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OPINION: Mourning the loss of my Coady family

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

My parents were married by Rev. Dr. Moses Coady, so growing up in our house on Brookland Street, surrounded by stories of the Antigonish Movement and the Coady Institute, infused my DNA and set me on the path of working for social justice and community well-being.

When my father, Ray Cameron, taught at Coady throughout the 1960s to early 1970s, he would invite all the participants home for a meal during the eight-month Diploma Program. I also remember many midnight masses in the “temporary” Tin Room where there was lots of food and dancing to music from around the globe, along with the mass. It was during this period I decided to become a nurse and to go to Africa. After 12 years of working abroad in Ethiopia, Yemen and Sudan, and studying in between, I came back to teach at Coady.

From my father’s time and over my 26 years at Coady many changes have taken place. Curriculum and program designs have changed to meet the emerging needs of participants and their organizations, from an emphasis on co-operatives and credit unions to courses on building resilient communities, promoting accountable democracies and strengthening local economies. Even the location of Coady has changed from its humble beginnings in the MacDonald building on the other side of the football field to a multimillion-dollar, state of the art facility located in the heart of campus. One thing that has never changed, however, is the legacy and philosophy of the Antigonish Movement that the Coady Institute and the Extension Department were founded upon.

To quote my mother, Zita O’Hearn Cameron, who worked with the Extension Department, “The Antigonish Movement was not unique because of the co-operative strategy nor the adult education approach, but it was the combination of the two that made the Antigonish Movement unique.”

Dr. Coady had a vision that people from around the world, who worked for the development of their communities, would come together to learn about the principles and practices of the Antigonish Movement, and how they could use the same people-centered approach at home. The approach was based on the belief that ordinary people with life experience have knowledge and skills, and when given the opportunity to reflect and learn from each other, they are able to critically analyze and identify strategies to change unjust systems so that everyone may enjoy a “full and abundant life.”

What makes the Coady International Institute unique among other development leadership programs is the way we bring development practitioners from around the world together to live, study, discuss, reflect and learn from each other, and from the experienced program teaching staff. For many participants, this is their first time to experience a different model of pedagogy from the colonialist model of top-down lecturing by experts, who do not value or acknowledge participants’ own knowledge and experience as adult learners.

In promoting their new strategic direction, senior management has chosen to disregard and weaken the strengths and uniqueness of the Institute's adult education approach by calling it old, not innovative. They also say the Antigonish Movement is dead and no longer relevant. Anyone who understands the underlying philosophy of the Movement and what is happening in many communities around northeastern Nova Scotia today would know that the legacy of the Antigonish Movement is flourishing — in Antigonish alone we have community-run transit, an affordable housing society, and a solar energy cooperative.

The new design and curriculum of future education programs minimize the reflective, transformative adult education approach that has been so fundamental at Coady. No longer will there be an emphasis on co-creating knowledge by learning with and from other development practitioners. Participants will learn from experts. The important informal time together with staff and participants over meals and socials will no longer be central to building the learning community, and a sense of belonging to a worldwide Coady family.

What I find puzzling about this new strategic direction is that up until 2015 Coady was doing very well under the previous leadership. The relevance of the educational programs was reflected in the number and quality of applications from around the world. Work was growing in new areas that contribute to social and economic justice. External evaluations were positive, participants were very satisfied and budgets were balanced. There were multiple funders from government, development donors, large NGOs, private philanthropists and individuals who cared about Coady’s work. Partners in the development field from both the global north and south were courting Coady for future initiatives. Staff were committed and passionate about their work. This has all changed in the last 20 months. We now have decreased fundraising from a smaller group of donors, overseas partnerships are in flux, external stakeholders and community supporters are unsure of what is going on, and a toxic work environment permeates the structure.

This new strategic direction being promoted by senior management at Coady had little true involvement of staff. They were consulted, but were not part of the decision-making. Recommendations made by staff based on their research and experience were often disregarded. When staff asked questions or raised concerns about the new direction they were silenced or reprimanded by senior management. As a result, some were bullied and harassed into leaving what they had considered their “dream job.”

When I see my fellow colleagues, who are part of my Coady family, suffering so much from fear, anxiety and stress, I cannot remain silent. The treatment of staff by senior management has been inhumane and unjust. Firing staff because they do not have the skill set to support the new strategic direction, not offering any form of skills development, then forcing them to sign confidentiality agreements to receive a severance package sends a message of intimidation to other staff who may question management’s decisions. There are many examples of bullying and harassment by senior management in the past two years. This type of leadership style is often an approach taken by management to cover up for a lack of knowledge and understanding, as well as incompetence.

The Coady International Institute has long been held up as the crown jewel of social justice by St. Francis Xavier University. The Coady, under its current management, no longer has the moral authority to promote social justice while continuing to treat its most valued asset in such an unjust manner. It grieves me to see the demise of an institution that has contributed so much to social transformation and global leadership development around the world for over 59 years. I also worry about the future of the university’s Extension Department now that it has been taken over by Coady management.

But while I mourn the loss of my Coady family and what is happening to it, I continue to have hope that things will change before the complete demise of the Institute. I believe this turnaround can only happen with a change in senior management. I also believe that if the Institute disappears the legacy of the Antigonish Movement and the Coady International Institute will continue to inspire social transformation and justice for years to come locally and globally.

Colleen Cameron is an Associate of the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University

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