence that goes far beyond their ability to affect government decision-making and policy development. Leaders signal who belongs and who doesn’t. As our representatives, they are – or should be – a reflection of who we are as a society.

A political junkie with 15 years of experience as a campaign volunteer and two-time city council candidate, Bravo is keenly aware that the city’s leadership in appointed and elected office does not reflect the diversity of Toronto, where nearly half the population is made up of visible minorities. No surprise then that participation at the ballot box by immigrants and visible minorities is lower than in any other group.

Toronto is Canada’s largest and famously multicultural city, but many groups are still excluded from playing a meaningful role in shaping their own, and their city’s future. According to Bravo, that was a problem that needed attention:

“There’s a cost when we fail to broaden inclusion and engagement. We are signaling to successive generations of racially and ethnically diverse youth that they are not fully part of society. When people feel they don’t belong, they feel disconnected from their surroundings. They don’t feel listened to and valued. ”

Practical Solutions

In 2007, when Bravo approached the Maytree Foundation to pitch the idea of a “campaign school” to help community-based leaders in Toronto get involved in the political process, she found an organization with a long, successful record of promoting inclusion and diverse leadership in the GTA and across Canada.

For Maytree, changing the face of Toronto’s leadership was key to a brighter future for the whole city.

Leadership diversity pays dividends greater than just the inclusion of marginalized communities.  Harnessing diversity helps drive competition and economic prosperity – in the workplace, in the boardroom and in the broader society.

Maytree’s leadership and integration programs had already identified some of the barriers that prevent newcomers and diverse cultural communities from active participation in the political process; for example, how to gain the tactical campaign knowledge that is generally learned through years of volunteering with candidates. Other barriers ranged from gaps in practical information to a lack of networks (particularly for those born outside of Canada) and access to media and media training.

To accelerate the rate of political inclusion, participants needed training to gain both technical skills and practical knowledge. In 2007, Maytree hired Bravo to develop and implement a pilot program to fill that gap.

Welcome to School4Civics

Maytree’s School4Civics (School for Civics) was launched as a non-partisan training program designed to build the capacity of a new generation of diverse civic and political leaders committed to making progressive social change.

Participants were selected based on their demonstrated commitment to social change, their involvement as a community volunteer and existing political and advocacy campaign experience.

The inaugural program focused on how to build long-term political power (beyond a single campaign), on planning strategically to increase political impact as well as acquiring the technical skills required to run a campaign. The six-month calendar also included training in interpersonal skills and network development.

The program’s expert faculty included political strategists, campaign managers and former candidates with front-line experience from a multi-party perspective. Training specifics included: framing your key messages, public speaking, campaign management, fund-raising, building coalitions and balancing personal and public life.

A year later, School4Civic’s success was folded into DiverseCity: The Greater Toronto Leadership Project, a three-year initiative launched in November 2008 by Maytree and the Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance (formerly the Toronto City Summit Alliance). School4Civics became one of eight initiatives undertaken by DiverseCity to promote diverse leadership and the promise of a stronger, more prosperous city region.

School4Civics continues to adapt its programming to participant needs and opportunities in the political landscape. In 2009,  it introduced e-learning events in a dynamic webinar format to increase participant access and initiated training for campaign managers. A key lesson was understanding that political inclusion and power is about more than the face on the campaign poster.

In 2010, the program focused on recruiting municipal campaign volunteers in preparation for the upcoming municipal elections. The curriculum was designed to ensure the workshops were sufficiently participatory and flexible enough to address different levels of skill and experience among participants. The goal was to make sure participants could get to the podium with a real understanding of the material.

Another DiverseCity initiative, DiverseCity Counts, raised the bar on accountability by conducting the first ever survey of diverse leadership across public, private and nonprofit sectors of the city. The 2009 benchmark showed just how far we still have to go for a just society. While the Greater Toronto Region’s population has 49.5% visible minorities,  across the five municipalities studied the urban region has only 10% of its elected officials and 4% of senior leaders across all sectors.

‘What get’s counted, get’s done’ is the program’s call to action. Annual reports are tracking the city’s progress towards more representative leadership.

Measuring Up for Success

To date, School4Civics has trained 100 leaders. Fourteen candidates have registered to run for city council or school board. Two program graduates have graduated to become senior policy advisers to a mayoral candidate

All 2010 graduates worked on the recent municipal campaigns and 90% of all graduates have participated in a provincial or federal race or in a nomination contest since the start of the program. Together they have increased awareness of the lack of diversity in elected office, particularly in municipal government, and collectively they have raised public expectations for change by showcasing new candidates and leaders prepared to stand for elected office. And it has certainly received extensive media attention as well as interest from political parties.

As first time city councilor candidate and School4Civics graduate Louroz Mercader says, “Together we have created a movement of change for the future.”

In 2011, the School4Civics expects that even more alumni will be seeking nominations or otherwise participating in the Ontario provincial election. To support these broader efforts, School 4Civics is currently launching a new program focused on “Understanding political party nominations.” It is designed to help participants navigate the provincial nomination process to secure a riding.

DiverseCity School4Civics is working to ensure that our public leaders speak for all of us. By identifying and training diverse leaders to run or manage election campaigns, the program aims to ensure that the political process meets the needs of all Canadians.

Most importantly, the program goes beyond planning for a single campaign. DiverseCity School4Civics trains leaders to make a lifelong commitment to creating social change.

Making it Work for You:

  • Take time to analyze and understand what impact you want to have. Building long-term political power takes more than the success of a single campaign
  • Be strategic about political impact by defining your vision and putting it down on paper
  • What kind of leader do you want to be? Getting there means committing to personal growth
  • Success is often built on lessons from failure. Be willing to learn from your mistakes and to change when necessary
  • Technical skills can be as important as big ideas and personality when you are running a campaign. Take time to learn practical lessons you can take into the field