Creating space for transformative conversations

Canadian Stories:
How to start a dialogue on global events

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Who

Nick Bentley, 26
Student, McGill Law School – Montreal, QC

What

In late 2003 I created "The World This Week with Nick Bentley," a program at the Briton House retirement centre in Toronto that focused on stimulating discussion about international issues amongst seniors.

The program ran every two weeks, and I presented five issues that had arisen in the intervening period. Topics ranged from the well-publicized (eg. Ukraine's democratic revolution), to the interesting but more obscure (eg. the reasons behind Ireland's phenomenal post-1980s economic success). For variety, I sometimes presented a review of a topical book (such as Romeo Dallaire's Shake Hands with the Devil) or highlighted the life of a recently deceased significant individual (such as French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson).

I provided historical background then presented the controversy or public policy stakes surrounding a topic. Following the story, to stimulate discussion I prodded the group for their opinions. With former MPs and judges in our midst, there were usually interesting views, many of which were based on personal experiences in business and diplomacy.

Why

I became interested in volunteering with seniors, and as I was studying History and International Relations at the University of Toronto, I wondered if I could give something to the community that was related to my field.

I realized that retirement home residents are blessed with entertainment such as bingo and occasional guest concerts (though retirement homes for lower-income residents may not even have these). Yet these same residents typically lack programs that truly stimulate their intellects, and there is a critical demand for programs that encourage elderly citizens to debate and share their opinions about the issues that are affecting our world today.

As one of the most active voting age-brackets, seniors tend to be politically-conscious individuals. But because of physical handicaps, they are often unable to attend public lectures or political fora (such as political party meetings) that would facilitate them publicly sharing their insight into world affairs.

How

In order to host "The World this Week with Nick Bentley" I had to be on my toes as an active newsreader and story searcher. I constantly clipped newspaper articles, read sources such as The Economist and Le Monde, and even prepared some stories on the same day as the discussion group in response to breaking news.

For more information on how to start dialogue on world events, see Nick's Instruction Manual.

The Results

According to the programming director, The World this Week became the best-attended event at the Briton House. Attendance at the program ranged from 25 to 50, but I was happy to see new faces in the audience nearly every time.

Participants reported that the program created a stronger sense of camaraderie at the retirement home. Neighbours were publicly sharing their opinions and reading newspapers more closely, and an initiative was launched to bolster the international affairs collection of the Briton House library. Most satisfying for me was the visceral intellectual buzz in the recital hall following our meetings. Residents told me that they were learning more than ever, and I was typically approached after each talk by a handful of audience members excited to share with me their latest read, or how they had once visited a place we had discussed that evening.

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