Systems change and young people as the engines of innovation; a conversation with Ilona Dougherty

4 minute read

By Rhonda Moore, Practice Lead, Science and Innovation


Ilona Dougherty is the co-creator and managing director of the Youth & Innovation Project at the University of Waterloo and one of three new members to join the Institute on Governance Board of Directors. I sat down with Ilona to talk about her work, what motivates her, and her recent appointment to the IOG Board.

October is Women’s History Month and 18 October marks Person’s Day, when in 1929 the Supreme Court declared women were people under the law (Edwards v. Canada). On this subject, Ilona shared that she has been reflecting about privilege a lot in recent months. “When I think about privilege, I tend to think about where I don’t have privilege. I have begun to learn to also recognize where I do have privilege and use that privilege in meaningful ways.” Ilona says that gender is not a privilege that women have. “Just like we need to see colour and understand what white privilege is, we are [still] at a point where we have to see gender. We need to recognize that it impacts our lives and work in so many insidious ways, all the time. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Ilona also believes we have some work to do to change how we think about young people.

A line in Ilona’s bio reads “raised by activist parents in Prince Albert, Sask., and Whitehorse, Yukon, Ilona was struck early on by the disconnect between young people and decision-makers.” I asked her to describe that disconnect.

“Growing up in rural, northern Canada is tough for young people,” said Ilona. Intergenerational trauma, poverty, and youth suicide touched her life over and over again. “I do the work that I do because I’ve been fortunate to have adults around me who valued my voice when I was a young person, in a way that my peers from a lot of different backgrounds didn’t experience. I saw what happened to racialized or Indigenous kids dealing with intergenerational trauma and poverty. In that context, when a young person’s voice is devalued, it can be a life-and-death situation.”

Unpacking the notion of value a bit more, Ilona explained that in Western culture we have a tendency to regard young people as in the process of becoming a person. We don’t tend to recognize them as people until they reach the age of majority and begin to contribute to the economy. Ilona believes we need to start recognizing young people as persons in their own right, with their own thoughts, ideas, and opinions to contribute.

Ilona’s current research explores what is happening in young people’s brains from roughly the age of 15-25. She describes people at that age as primed for innovative ideas; their brains are generating new ideas all the time, and not bound by concepts of tradition or the way things have always been done as older adults are. Ilona believes in the power of intergenerational solidarity, and having different generations working together. Her research demonstrates that when young people with bold ideas are connected to decision makers with the capacity to scale and implement those decisions, innovation happens. Ilona believes that meaningful youth engagement is also about valuing elders and respecting what each brings to the table.

So what does Ilona say to employers who equate co-op students with cheap labour to get boring stuff done? “A lot of employers see youth as a nameless, faceless group of people. Yet they see their own kids as smart, engaged and driven young people. We need them to connect the dots and realize there are no nameless, faceless group of young people.” All young people have something to offer. She acknowledges that sometimes young people fresh from postsecondary are hard to work with and suggests that part of the value in engaging young people is in listening to their ideas, and exploring why they make us uncomfortable.

With so much work to do to improve how organizations harness the innovative ideas that young people can bring, what attracted Ilona to join the IOG Board? She explains “I’m a serious public policy geek. I’m passionate about working with the public service…When you have public servants who know how to navigate the system, it’s magic. You can get incredible things done.” A self-identified social innovator and someone who loves process, Ilona says “You know you’ve made a change in a system when you see a shift in a resource flow or a power dynamic.” For Ilona, the IOG offers a chance to work on those system-level changes, with organizations that are open to change and to innovation.

Welcome to the IOG, Ilona! We look forward to working with you.

This article is first of a three-part series of conversations with IOG’s three new female board members, on the occasion of Women’s History Month.

Read about Kim Scott here.

Read about Shingai Manjengwa here.

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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