In mid-June, Abacus Data conducted a national public opinion survey commissioned by the Rideau Hall Foundation. The survey was conducted with 1,750 young people in Canada, aged 16 to 24. The intentions of the survey were to understand how young people define community and participate in their community through actions like volunteering.
There is little research about how young people define community and how their definitions impact engagement with their community, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. What we found shows that investing in a young individual’s own sense of belonging does a great deal to build a broader sense of community. Giving young people a space to belong cultivates their desire to engage, give back, and encourage others around them to do the same.
The relationship between a sense of community and community service is strong- those who feel supported, support. But with a relationship this strong, the inverse is also true. Those who don’t feel supported are not inclined to give back. And failing to provide young people an opportunity to cultivate community risks growing divisiveness in our society.
COMMUNITY IS MORE LIKE A FEELING THAN A PLACE, THAT CAN EVOLVE OVER TIME
When asked to describe ‘community’ in their own words, young people in Canada tend to describe the feeling they get from a community, rather than a specific attribute like location, membership etc. Sentiments like ‘friendly’ ‘helpful’, and ‘togetherness’ are commonly used when asked to provide their definition.
THE PANDEMIC HAS IMPACTED OUR COMMUNITIES, INCLUDING HOW WE ACCESS AND DEFINE THEM
The pandemic has had an impact on the communities of young people in Canada, for the better and for the worse. 27% said they’ve found it easier to connect with their community, with the pandemic being a spark to solidify and strengthen relationships of those around them. But these respondents are the exception: 55% of young people in Canada say it’s been more difficult to connect with their community since the start of the pandemic.
Interestingly, there has been a change in how a majority of young people define their community since the beginning of the pandemic. Young people are just as likely to place those they meet online (26%) in their inner community (those they feel the strongest connection to) as their neighbours living in the same physical neighbourhood (27%). And shared values, morals and interests are far more important than being in the same physical space.
A SENSE OF COMMUNITY HAS A TANGIBLE IMPACT BEYOND OUR OWN SENSE OF BELONGING
Whatever the definition, having a strong sense of community is important. Not only does it help youth feel like they belong, but it increases their chances of being an active participant in community, whatever that looks like.
While it may seem like a bit of a given, having a sense of community isn’t just about taking what a community offers, it’s also about giving back. And a young person’s desire to give back isn’t just talk; it turns into real action too.
Among those who feel like they belong in at least one community, 52% volunteer (either formally or informally). Among those who don’t feel like they belong in any community, this number drops 16 points to 36%.
The relationship between sense of community and community service is strong. One of the biggest predictors of having a sense of community is not income, age, or gender, but whether or not an individual volunteers. And one of the biggest predictors of whether or not a young person volunteers is their sense of community. Having a group of young people with a strong connection means having a group of young people who want to actively participate and make their community a better place.
Young people often depend on their community to offer a web of supports and places to be a part of something bigger than themselves. But the pandemic has made the possibility of establishing these connections challenging, with half our young people saying they’ve become disconnected from their communities. This threatens young peoples’ opportunity to find their place, and in turn, reduces their chances to strengthen the communities they belong to.
COMMUNITY IS CONTAGIOUS, BUT SOMETIMES EXCLUSIVE
For those that are part of a community, it’s contagious. When young people feel a strong sense of community, they are much more likely to want others to feel the same, and work to serve their community through volunteerism.
The second biggest predictor of sense of community for youth is whether or not their parents are involved in the community, and the third is their parent’s financial situation. Being from a family that values community service and has the money to spend their time doing so is a big predictor of whether young people will feel connected to a community.
Exclusivity of communities doesn’t come from age, gender or one’s own income, but rather socio-economic status. Having parents or role models who could model behaviour on volunteering, provides an introduction into a volunteer network, and provides financial assistance to join a club, sport or organization. These are far bigger predictors of a young person’s sense of community than their age, gender, or ethnicity.
We know the relationship between sense of belonging and serving one’s community is powerful. And we need to capitalize on this relationship and use it to our advantage to build stronger communities.
Protecting and building a sense of community is important. It’s important for young people to feel like they have a place to belong for their own wellbeing, but also because young people feel encouraged to be active participants in their community and give back when they feel supported themselves, even into adulthood.
We found a similar relationship among adults feeling connected to public institutions and civic engagement — those who feel a connection with public institutions, and feel they are relevant, are much more likely to be active participants civically, and vote in elections. Likewise, young people who feel connected to their community are more likely to actively participate and volunteer.
Just as important as strengthening a sense of community among young people already in a network is the importance of providing opportunities for others to join in. If community truly is contagious, we should be working on being relevant and accessible, becoming more inclusive, and building opportunities to bring more young people into the fold. And now is the time to do it. The pandemic has impacted, shifted, and shaped how we define community. We’ve been closed off and isolated from those around us, but at the same time we’ve also allowed our own definition of community to change and be a little less reliant on location. Young people, and their communities, thrive when connections can be made. But for half of young people in Canada, these connections have been strained.
Building community can combat the growing divisiveness we’ve seen on social media and online communities, that has only been exacerbated since the start of the pandemic. And without an effort to foster community, we risk a growing number of youth feeling disconnected and not able to live up to their fullest potential.
Rather than allowing the pandemic to divide us, we need to work together to strengthen what bonded us together in the past, and invite others, who we may not have considered to be part of our community to come into the fold.