Tragedy in Trinity Bellwoods Park

No “Goodbye.” No “I love you.” No explanation. A young man was taken from his wife and unborn child 2 days before Father’s Day.

 I’m staying at a house near College & Bathurst for the summer. My roommates and I discovered a few weeks ago that it’s an informal neighbourhood tradition to head to Trinity Bellwoods park on Friday afternoons. Last Friday was no exception. After work we found a nice spot in the middle of the park, where we decompressed from our week. We listened to some music, laid back, talked, laughed, and just enjoyed the perfect summer day.

Not too long after we sat down, we heard a siren… quite distant at first, but it quickly got closer and closer. I noticed it, but didn’t think much of it.

A few minutes later there was another one… also stopping close-by. Again, I didn’t think too much of it. This happened several more times – one after the other.

At one point, my roommate stopped mid-sentence and said “oh look – I think something’s happening on the street over there.” I turned my head to see a number of fire trucks and ambulances on the street, maybe 400m away. “It must be a car accident or something… hope everyone’s ok.” I said.

The sirens continued. I could hear multiple sirens now, coming from different parts of the city, all converging on our area… My curiosity was now peaked. “OK what the hell is going on?” I thought. “Anyone wanna go find out what’s going on with me?” I said to the group, and one of my roommates said “I’ll come with you.” We walked off, expecting to walk over to the street 400m away.

As we stood up, we could see a single ambulance with no lights on driving into the park. I figured that the traffic was backed up, so this ambulance was cutting through the park to save time. As we kept walking, we saw it stop in a clearing, no more than 100m from where we were sitting.

As we walked closer, the first thing I noticed was the stretcher – it was outside of the ambulance, but completely unattended. Nobody on it, no paramedics near it. Next I noticed that there was a small crowd around the clearing where the ambulance had stopped. We kept walking. I noticed all the emergency personnel next. There were a number of police officers around, a couple of them were on their radios and I remember seeing one officer with a flustered, anxious look on her face.

A few metres in front of us, there was a bike crushed under a massive tree branch. The branch was the size of another tree. Between us and the brach, a team of EMTs were huddled around someone lying on the ground. One paramedic was doing compressions on the person’s chest, while another was using a balloon pump to push air into the person’s lungs. A couple others appeared to be treating the person for external injuries. They were doing everything they could.

A few police officers were hovering over the paramedics; they seemed to be talking to the EMT’s. One police officer walked away, and began putting yellow tape up around the area, telling people to move back. I assumed it was in case other branches were to fall. At the same time, 2 paramedics came over with a large, thick orange blanket. “They must be treating them for shock” I thought to myself.

As they laid the blanket over the person, beginning at their feet, the other paramedics moved out of the way. As they moved out of the way, I could see his face – he was young. I realized at that moment they were not taping off the area in case another branch fell, and they were not treating him for shock. “He’s gone.” I thought to myself, shaking my head. A moment later his head was covered by the orange blanket. Many gasps and ‘Oh my Gods’ could be heard. People were crying.

A few metres to the left of us, a police officer had just told the wife. She was hysterical. “No” I remember hearing through her tears. “I’m pregnant.” Others began to cry. The area was fully taped off – it was a crime scene now. We walked away, wishing we hadn’t given in to our curiosity. We walked back to our group, not 20 seconds away, where the mood was just as positive and relaxing as when we left. I cried a lot that night, thinking about her, about her child, about how quickly it all happened, and how little sense anything about it made.

The last news report I read stated that the wife was receiving treatment for shock. I can’t begin to imagine the emotional turmoil she must be experiencing. It’s a horrible tragedy.

Even if it’s just $5, please give whatever you can to help this family in their time of need:

And if you have a moment, sharing the link to this fundraiser with others could do an immense amount of good for the family. Thank you.

-Alex
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What is Development? Beyond the Buzzword

SERIOUSLY… WHAT IS IT?

To me, development in terms of humanity on a global scale, means collectively reaching our full potential, as a coherent group; embracing the different systems that we are a part of, and attaining peace and fulfilment while surrounded by complexity. A common theme I notice time and time again when investigating development is ‘the common good.’ Without some sort of common trajectory – whether it is as a family, a town, a province, a nation or as a species, it is very hard to work your way toward development without an intentional direction.

So what – specifically – is development? let’s ask Google real quick.

 

define development.JPG

Ohhh OK so development is the process of developing…great. Thanks Google.

Let’s try that one more time.

define develop.JPG

That’s a bit better I guess… By definition, development refers to the growth, maturity, advancement or elaboration of something. This could be the development of an idea, a prototype, a country, pretty much anything.

That’s extremely vague and broad, isn’t it? No wonder politicians like to use it so much to spice up their speeches, while in reality committing to virtually nothing.

So let’s get into it a bit more… what does development mean in the context of what EWB is doing? I think it is fair to say that the ultimate goal for EWB is to work toward achieving global development. Lets simplify and say that first, development needs to occur at a national level. So we’ll say that in order to work toward global development, EWB is focused on the growth and prosperity of countries that are currently plagued by poverty, disease and economic volatility.

Now, we’ve got an interesting question. In looking at the development of an entire nation, there are so many contributing elements and complexities that even just talking about its overall ‘development’ is a huge undertaking, let alone talking about development on a global scale.

Upon investigating the perspectives of four thinkers in the realm of development, I’ve built on my own insights and reflections.

AMARYTA SEN ON DEVELOPMENT

Reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQ-Gb80HTgk

Amaryta Sen explains that “human capabilities are an essential feature of brining about the change we need in the world.” There are various factors that impede the capabilities and potential of others – such as economic, political, military or aid-related plagues. It is often important for those that are more capable (ie more developed communities) to identify these unfreedoms, or barriers to freedom that exist in our world. That is, help take steps to remove the things that infringe on this path to development lies for others, and themselves. Sen explains that groups who have had the fortune of attaining greater freedom and control through development are best suited to enable those who are further behind to increase the magnitude of their success. While I did find that Sen’s insights were fairly vague, and I wish that Sen’s insights had not been quite as brief, they still provided me with new insights into building a broader understanding of what development is, and sparked conversation for how different groups of people have a tremendous opportunity (and in my opinion a responsibility) to play a role in the different systems that facilitate freedoms and unfreedoms.

Because some of us are fortunate enough to be further along on the journey to development, it is possible for us to look back, and identify barriers which were overcome, and potentially barriers that were created through our development, that impede the progress of others to following their own optimal trajectory. With development comes freedom and control. It is equivalent to say that with the removal of unfreedoms comes true development, and the unlocking of true human capabilities.

So, what do we do? While some groups have more freedom and control in their lives than others, it is important to remember that development is rooted in the notion of unlocking humanity’s full potential. For this reason, it is vitally important to recognise that in order to eliminate unfreedoms, human capabilities cannot be imposed on people. This is not freedom – this is a form of control that acts to further complicate the problem which is being addressed. What needs to be done is the enabling of people’s potential.

Sen speaks of FXB International- An organization aimed at combating poverty and AIDS. They do this by empowering children through the strengthening of social and economic capacities of their families and communities. Empowerment is the focus. NOT ‘us helping them.’

One of the most important freedoms that synthesizes through development which Sen brings up is the freedom of public reason. This really resonated with me, as I had not considered just how important and impactful this freedom can be. By putting actions, ideas and results “under public scrutiny” a population can introduce new ideas, perspectives and opinions into what may be an old, or stale method of doing things. This can lead to continual improvement and the opportunity to advance from failures and weaknesses.

