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Fellow Profile: Mark Winston, Academic Director

October 02, 2013
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This profile of Dialogue Fellow Mark L. Winston is the third in a series exploring the work of Fellows at Simon Fraser University's Centre for Dialogue. More information about Winston can be found in his full biography.

By Nicole Armos

For many, having killer bees walking all over their hands in a South American apiary would be a terrifying experience.  Mark L. Winston, Academic Director and Fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, was certainly afraid as he approached his first bee hive. However as he observed the bees, he slowly found himself removing his gloves and unzipping his bee suit, a meditative sense of focus replacing his fear.

 “I don’t know what it was, but everything just slowed down for me. I was completely present…just feeling the whole gestalt and what it’s like being a complex set of individuals that are united in a collaborative way to this common purpose of the hive,” Winston recounts.

The experience was life-changing. His fascination for bees not only sparked a distinguished career as an internationally leading expert on bees and pollination, but also permeated his future work in dialogue.

For over two decades, Winston taught, researched and wrote extensively on bees, agriculture, environmental issues and science policy. Receiving substantial government funding for his research, Winston was motivated to give back by communicating his findings in a clear and approachable fashion for the community at large. His work has appeared in numerous books as well as in prominent media outlets such as The Vancouver Sun, The New York Times and CBC radio and television.

Winston’s interest in dialogue was already visible in his last book, Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone. Exploring the facts, opinions and polarized emotions of key players in the field of genetically modified food, his work was lauded for its balanced and empathetic approach.  Around this time, Winston began to feel that his career as a scientist had reached its peak, and chose to turn his attention to a new challenge instead.

It was 2002 and SFU had just opened the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in downtown Vancouver to act as a resource for dialogue among the university and wider community. Winston identified the opportunity to create a new learning experience for undergraduate students that would go beyond the lecture-based model of education. He founded the Semester in Dialogue aiming to bridge the gap between academics and community needs through more interdisciplinary, deeply personal and interactive education

 “I had felt that we were missing the most important thing we can do for students: to challenge them to figure out who they are in the world,” Winston explains. He was motivated to help students reach their full capacity, doing whatever he could to “encourage, advise, mentor and stimulate them to become all they can be.”

Despite this ambitious goal, Winston admits he “wasn’t expecting the scope of the profound impact the Centre [for Dialogue] would have on students and the community around us.” In his years teaching in the Semester in Dialogue and overseeing the Centre’s community programming, Winston has seen students and community members go on to incorporate the values of dialogue into their own work. Additionally, the Center has worked to make dialogue more accessible, through its diverse workshops and public programs and by offering financial and organizational support to groups in need.

Earlier this year the Semester in Dialogue hosted its tenth anniversary, celebrating success stories and memories from over 500 alumni. Since the Semester’s inception, many hundreds of notable thought leaders have engaged in dialogue with students around key public issues. Programs such as the Bruce and Lis Welch Community Dialogue and the Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue have also invited broad community participation in dialogues with tangible outcomes. In 2012, for instance, the Center hosted a 12-day “Citywide Conversation on Compassion” with Karen Armstrong, internationally renowned author and commentator on religion.

In 2012 Winston was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, recognizing his contributions to achieving excellence in Canadian higher education.

He notes that he has seen a shift in teaching practices across SFU, supporting more experiential learning, cohort programs, dialogue as an educational tool, and community engagement.

Poised to release his latest book that combines his interests in bees and dialogue (to be published by Harvard University Press in 2014), Winston says his work in dialogue has also improved his writing. “I’ve learnt to ask the right questions…to not leave questions at the superficial level, but always try to go one step deeper until you really get to the core passion, the core emotion, the core feeling that is behind anybody’s opinion,” he says.

Though the biology of bees and the practice of dialogue may seem worlds apart, Winston carried valuable lessons from the bee world into this new venture.  When working with bees, Winston noticed how he was able to transfer his sense of calm onto others around him, offering a unique insight into dialogue facilitation. “Our attitudes and our sense of presence around other people are really felt in very subtle ways that can create the kind of atmosphere of dialogue that is quite different from adversarial debate.”

Winston believes humans can learn a lot from the bees in terms of building a balanced community.  “Bees are an extraordinarily collaborative society, in which the good for society always comes first,” he says. “To me the best way for personal health is to build a strong community that each of us can thrive in.”

Winston particularly cherishes how the collaborative nature of dialogue has allowed him to develop intimate connections with diverse people in his community. “I’ve had this incredible opportunity to work with, and get to know, and become friends with such an unbelievable array of people…. and that’s been one of my great joys in this position. I spend most of my day just talking to people who I find invigorating, intriguing, exciting, motivated, committed, and it makes me feel good about the world.”