Beyond Isolation

September 24, 2012

SFU Public Square - a new space where minds can meet

The Vancouver Sun Op-ed (Page A11)

Andrew Petter, President and Vice-Chancellor
Carole Taylor, Chancellor

Should librarians sell books, steal books – or both!? Should our public libraries become the new outlets for a publishing industry challenged by increased concentration and piracy, or should they join the pirates, ripping copies of popular videos and teaching patrons how to access material on rogue websites?

It’s an odd and disquieting choice, and it’s a reminder that if you throw open a “public square,” if you convene a conversation in which the participants feel safe and supported to make their arguments – come what may – you might find that some of what you hear makes you squirm.

But those who participated this past week in the inaugural SFU Public Square Community Summit have found that the rewards justify the risks. In venues across the city, thousands of participants have come together in discussion and dialogue, in celebration of art and culture, but most especially in a united effort to find a solution for the sense of isolation and disconnection that is, according to research by the Vancouver Foundation, one of the most serious concerns facing our community of communities.

SFU Public Square is an initiative born of this university’s new Strategic Vision. After one of the most extensive consultations ever conducted by a Canadian university, SFU resolved, in a Vision launched earlier this year, to redouble its engagement – with students, through research and particularly with communities – to become “Canada’s most community-engaged research university.”

Part of that promise was a complementary commitment to become “B.C.’s public square for enlightenment and dialogue on key public issues …. the institution to which the community looks for education, discussion and solutions.” We determined to leverage SFU’s resources to provide safe and supportive venues for public engagement. Our Public Square was not to be a single physical space, although SFU’s three campuses provide a host of spaces conducive to community engagement. Rather, we resolved to put all of SFU’s physical, intellectual and virtual capacities to work to encourage and support public dialogue.

The inaugural SFU Public Square Community Summit put that commitment to the test. Delivered in partnership with the Vancouver Foundation, the summit was designed to stimulate and facilitate engagement on the topic of isolation and disconnection.  The wide-ranging program included major events at the Orpheum and Playhouse theatres, a youth workshop at the Roundhouse Community Centre, and a film festival in Surrey.  There was a Mayor’s Round Table, as well as poetry readings at Harbour Centre and a comedy night at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. The Vancouver Sun, an enthusiastic supporter of this project, also presented a series of articles in this traditional “public square” – an opinion page to which people have long come to present and debate public issues. 

The Summit also included an evening of Big Ideas for Libraries in Communities in which presenters offered 10 sometimes-radical plans for helping libraries become more effective as sources of knowledge and venues for community connection. The sold-out crowd then voted for the ideas they liked best, mostly favouring proposals to leverage digital technology and to take advantage of libraries’ traditional strengths as community centres, as public squares. The participants loved the idea of librarians moving into book sales – to assist authors, publishers and commerce – but they left the would-be pirates out in the cold. 

Of the myriad ideas generated through the week, no single innovation is destined to resolve the problems of isolation and disconnection. But we believe that we have made progress: thousands of citizens have connected, and many tens of thousands stand to benefit from the relationships, ideas and innovations that likely will flow from this week.

But the true challenge of SFU Public Square has barely begun.  There are innumerable other issues in need of attention – in need of a safe and supportive forum where citizens can tackle them together.

SFU is determined to make that possible. But we need your help. We need you to take advantage of our resources and to challenge us with new topics for discussion. If your organization needs a mediator, a facilitator – even a provocateur, call. If you have an idea you think we should feature at next year’s Community Summit, or tackle in the meantime, please go to the SFU Public Square website and let us know. 

There will always be space in the SFU Public Square.