DAMBISA MOYO: AFRICA & WHAT’S WRONG WITH AID

Reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXWIUg30Cpk&feature=youtu.be

Dambisa Moyo has strong criticisms of the shortcomings of the aid industry, many of which very much reflected my own frustrations with it. She highlights how over $1T has gone to African countries over the last 60 years, and things have not considerably improved, and in some cases have gotten worse. Emergency humanitarian aid will continue to be essential, but should be considered a band-aid solution, a treatment of symptoms that does not address the root cause of the problem. Moyo highlights how in many cases aid revenue often goes from a donor to a government. Currently, many African countries are plagued by unstable, corrupt governments that often do not have the intention or infrastructure to carry out the work required to remove the unfreedoms Sen was discussing. This becomes increasingly problematic when factoring in the fact that in many of the most impoverished African countries there is no emerging private sector. The bulk of money is controlled by the State, hence why the state is continually trying to be captured resulting in factions and warlords rising to power and subsequently radicalization, destabilization and violence emerge.

 

She goes on to explain that it is imperative that we hear from African governments regarding what their development plan is, not listen to it second-hand from celebrities. Donors should be investing in something by providing aid funding to a government, not just giving a blank cheque. Furthermore, these governments need to be held accountable for their actions and decisions. What can truly lead to massive change is a switch from a sympathy to a investment mentality. Let’s do a quick thought experiment. When you walk by a homeless person on the street, you don’t give him money. Why? Could be a number of reasons. Let’s say it’s because you have absolutely no idea what they’re gonna do with that money. They could buy breakfast just as easily as they could buy crack, and you would rather contribute to them having to walk a little further to the soup kitchen than enable their destructive lifestyle. Alternatively If you were to ask the same homeless person you walk by if they would like to join you for lunch and they agree to join you, you would know that your money is being more effectively invested in an effective cause. However, is giving this person a meal really helping them? Arguably no. Arguably you’re just supplying them with a band-aid solution and subsequently enabling them to continue in their current state of existence thus perpetuating the function of the system. So while it’s a better investment than crack, it’s really not helping this person’s situation in the grand scheme of things. Now, what if over lunch you had a deep conversation with them about life, got to know them a bit more personally, and based on what they tell you, you were able to give them the contact information for a number of professionals who could help them with their financial/mental health/addiction issues. This is an interaction that could lead to lasting, sustainable change in their life.

Similarly, the citizens of these African countries need job creation, infrastructure, freedom, and opportunities to take control of their lives; not money thrown at them. There is this mentality that these countries, their people, and their governments are all frail and pathetic; unable to fend for themselves. For this reason, the attitude toward African countries in the West is about sympathy and aid. Factor in the massive disconnect between donors and aid recipients, and you end up with a massive amount of disposable income funnelled toward “aid.” This is a massive problem – as disorganized governments with poorly thought out plans (at best) are being given massive funding. This is why an INVESTMENT MENTALITY is critical.

While many western countries and organizations have a low tolerance for risk, Moyo points out that a number of Chinese and Middle Eastern countries have been investing in the initiatives of African countries. For these investors, it’s moreso about returns, business & incentives with which business is made. They feel that there are places to issue bonds in these countries.

The complex and chaotic systems that currently exists are a result of the fact that African governments don’t rely on their people, but upon do-gooder donors. Furthermore, they often don’t have to answer to anyone.

As Moyo emphasizes, the responsibility of the Development of the African continent is the responsibility of African Leadership. Under an Aid model, they are not incentivised to provide jobs & create wealth for African people – they don’t answer to their people.

As with any structured government, the leaders’ existence should only be possible if that president is creating public goods, or working toward improving the overall quality of life for its citizens.

An interesting point that she brings up is relating to mobile phones. As she explains, mobile phones are very popular in developing African countries & have can be very advantageous to owners. Accessibility to these devices has been restricted in Ethiopia, and the government is not selling the licence,or creating a tariff to produce an inflow into the government. The government knows they can just go to the G20 and get money in other ways, and so they have no incentive to create their own internal means of generating revenue. Moyo states that “An innovative government would look for ways to create money locally.” which I totally agree with her on. Especially in situations where a country is entirely dependant on the good will of other countries, great effort and intention should be put into establishing innovative solutions to creating jobs, creating economic stability, generating a GDP, etc.

“OK, Prime Minister. I’ll give you $2.5M over 5 years to develop infrastructure enabling the people of these areas to travel more freely and safely. I’ll check in after 1 year to see how progress is going.”

This is the sort of mentality that should be put into aid funding. And I will take it one step further. Once a government body comes up with a proposal for what they intend to do, and it has been established that their plans are accurate and realistic, a sufficient investment/donation will be made toward allowing them to follow through on their plans.

JEFFREY SACHS ON THE SUCCESS OF AID FUNDING

Reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNWzYy186W8&feature=youtu.be

Sachs has called on the most developed countries in the world to pool their resources toward alleviating global poverty. He has come under great criticism by aid critics who believe that stand-alone foreign aid projects do little to address underlying problems, and can often do more harm than good. “Aid works when it’s done well and directed at the right things.” He explains, providing examples of being ‘practical’ about aid such as Bed Nets, AIDS medicine, wells and water holes, help for agriculture. He claims that these actions have been proven to have “massive results time and time again.” And switches gears to talking about wasted aid in Iraq… nice deflection bro. I completely agree with Sachs that small amounts of money can yield huge results. We also share the view that simply handing over money is not effective and doesn’t work. I further agree with his stance that when done effectively, huge change can be a result.

However, based on the examples he cited, I get a strong impression that Mr. Sachs is not a Systems Thinker. He seems to embrace the project-based approach to aid, which is problematic unto itself. He mentioned digging water holes/wells. This is obviously important – people need water. However, this fails to address the issue of why these communities didn’t have access to water to begin with. This is the fundamental problem with the aid industry: Emergency Aid has little to no association with development. He talks about food aid… food generally grown by American farms, delivered by American transportation companies, and distributed by American-led teams (or <Insert More Developed Country Here>).

In addressing critics saying that money is going to waste, he says that “We have spent more on the Iraq war than all the world has ever given to all of Africa in all of history… Blah blah pentagon blah blah federal budget.”

ASIDE: JEFFREY SACHS ADDRESSING CRITICISMS

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You’re starting to bug me a little bit here, bud…

If you gave me a 5 dollar bill and said “I want this to help homeless people.” and I smiled at you, and lit the bill on fire, you’d probably be kindof pissed. I can’t then say “well look at George over there – he just burned 10 dollars!” It’s still an ineffective use of money. Stop making people forget what they’re angry about and address your criticisms.

“We do very little, often we do it very badly.” Yes – I agree. *insert reference to Iraq war.* He then emphasizes the importance of investing in education, agriculture, and basic infrastructure, to get people out of the poverty trap. I totally agree.

“Take one simple example: UNICEF and others teamed up to take on measles, and deaths are down by 91% across Sub-Saharan Africa.” that’s awesome to hear! “Millions of bed nets are being distributed when UNICEF and others have the funding to do it.” Alright, slow down Jeffy. You’re telling me that your long term solution to ‘solving’ the measles problem is to invest aid money in the 3rd-party manufacturing and distribution of bed nets? That’s essentially the same thing as saying you cured someone’s illness by putting them on a life support system. That’s not a solution it’s a temporary fix. Could you not use that money to invest in local manufacturing and distribution companies, using locally procured raw material thus creating a small, self-sustaining industry? This is the problem.

“In Niger 2M bed nets were distributed in 1 week… we can get Malaria under control.” *cost, price, blah blah blah… ANOTHER PENTAGON SPENDING CRITICISM*

ASIDE

Shout out to the guy interviewing Sachs for being about as investigative as a ripe tomato. Sachs might as well be talking to an empty chair.

Overall, there are elements of Sachs’ views that I agree with, and I think that his iniriatives/investments have elements that can be effective at contributing to lasting development. However the great majority of what he says I find problems with, and feel that he needs to think differently about what he is preaching.

