Recently, I attended a public meeting held at the local community hall to share the latest findings from a city budget engagement process. While it would have been easier to go on my own, my husband was out of town and the only way I could attend (and show my support for our new council) was if I brought my children (a 2 year old and a 5 month old baby).
My biggest concern for this meeting was how to get everyone out of the house on time and what snacks to bring that wouldn’t create a mess (the time of the meeting crossed our dinner hour). Having worked in many countries around the world where children are integrated into all aspects of community life, I feel comfortable bringing my kids with me to most meetings. In fact, I just returned from three weeks working in Nepal with my son who was four months at the time. It had not crossed my mind whether we would be welcome (or not) at this meeting in our community hall.
For the most part people were quite helpful and nice. The facilitator had brought his young son, which helped set the tone of inclusiveness. That said there were no other children in the room. The turnout was likely the best ever for a budget meeting though it was demographically homogenous.
Thankfully no one had to ‘sit silently’ through lengthy presentations. Most of the meeting was spent walking around talking to your neighbours about what was important to everyone for budget priorities. The facilitator was top-notch and everyone was on task.
After about an hour and half, the meeting closed with a sharing circle of fifty people. It was a nice touch however this is exactly when my baby started to get vocal. I wasn’t sure what to do as I had brought my double-wide stroller into the hall and the circle passed directly in front of the exit door. In addition I would have had to figure out how to open the double doors of the venue to get out (I had to seek help when I arrived earlier). Given it wasn’t a very formal meeting and we were in a community hall, I decided to wait. Besides, I wanted to hear what people had to say!
It didn’t take long before someone gave me a scowl and pointed to the door. I used the opportunity to quickly exit however I left feeling rather sad. I had put in a lot of effort to drag myself and these two young kids downtown to a budget meeting and was now being booted out?! At the same time, I didn’t want to ‘ruin’ the meeting for anyone due to my crying baby.
Once I finished feeling sorry for myself, I reflected on two things:
- Why is it important to have children (or diversity in general) at community meetings?
- What can community organizers do to make meetings more inclusive of families?
These are my thoughts.
- Having young people at meetings is important for many reasons:
- When you walk into the room and see children, it changes the vibe for the better.
- We speak differently to each other (often kinder)
- We are more patient
- The mood is lighter (a child’s smile can brighten even the most boring budget meeting)
- It is a reminder of community diversity.
- Different segments of community will have different priorities. For example, an arena or a skatepark might be a budget burden for some people however for children it may be their anchor to the community
- Children often say things that adults feel uncomfortable saying (usually these things need to be said).
- Seeing a child in the room is a helpful reminder that the impacts of decisions made today will be felt by young people in the future
- Instilling a sense of civic engagement in our children is key to a healthy community for the long-term.
- Some ways we could make meetings more inclusive of families are:
- Include family-friendly in the advertising.
- This lets parents know its okay to bring children
- This helps everyone attending (including those without kids) understand that it will be a noisy meeting (kids make noise)
- Facilitators can plan for noise and use microphones to help ensure everyone is heard (for example during a circle discussion)
- During the meeting introduction, remind people that we are planning for everyone in the community. All voices are respected including those of little people.
- Use visuals and have opportunities for drawing (as opposed to only speaking and writing)
- Choose meeting times that don’t interfere with meals and naps (i.e. finish by 5 or 5:30pm latest).
- Provide healthy snacks for little people that are potentially missing dinner.
- Provide child care so that parents can participate more effectively and children can easily be removed if the discussion is more serious.
- If you ask a single parent with two kids to leave, at least help them to open the double doors so the stroller can get through quickly and quietly 🙂
Teaching our children to be civically engaged is important to sustaining healthy communities. I hope future community meeting participants embrace the noise!