Non-profit founded by Political Science students turns theory into practice

When the suspension of classes in March sent students across Brock University scrambling to manage course deadlines, sudden relocations and the pressures of lockdown, the members of CiviConnect set aside their own stress to reach out to their peers.

The registered non-profit run by now-fourth-year student Hope Tuff-Berg, Kailene Jackson (BA ’20), fourth-year student Sandra Bedawed and Nour Hage (BA ’20), all from the Department of Political Science, mobilized quickly to take action.

“Many of us had plans for the summer, whether we had an internship, summer job or co-op placement set up,” says Sandra Bedawed, Marketing Manager. “For the graduating class, it was hard to take it all in. We realized that many students like us had major plans cancelled and felt that we needed to help in some way, so we began brainstorming ways of how youth could be civically involved while being stuck at home.”

The result was a webinar in April, “How To Be Civically Engaged During A Pandemic,” that explored opportunities for young people related to digital literacy, skill building, e-volunteering and even launching advocacy campaigns.

As the needs brought to light by the pandemic grew clearer, CiviConnect decided to take another big step.

“We were all very concerned about the effects of COVID-19 on our community and the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline workers,” says Kailene Jackson, Chief Administrative Officer.  “As a community-oriented non-profit, we wanted to help out. We have experience fundraising and running awareness campaigns, not to mention connections across the region, so our skillsets matched a need in our community.”

Through Spark Niagara, CiviConnect joined forces with BISEP, a local medical technology start-up, and launched a fundraiser to purchase 3D printed face shields for frontline workers.

But when, exactly, did four full-time students juggling classes, work, athletics, clubs and volunteering also find time to found a non-profit organization with the goal of achieving a better world by 2030?

The students first came together in 2018, when Founder and CEO Tuff-Berg first conceived of the First Vote initiative to improve youth voter turnout in the provincial election. Bedawed, Jackson and Hage volunteered for the event, and soon found that they all shared a vision for using their political science education to make an impact.

In 2019, a second First Vote conference tackled the same issue for the federal election, and the group developed additional election-related events including a Brock Town Hall, a youth panel for CPAC and workshops at Strive Niagara.

But after the election and with no upcoming elections on the horizon, the four decided to refocus and form CiviConnect.

“Instead of focusing solely on youth voting, we pivoted to promote youth engagement in our community through advocacy and leadership, as well as to connect youth to meaningful employment and make Niagara’s workplaces ‘youth-friendly,’” explains Jackson. “We want to elevate youth voices in all facets, not just politics.”

With support and guidance from Spark Niagara and the WE Social Enterprise Incubator Program in Toronto, and using the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as guiding principles, the organization has engaged more than 50 volunteers in support of its events and programs and received a Canada Summer Jobs grant to hire three full-times employees this summer.

Jackson also notes that studying Political Science at Brock has shaped the group’s approach to their work.

“Having the support of our department, Brock, local politicians and community leaders made it much easier for us to establish ourselves,” he says. “Studying Political Science has been very helpful in teaching us about how to make change, both through government and outside of government, as well as empowering us to do that — plus, we use a lot of what we’ve learned in our classes to create educational content for events and workshops.”

Bedawed agrees that her coursework has informed her civic commitment, and specifically recalls how one course, “The Government and Politics of Canada” taught by Assistant Professor Nicole Goodman, and the notion of democratic deficit shaped her views.

“Learning about low voter turnout as well as low participation in civic matters as a whole among youth sparked a great interest in me,” she says. “I realized that those could be my friends and colleagues who were distant from politics because it was a topic that did not appeal to our young generation.”

“The creation of CiviConnect is democracy in action,” says Nicole Goodman, who is pleased to see Political Science students showing leadership in extraordinary times. “It’s taking what we learn in the classroom and applying it to the real world to benefit young people and create community and connection during a time when isolation and distancing seem like the new norm.”

Following Spring Convocation, only half of the group remains at Brock, with Tuff-Berg entering her fourth year while Jackson begins a master’s in political science this fall. Bedawed heads to Seneca College to complete the final year of her program in Political Science and Paralegal in the combined Brock-Seneca program, while General Manager Hage (BA ’20) celebrates the completion of a degree in Political Science and History.

Yet CiviConnect has an eye on the future, entering a new partnership with Opportunity Niagara and to help youth find meaningful employment. The group is also in the planning stages of a new youth professional development and leadership program, which will launch in about a year.

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