Emergency aid is still, and always will be of vital importance – treating aids, measles, malaria, providing access to drinking water and food to people is crucial. And the methodologies for carrying out this emergency aid work has unarguably improved, and thus saved many lives. But addressing development is a different conversation, and Sachs’ attempt to blend and amalgamate the two was by in large ineffective.

Riz Khan and William Easterly

Reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoV-wtxyQKY&feature=youtu.be

White Man’s Burden… the Do-Gooder mentality… Us helping Them…

Easterly explains that aid money often props up corrupt dictators and warlords…. this mentality makes governments more accountable to aid donors than to their people – they are not held accountable by their citizens. A focus on throwing money at the problem hides the question of whether or not the aid is reaching the poorest of the poor or not.

He explains that while most aid organizations claim to be ‘new and improved’ and ‘thinking differently’ they are anecdotally not showing any signs of improvement (based on his research).

An interesting point he brings up relates to the mentality that those in the west hold. While in the past it was a blatantly racist attitude (ie “pennies for black babies”) it has morphed into a paternalistic mentality that is essentially just a subconscious form of imposing one’s privilege and power. Currently, it an “Us helping Them” mentality, which is extremely problematic. It perpetuates the idea that the people in these countries are unable to help themselves, and are primitive folks that need things done for them.

In addition exists this sense of moral duty to help the poor, whether they want it or not, and whether it’s helping them or not. Instead of consulting with the potential recipients of aid, and identifying what the problems are, what they need, what is stopping these people from solving their problem, the “shut up and let me help you” attitude is instead very rampant.

Development Aid needs to be provided in an effective way that gives the people in impoverished communities autonomy, choice, freedom, and power. Aid is often forced down the throat of countries with lots of conditions attached which often destroy the effectiveness of the aid.

He emphasizes that “Africa is the poorest region in the world even though it’s the most aid-intensive region in the world. It’s had the worst economic growth. Virtually zero rise in living standards despite billions of dollars going toward aid.”

ASIDE

It irritates me that Easterly continually refers to ‘Africa’ as a whole, when speaking about particular regions. This type of language helps to perpetuate the grouping of ‘Africa’ as being this place where everyone’s poor and malnourished. It dehumanizes the very people whom Easterly is trying to help.

Westernize vs Modernize

The citizens directly affected by aid efforts are powerless, as they are being forced to conform to ways hat the west thinks are best. This is a destructive approach, and at the very least builds up resentment toward G20 countries, as they are an outside group forcing you to change… nobody likes that. Their voice on what they need, and whether or not it’s helping is not being heard.

Easterly switches gears, and discusses the common pledge “to double aid” and how it has a great symbolic role… it’s like a token. This doesn’t in itself accomplish anything – it’s the costs not the benefits. He says that stressing the amount of money spent would be like GM saying “we’re gonna double our costs.”

Is there good in celebrities raising public awareness? Bono, Bob Geldaff, and many others are continually carrying out work in the field of activism to advocate for increased efforts toward poverty alleviation. WIlliam concedes that while it is a good thing to spread awareness, it’s generally done through simplistic ideas like ‘doubling aid spending.’

Easterly Vs Sachs

Sachs: “we could be the generation to see the end of poverty.”

Easterly feels that this is very idealistic and unrealistic. He explains the need to produce concrete things people can take responsibility for. Get malaria bed nets to people, whether they’re used. People need to be held accountable for The WHOLE PROCESS, which needs to be continually be monitored, evaluated and improved.

He is firm that the top-down approach doesn’t work…which we know makes sense as we are in the complex domain. There is a need for innovative solutions, fosterning and embracing  bottom-up growth, coupled with feedback to ensure efforts are effective and well-received, and measures in place to continually allow for scaling, adjustability and change in approach.

As mentioned, there is a place for emergency aid. But this will NOT lead to development. Only the individuals themselves can climb their own way out of poverty. Collectively, we need to shift the mindset from a central-planning bureaucracy mindset (the top-down approach), to promoting private entrepreneurs and market economies. They find innovative ways to meet the needs of consumers. Social Entrepreneurs are needed in aid; less bureaucrats and more innovators.

 

 

Complexity and Systems Thinking: Approaching Massive Problems and Managing Knowledge

SYSTEMS THINKING, ENGINEERING AND EWB

Thinking systemically is an attribute that can lead to considerable growth and progress toward creating change on an individual, communal, and global level. While I think everyone can and should develop their ability to think this way, I personally feel that the unique educational experiences that Engineers undergo equip them very effectively to think systemically, and furthermore facilitate massive change in the world around them. As engineers, we learn from day 1 to break every problem we encounter into bite-sized pieces; into segments, or by separating a larger problem into smaller ones that require differing expertise… components that we can analyze individually, but in the context of the entire system. Whether it is looking at the frequency response of a circuit, designing a robot, the behaviour of a beam under certain loading conditions, the response of a mass-spring-damper system, or looking at the behaviour of fluid flow, there are commonalties that can be drawn across all facets of engineering which relate back to thinking systemically. What are the different elements/impedances in this system? What is the output of the system? What are the through/across variables we’re dealing with? What can we change/manipulate? How will such a change affect the output of the system? What output do we want from the system? What is preventing this result from being achieved? What can we learn about the system? What can we measure? What data can we collect? Engineers are accustomed to approaching problems from an analytical, systemic perspective.

The true power of this methodology is leveraged when tackling massive social, environmental and geopolitical issues such as poverty, homelessness, universal education, climate change, species endangerment, loss of biodiversity, international relations, or peacekeeping, to name a few.‘Systems Thinking’ makes it more possible to address the root causes of these huge problems. This process of problem analysis aims at taking a big-picture approach to solving problems, and making a lasting, sustainable difference. This is done by utilizing methods that look at the full extent of a system, as opposed to fragments or ‘symptoms’ of it. For example, instead of giving food and aid to people in poverty, looking at what factors are inhibiting these people from being able to grow or access food or seek medical attention when needed.

 

SYSTEMS AND SOCIAL INNOVATION

Well, all this is fine and dandy… thinking systemically is a powerful way to approach big problems, and lends itself to be readily applied to an array of social and environmental problems as well as technical ones. But how does it actually work? What results come of all this fancy talk? That’s where social innovation comes in! The term Social Innovation refers to the work people do to toward addressing and solving the root causes of complex social problems such as those mentioned above. Social innovators are usually people with incredible vision, thinking and actions that bring distant ideas for innovation into reality.  A social innovation could be a change in process, a product, or a program that profoundly changes the way a system operates, and subsequently reduces the vulnerability of the people and environment adversely impacted as a result of that system’s current behaviour. Some examples of social innovation could include the Registerd Disability Savings Plan (RDSP), geared at helping elderly people living with a disability to achieve financial independence. Other examples could be Universal Healthcare, the invention of the wheelchair, and the continued advancements made in technology every day. Through these innovations, the system being disrupted will grow more resilient, and produce a more desired output. We are at a time when novel, innovative ideas are not only in high demand, but are critical in order to tackle the biggest problems facing our world today. It is the development of new products and programs, and the continued effort of people and groups creating policy and legislative amendments and improvements that will yield lasting positive change on all scales from the individual in a system, to the system in its entirety.

THE BASICS OF SYSTEMS

Systemic change… systems thinking… system this, system that… the way ‘system’ is getting thrown around here, it’s looking more and more like just another buzzword that people like to use in vague statements that really don’t mean anything. I hate buzzwords… they gloss over lack of understanding and enable people to duck out on providing detail, like development, or sustainability. ugh… what does that even mean? So let’s dive in a bit deeper – what is a ‘system’?

define system

Great – thanks, Google! This concludes my paper on Systems.

