In the summer of 2022, several Political Science undergraduates and recent alumni spent their time at an internship with the GLOCAL Foundation of Canada, applying their knowledge to real-life, relevant, and local issues. We sat down with GLOCAL Foundation founder, executive director, and UBC Political Science alumni Faye Ying to talk about her experiences with GLOCAL and her journey beyond graduation from UBC Political Science.
Tell us about the story of how and why you founded GLOCAL Foundation: what sparked the idea, how you put the team together, and how you got where you are.
Since graduating from UBC in 2009, I have studied and lived in different countries and worked in a variety of institutional settings, including the Canadian parliament, the University of British Columbia, venture capital, media and the United Nations. I learned from each of these experiences the importance of global understanding and local engagement, which is the core idea behind GLOCAL.
As a working mother and proud Chinese Canadian, I have been through many of the challenges that young Canadians face in terms of academic pursuits, career development, family responsibilities and personal identity. These challenges are particularly common for immigrants, who also have to navigate a social, linguistic and cultural context that is not familiar to them.
Coming from an immigrant family, I am especially preoccupied with the question of what it means to be a Canadian. How can I transcend the stereotypes attached to immigrants and avoid being deemed as a “permanent foreigner”? How can I cherish my cultural heritage and also be proudly Canadian and actively engaged in Canadian democracy?
I have been also asking myself how to follow the inscription over Dexter gate at Harvard, which I encountered every day leaving my dorm during graduate school: “Enter to grow in wisdom; Depart to better serve thy country and thy kind”. How can I make better use of my academic interests, professional skills, global experience and entrepreneurial instincts? And how can I transcend time and geographic constraints to accomplish my goals while juggling family, professional, and community responsibilities?
Although Canada is, on the face of it, a multicultural society, do we know enough about the cultural, ethnic, geographic, religious and linguistic backgrounds of our fellow citizens? How much do we know about other parts of Canada other than the geography around where we live, let alone other parts of the globe? How much do we know about the opportunities for Canadians to be more civically and politically engaged? How can we connect Canadians across the country to work together on civic engagement?
These are the musings that inspired me to start GLOCAL. Ten years after my graduation from UBC, I decided to become a social entrepreneur.
What have you learned through the process of founding and leading GLOCAL?
GLOCAL was founded in Vancouver in mid-2019. It took me 11 months to put together a strategic plan and to assemble a team of researchers, data administrators, web programmers, UI/UX designers and advisors. Just two months later, we were able to soft launch our digital civic engagement platform YouCount.ca. At the time, it consisted of a user-friendly database of political representatives at three levels of government, an election module with curated information on candidates and a comparison tool for voters during the 2020 provincial elections in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
We also began the work of community outreach, both to promote YouCount.ca as well as to carry out offline civic engagement activities. We received a major boost in the same year when we were invited to become a partner of the Consortium on Electoral Democracy (C-DEM), which is a pioneering research network for researchers, electoral management boards, policy makers and civil society organizations to investigate the health of democracy across the country.
By July 2020, our team had grown to 93 members, the majority of whom were volunteers. This rapid growth came with many challenges, which provided a very steep learning curve for our team in terms of management, website development and public engagement. Looking back, it was a starting point for an even more challenging journey of grassroots social innovation that was ahead of us.
We are proud that UBC students and alumni play a critical role in this learning and start-up process. At least 12 of our current or former teammates are from the UBC Political Science Department, four from the School of Public Policy, and many from other UBC departments. We are very fortunate to be able to work together with students and alumni from other universities across Canada who have a shared passion for creative civic engagement.
Since then, we have greatly expanded the content of YouCount.ca by producing our own suite of curated civic information materials (for example, understanding local governance in Canada, the judicial system in Canada, the public health system in Canada, indigenous matters, etc.) and stepped up our engagement with politicians so that they can include the platform as one of the ways in which they connect with their constituents.
As a not-for-profit, non-partisan start-up, the challenges are unending and there is a constant need to be resilient and innovative in solving everyday problems. It hasn’t been easy and we are glad for the opportunity that it has provided for UBC Political Science students to get involved in a groundbreaking digital citizenship initiative.
As stated on GLOCAL’s website, the foundation focuses on promoting civic awareness. Why did you choose this as your organization’s main mission? What are your thoughts on Canada’s current level of civic engagement?
Common in the telecommunication industry, supply chain management and transportation, the “last mile” problem refers to the prohibitive cost of delivering the final leg of a product or service to the end user. In civic engagement, the “last mile” can also be the most challenging part of delivering accurate information and effective democratic engagement services to citizens. Many traditional ways of civic engagement and political information delivery, such as town hall meetings, door canvassing, surveying through landlines, in-person meetings and mailing hardcopies of newsletters, are declining in terms of their effectiveness and efficiency in public outreach.
While our overall level of civic engagement in Canada is likely very high compared to other countries, there are special needs in the case of groups such as new immigrants (especially those with linguistic challenges), indigenous communities, marginalized peoples, overseas Canadians, and young Canadians. This knowledge and engagement gap is worsened by the growing problem of online misinformation, disinformation, and information overload.
How can we promote civic participation if the basic understanding of “who does what” in our democratic system is lacking? How can we encourage Canadians to vote if the information about candidates and political parties is scattered and sometimes insufficient for an informed decision? How can we convince Canadians to learn more about Canadian politics if the materials available are perceived as too dense or the distribution channels do not meet the needs of diverse demographic groups?
The infrastructure for accessing, digesting and retaining civic knowledge is, for GLOCAL, the “last mile” in promoting more effective democratic engagement. Our team members consider themselves as “construction workers” who are helping build the infrastructure of Canada’s political system and democratic institutions. Through careful curation of information and data, and using the latest digital tools, we develop explainers, games, contests, and workshops for a broad audience. In short, GLOCAL is a civic knowledge mobilization organization that empowers civil society groups, schools, communities, social workers and young Canadians with the tools and services to bring about effective local civic engagement.
As a distinguished alumnus of UBC’s Political Science department, what words of advice would you like to share with other UBC Political Science students?
At GLOCAL, we believe that the coming decades will witness a trend of increasing glocalization, which is not just the horizontal flows of people, capital, goods, services and ideas across borders, but also increased efforts at the local level to respond to global-local challenges and the interconnectedness of people and societies. In Canada, our localities have long been transformed into globally connected communities, where Canadians proudly have roots and/or footprints in all parts of the world. Creative and effective problem solving must therefore draw on a global mindset and effective local engagement.
My advice to UBC Political Science students is to value interdisciplinary education, international experiences and local engagement. These will help us broaden our horizons and understanding of sociopolitical challenges and rethink traditional concepts such as innovation, engagement, leadership and resilience. Social innovation and creative problem-solving, however, does not come by easily. We have to leave our comfort zones in terms of norms, knowledge and practices to find breakthroughs to perennial problems.
Innovative problem-solving requires us to be able to connect the dots that we normally consider unrelated. It requires us to grow the number of tools in our problem-solving toolbox and develop the skills to utilize the tools. Never accept that a problem is insoluble. A problem is insoluble only insofar as our policy imagination, comparative understanding, professional skills and interdisciplinary tools have yet been able to meet the demands. In my own case as a social entrepreneur, I began to learn about User Interface and Experience Design (UI/UX), Website Development, coding, Google Analytics, financial management, corporate governance and product management in my late 30s. We promote lifelong learning at GLOCAL to equip ourselves with the most current technologies, resources and ideas.
Solving problems is a belief. As Jean Monnet said, “I am not an optimist; I am determined.” GLOCAL is my small way of putting my belief into action.
The interview transcript was reposted from UBC Department of Political Science.
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