Children across Canada are justifiably worried about our future. Who wouldn’t be? After all, it’s they who will inherit a world they had very little say in shaping. 

The United Nations Children’s Fund, better known as UNICEF, has helped countries build better lives for and with children and youth for 75 years. When it came time to convene UNICEF Canada’s annual National Child Day Youth Activism Summit on November 20 — in the middle of a pandemic — Overlap helped UNICEF Canada’s One Youth team navigate the uncertainty by pivoting to a cross-Canada virtual event. 

By adapting the event, the One Youth team succeeded in virtually engaging youth with adult decision-makers on a variety of issues identified as priorities by youth, including systemic racism, climate change, and mental health, while offering fresh ideas on how organizations can utilize technology to support vibrant engagement in digital events like this in the future. 

I think, as a partnership, UNICEF Canada and Overlap brought our skills, strengths, and superpowers together to create unique, engaging, and positive processes time and again!

Lisa Wolff, Director, Policy and Research, UNICEF Canada

The Challenges

Agility was the name of the game leading up to the event. Scheduled to happen in November of 2020, Canadians watched as coronavirus cases once again began to rise following a relatively safe summer. 

“We had to make tough decisions about physical vs virtual”, said Ryan Voisin, the project lead for Overlap. “It seems obvious now but with physical spaces already booked, and swag ready to go, we explored with UNICEF Canada – including young people – on how to go 100 percent digital and still support a great experience for multigenerational participants.”

As a long-time partner with Overlap, there was an existing trust between the organizations which facilitated some bold decisions. 

“We relied on Overlap to help us develop virtual convening approaches for a number of gatherings during the early days of pandemic restrictions,” said Lisa Wolff, Director, Policy and Research, UNICEF Canada. “We saw the potential to convene people with fewer time and cost barriers. We welcomed Overlap’s expertise to co-design the processes…”

The Strategy

Ryan noted that in the past, when the event was physical, it was somewhat Toronto-centred, despite bringing young people in from other parts of Canada. Both UNICEF and Overlap agreed, the virtual summit offered an opportunity to make a big change. 

With the date fast-approaching, Overlap convened with UNICEF, and its institutional partners, to focus the summit on six issues identified by Canadian youth, UNICEF advisors and activists:

  • Systemic Racism
  • Mental Health
  • Education
  • Climate Change
  • Democracy
  • Indigenous Sovereignty

“With a shake-up to the formula we saw more opportunity to let the young people speak, to virtually give them the mic,” says Ryan. “We supported youth-led “Stay In to Speak Out” workshops ahead of time with young people leading the sessions. We provided the tools for young people to customize the workshops themselves.” 

This was the first large-scale, intergenerational digital event for UNICEF Canada, but the pivot paid dividends. 

Project rewards

Alli Truesdell, Youth Participation Lead at UNICEF Canada served as the primary point of contact for Overlap, collaborating with stakeholders to bring these ideas to life. 

“Overlap showed us that it is possible to have a successful event online, for young people to be meaningfully heard by adult allies and decision-makers, and that an online space can be fun and engaging!” Alli said. “It also helped us see some positives like being able to engage with young people from across Canada, and get more decision-makers to attend.”

For Lisa Wolff, and her team at UNICEF Canada, the summit was a huge success. “Youth participants at the National Child Day Summit said it was even better than the, ‘analog,’ event the year before! Which was amazing because there weren’t any technological break-downs during the events Overlap facilitated. These were not simple Zoom meetings, but involved a fairly complex set of multiple technologies and processes.”

Ryan describes working with UNICEF Canada as, “energy-giving.” “Seeing young people newly engaged felt like we had unlocked something important. The participants, young and old, came away empowered. As tough as these challenges are, there are solutions, and together we can make a difference.”

Lisa Wolff, whose team “listened intently,” to the feedback couldn’t agree more. “I think, as a partnership, UNICEF Canada and Overlap brought our skills, strengths, and superpowers together to create unique, engaging, and positive processes time and again!”

Header Photo by Welfact on Unsplash