By Laura McCaffrey
As the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out accelerates, we are starting to see a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Institutions are collectively breathing a sigh of relief as they tentatively move from crisis management to strategic response. Within Carleton, and within the communities that we serve, there is a shifting of focus toward recovering and building a future that is not simply ‘normal,’ but better.
This notion of ‘building back better’ was the catalyst for a spring 2021 community event co-hosted by Carleton University and a trusted partner, the McConnell Foundation. Part of a national initiative spearheaded by the McConnell Foundation in the fall of 2020, the ‘Building Back Better’ virtual community-university dialogue event was an opportunity for Carleton to come together with community leaders to discuss shared paths to recovery and renewal following the pandemic.
“We’re speaking today about building back better, but also about building community. This has been a central part of Carleton’s founding story, and to this day remains central to us,” said Benoit-Antoine Bacon, president and vice-chancellor at Carleton University, as he welcomed attendees to the virtual event.
“Carleton was founded by and for the citizens of Ottawa during the turmoil of the Second World War, with the goal of serving the community. At the time it was evident, and it’s still evident, that higher education has a crucial role to play in rebuilding in a time of crisis. As we face the crisis of today, this is a very similar moment—an opportunity for change and for rebuilding. We have to seize that opportunity as a community.”
The McConnell Foundation, a private Canadian foundation that applies innovative approaches to address the issues of climate change, communities and Reconciliation, is leading a series of national dialogue events throughout the spring of 2021 between Canadian postsecondary institutions and their local stakeholders to discuss how to move forward from the global health crisis. The concept for the ‘Building Back Better’ event series was inspired by a common priority that became apparent through McConnell’s discussions with its postsecondary partners in the fall of 2020.
“Amidst the challenges of this time, there has been a consistent and strong desire expressed by leaders at different universities and colleges to not only increase community engagement efforts, but to deepen them,” says Kelly Hodgins, program officer at the McConnell Foundation.
“Many institutions see the pandemic as a rehearsal for potential future crises. They want to determine how communities can build resilience for the future, and the role that postsecondary institutions can play in supporting that. That requires relationship building, and it requires an updated understanding of what communities are facing.”
To support those conversations, McConnell has plans to co-host spring 2021 dialogue events with 12 institutions across the country, including Carleton.
“This opportunity aligned perfectly with our new Strategic Integrated Plan—in particular with our commitment to serve Ottawa and serve the world in collaboration with our community,” explains Lorraine Dyke, deputy provost (Academic Operations and Planning) at Carleton University.
“Since its establishment, Carleton has maintained a significant involvement with its community, often focusing on what we can offer. During this dialogue, our primary objective was to listen to and hear the concerns within our community in order to determine what solutions we can develop together."
“We are thankful to the McConnell Foundation for offering this valuable opportunity and for its continued leadership on critical social issues and its thoughtful collaboration with the postsecondary sector.”
During the one-hour dialogue event held in March, senior leaders from local business, community organizations and not-for-profits joined Carleton representatives to contemplate the ways in which the pandemic has affected the Ottawa community, the challenges that we will collectively face as we try to rebuild, and potential pathways to collaboratively address those issues.
Through focused, strategic discussion, Carleton and the participants determined themes and priority issues of shared interest, including the disproportionate negative effects of the pandemic on disadvantaged groups and the ways in which the community can come together to provide support.
“We are so grateful to the community leaders who participated for the time and energy they dedicated to this important conversation,” says Karen Schwartz, associate vice-president (Research and International). “Their thoughtful insights, diverse perspectives and active participation made the event a success and will help guide the conversations and activities that are sure to follow.”
For Carleton, this was not a standalone event; it was a meaningful, well-timed opportunity that aligns with ongoing efforts to further prioritize community engagement, relationship building and developing holistic partnerships with purpose.
Just last week, Carleton announced the establishment of a new Centre for Community Engagement, which will be headed by Professor Chantal Trudel and will lead the development of Carleton's first community engagement strategy.
Throughout the first half of 2021, Carleton will also continue to announce new, exciting partnerships with corporate and community partners that positively impact society.
Further, this dialogue event was a catalytic first step toward more focused convening and in-depth discussions with the local community specifically about recovering from the pandemic.
“One of the things this event reinforced for me was the valuable role Carleton can, and does, play as a convener,” says Schwartz. “The people who were around the virtual table don’t always get the opportunity to talk to each other and share their concerns and ideas. As an institution, we’re able to bring people together during these critical moments in time and beyond.”
“Our community leaders want us to play that role—they want us to take an active part in bridging those multi-sector, multi-stakeholder conversations,” Dyke adds.
The complex challenges facing our society today, says Hodgins, require collaborative solutions developed by diverse stakeholders—an approach that is whole-heartedly embraced by Carleton.
“Carleton has positioned itself well to hold space for truly collaborative interactions,” Hodgins reflects. “It’s clear to me that the University welcomes, encourages and celebrates diverse, sometimes divergent, ideas and perspectives. It’s a really positive and progressive approach that Carleton takes to convening.”
At the Hub for Good, read more partnership stories, explore opportunities to get involved and learn how Carleton University makes an impact around the world.
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