Universities and community foundations hope to enhance social infrastructure in Canada

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      For several years, Simon Fraser University has embraced a strategic vision of being Canada's leading engaged  university.

      This is supposed to apply to its interactions with students, research, or communities. This vision also underscores the work it had done with the Vancity Community Foundation in putting on hundreds of events in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward's.

      On Wednesday (May 3), SFU president Andrew Petter will host a gathering of 19 other university presidents to take this idea one step further.

      They will gather at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue to address how Canadian universities can strengthen the assets that accommodate social services.

      "Engaged universities can play critical roles as anchor institutions in our communities," Petter said. "And working together with community foundations and social organizations, we can create a potent force for building social infrastructure and addressing community needs."

      On Monday and Tuesday (May 1 and 2), SFU is also hosting C2UExpo Community Jam at the Surrey campus. A subset of the C2UExpo2017 conference, it's looking at collaborations between universities, foundations, and communities to create a more caring and smarter society. 

      "The C2UExpo Community Jam is the first time we have combined our efforts to chart a path forward for enriching and strengthening communities across this country," Petter noted.

      The partners behind the event are the J.W. McConnell Foundation, Community Foundations of Canada, Vancity, the City of Surrey, Vancouver Foundation, and Surrey Cares Community Foundation.

      One of the organizers is Shauna Sylvester, director of the SFU Centre for Dialogue.

      "We're joining forces to say: can we build a movement?" Sylvester said. "Can we look at how to strengthen the social infrastructure as beacon institutions?"

      Shauna Sylvester is director of SFU's Centre for Dialogue.

      Twenty delegations from across Canada are at the event. There will also be more than 100 individuals at the event, whom Sylvester jokingly referred to as "free radicals".

      She said that the community jam is rooted in 10,000 years of tradition, which reflects its strong focus on indigenous communities. Delegates are going on "six community journeys in Surrey" to engage in "really difficult conversations".

      A wide range of topics are being canvassed, including engaging youth, electoral issues, immigrant and refugees, innovations in health care, urban sustainability, and building resilience in communities.

      Sylvester said there's a need for organizations to come together to fill a void that's been created by the breakdown of traditional institutions.

      As an example of this, she cited the "deep fragmentation" in the media. She also pointed out that the K-12 school system isn't as cohesive as it used to be because of the increased focus on privatization.

      And while churches used to be where people of different socioeconomic backgrounds came together in Canada, they no longer hold nearly as much sway over the populace.

      "It's finding the space—creating those spaces—where we can come together as citizens in association with one another to address our communities, and to make them stronger, more caring, and more compassionate," Sylvester emphasized.

      The president and CEO of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, Stephen Huddart, pointed out that Canadians are living in "a volatile, uncertain, and complex world".

      "With threats such as climate change, social unrest, and resource scarcity, the next generation of leaders must adapt and learn to play new roles," Huddart stated. "Universities and colleges are uniquely positioned to build the next generation's capacity to impact positive change."

      He called C2UExpo "a unique opportunity to accelerate and connect this change". 

      The manager of public engagement with Community Foundations of Canada, Melody MacLean, said the impetus for this initiative arose from a conference in Vancouver in 2011. Governor General David Johnston challenged delegates back then to build a smart and caring nation for Canada's 150th anniversary in 2017.

      According to MacLean, about 82 percent of communities across the country had access to a community foundation at that time. Since then, it has risen to nearly 90 percent.

      "We're working on filling the last big gap, which is in Canada's arctic," she said.

      Her organization represents 191 community foundations across Canada. They're working on creating community funds that can reach outside the community foundations' traditional catchments.

      "We want to show our community foundation members that they can [do] more than the traditional granting and traditional endowments by having unrestricted funds or by working in partnerships with universities or other community members," McLean said. "They can achieve a really great impact at the local level."