Edmonton's NextGen reaches the end of the road

· The Pulse

Edmonton's NextGen is dissolving this spring due to a lack of new blood flowing into the organization, going out with a "farewell tour" that includes one last PechaKucha Night.

NextGen, which started 18 years ago as a city administrative council and is now a volunteer-run non-profit, works to "support the growth of a city that is attractive to the next generation." Events were central to its work, said Christine Causing, who was part of the NextGen pilot and became its sole full-time employee during its time as a city initiative.

"NextGen did some really unique and creative things to engage young people, and this was actually before the age of social media," she told Taproot. "NextGen really was about bringing people together in person and creating connections."

But there hasn't been a new stream of volunteers to take NextGen into a new era.

"You need new blood and fresh ideas, especially for something as fast-paced and as public-facing as NextGen. You need to have those newer voices and perspectives onboard to continue to stay relevant," said NextGen vice-president Anika Zepp.

"Through the pandemic, we have had great engagement," she said. "But we haven't been overly successful in retaining new volunteers, and that makes the succession planning a challenge. I love that I've been involved since 2014, but I'm a little bit burnt out, to be honest."

Before formally wrapping up in May, NextGen will host its 40th PechaKucha Night (PKN) on March 30 at TELUS World of Science, followed by a CityJam on April 28 at the Muttart Conservatory. CityJams have traditionally been a recruitment event, but this final instalment will be a chance for NextGenners new and old to gather and bid adieu.

A crowd of people in a theatre listens to two people onstage beside a screen reading Pecha Kucha Night 9

PechaKucha Night 9 filled the theatre at the old Royal Alberta Museum on March 4, 2011. (Mack Male/Flickr)

NextGen's journey

NextGen was originally formed as a City of Edmonton task force by then-councillors Kim Krushell and Michael Phair in 2005. After making nine recommendations to council, the group became an administrative committee of the city until December 2020.

NextGen was "never intended to make recommendations to council" following its pilot run, said Krushell. Unlike the Edmonton Youth Council, which specifically offers policy input to council, NextGen as an administrative committee was always about bringing together future leaders, aged 18 to 40, to inspire collaboration and civic engagement.

"Where I think NextGen really excelled was bringing people together in that demographic to connect and learn about different perspectives, learn about different ideas, and get people engaged in their city," said Coun. Andrew Knack, who worked on NextGen from the time he was first elected in 2013 to its departure from the city in 2020.

When city priorities shifted due to COVID-19 and global calls for a focus on anti-racism, NextGen left the city's fold and incorporated as a non-profit society.

"I think some of those other more pressing social issues were a little bit more of a priority for the (social development) branch," said Zepp. "Things just didn't quite seem to be feeling right."

The city supported the change by supplying NextGen with its existing branding, the PKN event licence, and an undisclosed amount of startup funding.

A lot of NextGen's work over the years has been in the event space, including its marquee PKNs, featuring talks of six minutes and 40 seconds each, accompanied by 20 slides. The group was the first in Western Canada to host a PKN back in 2008.

"I think it's one of the reasons I fell in love with our city as much as I have," said Zepp. "Being able to see the diversity of all of the ideas and passions that people are working on, and knowing that all that is happening right here, has always been really inspiring to me."

A wide range of topics have been covered at PKNs over the years, from Shafraaz Kaba's talk on How Can We Build a Carbon Neutral World? to one called Why Pineapples Are the Most Interesting Fruit in the World by Andrew Williams. The common theme is that they brought young people together to share ideas and inspire change.

But PKNs are far from all NextGen did, said Causing.

"NextGen was meant to be hearing about what young people wanted to do in order to make our city more connected," she said. "There are amazing things that we did back in the day that I don't know if a lot of people know about."

She cited the creation of a cultural plan and public Wi-Fi as results of NextGen's task-force era. She also remembered events like CANDI(DATE), where young voters could meet politicians running for office in a speed-dating style; MEAET, a micro-fundraising initiative where attendees selected a project pitch to be funded; and a speaking engagement with then-MP Justin Trudeau on volunteering in your community after graduating from post-secondary studies.

End of an era

During its latter years as a non-profit, NextGen continued similar work. Some events went virtual and others had limited capacity (both due, of course, to COVID-19), but the work went largely without interruption.

Zepp also said it was a priority to go out on a high note. "We decided that it would be better for the organization to close out while things are still relatively positive, rather than sticking around too long in efforts to try to make something work with volunteers that could be fatiguing," she said.

"With the dawn of a new era, sometimes other eras must come to a close," reads a statement from NextGen on its dissolution. And indeed, young Edmontonians are engaging with civic life in avenues that did not exist prior to NextGen, Knack and others pointed out.

"I think about a group like Paths for People, which didn't exist when NextGen started. There wasn't a group that was working on things like active transportation and better mobility for people," Knack said. "People can now see that their voice does make a difference. It is having a tangible impact on the city they want to see."