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Happy Birthday, SFU Public Square!

June 19, 2015

Was it really only three years ago that we joined three hundred community members in the Atrium of Woodward’s to launch the SFU Public Square?  In so many ways it feels like yesterday but when I take stock of the people who have passed through our doors, the number of events we have hosted, the number of partnerships we have forged and the places we have been, three years doesn’t seem nearly long enough.

I’m not sure any of us would have expected the SFU Public Square to take shape so quickly. When we first set out, we hoped that in five years, 5% of the general public would know we existed. When we did our baseline survey after two years, 12% of British Columbians knew our name. Not bad for an initiative that boasts only one full time staff person.

I think that one of the reasons that the SFU Public Square has resonated with so many people is that there is a hunger in this province for genuine engagement. People want to meet other people – to learn about issues that affect their lives, to discuss ideas and to develop solutions.  The SFU Public Square has become a gathering place for dialogue and for experimentation.  It has been a space where people can come to explore and exchange across sectors, generations and cultures.

Perhaps it was our first Community Summit that set the stage.  In partnership with the Vancouver Foundation we hosted Alone Together: Connecting in the City, eleven events over 7 days that addressed isolation in the urban environment. That Summit led to the Mayors’ Task Force on Community Engagement in Vancouver and the City of Surrey Community Summit.  

In year two, in the early days of a new provincial government, the focus of our Community Summit was Charting BC’s Economic Future, which included 100 community conversations a province wide dialogue that created the most comprehensive SWOT analysis (strength, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) of BC’s economy.   These conversations culminated in eight events over a one- week period in Metro Vancouver with a sold-out event at the Orpheum featuring Robert Reich in conversation with Ana Maria Tremonti.

In year three, our Community Summit - Innovation: The Shock of the Possible – explored the impacts and possibilities of economic, environmental, health and educational innovations.  Young innovators opened their doors to a day-long public crawl, teams across the region competed for prizes for the best idea to address sea level rise in the region, academics considered how to innovate undergraduate learning and small businesses explored how to create stronger local economies through financial innovation.

With each Summit we pushed the boundaries of engagement. We introduced new ways of reaching out beyond traditional audiences to draw in new voices and communities and we created space for individuals and groups to self-organize. 

Between Summits we also produced dozens of public events bridging the expertise of SFU faculty, staff and students with the expertise of community practitioners and thought leaders.  Whether people attended City Conversations, a lunch time public dialogue series focused on emerging issues in our urban centres,  lunch poems at SFU, a unique poetry reading that matches experienced poets with new poets from across the region, or the SFU Presidents’ Faculty Lecture Series, a series of thought-provoking interactive lectures delivered by leaders in their fields, they found rich content to stimulate their thinking and ample opportunity for dialogue and exchange.

As the SFU Public Square grows up, our hope is that we will retain our fresh approach to programming and engagement.  One of our greatest assets is the students who work and volunteer with us.  They infuse our programming with a youthful energy and outlook.  They challenge us to push the edges in how we engage and with whom we engage.  They are joined by our partners, the myriad community groups that help deepen and broaden our understanding of issues and assist in delivering our events. It’s a perfect recipe for success – great people, great community.

So as I raise a glass to toast our birthday, I’m going to pay tribute to all of the people who have made SFU Public Square the vibrant, thought provoking and animated space it has become.  Happy Birthday SFU Public Square!