Just kidding – let’s give this definition some context. We are in a world comprised of countless systems that impact us all, both individually and collectively. We are involved in many systems right now, in fact. Can you think of any? Individually, we are being kept alive by the different biological systems our body is experiencing. Our cardiovascular/circulatory system, digestive system, nervous system, muscular system, etc. There are many systems that compose our societal infrastructure, such as the criminal justice system, or the judicial system. Right now, we’re using the internet as actors in part of a global information technology system. We consume food, and use land – we are part of environmental/ecological systems. On an individual level we are impacted by the different class & social systems that exist (power distribution in society, hierarchy at work, cliques at school), as consumers and/or suppliers, we are part of an economic system. Systems are all around us. And while some are stand-alone, others interact with one-another, creating larger systems, and as a result, we live in a space composed of an entire ecosystem of systems! WOW! So how can we categorize all of these different systems? How can we begin to understand them? Well, for starters, the vast majority of the systems we interact with and experience can be grouped into three broad categories: Simple, Complicated, and Complex. A fourth space can be called Chaotic… We’ll touch on this later. But what’s the difference between all of these categories of systems? Look no further!

Simple Systems

A simple system is a type of ordered system, meaning that an established series of steps that can be taken to overcome a problem or accomplish a task. Cause and effect exists, and is evident (think “if you do X, you get Y”). For these systems, minimal experience and expertise is required to solve such a problem, or disrupt such a system. The margin of allowable error from one step to the next is typically quite high. The confidence of the results being reliable and replicable from one iteration to the next is usually high as well.  A strong example of this would be baking a cake. Aside from knowledge of how to operate a blender, stove, or to access required ingredients, minimal expertise or experience is required, as long as the steps are followed.  It is acceptable for the steps to be followed with a fairly high margin of error; for example, if you put an extra quarter of a cup of sugar in your cake mix, you probably won’t ruin your cake.

Complicated Systems

Dealing with a complicated system can be a bit more involved. This is another type of ordered system, however cause and effect are not immediately evident. Considerable experience and expertise in a given field are typically required to devise a solution. While, like simple tasks, a list of steps must be adhered to in order to accomplish a task, the individual steps for a complicated problem are much more difficult to accomplish and must be adhered to much more strictly – the tolerance for error is much lower. For example, sending a rocket to the moon is a complicated problem, as a high volume of tasks need to be accomplished seamlessly with extreme precision. However, assuming that all tasks are accomplished correctly, the outcome can be predicted with a high degree of certainty. Additionally, every time a complicated task is completed, the ‘recipe’ can be updated or improved, and the likelihood of accomplishing the same task again becomes higher.

Complex Systems

Addressing a complex task is quite a bit different than the other two. This kind of system exists without causality. It imposes light constraints on its agents, with the agents constantly modifying the system. While simple and complicated tasks typically have a ‘recipe’ that can be followed for optimal results, rigid protocols are less applicable to complex problems. The majority of issues that EWB deals with are complex problems (poverty, for example). An effective example of a complex problem would be raising a child. In complex problems, an individual component can’t be evaluated without considering its context within the rest of the system; the relationship between each component of a complex system impacts their behaviour, and therefore, while expertise and experience can definitely play a role in attacking complex problems, its effectiveness is limited by the psychology of the individual child. Every person (child) has had different experiences, holds different perspectives, and are in different places in life and in maturity. So going back to our ‘raising a child’ example, while a parent may logically understand the reasoning for a particular decision (ie “go to bed at this time.”), the child may see it from an entirely different perspective, and therefore explaining your decision on a level that an adult would understand may not be an effective way to convey information to a child. For this reason, the ‘cut and paste’ process that works more effectively for simple and complicated problems does not apply as much to complex ones. That is to say, even if a parent successfully raises one child, it does not necessarily mean that they will be able to successfully raise a second.

Chaotic Systems

This type of system is discussed considerably less than the first three, however I think that it is equally, if not more important. In general, these systems are unwanted, and steps need to be taken to avoid creating them as the result will often be some sort of crisis. For this reason, I think they are vitally important to understand. In Chaotic systems, no cause and effect relationships can be determined. If it is entered intentionally, it is innovation. If entered unintentionally, steps need to be taken quickly to stabilize the situation.

Now we know a bit more about the different types of systems. But that on its own isn’t going to be very helpful. How can we manage these systems? How can we solve problems in these different domains?

Introducing: The Cynefin Framework!!!

cynefin.png

David Snowden, a knowledge management expert from Cognitive Edge, developed the Cynefin Framework, which outlines the differences between chaotic, ordered, and complex systems. One of the key notions that he emphasizes is embracing complexity, and learning to manage complex systems, rather than to treat them in a different way.

The Cynefin framework is a sense-making model, which should not be confused with a categorization/decision-making model. A categorization model exists on a basis such that the framework precedes the data. That is to say, when data is dropped into the (typically) 2×2 matrix, it will enable you to make a decision accordingly. Categorization models are useful for exploitation of data, not for exploring solutions to problems.

A sense-making model, on the other hand, is comprised such that the data precedes the framework; the framework emerges from the data. The Cynefin framework is an analytical framework derived from decision theory. Its applications can be seen in knowledge management, IT design, Project Management and other areas, which recognizes the casual differences that exists between different types of systems and give people a quick and easy way to flip between them and apply an appropriate methodology for a particular system. It has the potential to propose new approaches to decision making in complex social environments.

So, what all that means is that we can use this framework to help us determine the best course of action in different situations.

In simple systems, the decision model is sense-categorize-respond.

SenseEvaluate the environment; consider the different variables an parameters relating to the situation.

Categorize: Group the elements coming into the system into relevant headings (As a simple system, these elements will likely be easily grouped into previously identified/understood groups).

RespondMake decision. As an ordered system in which the relation between cause and effect is evident, apply ‘standard operating procedures’ which in this situation would be “best practice.”

So going back to our Cake example, when making a cake, one would sense that they are in a kitchen, with utensils, a blender a stove, ingredients, etc. categorize these things into relevant groups, such as ‘wet ingredients’, ‘dry ingredients’, and ‘containters.’ and finally respond, which would be to apply best practice, and follow the cake recipe.

 

ASIDE: BEST vs GOOD PRACTICE (This will become relevant shortly)

-“Best Practice” refers to a methodology to approaching a situation that has been generally accepted as the ‘go-to’ as it has proven to yield the exact result required/expected whenever it is implemented. This methodology can continually evolve as new technologies/innovations become available.

-“Good Practice” refers to the methodology chosen when a range of possible approaches or solutions exists. It is the most effective solution selected after all the different parameters of the situation are considered.

For example, in a modern hospital,  with plenty of funding and the latest & greatest in technology, an emerging new technique for treating a medical condition may be considered ‘best practice.’ In contrast, a hospital in a developing nation that does not have the technology or infrastructure in place to sustain such an advanced operation may select a lower-technology treatment method as their ‘good practice.’

To simplify, ‘best practice’ is the optimal solution to any problem, but cannot always be implemented, and thus an alternative ‘good practice’ must be consulted.

Reference: http://www.shooter-smith.co.uk/best-practice-vs-good-practice/

 

In complicated systems, the decision model is Sense-Analyse-Respond.

Sense: Evaluate the parameters of the situation/environment you are in. Remember that despite being ordered, complicated systems & problems are often open-ended, and have a range of possible solutions.

Analyse: Analyse the system. What can be measured? What data can be collected? Whose expertise can we employ?

Respond: Make a decision. Based on the different factors influencing your decision (funding, accessibility, etc). Apply “good practice.”

In complex systems, the decision model is probe-sense-respond.

