Jacqueline Kennelly  

Photo courtesy of Dr. Kennelly


Dr. Jacqueline Kennelly: Teens Working to Better the World

“For young people, democratic and civic engagement is about connecting to what is important to them – about being able to make a difference in their schools or in their communities as part of their youth group or that kind of thing, about having an authentic legitimate voice that is actually listened to.”

Dr. Jacqueline Kennelly is a professor of sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. Her research focuses on young people’s involvement in political processes. Dancing Owl spoke to her about youth citizenship and about how young people can develop a strong voice in government.


Dr. Kennelly, how did you become interested in studying youth political engagement and youth culture?

It started because of my own involvement. I was always involved in activist projects from quite a young age. I started with animal rights and environmental movements. I moved into the anti-globalization movement as a young adult. And while I was doing my PhD I was involved with a youth driven, social change organization called “Check Your Head Global Education Network” that is located in Vancouver. You can look for their website. It’s a great website, actually. I was already involved with “Check Your Head” when I was looking for a PhD project, so I decided to do some research related to that work. So that's that where it began. By then I was in my late twenties so I was a little bit older. But there were a lot of younger people involved in the organization.

You've done some research on the Olympics and low income youth. Can you please tell us about that work?

Sure. When Vancouver won the Olympic bid there were a lot of people who were very unhappy. I wanted to find out more about why people were opposed to the Olympics. I had a sense of what the problems might be, but I wanted to have a chance to get a bit more information about it. I was also doing what's called a post doctoral fellowship in the United Kingdom and I knew that the Olympics were coming to London. That seemed like the perfect opportunity to develop a project between Vancouver and London, which were two cities that I knew. As well, I was interested in young people's lives. And in particular, I had an interest in low income young people and how they were experiencing the games. That's how that project began. Do you want me to talk about some of the findings? The project is still ongoing.

Yes. Please talk about your findings.

In Vancouver one of the most prominent things that emerged was that, as the Olympics came to town, the pressure on street youth to get off the streets became more intense. Usually that pressure came from police. So it meant that the youth were interacting with police a lot more. Generally their experience, and this is true for youth in London, was that the games were being held in their city but that the Olympics wasn't really for them. It was for affluent tourists who would come to the city and for affluent residents of the city. One of the effects of hosting an Olympic games is that there is a lot of development pressure put on real estate and so neighborhoods tend to gentrify which means that housing becomes more expensive. So the youth in both Vancouver and London, who already were either not housed or were under-housed, felt that their opportunities to actually find housing lessened because of the Olympics. So overall their sense was that the Games were not really a positive thing for them, for their lives and for their opportunities. It raises questions about who cities are for, who makes decisions to bring a gigantic event like that to a city and then who suffers from it. And the ones who suffer tend to be marginalized impoverished people, especially young people.

You've helped young people become more democratically engaged in their communities. Could you please tell us about your work in that field?

As I mentioned, I was involved with “Check Your Head”.  We would run workshops in high schools and at conferences for youth and at university classrooms, college classrooms, unions, all sorts of different sites where young people gather. And we'd do workshops on global justice issues like free trade agreements and the effect that they'd have on cities. We'd talk about genetically modified foods. We'd talk about the effects of media and media concentration and what it means when you're getting your information from a big corporation.

We were also a big driver in a project called “Get Your Vote On” which was basically trying to get young people out to vote and inform and educate them about their rights as citizens in terms of engaging the democratic processes, not just the vote. We would hold youth friendly candidate debates in pubs and that kind of thing to try and allow young people to have more information before they went to vote. That was in my community life, my non-academic life. In terms of the academic research, I hope that the book that I wrote about activist research will be read by young activists and be of interest and relevant to them. It was an ethnography, which basically means that I did focus groups which are like group interviews and I would follow people around and do participatory observation. I'd go to events and observe what was going on in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

I found that youth activist cultures, like lots of cultures, have their own forms of exclusion which were often shaped along class and race lines as well as gender lines in different ways. And that meant that only some young people could actually access activist cultures and feel comfortable in facing them. And I think that's an important finding. I think it’s important for young people involved in activist work to recognize the ways in which those sorts of social exclusions get reproduced. Meaning that not everyone is going to feel comfortable being involved in activist communities. And that doesn't mean that they aren't willing or interested or passionate about the issues. But it might mean that the space isn't safe for them and we need to think about how to create safer spaces so that all young people can engage in these issues.

What is the title of your book?

It’s called “Citizen Youth” and the subtitle is “Culture, activism and agency in a neoliberal era”. You can order it on Amazon, or you could ask your library to get it.

How do education and technology affect the way in which youth participate in democratic processes? What emergent forms of youth citizenship have you found?

