SFU Public Square promotes greater ties with community

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      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.

      Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.



      Rob Roy

      Jun 21, 2012 at 8:03am

      This is very good news from SFU.

      It also enhances a rising distinction between the roles of UBC and SFU. The former is, increasingly, a research university active in the physical sciences. In many ways, UBC's research capacity is its greatest distinction, and much of its future.

      But we are a small province. The San Francisco Bay Area alone has 2 million more people than all of BC. We need to specialize, and cannot waste money on duplication. We need to do a few things really well.

      SFU, once it came off the mountain, has created a vital role as the university that engages the general public downtown. SFU Woodwards is an extraordinary example of this. The face of the much-plagued DTES has already improved because of it.

      The SFU pebble in the pond there has a widening ripple effect. Long gone are the drug dealers and prostitutes that infested the block around Woodwards. Ordinary DTES residents are not drug addicts, and feel safer than ever before.

      This latest SFU initiative deepens the University's penetration of our daily life in downtown Vancouver. It will bring ideas, art, and distillation -- and do it all in long forms.

      In a world where 144 characters passes itself off as 'communication', this is pivotal.

      Well done, Andrew Petter and his colleagues at SFU. Very well done.


      Jun 21, 2012 at 12:54pm

      Thank you for this article

      Truth Speaker

      Jun 28, 2012 at 1:43pm

      @ Rob Roy

      >Long gone are the drug dealers and prostitutes that infested the block around >Woodwards. Ordinary DTES residents are not drug addicts, and feel safer than >ever before.

      Where do you think this "infestation" (nice term) has gone to? Or do you believe these people have evaporated into thin air? And, yes, many ordinary DTES residence are, in fact, drug addicts. That doesn't make them any less human or less "ordinary" than anybody else.

      Please don't pretend that SFU or the Woodwards redevelopment has done anything to address the addiction problems in the DTES. The dealers have moved (further east or north) but they are still here and business is as good as ever.