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A Vision for the SFU Centre for Dialogue

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

This is a transcript of the speech presented on September 16 by Shauna Sylvester, newly appointed Director of the Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University, and Executive Director of SFU Public Square. In this speech, Sylvester lays out her vision for the Centre for Dialogue.

Good afternoon.  It is great to see so many friends in the room.

I think it is ironic that a former high school debater should become the new Director of the SFU Centre for dialogue.  For those of you who know me well, it doesn’t take long for me to find the gaps in my worthy opponents arguments and go in for the jugular.  And for many years, those skills served me well.  But over 20 years of working internationally, often in conflict zones, can take the shine off any debater’s pride of place.  Give me any conflict – be it between me and my daughter when she was three, or something as seemingly intractable as the conflict in the Gaza Strip over settlements – and it is abundantly clear that a debating mindset isn’t welcome or useful. More often than not, it deepens a conflict.

Unlike the students in the Semester in Dialogue, it took me a little longer to come to an understanding of the power of dialogue.  It came 15 years into my professional career - in the fall of 1999.

It started with an email, out of the blue from a group in Mumbai Indian – the Centre for Peace Initiatives led by a man named Sundeep Waslekar.

Sundeep had asked my organization to partner on a “Track II” initiative with publishers and senior editors of the indigenous language press in South Asia. Track II is a term that is common in foreign policy circles – it simply means that it is an unofficial process of dialogue – where people come together, usually behind closed doors and discuss an issue.  It allows people to take off their hats and creatively think about how to resolve a problem.

As I probed a little more, I learned that Sundeep’s group consisted of some of the most powerful media barons in South Asia.  They represented millions of readers and had the capacity to make or break any politician with their pen.  At least one of them walked around with a small army of security guards.

The other thing I learned is that this group, or at least the Indians and the Pakistanis within the group - is that they had little respect or knowledge of one another.  While they were bonded by their profession as journalists and publishers, they were separated by years of social, political, religious and economic divides.  The goal of bringing these rather disparate people together was to see if they could use their role and influence to advance peace and development in the region.

Our first meeting was held in Katmandu in 1999.  General Pervez Musharraf had just come to power through a coup in Pakistan and the official regional body – the SARC had cancelled their meeting in protest to the coup.

It was also a time of extreme tension between India and Pakistan. In 1998, both countries had tested their nuclear weapons and they were in a conventional war in the Kashmir district.

Over the first day a heated debate prevailed.  The tension was thick and real.   Since my job was to hold the space, I stayed up as the debates heated through the night, trying to ensure that they didn’t become violent. 

But somewhere around 3am on that first night, the mood shifted. 

I remember clearly when one of the Pakistan editors realized he was actually related to one of the Indian editors.  Their families, it seems, had been separated by partition.  There was a sudden hush in the room as everyone watched the two begin to retrace their roots.  Then everything turned – laughter cut the tension, the differences dissolved and the evening turned into a long night of story-telling.

The tenor of the next two days shifted dramatically—the debating ended and dialogue began.  The editors started listening and building on each other’s ideas.  They made agreements to use their influence to advance peace and development in the region and they created the Katmandu Accord to guide their efforts.

I remember going out for a long walk on the closing night of the meeting and I started to take stalk of my own life.  I realized how much of my life was based on my conviction that I was in the right and that my task was to convince others of my position. I looked at this group of editors and recognized that there was so much on the line with this community.  They literally had the ability to escalate the conflict within the region and yet they chose to ignore traditional divides and collaborate. In this context, dialogue was the difference between life and death. 

I thought that if I can’t get over my own oppositional approach on the issues I was working on, I would never be effective in bringing about enduring social change. Although I still respected those who were on the front line protesting injustice, it was no longer where I wanted to be. My new motto became, walk to the opposition – talk to them and really understand their position.  It was at that point, I put away my debating robes and started to study dialogue as a tool for social change.   

Although I’ve now worked in advancing dialogue for 14 years, I don’t think it is a field that many people understand.  There are only two such academic centres in the world and, as Mario Pinto, our former VP of research, and I discussed yesterday, dialogue is not an academic discipline that appears on any global academic rating system.  And yet, I would argue that dialogue is one of the most important disciplines and practices we can cultivate and export.

