Opening Doors to civic engagement in Edinburgh

Who is Leith Open Space? What is a shadow scheme? Can you get arrested for that?  Is it a mentoring programme? Similar to an internship? Do you get paid? Some of the diverse and rather amusing questions I was asked during my time shadowing on Opening Doors to Democracy, facilitated by Leith Open Space. 

Friends, family and even acquaintances were genuinely curious and wanted to find out more. I signed up for the shadow scheme early in 2014. This was an exciting period in Scottish politics; the country would soon be heading to the polling booths to answer the Yes/No question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The nation was exhibiting a high level of political awareness and civic participation, remarkable as it appeared to be bucking the long-term trend of falling interest in politics. (And indeed as we prepare to head for the general election polling booths, 2015 is showing no signs of being less exciting!)

Marion Donaldson with other shadows in Cllr Lesley Hinds's office in Edinburgh City Chambers
Marion Donaldson (on right of far sofa) at the introductory briefing with Councillor Lesley Hinds in her City Chambers office, April 2014

Community-minded elected officials, Councillor Nick Gardner, Malcolm Chisholm MSP and Mark Lazarowicz MP became my accessible mentors. During orientation, they each took time to understand my interests, values and work experiences. Meetings that aligned with my personal and professional goals around social justice, poverty, inequality and health were informally planned. I spent time throughout the subsequent active months, observing in the traditional interior of Edinburgh City Chambers, the atmospheric Scottish Parliament and the elite Houses of Parliament.

No two days were the same. I watched parliamentary debates/council meetings; attended constituency surgeries; canvassed during the referendum; joined cross-party groups and engaged with citizens at resident meetings. The complicated and often difficult decision-making processes were fascinating to watch. David Cameron and Ed Miliband clashed in a heated Prime Ministers Questions in the House of Commons Chamber on the NHS and previous claims over protecting health services. I decided to remain in the public gallery and a much more civilised debate followed.

This shadowing scheme was a tremendous learning experience and gave me the opportunity to get a true feel of the workings of local, Scottish and UK government – and to observe the daily life of an elected official. I also gained a breadth of political experience, unique to any other shadowing scheme I have done and would recommend this enriching programme to anyone interested in civic engagement.

Leith Open Space adds: thank you to Marion Donaldson for playing such an active part in last year’s shadow scheme. We look forward to opening new doors to Holyrood and Westminster after the general election. 

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