Probe: Do something to the system. *****Conduct Safe-fail experiments, do not do fail-safe design***

 

ASIDE: SAFE FAIL EXPERIMENT VS FAIL SAFE DESIGN

-“Safe-fail experiments” refers to an experiment conduced (ie an change made to the system, or a microcosm of the system) that can provide value information about how to proceed, but which is conducted in a safe manner that will prevent new problems from arising, or additional complexity being added to the system.

-“Fail-safe design” refers to ‘mistake-proof’ design, with the intent of preventing errors; to ensure the output of a system is the exact same every time. While this is implemented frequently in the manufacturing industry, for example this past semester I was exposed to designing Poka-Yokes, a component of the Six-Sigma methodology.

In the complex domain, fail-safe design is not very applicable, as the system is continually evolving, and a definitive cause and effect do not exist. It is strongly encouraged to employ safe-fail experimentation and restrict fail-safe design while operating in the complex domain.

Referece: http://cognitive-edge.com/blog/safe-fail-or-fail-safe/

Sense: Evaluate the system’s response to the change. Is the safe-fail experiment successful? Unsuccessful? Inconclusive?

Respond: Based on new information acquired about the system and its behaviour, establish next steps to be taken. In general, if a safe-fail experiment is successful, it’s amplified. If it’s unsuccessful, it’s dampened.

Chaotic Systems

An important attribute I would like to point out regarding this framework is called the simple/chaotic boundary. Looking at the framework, you can see a ‘cliff’ in the bottom centre, originating in the simple domain, and ‘falling off’ into the chaotic domain. It represents the following: If elements that were originally categorized as simple, and are hence ordered, it is believed that past success in dealing with these elements will yield an invulnerability to future failure. This is a dangerous classification, as it leaves elements vulnerable to future change. In the event that “doing X does not result in Y” the element ‘falls off’ this proverbial cliff into chaos. In this situation, there are no answers. Data is random, meaningless, impossible to make sense of as-is. Dealing with this type of problem requires devising novel solutions, and taking creative action. For this reason it is CRITICAL that you only move a very small amount of material, content, information, etc. into the simple domain, as it become very susceptible to rapid or accelerated change. Furthermore, it is a powerful attribute to become proficient in managing systems and problems in the complicated/complex domain.

In chaotic systems the decision model is Act-Sense-Respond

Act: Take creative action! Do something to the system.

Sense: After taking action, evaluate what the result is. Did anything happen? Did anything change?

Respond: Based on the new information, devise next steps. Will you impose a different novel solution, will you give your first one a tweak and try it again?

The last note I’ll make on this segment is that in general, people tend to make decisions based on their preference for action. In other words, if someone prefers dealing with simple problems, and are comfortable in that domain, they often tend to always approach problems from this perspective. This is a dangerous mindset that is not reflective of the array of systems and problems one will encounter in the world. For this reason, I feel it is critical to embrace this framework – or at the very least consider approaching problems from a different, -and potentially new -perspective.

A PERSONAL REFLECTION

Well, this should hopefully give you a slightly clearer (or perhaps less clear) understanding of systems, what they are, and what you can do with them. We have all encountered systems in our own lives.

My personal experience with simple and complicated problems is one that I dove into on a daily basis this past Winter semester. As a Mechanical Designer, the designs that I produced could typically be grouped into 2 categories: Assemblies, and Parts. Creating a part would be an example of a complicated problem – there is a ‘recipe’ that can be followed to produce the same part every time. However, considerable machining expertise is required to produce required parts. Additionally, in order for the same part to be reproduced, the features must be identical, otherwise the part is useless. Producing a part would typically play out to the effect of “take a block of raw material with these overall dimensions. Cut slots & keyways of this size in these locations, adhering to these dimensions and this level of accuracy. Drill and tap holes of this size in these locations with these tolerances.”

An assembly is a combination of parts. This is another example of an ordered system, and putting together an assembly could be considered a simple undertaking. In order to successfully produce the assembly, protocols and steps need to be adhered to. “this face must be mated with this face. The locating pin must connect these two parts. This sized bolt must fasten these two parts together.” In order to successfully produce this complicated system, the blueprint that facilitates the production of an individual part, as well as the actual assembly must be adhered to.However, the margin of error is often much larger during assembly than in the production of parts. In addition, there are infinite ways that a part could be created incorrectly, while a limited number of ways which could cause an assembly to be put together incorrectly.

When I think of complex systems being treated as complicated systems in my life, a few key examples come to mind. I would treat the Guelph EWB chapter as a complex system. Member retention, for example, is proving to be a huge challenge for us, and while we have successfully retained particular members, there is no guarantee that the methodologies that led to their commitment to EWB will guarantee that of others. Additionally, every person that comes to EWB is an individual, and it cannot be assumed that they all have the same interests, intentions, or thought processes. By not continually addressing these elements of the system, chapter success has been limited as a result. The overall uncertainty surrounding the success of recruiting members, and the ineffective methodologies for approaching complicated problems further leaves me with the conclusion that we are in the complex domain. In addition, the direction that the chapter takes is another complex problem. What is our role in the school? In the organization? What goals do we need to accomplish?  I have been a member for 2 years, and in that time I have largely seen it being treated as a complicated system. By this I mean that the plan-execute-reflect approach was typically used. A ‘semester plan’ would be constructed at the beginning of the year, and largely adhered to throughout the year. As a result, when unexpected events would arise, the rigid plan would fracture. While elements of the plan were successful, other elements were not, which I believe served to push particular people away, and has resulted in the current state of the Chapter – which I see as having considerable room for improvement.

THINKING ABOUT SCALING SYSTEMS

As you’ve learned here, when dealing with systems (especially complex systems) there is often an element of research and experimentation involved… whether it is in attacking complex problems, part of your analysis in dealing with complicated problems, getting yourself out of a chaotic crisis, or devising a new and improved way to manage simple problems, R&D is a critical skill in approaching systems and solving problems. As has been mentioned, safe-fail experimentation is a strong tool to employ regarding this endeavour. However, and this is especially true in the complex domain, a time will come when it is necessary to scale.

Scaling – yet another buzzword perhaps?

Well let’s give it a bit more meaning then… from a mathematical perspective, scale would refer to the ratio of size of a model or other representation to the actual size of an entity.

Now this definition isn’t perfect for us, but gives us a bump in the right direction. In terms of complex problems, it’s easy to think about scaling in terms of 4 large categories: Individual, Network, Organizational, Institutional. Change in these four categories, and an idea of the scaling between the four, can be seen in the representation below:

Scaling.png

[Fun fact: when I inserted this picture it was too small, so I had to scale it up. Ha. Ha Ha.]

So who cares? Scaling is of critical importance if you have any intention of doing anything in a larger context (as you typically do). So in framing you decisions, and deciding on a certain problem solving approach, you should always consider the scalability of the solution you are implementing.

Anyway… an effective model for scaling systems is the Adaptive Cycle Model (seen above), which has 2 key aspects, scaling out and scaling up. When change happens in a connected way across scales it becomes stronger and more effective.

Scaling Out: A replication of an innovation. Efforts aimed at making a good initiative occur more frequently, and in more places. This scaling occurs at the current level of a system.

Scaling Up: Increasing an initiative’s impact in the broader system in working toward addressing the root causes of a problem. This often involves the initiative looking or working a bit differently, in order to compensate for the additional factors that come into play upon applying an initiative to different or additional elements of a system. This scaling occurs across one or more levels of a system

Bouncing back to our chat on decision modelling in the complex domain, we established the importance of safe-fail experimentation, and amplifying successful experiments. This is a huge example of when you would implement scale. If an experiment you conduct on a small sample set/representation of your overall system is an overwhelming success, you will want to replicate it out and upward toward addressing the rest of the system…. Right?

OK – so how do you do it?