This is certainly what the founder of the SFU Centre for Dialogue believed.  It was Jack Blaney, our former President who saw the need for dialogue and had the vision to create a unique centre in the heart of the downtown core that would use dialogue to address pressing issues of our time. To quote Jack:

            “There is something more important than information. Values are far more important, and it is by understanding common values that decisions are made. We come to understand values through dialogue.”

Through Ann Cowan, Joanna Ashworth, Mark Winston, Janet Moore and a number of dialogue associates and fellows, Jack’s vision came alive.  And through the Semester in Dialogue – the appreciation and understanding of the role of dialogue in fostering common values has been cultivated and nurtured with a new generation of students.

For over 8 years I’ve had the privilege of watching Mark, Janet and others grow and build on the vision for the Centre, embed it in the university and communicate it externally.  And over these 8 years, I’ve had a chance to consider how I might strengthen that vision, drawing on the expertise in this room and SFU’s place in the global community.

Never has there been such a need for a space where parties can step outside of their positional constraints and come together and grapple with serious social and environmental challenges.  My vision for the SFU Centre for Dialogue is to create a global centre for knowledge and practice on dialogue – a go-to convener for serious, productive and outcome oriented discussion about the most pressing issues of our time.

I envision four program streams where I think SFU can add value globally:

1.     International diplomacy and Conflict Resolution – We already have two Fellow, Dr. Jennifer Simons and Paul Meyer who are global leaders in disarmament and the weaponization of space.  I envision building this stream by engaging some of our key faculty with deep expertise in conflict resolution and drawing from the community of foreign affairs diplomats who have settled here in Vancouver to help shape and deliver this program.

2.     Climate Solutions – For over four years, the Centre has been at the forefront through Carbon Talks of supporting municipalities in their transition to a low carbon economy.  Now through Renewable Cities, a global initiative designed to triple the number of cities committing to 100% renewable energy, our incredible faculty in Environment and the School of Public Policy, our community and academic partnerships - the Centre will become a focal point for positive climate solutions.

3.     Cultural Interpretation – When I led Canada’s World a professor at the Kingston Military College, Nicole Swartz had a profound impact on my thinking.  She said that Canada’s greatest gift to the world is not our weapons or military might, but our ability to be cultural interpreters and translators.  I believe the Aga Khan recognized this as well when he decided to situate the Global Centre for Pluralism in Canada.  The fact is we have a vast asset of globally connected Canadians – those living overseas and those who have chosen this country as their home, and we need their knowledge and understanding of this complex cultural mosaic we live in, now more than ever.  At SFU, we also have a Centre for Diaspora Research and Engagement and a vast network of alumni from across the globe from which to build.

4.     And the fourth stream, Civic Engagement, drives at the heart of what we have been doing for years and that is building a culture of citizen participation in our decision making process. I credit my colleagues Robin Prest and Mark Winston for thinking strategically about how we respond to local and regional governments struggling with genuine citizen engagement. Civic Engage will provide capacity building, research and direct support to local and regional governments to advance greater democratic development in our communities.

In addition to these four streams, the SFU Public Square will become a program of the SFU Centre for Dialogue.  It is a signature initiative of the university and an expression of our commitment to be Canada’s most community-engaged research university.  If you haven’t heard about our upcoming Community Summit on Innovation that takes place October 19 to 24, I strongly suggest you speak to Janet Webber, our Program Director.  It’s an extremely exciting program.

So putting SFU on the global map as a leading centre for knowledge and practice in dialogue is an ambitious vision, but highly doable.  I do think we have a unique offering - thanks to people like the Wosk Family, Joe and Rosalie Segal, Rudy and Patricia North and Liz and Bruce Welch, we have this beautiful facility and over ten years of programming on which to build.  We have over 600 alumni from our Semester in Dialogue, dozens of graduates of our Continuing Studies certificate program in Community engagement, an outstanding staff team, and a community of current and former Fellows and a large network of professional practitioners. I’m excited to leverage these strengths and to create a centre that, in five years, is going to be a recognized and valued global institution. 

But, of course, a vision is only as good as the people who get involved with it. So over the next few months, I’m going to be contacting many of you in this room, to seek your counsel and your support.  I’ll be looking for your sage advice on how to refine, enhance and advance this vision.

Dialogue is our strongest tool in addressing the global challenges that we face.  Help us at the Centre for Dialogue, build on our expertise and scale up to fill a space that is sorely needed in this world—a space where people can come together—across difference—to create positive and enduring social change. 

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Interculturalism and pluralism