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Alumna and politician encourages others to pursue their passions

PUBLIC SERVICE: Pickering City Councillor and UTSC alumna Jennifer O'Connell, pictured at the Pickering Civic Complex, was the youngest elected member of council at age 23. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

Don’t be afraid to take risks and strive to achieve what you really want.

That’s the advice of Jennifer O’Connell (BA Hons. 2006), a member of Pickering City Council who encourages people to pursue their goals even if the odds are against them.

O’Connell knows what she’s talking about. As the youngest member of council and one of only two female Pickering councilors, she bested the incumbent and another candidate to win a council seat in July 2006. Some people said that at the age of 23, she was too young to run for public office. Her victory in a tight race defeats that argument, and gives her a chance to put her passion and education to work for constituents.

“People really can make a difference and achieve great things regardless of their age or gender,” she says. “It’s important to embrace challenges. Even if you think you may encounter patronizing attitudes or behaviour, don’t let that stop you from chasing your dreams. If I can inspire even just one person to take a risk and do something they thought they couldn’t do because they felt they didn’t fit the profile for success in that field, then I want to tell them my story.”

While a student at U of T Scarborough, O’Connell majored in political science. She had done volunteer work on the federal Liberal election campaign, and decided after graduating in June 2006 to throw her own hat into the ring in her native Pickering.

“When I looked at civic politics, I saw no younger people and few women. I felt that these groups needed to be represented, and that it was time for a new perspective on council. I was motivated to represent those interests, and I was ecstatic when I won.”

There’s no such thing as a typical day for the Ward 1 representative, and the range of activities and challenges is stimulating, she says. Meetings of council, committees, special events, correspondence, liaising with constituents and issues management are all part of her responsibility.

“My role is to give a voice to community residents, and to make sure that they are being heard on different issues that affect the community, council and the city as a whole,” says O’Connell. She describes her work style as collaborative and genuine. “I try to be a straight talker, and not to put a political ‘spin’ on things but to speak the truth.”

A member of a new generation of politicos, O’Connell is the only Pickering councillor who writes a blog. “The blog is a useful tool to get people talking -- whether they agree or disagree -- and a way to get more information out there that may be getting missed in the local media. The blog is a more casual and less polished form of communication than other methods, but it has been well received, and I often hear from constituents who read my blog.”

More young people, more women, and more people from diverse cultural backgrounds are needed in politics in order for public policy to reflect today’s diverse range of viewpoints, she says. “There’s a perception that politics is corrupt, but that perception needs to change. I fear that more intelligent young people won’t consider going into politics because of that, and although there may be a few bad apples, there are many good people in politics who work hard and are here for the right reasons. I want to help in mentoring others so that future generations of politicians who want to get involved can feel more welcome to do so.”

She has engaged in public speaking and served on educational panels that inspire others. One of those was the Phenomenal Women Panel held in 2008, during which she and other women spoke about youth issues before a high school group of 400. “I tell them that I was elected to public office at the age of 23, and that all things are possible. If I can do it, so can they.”

She treasures her years at U of T Scarborough. “I really loved studying political science, but it was challenging because of a heavy workload and a lot of reading and writing,” she says. “Those skills really helped me, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without my education. It gave me the tools to stay focused on my goals, and I have developed strong views about what government should achieve at all levels.”

As a councillor, O’Connell serves on eight civic committees and chairs the Pickering Waterfront Committee, working with a group called The Waterfront Regeneration Trust, which she describes as “the gatekeeper of Ontario’s waterfront.” Through this work, she has become interested in biking, since the committee helped to plan the Pickering portion of a bicycle marathon from Niagara to Quebec along the waterfront trail. “I’ve discovered a new passion for cycling, and although I can’t devote as much time to it as I’d like, helping organize that event motivated me to get out there on my bike.”

Kim Tull, manager, alumni relations at U of T Scarborough, praises O’Connell’s efforts to engage young people in the political process. "Jennifer O'Connell is a tremendously energetic young alumna as well as a civic leader who works hard to represent her community. Not only does she give her all to serving her constituents and being the best representative she can be, but she also demonstrates that those in public office can be a role model and inspiration for others."

© University of Toronto Scarborough