SFU’s Dialogue Semester offers students a chance to drive social change and transform their communities

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Simon Fraser University has had a few firsts over the years.

One of them came when the Morris J. Wosk Center for Dialogue opened in September 2000. According to its executive director, Shauna Sylvester, it made SFU the first English-language university in the world to create a center dedicated to dialogue.

When Sylvester’s predecessor, Mark Winston, launched the semester in dialogue in 2002 on nature, environment and society, it was the first program of its kind in the world.

The Morris J. Wosk Center also hosted the first citizens’ assembly on electoral reform in Canada in 2004, chaired by former SFU President Jack Blaney.

“We are offering something unique to the world,” Sylvester told the Right by telephone.

She noted that Canadians have often played a convening role in foreign affairs on everything from human rights issues to environmental advice to facilitating the first international landmine treaty. But until the creation of the Semester in Dialogue program, there was nowhere in Canada where undergraduate students could develop these skills.

“It’s about learning and building through community engagement,” she said.

According to Sylvester, the semester in dialogue has been an incubator for many ideas, policies and programs over the years, including social innovation center Radius SFU and youth engagement organization CityHive.

The Dialogue Class operates on a “cohort model,” where students guide their own learning on a different theme each semester.

Sylvester was an instructor for two of the semesters, but she points out that she doesn’t teach students.

“I introduce them to certain people and facilitate a process for them to learn,” she said.

Students welcome opinion leaders, who are invited to come and give a presentation. Students lead dialogues, engage in self-directed learning projects, and develop skills in workshops.

Sylvester will be one of three instructors for the upcoming summer semester of the Trust, Money and Power: Funding Change course, which offers students 10 credits. They will be enrolled Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., for seven weeks in May and June. The deadline for early bird registration is February 18.

Prior to joining SFU, Sylvester worked in international development and climate action, raising millions of dollars for various organizations over the years.

The other two instructors also bring great expertise to the class.

Jacqueline Koerner is the founder and co-president of Ecotrust Canada. In addition, she is a trustee of Foundations for Social Change, a trustee or trustee of three private foundations, and has conducted doctoral research on the world’s largest microfinance organization, Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.

“She has a deep understanding of the practicalities of so many different viewpoints of what philanthropy is,” Sylvester said.

The other instructor, Kris Archie, Ts’qescenemc ell Seme7, is CEO of the Circle on Philanthropy and Indigenous Peoples in Canada and previously served as a project manager for the Vancouver Foundation’s groundbreaking Fostering Change initiative, focused on young people who are aging and no longer in the care of the government.

“She’s not just rethinking philanthropy,” Sylvester said, “she’s shifting the whole ground in which it exists.”

SFU

One of the objectives of the Semester in Dialogue is to ensure that students gain confidence in their own ability to create change.

“They also become more curious and they are more able to strike up a conversation, especially with people they may not agree with,” Sylvester added.

Thanks to the pupils’ participation in the dialogues, they also acquire better listening skills. And Sylvester hopes they realize they can rethink and reshape philanthropy, which shouldn’t be seen as the exclusive domain of the wealthy.

Plus, they’ll come out of class knowing what questions to ask about this topic in the future.

Sylvester added that students will also become better writers, as one of the goals of the program is to write a publishable play. But if they feel podcasting is their preferred mode of communication, that will also be encouraged.

Last November, Sylvester attended the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, where the SFU Morris J. Wosk Center for Dialogue hosted a panel discussion with Minister for Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman and former Toronto Mayor David Miller, who is now part of the C40 Cities organization.

It was launched by the Cities and COP26 initiative. A former student, Fergus Linley-Mota, came up with the idea while doing directed studies in the Semester in Dialogue course and is now Program Coordinator for Cities and COP26 to move into a livable region .

Another creation of the Semester in Dialogue program was the Keys to the Streets program, where pianos were placed outside for the enjoyment of the public.

“These are all things that have emerged from student projects related to our city,” Sylvester said.

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