8. Lessons in digital advocacy to let youth be architects of their own destinies

Young Diplomats of Canada (YDC) is a youth-led, all-volunteer national network that develops the diplomatic leadership and international advocacy experience of young Canadians. At our core, we are driven by the conviction that for the long-term success of our society, the perspectives of young folks must be meaningfully incorporated within all levels of decision-making.

At pivotal moments in the global calendar, we recruit, train, and send abroad committed community leaders under the age of 30. First, they conduct consultations at home, then they head off to the forums like the World Bank/IMF Annual Meetings, OECD Forum, and G7/G20 to ensure young Canadians have a seat at the table. Crucially, upon their return, YDC delegates share key learnings with the Canadian public and advocate for youth-friendly policies directly to decision-makers.

In our work, we seek to centre young people as dynamic and empowered architects of their own destinies. That’s our theory of change. But, our experience has shown that – for a variety of reasons related to privilege(s) – not all youth have the same level of access. In the Canadian context, the communities regularly excluded from youth civil society spaces focused on global policymaking often include Indigenous, low-income, and rural youth.

Motivated by the challenge of maximising accessibility while limiting costs, we sought to redefine our advocacy model to be as inclusive as feasible. As young people ourselves, we looked first to our networks; engaging with Indigenous, student, and feminist youth groups to better understand how to make our programming meaningfully accessible.

This process allowed us to identify the primary barriers preventing young Canadians from engaging in advocacy activities:

  • Prohibitive costs (i.e. time/transportation)
  • Distance from location to Ottawa (Canada’s capital)
  • Discomfort with format of traditional in-person advocacy meetings

Reflecting on our community of young leaders, we devised several key design principles to guide our advocacy model:

  • Responsive to Canada’s geographical and social realities
  • Designed for young people from a variety of backgrounds
  • Intended to never impose an extra financial burden

Merging these considerations, YDC now employs a digital advocacy model. With a prime minister who doubles as minister of youth and a government where every minister is required to maintain an active Twitter presence, we facilitate interactions with key decision-makers over digital platforms where it doesn’t matter if you are in Iqaluit, Vancouver or Halifax and all that’s required is an internet connection.

By eschewing traditional models of advocacy, we empower delegates to speak directly to decision-makers over platforms like Google Hangouts, consult other young Canadians through online consultations hosted on Typeform, and stream key meetings publicly over Facebook Live. YDC leverages our government and civil society partnerships to secure meetings with the prime minister, ministers, and/or subject-matter experts. Then, delegates present policy recommendations grounded in their international experience and lived experiences.

While the notion of using social media and digital platforms to connect is far from new, we’ve strategically adapted these tools to further our objectives of ensuring youth voices are heard not in an abstract or diffuse way – but directly by decision-makers. Further, in recognising that our programming can only be offered to a small number of youth, we have committed ourselves to reaching a broad cross-section of Canadian youth through broadcasting key meetings and events publicly wherever possible.

And these efforts have borne fruit. To take one example: YDC served as the lead convener for the Youth 7 (Y7) – a Formal G7 Engagement Group Summit integrated within the Canadian G7 Presidency where youth delegates met and negotiated a series of policy recommendations for G7 leaders.

Applying the digital advocacy model to the Y7:

  • Hundreds of Canadian youth participated in digital consultations on priority themes over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Results from these consultations were shared directly with G7 employment and innovation ministers.
  • Key moments of the summit (plenaries, roundtables, panels) were streamed live over both YDC’s social media accounts and, through a partnership with the government of Canada, over the G7 Canada Facebook page
  • Y7 delegates connected over Skype with other youth delegates participating in the Commonwealth Youth Forum to share common positions and experiences

Civil society organisations globally face challenges unique to their political and social contexts. For youth movements, these difficulties are frequently compounded by under resourcing and a reliance on pro-bono and volunteer labour. Ultimately, we’ve come to understand that for low-resource organisations, the most effective route doesn’t usually include endlessly iterating new engagement tools.

Rather, for us to realize the vibrant, democratic and accountable societies at the heart of our theories of change, we must design participatory models that best suit the people at the heart of our movements. For youth-led organizations in the Global North, that means (i) identifying surmountable barriers to participation for your constituency, (ii) focusing on inclusion and accessibility in addressing gaps, and (iii) leveraging and activating existing engagement pathways.

Max Seunik is Deputy Executive Director of Young Diplomats of Canada and a member of the CIVICUS Youth Action Team (YAT).

This article is part of a series to celebrate CIVICUS’ 25th anniversary and provide perspectives and insights on citizen action around the world.

If you would like to repost this article, or contribute an idea of your own to the series, please email  




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