I looked at citizenship education. My PhD is in education so that was one of the lenses I was using. There are civics or citizenship courses in almost every province in Canada now. And most of them are obligatory. That's pretty recent. In the last ten years or so, there’s been a push for more civics. And the reason for the civics courses is that a kind of panic has ensued about young people's democratic engagement – that young people aren't voting once they turn 18, that young people are apathetic because they aren't engaged, etc. And I think a lot of that is actually wrong. But that was the rationale that was used to implement these civics courses. But when I talked to the activists and asked them what impact these civics courses had, they either had no impact or they had a negative impact. They felt that the citizenship education they received was very much about conventional democratic politics that they didn't relate to. It was very much about the party - do you vote for the Liberals, do you vote for the Conservatives, etc. But it didn't speak much to their own experiences, their own sense of how to engage. Or they were just irrelevant. But some of the young people said that schooling had an effect, especially if they had a particularly passionate teacher who inspired them.

But that also is class stratified. Schools that are in middle class or upper middle class areas tend to have more sorts of activist engagement, whereas schools in working class or low income neighborhoods don't. So there's actually another class divide in terms of education. Like I said earlier, there's a class divide in activist cultures. Part of it is because in the education system, even though the schools are supposed to offer the same kinds of courses, there might be less extracurricular activities in low income schools and the teachers in low income schools might be more focused on just trying to get their students to get to school that day and so they don't have a global justice club, or that kind of thing. And so that ends up intensifying the class division in activist cultures where low income and working class kids don't get that kind of education necessarily. So I think that's really problematic because everyone needs to be part of the discussion and part of citizenship and democratic engagement.

So, in your experience how do differences between youth and adult cultures affect styles of participation in the political process?

There is this idea of democracy as being about voting and about the electoral system. And that’s actually a very limited idea of democracy that only captures one tiny piece of it. And for young people, especially before they're 18, it’s actually fairly irrelevant. They don't see it touching their lives in the same way as older people might. For young people, democratic and civic engagement is about connecting to what is important to them – about being able to make a difference in their schools or in their communities as part of their youth group or that kind of thing, about having an authentic legitimate voice that is actually listened to. In another aspect of my life, I did some consulting work for an organization where I did some research on youth engagement and what it means to engage young people - kind of the best practices documented in research. And there are lots that research talks about. If you want to actually engage young people, you need to treat them like people, not like morons. You need to give them autonomy, let them make decisions, take their voice seriously. And then they step up and take responsibility. Of course they do and they feel respected. And that doesn't always happen. It does happen in some places, but not always. So I think that's the cultural shift that needs to happen for young people to actually have more of a legitimate space in democratic culture.

Many of today’s youth are passionate about improving their communities and the world at large. What advice would you give them?

Probably the best advice I could give is to stay connected to each other. Democratic work is hard. Activist work is hard. It’s exhausting. It’s demanding. It doesn't always come with tangible, immediate rewards. Sometimes if you win a battle it’s great, but you're in it for the long haul generally. And the ways in which people can keep going is to form strong caring relationships with each other, to take care of each other and to find ways to not burn out. So that means saying no sometimes. It means recognizing what the limits are and supporting each other and not playing the "who is more radical" game. We're all in this together. We all have different skills. We all have different limits. How can we make this work for all of us and support ourselves in this process?

What's it like to pursue a career in sociology and what advice would you give to young people who may want to pursue that career?

I landed in sociology a little bit haphazardly. My degrees have all been in different disciplines. I have an undergraduate degree in a program called Arts and Sciences that's all interdisciplinary. My Masters degree is in environmental studies through York University and my then PhD is in education. And then I got a job in sociology, which is great. So mine is not a typical path towards getting a job in sociology. Although it is an interdisciplinary discipline so there are a lot of people in sociology who have been trained in different kinds of disciplines.

Does taking courses in various different subjects really help once you've become an academic?

It depends on the discipline. I think at the high school level take a wide variety, absolutely, because you don't have to be restricted at the high school level. I think that's still true at the undergraduate level. A lot of undergraduate programs are emphasizing breadth requirements now so that you don't just focus on one discipline and you take things across a range. You can always narrow down as you go on to graduate work. There is a lot of schooling before you can become an academic. It’s 10 plus years from undergraduate to PhD. People who go into graduate work are people who love to read and write, people who love ideas. So I think it’s important to know that about yourself, if that's the kind of thing you're really interested in and that draws you. Because that's the job, you do a lot of that and teaching, of course. So I think everyone follows a different path. It’s hard to give concrete advice other than to follow what interests you and try not to worry too much about what the job will be in the end. Obviously we have to think about these things, but jobs pop up in unusual places.

Thank you Dr. Kennelly. It has been a pleasure speaking with you.

This transcript has been abridged and edited slightly to improve readability.