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OPINION: ‘Morning’ not ‘Mourning’ at the Coady Institute

The Coady International Institute on the St. F.X. campus in Antigonish. Richard MacKenzie
The Coady International Institute on the St. F.X. campus in Antigonish. Richard MacKenzie

I have worked at Coady International Institute for the past 21 years. During this period, I have worked with three vice-presidents and directors of Coady Institute and the Extension Department. Over the past 10 years, I have served as assistant director, interim director and co-interim director. I have also served as a member of Coady’s management team.

I want to begin by saying how much I enjoy, respect and admire Colleen Cameron as a colleague and a friend. Colleen’s work with the Institute has always been exemplary, whether as a member of our program teaching staff, or as the director of education programs. Colleen’s tireless volunteer work in our local community of Antigonish is one of the main reasons the legacy of the Antigonish Movement is flourishing, whether it be the local food movement, a community-run transit system or the new affordable housing developments. In our years together at Coady, Colleen and I have not always seen eye to eye, but she has always been fair to me, even when sometimes holding my feet to the fire as a senior manager. 

The issue I have with Colleen’s letter is the way she portrays the new direction Coady Institute has taken over the past 20 months.

Everyone I have ever known at Coady and StFX Extension Department takes pride in an adult education pedagogy that acknowledges and builds on participants’ own knowledge and experiences. No one I know at Coady sees our adult education approach as “old and not innovative.” Nor does anyone I know at Coady talk about the Antigonish Movement being “dead and no longer relevant.”  

What we have been talking a lot about at Coady is how the world around us is changing. Global institutions and national governments around the world seem unwilling, or powerless, in dealing with some of the biggest issues of the day such as climate change and inequality. But in local communities, rural municipalities, towns and cities, there is an enormous amount of innovation and citizen action being applied to these issues.

This innovation and citizen action cuts across the old boundaries of the ‘North’ and the ‘Global South.’ It exists as much in a First Nation in northern Manitoba as it does in the Nyando Valley of Western Kenya, in downtown Toronto, Musquodoboit Harbour or Cite Soleil on the outskirts of Port Au Prince. Part of what we have been talking about over the past 20 months at Coady is a need to move away from seeing our mission primarily as bringing people from the Global South to Canada to give them a “transformative” educational experience (meaning it is “us” doing the transforming and “them” being transformed), a practice which could itself be seen as ‘colonial.’

Although Coady’s history of being born out of a social and economic people’s movement is unique, there are now many institutions around the world, including in the Global South, that offer top-notch education and training for development leaders. Building from a position of strength, Coady can continue to be a place where highly motivated change leaders from around the world convene, to learn about, and share with each other, innovative local solutions to the big issues they face.  Again, however, we must recognize that the Coady, and more precisely, the environment in which the Coady operates, is not the same of 60 years ago.

I can envision Coady continuing to expand its leadership programs for youth leaders, women leaders and leaders of Indigenous communities. I can also imagine a flagship intergenerational change leader program at Coady that includes equal numbers of women and men, grassroots activists, local government leaders, Indigenous community leaders, social entrepreneurs, representatives from organizations of persons with disabilities, from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as from North America and Europe. I can picture these cohorts dispersing and returning home to their organizations and communities and staying connected virtually to each other and to my Coady colleagues who will continue working with them, online and on the ground, to help them move forward their agendas for social, environmental and economic justice.  

It is simply not true that the new design and thinking around Coady’s future educational programs “minimize the reflective, transformative adult education approach that has been so fundamental at Coady.” Nor is it true that Coady is planning on moving away from “an emphasis on co-creating knowledge by learning with and from other development practitioners” or that from now on “participants will learn from experts.”

Just this week, Dennis Hall was buzzing with positive energy as the classroom was transformed into a gallery of poster presentations by Coady’s Diploma in Development Leadership participants in a participatory project management course shared their learning with each other and Coady staff. I  recognize Colleen has not been at the Coady in over 20 months, however, I wish she could have been at the international ABCD Imbizo (Zulu word for “gathering”) in South Africa this past February organized by Coady alumni and attended by close to 200 people (a third of them Coady graduates from around the world). Sadi Motsuenyani, this year’s Coady Chair in Social Justice, emceed the event. Imbizo was a wonderful example of Coady alumni sharing their learning (not learning from experts) and looking for common strategies to influence the development conversations in their respective countries. Coady’s role in supporting, not leading, this effort is an example of the kind of accompaniment we can provide our alumni in the future.

I suspect Colleen’s letter is in response to some who have expressed their discomfort in the way change is being implemented. This is a fair concern. But having said, we must recognize that, at times, some are not going to agree with the outcome of a particular decision, but to suggest that colleagues are not being listened to, and that they are being treated inhumanely, is simply unfair.

As someone who has been at Coady for more than two decades, I am trying to put our recent challenges in perspective. In the last 20 years, the Institute has undergone some major changes. Our staff complement and the number of programs we offer has more than doubled, the length of some programs shrank while the number of months we offer education programs on campus grew, and we moved from the far side of the football field to a new facility in the historic heart of the lower campus. None of this change was easy and not everyone agreed with every change. But somehow we got through it together.

Finally, I wish to conclude by thanking my fellow colleagues who, day-in and day-out, never cease to amaze me. You are doing tremendous work. Our numbers are strong and participants fully engaged. This is the true measure of success.

Gord Cunningham is the Assistant Director, Coady International Institute.

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