PATHWAYS TO SUCCESS

Great question!

There are a number of different ways to go about scaling up a social innovation. In my opinion, the ability to do this is the back bone of any entrepreneurial venture. SiG has identified a number of different methodologies, or proverbial pathways, that exist for achieving success, such as the Beanstalk, the Umbrella, LEGO, and Polishing Gemstones. I am going to discuss the Volcano pathway – I find it most relevant here, as it was developed by EWB. This methodology is based on embracing the energy and good intention of passionate and enthusiastic individuals, and through fostering this behaviour EWB was able to scale out. Their intent was that once a ‘tipping point’ is reached, the subsequent ‘eruption’ would lead to massive, disruptive change, across all levels of the system.

ASIDE: THEORY OF CHANGE

A Theory of Change defines long-term, full-scale goals and attempts to map backward the required steps to achieving these goals.

I would like to note that the usefulness of this theory is limited, because (as we know) complex systems cannot be truly mapped backward in this way.

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_change

The Theory of Change for this methodology occurred through continued internal learning and experimentation. This approach resulted in an inclusive and participatory organizational culture. It became apparent, however, that with such a diverse, inclusive, interdisciplinary team working on an array of different projects, their work became meaningless as it did not address the context of the situation. In working on isolated projects, the root causes of the problems they were working on remained ignored. For this reason, EWB chose to narrow their focus on specific objectives, as they only had finite resources available to them. In defining a strategic focus, narrowing down to 5 key projects, they were able to work toward addressing the larger complexities of the projects they were working on, and hence scale up. The risk that comes through this strategic focus is that the inclusive, participatory culture upon which the organization was based could be at risk as their ability to generate energy and enthusiasm could become more difficult with narrowed focus.

Further Learning: I found this video excellently relates the Cynefin framework to systemic change: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bJp_OShoyQ

 

Social Justice: Privilege, Power and its Implications at a Systemic Level

MAKING THINGS AWKWARD AT THE DINNER TABLE: A DISCUSSION ABOUT PRIVILEGE

Privilege is one of those topics we don’t talk about in my house… specifically white privilege. I’m sure there’s  a lot of reasons for it, but I think the biggest one is that we fear what we don’t understand. I think that when the average white person is first exposed to the concept of White Privilege (myself definitely included), for example, it makes their head explode. Confusion, anger, resentment, aggression… a feeling of someone discrediting all the struggles that you overcame in your life; as if to say you didn’t truly earn any of the successes that you achieved in your life. For a large majority of people I’ll wager a guess that these sorts of feelings do not make you think “Wow! I’m so inspired to go spend my personal time exploring this issue further.” BUT WE MUST. Profound personal growth and development ONLY comes from exposing yourself to emotionally uncomfortable or painful situations in an unbiased manner, and pushing through it not necessarily knowing what the outcome will be – your mind is constantly searching for homoeostasis (equilibrium) and you need to constantly push yourself to snap out of what feels ‘comfortable’. For me, I was of the mentality that “all this white privilege and patriarchy stuff is complete bullshit. These people should all just get over it and stop being so sensitive.” But by talking to people who had the opportunity to study Social Justice and political issues in school, I realized that despite what I felt, I had no ammunition… no counterpoints, or examples, or rebuttals to throw back at these ‘feminazis.’ And so I essentially ventured out on my own personal research project with that mentality – “I completely disagree with your point of view and I’m gonna prove you wrong.” Not too long afterwards, I had done a full 180, and unlearned many of the strong, emotionally-charged opinions which I held true for so long.

So I want to take some time here to really explore privilege in a societal context, and why I think one of the biggest barriers to individual, communal and global equality is due to the fear and apprehension many of us have of holding our feet to the fire.

A quick thought experiment: When you see a person with a physical disability, how do you feel? For me, I’d say I have this deep feeling of “Wow. I can’t even imagine having to go through life experiencing that on a daily basis.” Because I can’t. It’s like trying to conceptualize the 4th dimension – you cannot wrap your brain around it because you have never experienced it yourself. I think the average person would consider themselves privileged in comparison to someone with a physical disability. Privileged in ability. Free of ridicule or judgement. Free of travel restrictions. Able to pursue whatever job they want – unlimited by their physical ability. You are privileged in every sense of the word. There’s a reason we get so mad at dickheads that park in handicapped parking spots – it is a blatant demonstration of privilege and power that one group asserts over another. Now, I just want to note that it’s not always obvious if someone has a physical disability  – obviously – and you shouldn’t go cuss out the next person you see walking away from their car in a handicapped parking spot  – OBVIOUSLY. However, for the purposes of this thought experiment, imagine that some able-bodied guy drove to the LCBO, and thought to himself “I don’t feel like finding a parking spot.” and parked his leased F150 in the 1 and only handicapped parking spot in the parking lot. You see him get out, and look right at you with a smirk on his face, before he walks into the LCBO. Nice guy, right?

Things get a little more complicated when discussing more subtle forms of privilege: race, religion, mental ability, mental health, gender, sexuality, class, education.

I understand privilege as being personal characteristics that individuals have that yield societal advantages or disadvantages, often unearned. As mentioned, some characteristics that impact your privilege include your race, gender, sexual identity, country of origin, religion, language, economic status, age and many others. These characteristics – many of which people are typically born into – compose your societal identity. What do you think privilege is?

In many cases, privilege is correlated with history. For example, because the structure of our society was primarily created by European settlers (also known as ‘WASPs’) who colonized and developed this part of the world, the systems and infrastructure that was subsequently cultivated was (consciously and unconsciously) advantageous to themselves. For this reason, White, Anglo-Saxon, Straight Males score very high on the ‘privilege scale.’ In contrast, identifiable groups such as persons of colour, or homosexual people for example, have historically been marginalized and oppressed in our society on an institutional level. Many examples of this systemic oppression can be seen in pre-civil-rights-movement United States, where ‘coloured people’ were considered to be second class citizens in every sense of the word. In “Notes from my Middle Passage”, Ikhide Ikheloa discusses the issue of racism between white and black people in the Southern US with reference to his own experiences and insights. In his piece, an important concept he discusses is the distinction between blatant racism, and the dangers of the more discrete forms of racism that have manifested themselves in society today. He speaks about the capability that visual images and words have in shaping both harmony and discourse in society. An example he gives of this is of hearing racist jokes or comments in public. As he later explains, racism and prejudice often travel in the same direction – by being harassed in such a public way, the language and actions that oppressors execute free of contest or resentment from other individuals in a position of privilege or power serves to consolidate and normalize such behaviour. Through this process, internalized prejudices that individuals may hold become validated – and a platform is created for individuals to externalize these prejudices through words and actions. This process of a majority group collectively translating their individual prejudices and biases into actions contributes to the systemic mistreatment and oppression of identifiable groups in society.

Let’s go back to white privilege – everyone’s favourite. This form of privilege is one that manifests itself in our societal structure. Dating back to colonization, our entire society in Canada and the US has been developed by white settlers from Europe. Historically, visible minorities and other identifiable groups have been discriminated against on a societal level by the white colonizers (whether it’s indigenous folks, black people, Chinese people, Japanese people). Over time, this structural oppression has led to the majority having privilege in society over other groups.

I think that there are many social and societal constructs aside from whiteness that shape oppressive systems. In “The History White People Need to Learn” it becomes apparent that a large underlying motivation for the decision to classify a group as “white” is economically-based. For example, “If group X is classified as white and group Y is not, then group Y will not be able to become more financially successful than group X.” As the article explains, whiteness was an aspiration which was like a ‘gift’ bestowed on certain working-class immigrant groups which served as incentive for them to subjugate other minority groups. This lens can be used to project this method of systemic oppression and marginalization to other constructs seen in our history. For example, those born into wealthy families are more likely to remain at that level than someone born into a less financially prosperous household. While some may be able to afford to send their students to a private elementary and high school – where the quality of education is considerably higher than that obtained at a public school – these people will be more likely to get into a high-ranking post-secondary school, gain access to a well-paying job and subsequently recreate or exceed their parents’ high quality of living. In contrast, those who are born into poverty, and have no choice but to attend a lower-quality educative establishment, have decreased chances of getting into a post-secondary school of their choice, or getting a high-paying job – by no fault or choice of their own.

