When poets Sonnet L’Abbé and Renée Sarojini Saklikar spoke on June 20 at SFU Harbour Centre, they were lending their voices to a broad new university initiative. The monthly “Lunch Poems” series in the Teck Gallery is one of several components of SFU Public Square, which was launched the previous day by president Andrew Petter. It’s a far-reaching effort to put SFU at the centre of public engagement on policy issues, the arts, and community dialogues.
“This initiative really came out of the consultations we had around the creation of our new vision,” Petter told the Georgia Straight by phone from his office.
He noted that people said they liked how SFU was connected to the community through the Philosophers’ Café series of public discussions and events at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. Petter said that the consultation process revealed an “expressed need” for neutral space where people could examine issues, “but without some of the rancour or preconceived notions that characterize debate in B.C.” SFU’s response was to establish itself as “B.C.’s public square”.
“It’s really a metaphor for saying we’ll try to use our resources—physical, intellectual, and others—to try to work to create space in which the community could come together and address serious issues,” Petter stated. “And in which experts could work through public policy, and in which we could provide a resource to the community, drawing on our faculty and students and staff.”
Shauna Sylvester, the executive director of SFU Public Square, told the Straight by phone that SFU professors have been deeply involved in community engagement for years, but said this was often done off the side of their desks and they wouldn’t talk much about it. She credited Petter for recognizing and promoting this as a distinguishing feature of the university, which has campuses in Burnaby, Surrey, and Vancouver.
She pointed out that this process has already begun with the “City Conversations” series of panel discussions at SFU Harbour Centre. These brown-bag lunch events take place on the first and third Thursdays of each month and cover a broad range of topics, ranging from the arts to urban planning to the media.
In addition, SFU Woodward’s has hosted a series of public lectures at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, featuring international-affairs commentators such as Gwynne Dyer and Christian Parenti. “That’s an example of an SFU Public Square initiative,” Sylvester noted.
She added that for the first poetry reading at the Teck Gallery, she expected a dozen people to show up. Much to her surprise, there was an audience of 70, which left staff scrambling to find more chairs. “This isn’t just about feeding the cerebral-intellectual side,” Sylvester said. “It’s also about feeding our souls through the arts. That’s a really important part of it.”
This was on display at the launch of SFU Public Square in the atrium of the Woodward’s complex when the Performing Arts Lodge choir suddenly emerged as a flash mob and performed a medley of popular hits: “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson, “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele, and “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. Vancouver dance legend Judith Marcuse was among those on her feet within the crowd.
Petter said that the SFU Public Square initiative has three primary components. One is an annual weeklong summit. The first will be done in partnership with the Vancouver Foundation and will focus on isolation and disconnection in the community. “Future summits could tackle substantive issues like health care or education or the tension between environmental and economic values,” he commented.
The second part is allowing others to use the university’s resources as a platform for engagement. Petter emphasized that this must be done with SFU serving as “neutral space” in a manner that facilitates open and inclusive discussion. The third aspect involves SFU initiating dialogues.
He noted that the university can fill a gap with governments and traditional media having fewer resources to provide support systems to communities. “I don’t want to overclaim it, but I think SFU is setting a pretty bold direction here,” Petter declared.
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