Why do Canadians need to go all the way to Boston to connect?

By Danica Straith, Ashoka U, Chad Lubelsky, Re-Code and Jen Lockerby

Earlier this month, some 800 social impact educators, students and administrators gathered in Boston for the Annual Ashoka U Exchange. United in the belief that post-secondary has been and continues to be a force for positive change in the world, this event showed us how we can accelerate and scale change in post-secondary.

Prior to the Exchange, Ashoka and Re-Code hosted the 3rd annual “Canada Day” – this pre-event, became an “instant tradition” in 2016, and notwithstanding its short history, participants generally agreed that this year felt different.

One of the highlights of Canada Day was the Mennonite Walk (thank you Paul Born!) – a paired walk where participants got some air and got to know each other a bit better by listening to their partner, without speaking, for a set time. The participants were gracious enough to trust us with what admittedly feels like a wonky process. In the end though, we heard that this was the most popular part of the day. It was a good reminder of the effort required to build community, the value in walking together with purpose and intent, and the need to build better bridges and listen.

Looking at the event in terms of Tuckman’s stages of group development, it could be that in previous years we were forming and norming, and now we are getting ready for some storming. In our organizational debrief, we identified a level of depth and trust that we haven’t felt in the past, and quite frankly, didn’t know we didn’t feel. Donald Rumsfeld and the Johari Window are right, sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.

The expressed desire to share and work together was not new, but this year the tone and momentum suggests that we might be in a better position to do it. For example, in past years there has been a strong focus on creating working groups after Canada Day, whereas this year, we seemed to forego the idea of the working group, with schools taking the initiative to reach out directly to each other to advance the work. For Re-Code and Ashoka, as intermediary organizations, this felt like a positive transition from a basic hub-and-spoke network to a smart network, where people and organizations are truly connected.

We also appreciated the immense pride from Canadians about our impact and our progress – it’s not that we don’t have a lot left to do, but we are seeing change, and it could just be that our time is now.  Examples of the scale and scope of activity in Canada include schools being more connected to each other and their communities, prevalence of opportunities for students to have a 21st century education, and that institutions are starting to Indigenize their campuses, which includes integrating Indigenous knowledge in curriculum. Another indicator was the fact that folks were no longer getting hung up on the semantics of changemaking – “we define social entrepreneurship like x,” or “you seem to be talking about the solidarity economy when we are talking about the social economy”, and so on. We know language is important for working effectively together, so to be in a place where there is a foundation of trust even when someone doesn’t say the right word is a massive win for that movement. There was faith that we are generally working towards the same north star.

Building reconciliation holds much potential for Canada in offering radical change in post-secondary institutions. This year the organizers of the Exchange made a land acknowledgement for the first time, and this sparked much conversation – from the curious, to the confused, to the inspired. Perhaps most importantly, it caused some discomfort – but we know that reconciliation – and social change – requires discomfort.

Personally, as representatives of settler communities, we often feel uneasy to be speaking about reconciliation to other settler communities. At the same time, having these conversations is also our responsibility, and it is unfair to expect Indigenous communities to be the only people having these conversations. So long as we’re not defining Indigenous experiences, it is a settler responsibility to support the hard work of reconciliation. It should also be said that the diversity in the room did not represent the diversity of Canada. Next year we need to do better.  

We are home now, and while the conference high is transitioning into the day-to-day answer that email / go to that meeting / read that report / vibe, we are still sitting with some fundamental and potentially unanswerable questions… is there something qualitatively different going on in Canadian post-secondary now, than what we’ve seen in the past? If so, what is it and how can we better support it? And most importantly, what can we do to ensure that we are actively working towards fulfilling  the promise of post-secondary: Helping to create a level playing field for ALL Canadians.