8th fire – a CBC program exploring the relationship between indigenous folks in Canada and the society which was cultivated by European colonizers. It explores indigenous people from across Canada in all walks of life, and the historical experiences they have had with those who came to colonize Canada – having their land taken, being forced to attend residential schools, etc. It was very evident in watching this how much myself and my ancestors have benefitted from the historical actions of these settlers, at the expense of the indigenous people. By stealing, bullying and scamming these people out of the land that they originally settled (such as the area which is now Toronto – originally settled by the Mississaugas), our society was able to prosper and flourish through access to natural resources, while indigenous folks were continually confined to less-and-less land of lower grade.

Cultural appropriation – another fun subject that makes people nice and uncomfortable – is an exercise of privilege. I could probably write an entire paper just on this – as many have. But there is really just one thing that I want to emphasize about it here: RESPECT PEOPLE. That’s it. If something that was very dear to you was used by someone with no perception of its importance was using it wrong, how would you feel? Imagine your great grandmother made a bowl with her own 2 hands during the great depression so that your grandfather was able to eat because they couldn’t afford kitchenware, and it was passed down from generation to generation with the rich lore and story behind it preserved in the family (yes, this is my attempt to illicit strong sentimental emotions – a story about a bowl). You just moved to a new place, but forgot the bowl at your old apartment. You come back to discover that the new tenants are now using this precious family heirloom as an ashtray – how do you feel? Now, imagine that you had a note above the bowl that said “sacred family heirloom”, and you discovered that these tenants had seen that, and still decided to use it as an ashtray – how do you feel now? OK let’s extend this one step further. Let’s say that you left your place for a week on vacation. You come back to discover that these people had broken into your apartment and were now using your sacred bowl as an ashtray, but get mad at your audacity to yell at them for breaking into your apartment and desecrating your family artefact. As if this wasn’t enough, these people are the children of a very rich, privileged and powerful family, who own several properties and could easily find another ashtray. How do you feel? Probably not great about the whole thing. Essentially what this issue boils down to is respect – if you think that something may be culturally sacred to someone else, or otherwise an important part of their identity, treat it with the same respect and care you would treat a family heirloom – or something which you knew to be someone else’s family heirloom. And if you don’t know if it is something sacred, heir on the side of caution.

Overall, I think that privilege is a very deep, often complicated topic that is very touchy for many people. That being said, it is not an issue that people should shy away from discussing by any means.

References

Ikhide Ikheloa: Notes from my Middle Passage

http://www.salon.com/2014/02/07/the_history_white_people_need_to_learn/

http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/

 

ALEX AND THE MYSTERY OF THE INVISIBLE BACKPACK: A RIVETING TALE OF NOT ACTUALLY EXPERIENCING OPPRESSION

I grew up in Mississauga, in what I would consider to be a very culturally diverse community. At the middle school I went to, for example, white people were by far the minority demographic of students – my old yearbooks are in storage so I can’t give exact numbers, but I remember there being about 10 white kids in my grade 8 graduating class (of let’s say 100 kids). At school, our teachers did their best to expose us to social justice issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, stereotypes, prejudices, marginalization – ‘the -isms’ for lack of a better word. I was often confused and annoyed that these conversations never seemed to pertain to me (a white male), and were more-so geared toward ethnic minority groups, or as I perceived them, ‘the rest of the class.’ I still remember a lesson we had in which the teacher was talking about oppression, and said something along the lines of “every minority group has experienced oppression. Black people… Japanese people… Chinese people… Aboriginal People…” the list went on, and as I looked around the class I was so confused about why everyone else was a part of this ‘minority’ except the white guys. In a very ironic way, I felt excluded. It was as if I was asking “WHY CAN’T I EXPERIENCE OPPRESSION LIKE EVERYONE ELSE?!?!?!?”

As she continued to rhyme off groups that have historically experienced systemic oppression, I was thinking to myself “WHAT ABOUT ME? WHAT ABOUT WHITE PEOPLE? I’VE GONE TO SCHOOL WITH ALL OF THESE PEOPLE… WE ALL LIVE IN THE SAME NEIGHBOURHOOD, WE ALL PLAY AT RECESS AND ALL GET ALONG AND YET I’M THE ONLY ONE WHO HASN’T EXPERIENCED THIS? WHAT MAKES THEM SO DIFFERENT?” As her list went on, I got more and more agitated as everyone in the class was ‘included’ except for me (and the other 1 or 2 white males that may have been in the class at the time). Finally, right at the end, the teacher glanced over at me (I likely looked very grumpy and confused), and added on “… and even some white people.” And I thought to myself “WELL FINALLY…”

I wish now that I could go back and explain a few things to my younger self – as I’m sure we’d all love to for one reason or another. I would explain how deeply complicated the issues that are being discussed are, and how the profound, reaction-invoking statements people make like ‘everyone except white people experience oppression’ require a lot of time learning and reflecting to truly understand and internalize [I still feel like I haven’t completely wrapped my head around it]. I would discuss with myself how it is normal to be irritated and frustrated at hearing things you don’t understand which may seem like a personal attack. Or to feel excluded: “please specify if you are a visible minority (ie. non-white)”, or targeted: “You have privilege because you’re white”, or even the victim of ‘reverse racism’: “You can’t say that cause you’re white”. If there was one thing I would tell my younger self, it would be that there will always be concepts that frustrate you, and confuse you, and annoy you, and anger you. But you need to investigate them; not avoid them. You need to approach them in an impartial, open-minded way, and you need to dive in.

My confusion and frustration festered throughout middle school and high school. When a job application would ask if I was “a person with a disability… a visible minority… a woman…” it seemed even more to me like this ‘group that I wasn’t included in’ got special treatment just for the colour of their skin, or their gender. Getting called “cracker”, “white boy”, “honkey”, “redneck”, “bird shit”, “white shit”, “Wonder Bread™ ” (I’m not making this up) did nothing to help this feeling I had of being a victim of reverse racism. When people would so aggressively criticize ‘white people’ as a whole… “I hate when white people do this… white people are all so racist… white people are so soft…. White people have caused so many problems in the world…” or even just a good old “fuck white people.” It would drive me crazy. “WHY ARE YOU PROJECTING THE BEHAVIOUR OF CERTAIN PEOPLE ONTO AN ENTIRE GROUP? THAT’S RACIST! THAT’S STEREOTYPING! AREN’T THESE ALL THE BIG NO-NOs YOU POLITICALLY CORRECT LIBERAL ASSHOLES ARE ALWAYS TELLING ME ABOUT?” It was aggravating. When my English teacher in grade 9 said that white people can’t experience racism, I complained that “people call me a redneck and a cracker… isn’t that racist?” and she said something to the effect of “boo hoo they called you a redneck… That’s not racist.” Well thanks for so eloquently clearing that up for me. Glad we’re all on the same page now.

“WHY CAN PEOPLE SAY ALL THESE MEAN THINGS TO ME BUT IF I SAY THE N-WORD IT’S SUCH A BIG DEAL?”

