As citizens, what we do for society counts
Independent, passionate, socially entrepreneurial and keen to make a difference are not labels usually applied to the Gen-Z, but they’re the findings of research published this week by NAB. These are the attributes we see every day at the McCusker Centre for Citizenship at the University of WA, where an Australian-first program is under way to encourage young people to become lifelong “active citizens”.
The common view about citizenship is that it’s something you either have by birthright or have been awarded after you migrate to Australia. It’s the thing that enables you to carry an Australian passport when you travel overseas.
But our work is about something more: what responsibility do we have as citizens and in particular what responsibility do we have to be active citizens, contributing to the shape of our community? We call it active citizenship. It’s a mindset, an attitude and above all we want it to involve action. This is a question we are posing for students studying at university and the community more generally.
Active citizenship, in our view, is the business of engaging with the community in which you live and work and a particular focus is on building a far greater understanding of those citizens who are on the margins of our communities and our responsibility to contribute towards a more socially inclusive society.
One of our aims is to expose young Australians — in particular, our University of WA students — to some of the complex challenges in our community and to provide them with structured opportunities to make a contribution — to make a difference.
We offer undergraduates and postgraduates credit towards their courses if they take part in structured internships across one semester with more than 200 not-for-profit, community and government organisations. We want active citizenship to become a lifelong habit.
So what is the appetite among our Gen-Zs to make a difference in their community? The best answers are found in the statistics gleaned from the McCusker Centre’s first year in operation. This year, our first year, we placed more than 130 students in internships. There were more than 300 applicants from across all faculties; commerce, law, science, medicine, arts, engineering.
Young students have contributed more than 13,000 hours to making a difference in the community. They have worked alongside our partner organisations in areas such as migrant and refugee support, assisting families who have children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, writing submissions to government on the over-representation of Aboriginal people in our prisons system and running social media campaigns on poverty. They have travelled widely with organisations in regional WA, interstate and New York.
And the feedback from some of our interns: “This internship has made me a more well-rounded individual … and I’ve learnt a little more about humanity” to “I can make a difference even though it’s only maybe an hour or two hours, anyone can make a difference to someone’s life.”
Young people also have a great appetite for looking at new ways to solve old problems. This year, the centre, in partnership with Bloom and the Centre for Social Impact at UWA, took part for the first time in The Big Idea, run by The Big Issue, to conceive and develop social enterprises designed to address homelessness and disadvantage in the community.
We have started an ambitious program, Vital Discussions for Australians, on issues such as mental health, disability, ending world poverty, leadership and citizenship to reinforce the importance of being involved. More than 9000 people have joined in these discussions.
We have more than 200 partners locally, nationally and globally committed to building a greater capacity in our community to build a more socially inclusive society.
For them, our interns often represent a wellspring of fresh ideas and the chance to forge lasting relationships with the people most likely to become tomorrow’s decision-makers.
Next year, we want to build our number of internships to 200 and forge partnerships with more organisations, locally, nationally and globally. As we grow, it’s this notion of active citizenship that underpins our vision: to foster caring, connected and socially engaged citizens who actively contribute to the wellbeing of their communities. Michelle Scott is the director of the McCusker Centre for Citizenship.