Over the next seven months, young leaders in Saskatoon will have a chance to come together as Next Up — an environmental and social justice forum — returns for a fifth year.

The program, which was founded eight years ago in British Columbia, aims to equip emerging leaders with the skills and tools needed to create effective social and environmental change, including media relations, networking, project development and fundraising.

“Over the course of seven months we try to build the participants’ toolkits and networks so that when they leave the program they are ready to take their work to the next level,” said Next Up Saskatchewan co-ordinator Tracey Mitchell.  

The program is a partnership between the Global Youth Education Network Society, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and a number of labour, environmental and civil society organizations. Next Up also has chapters in Alberta and Ontario which are entering their sixth and third years, respectively.

For the 2014–15 year, climate change will be the focus for the program. Not every session will be exclusively about climate change, but instead will examine how this theme is related to the issues that the program explores such as Indigenous communities, public services, homelessness, poverty, immigration, democracy, food and the economy.  

“We think it’s a really important year as far as climate issues go. There have been a lot of studies coming out in the last few months that suggest that we’re at a really critical time and that we really have a couple years left to prevent disastrous climate change effects,” said Mitchell. 

“We’re past the point where we can stop climate change altogether but we can still stop it from being totally catastrophic, and so we think this is a really critical year to try to make a difference.”

The theme was also chosen in part to coincide with a new round of United Nations climate change talks, as well as an international day of action on Sept. 21. However, participants do not need to be experts on climate change in order to benefit to the program.

“Same as every year, we’re going to have a lot of different issues that we cover and we’re going to have participants who come from all different movements… we’re just going to look at all of those issues through a climate lens,” Mitchell said.

The program was designed to accommodate the work, school and the families of the participants. From September to May, participants are required to attend one evening session per week as well as one day-long weekend session per month.

“Typically the evening sessions are more issue-based, so we would have a speaker or panel come in and share their perspective on the issue that we’re talking about. Then there’s usually lots of time for discussion,” Mitchell said. “We would have a session on poverty where most of the night we would be talking about poverty issues, but at some point in the night we would ask how climate is going to affect poverty.”

“Next Up changed my life… I would not be where I am today without the Next Up program,” said Next Up alumnus and current University of Saskatchewan Student Union president Max FineDay.

A participant in the program’s provincial debut back in 2010, FineDay currently sits on the Next Up advisory council and also serves as co-coordinator of Next Up’s summer program designed for Indigenous leaders.

“I went through when I was 18 and I was a shy kid… It gave me a lot of the direction that I needed,” FineDay said.

The only requirement for Next Up is that participants be between 18 and 32 years of age. Each year, only 10 to 16 applicants are accepted into the program.

“It is a competitive application process, but the reason we keep such a small and intimate group is so everyone gets a full experience and everyone gets an opportunity to participate at each session,” Mitchell said. “We look for people with a clear worldview… people who have a pretty clear idea of where they stand on issues. Our goal is not to convince people or win people over, it’s to take people who are already committed to social and environmental justice and give them more skills.”

Next Up is accepting applications until Sept. 5, with short-listed participants to complete group and individual interviews on Sept. 13. Successful applicants will be notified by Sept. 17.

In Mitchell’s opinion, “the most exciting part is to see people going out in their communities and becoming more active, and seeing the kinds of things that have taken off in Saskatoon and across the province because of Next Up.”

FineDay also has high expectations of the program’s participants.

“People who go through Next Up want to change the world, and I truly believe that they can,” said FineDay.