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Fellow Profile: Shauna Sylvester, Changemaker

May 27, 2013
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This profile of Dialogue Fellow Shauna Sylvester is the second in a series exploring the work of Fellows at Simon Fraser University's Centre for Dialogue. More information about Sylvester can be found in her full biography and Carbon Talks web page.

By Robin Prest

Working to unstick a multiyear policy deadlock over Metro Vancouver transportation might sound daunting, but the prospect of facilitating agreement among multiple actors doesn’t seem to faze Shauna Sylvester, Fellow at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue and Executive Director of Carbon Talks.

Sylvester has years of experience steering large organizations towards social and environmental objectives. Her past work includes designing reconciliation projects in conflict zones and serving on corporate boards like Vancity and Mountain Equipment Cooperative. In addition, Sylvester currently is the Executive Director of SFU Public Square, a flagship initiative by the President’s Office to establish SFU as the go-to convenor for issues of public concern.

This depth of experience has allowed Sylvester to reflect on the barriers that prevent communities from realizing their potential for environmental sustainability.

“There are a number of groups that do great work finding policy prescriptions. It’s not that our local governments don’t have great ideas for what direction to take. It’s that once they find their direction they might not have the buy-in to proceed.”

The strategy of Carbon Talks is to identify possible “carbon shifts,” windows of opportunity where key actions can result in reductions in greenhouse gases. The ultimate goal is to accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy and thereby increase Canada’s long-term global competiveness.

Sylvester approaches each potential carbon shift by first engaging stakeholders to understand their perspectives and expectations. In the case of Metro Vancouver transportation policy, she highlights the need to bring residents along in formulating and developing options for funding.

“I certainly grew up being devoted to the car. I couldn’t wait to get my first car…I think the deadlock comes from the fact that the car was part of our dreams, part of our rite of passage, and our policy followed that.”

Dialogue was not always Sylvester’s focus. Her early career centred on activism and oppositional politics, especially as part of the peace movement during the Cold War nuclear arms race. Then an unlikely event in far-away Kathmandu changed her approach.

Sylvester was engaged by the South Asian Editors Forum, a group comprised of “the Rupert Murdoch’s of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.” Her job: to help the group develop its mandate to promote regional peace, reconciliation and development at a time when India and Pakistan were threatening the use of nuclear weapons.

“These editors and owners commanded huge readerships. They had the ability to make or break leaders, the ability to start wars, and the ability to keep the peace,” Sylvester recalls of the powerhouse gathering. Some of the Indian editors had never actually met a Pakistani national before. Yet over the course of their first late night session together, something suddenly changed in the dynamics of the group.

“There was a point in the evening when the fear seemed to subside, when the debating wasn’t nearly at the pitch it was earlier in the evening and the laughing began. Some of them started going through their family backgrounds and realized that they were actually related.”

The ability of the editors to move beyond positional politics was a defining moment for Sylvester.

“I realized that if these people could move beyond their differences to collaborate, then I had to look at my own life. I decided that from that point on I needed to transform my approach - to move beyond polarizing politics, to see beyond dichotomies and to pursue dialogue, not debate.”

Sylvester first became a Fellow at the Centre for Dialogue to implement Canada’s Word, the most comprehensive citizen engagement review of international policy in the history of Canada. Between 1992 and 2006, Sylvester had noticed a slow decline in Canada’s international reputation. The country’s attention had become more inward looking, focussed on issues such as deficit reduction, economic growth and national unity.

This decline in stature was encapsulated for Sylvester in 2006, when a colleague told her that Canada had received a new nickname, shrub.

“The insignificant plant that adorned the conference room corner, rarely spoke, but when it did speak, was a little Bush.”

For the next three years, Sylvester and Canada’s World engaged 10,000 individuals in person and 200,000 online. The goal was to identify a new narrative that could replace Canada’s fifty-year-old identity as a peacekeeping nation, which, although popular, no longer held up to scrutiny.

The resulting vision called for Canada to “lead by example.” This simple but profound statement led to a series of recommendations for how domestic and international policy could help to model the type of world Canadians wished to see.

Several years later, the resulting research is still being used as curriculum in university classrooms, and the Canada’s World website receives thousand of hits every month.

Now focussed on Carbon Talks, Sylvester is confident that the program’s people-centred approach will result in tangible greenhouse gas reductions. Since late 2010, Carbon Talks has hosted fourteen invitational dialogues and dozens of public forums on emerging issues in the low carbon economy. Partners have included the City of Vancouver, the Trottier Project, BC Hydro, the City of Calgary and the City of Toronto.

Focussed back on Metro Vancouver’s regional transportation woes, Sylvester identifies the ingredient that can move people to change.

“When you take people out of their formal positions and you put them in a room, with their hats off – they have a chance to listen, learn and develop new understandings of issues. My favourite part of any dialogue is when participants realize that they don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle. That is when they are open to learning from others. When you create a space for open and safe dialogue, I believe you create the conditions for real change.”