What I never understood was that despite being called names, being on the receiving end of stereotypes or prejudices, I was not actually experiencing racism on a structural, systemic level. Being called a cracker, for example, compares me to a slave owner; a person in a position of unearned power. I always found being called a cracker to be extremely offensive as I obviously didn’t like being compared to a slave owner. However, this is not comparable to a black person being called a n****r – a term which by historical definition was used by white people to dehumanize and degrade a minority group, thus asserting their power and privilege in a systemic way. This example should highlight the notion that while white people can be victims of name calling, stereotypes, or prejudices, in our current societal structure white people cannot experience racism. Statements like “white people can’t play basketball” are not racist. This distinction is critical.

All I ever heard were the buzzwords (“white privilege”). The catchphrases (“white people can’t experience racism”). the aggressive, absolute statements (“white people have caused so many problems in the world”) I never got context. I never got the long essay explaining in detail how privilege and racism came to manifest themselves in society today.

Mind you, I wasn’t exactly motivated to venture out and find this information. Whenever people would make such profound statements, not opening the floor to any sort of discussion, I would reject these ideologies even more so. All of the qualitative observations I had made up until this point did nothing to inspire me to dive deeper into topics like “white privilege” or “feminism.” During this period in my life, learning about “the -isms” was frustrating for me – I came to resent them.

I would often disregard such statements as not pertaining to me. “I’M NOT RACIST!” I would think “SO NONE OF THIS IS RELEVANT TO ME… GO TELL THE KKK or something”

But as James Baldwin so eloquently explained on the Dick Cavett show, regardless of what an individual white person thinks or feels, the institutions that white people have created breed racism. “It does not matter if an individual white Christian hates Negroes,” he explains, “There is a white and a coloured Catholic Church.” Baldwin goes on to explain that racism on an individual level is not the biggest problem (it is a problem, of course, but not the biggest). The bigger problem is institutionalized racism – the systemic marginalization of a particular group on a massive scale.

A word I never heard before coming to university was “Ally.” In a Social Justice context, that is. While I may not be racist on an individual level, I can’t deny the fact that through no actions of my own, I am on the advantageous side of a racist system. I am privileged. As such, it is MY RESPONSIBILITY to educate myself about my privilege. Furthermore, I should do my due diligence to SUPPORT and STAND UP for those of whom are on the disadvantageous side of the system I’m a part of. To me, this is what it means to be an Ally. There’s another dynamic to it – I can’t just go up to a black person and demand that they explain to me why I am privileged for being white… Going back to my point earlier about ‘approaching topics with an open mind’, it is important to do that, and be mindful of the fact that you may be completely wrong about your opinion. DO YOU KNOW THAT YOUR OPINION IS RIGHT? OR DO YOU JUST FEEL LIKE IT’S RIGHT? Probably more like the latter. As such, think “If I’m 120% wrong about this, is it appropriate to ask a transgender person to explain to me why being transgender is not a choice? Is it appropriate to ask a black person to explain why I have privilege over them for being white?” The answer is NO. If your initial hypothesis IS incorrect, and you ARE wrong, expecting – or rather, demanding – that they take the time and emotional energy to explain these things to you is an attempt to assert your power over them. Read a book. Ask someone who is not impacted by the issue (ie. ask a white person to explain white privilege to you).

This leads me to a really important point. Something that really irritates me… really rustles my jimmies… is people who are in a position of privilege, who have been educating themselves about their privilege, and who don’t take the time to help others make the connections and inferences that they themselves have made. Like my grade 9 teacher that basically said “boo hoo get over it” (very ironic in retrospect), or people I see on Facebook that dismiss people as an ‘idiot’ or as ‘ignorant’ or ‘a bigot’ …  This is not constructive, and if you have to immediately stoop to personal insults, that is a reflection of your shortcomings as much as it is of theirs. Whether it’s white people that understand White Privilege, men that understand Feminism and Gender Equality, cis people that can provide insights into issues like Transphobia, or anyone else in such a position that could otherwise provide some avenue of people to learn more about the dynamics of privilege and power in our society. There were so many times growing up when all I needed was a simple explanation, or a resource to go to – things that many people I encountered were in a position to give me – and all I really got were some buzzwords.

As I mentioned, it is the responsibility of those in a position of privilege to educate themselves about their privilege. I’ll take that one step further and say that it is also your responsibility as an active citizen to educate others as well. Let’s say you see a fire in a building… you walk outside. Good job –  you’re safe! *high five* Except you left 9 of your co-workers to burn. I would like to think that the average person would have enough decency in such a situation to go back and help as many people as they could.

Saving yourself from the fire is good – helping other people save themselves from the fire is HUGE.

 

-Alex

Foundation Learning

Just to give you all a little bit of background information: the Junior Fellow experience began when I was selected & confirmed as a JF back in December. It is comprised of 3 main sections: Pre-departure, Placement and Post-departure (these may not be the exact names of each phase but it conveys my message nonetheless). A key part of the pre-departure (ie ‘pre-summer’) experience involves what is referred to as Foundation Learning: a broad, yet targeted exploration of subjects like ‘social justice’ or ‘development’ in order to help us build upon our ability to make systemic change worldwide. What is systemic change, you ask? Good question.

Hey, this is random but I have a question for you: What do YOU think systemic change is?

According to EWB, systemic change and more specifically System Change Leadership is the process of taking strategic actions to get to the root causes of issues at hand.

A way that helps me to conceptualize this is to think about going to the doctor: It is fairly easy to treat symptoms of a problem: “oh you have a sore throat? Here, have a RIIIIICOLAAAAAAAAAA” (sorry, I had to.) Or “oh look, you’re bleeding – why don’t we go ahead and stop that.”

Unfortunately, this is (literally) a band-aid solution… By only treating the symptoms, the underlying causes of these problems remains intact.

If you go to the doctor with a sore throat, runny nose, deep-chested cough and a fever, they could give you an ice pack, some Buckley’s a Kleenex and send you on your way (which is apparently pretty much what happens if you don’t have insurance in the States. But I digress…) However, a good doctor would most likely conduct some diagnostic tests, do some examination, maybe stab you with a couple needles, and try to get to the bottom (the root cause, if you will) of what is causing you all of these ailments. Once the doctor determines that (ie. “looks like you have pneumonia, buddy.”) they can take action (prescribe you medication, give you a puffer, give you a big hug and some hot chocolate, etc.) to disrupt the system and potentially provide a long-term solution to the problem.

 

Wow… I didn’t mean for this to end up quite this long – I basically just wanted to say that you’ll be seeing some posts here in the near which are related to this Foundation Learning. They are a weeeee bit lengthy but I would really value your input on them, or even just parts of them – even if you can only stick it out through the first couple paragraphs – I can’t tell you how much I value hearing all of your opinions, and learning with all of you!

 

That’s all for now!

 

-Alex

 

WELCOME

Hello, friend, fellow EWBer,  or anyone who was unfortunate enough to stumble across this site on their own accord… whoever you are, I would like to cordially welcome you to my blog! Or do you say ‘wordpress page’ ? Website? Idk…

This is a space that I will be using primarily to document my summer experience – I am a Junior Fellow with Engineers Without Borders Canada, and will be working at their National Headquarters in Toronto (or ‘the 6ix’ as my mom and other people who are way cooler than me call it). I’ll be working primarily for their Engineering Change Labs venture [http://ewb.ca/ideas/engineering-change-lab], hence the totally hilarious blog title (or do you say ‘wordpress page’ title?)

Anywhooo… I say primarily because I’ll also be using it as a place to reflect on my experiences, and to share any perceptions, opinions or insights I might come up with along the way (don’t get too excited…)

So in all honesty I have no idea how this wordpress blog page website will look come August, but I look forward to making internet traffic just a little bit more jammed over the next few months 🙂

Looking forward to hearing all of your thoughts & opinions! Feel free to be as candid, immature and uncensored as I am (I insist).

 

Again, Welcome.

 

-Alex