Mac Student Leadership Conference 2017
On, Saturday, January 14th, McMaster University’s Student Success Centre hosted the annual Student Leadership Conference. Usually this conference invites speakers and professionals to discuss a range of topics relating to traditional topics in leadership such as networking and personal development. In response to both events in our local and global communities, this year’s conference took a more radical and relevant approach by creating the space where we could engage in the issues that arise on campus, in our communities and beyond. Speakers, community partners and panelists engaged in a variety of social justice issues affecting the City of Hamilton and Canada. The conference covered a range of topics from interview prep to important yet the important and taboo discussions around experiences of marginalized communities in workplaces, in society and in our communities.
The Conference was split up into four sections. Kicking off with an opening keynote by Kai Chen Thom and followed by morning workshops and afternoon ideations (community ideations focused on working with community partners to investigate and brainstorm ideas to support current social issues within Hamilton) and BaFa BaFa (a cultural exchange exercise focused on enhancing cultural awareness) and a drum circle to end the day.
The Key-note Speaker, Kai Cheng Thom, started of the conference with strong, meaningful and an attention-grabbing performance. Kai is a writer, performer, spoken word artist and social worker based in Montreal and Toronto who co-founded a radical mental health initiative for youth and is a trained psychotherapist and family therapist. Her talk integrated an engaging story with intentional breaks intermittently to expand on a few ideas presented within the story. Her message revolved around family, culture, identity, belonging and acceptance. With her story Kai wove together an environment that encouraged each participant to accept and love themselves for who they are. Kai humanized and spoke about her own experiences and challenges as transgender woman navigating a heteronormative & cisnormative culture and society. In addition, Kai touched upon the many challenges immigrants have with accepting their history within the complex and complicated idea of self.
The proceeding workshops focused on current social issues such as “Alliance and Resistance: Fighting Oppression in the New Political Climate”, which provided a brief overview of the political season that led to the election of Donald Trump, to talks discussing the lived experiences of marginalized populations in the workplace, the complications of cultural appropriation, allyship for the Black Lives Matter Movement and a discussion led by a South African Human Rights Activist who has engaged in activism on the front line and around the world. I personally attended the Alliance and Resistance: Fighting Oppression in the New Political Climate, presented by Dr. Karen Balcom. I was moved by her awareness of race and privilege, her explanation of how white privilege played a major part in the election of Trump, and her commitment to using her platform as an opportunity to support and be an ally to others.
The second set of workshops offered the participants a chance to engage in several activities ranging from Bafa Bafa, community ideations focused on current social issues such as Youth Poverty and Student Housing and Housing Co-ops. Within these ideations, participants were educated on current social issues occurring in their local community and were further assigned the task of coming up with ideas that may help community partners tackle the issue moving forward.
I was a part of the Youth Poverty Community Ideation and had the opportunity to chat with many participants who are extensively involved in the community and striving to create a positive impact. Within my group, I met with inspiring individuals committed to serving others. By examining current programs and opportunities in the city, I was informed about the current barriers preventing homeless individuals from receiving adequate support such as lack of funding for social services. In addition, this experience allowed me to learn about supporting youth economically, socially and psychologically and creating change within the system.
Lastly, after much exposure to important issues that affect both our local and global communities, the conference ended off on a bang! The group Rhythmic by Nature led an Interactive Drumming Performance that provided participants with a fun, inclusive, memorable and high impact activity. Students, faculty members and McMaster employees all alike were swept up in the energetic atmosphere and smiles could be seen all around the room. As the drums were hit and the sounds resonated, students danced to the beat. One message was loud and clear: our collective rhythm and energy is far greater united and together than the sum of our parts.
Reflecting on this message, I feel this message represented the whole conference. Throughout a day filled with tackling diverse and complex issues and examining the systems in place that perpetuate them these talks, I learnt about the power of working together to support each other. An old African Proverb reads, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This African proverb should be remembered as we go forward to assume any position whether it be a student, employee, family member, friend, professional, or educator. As leaders, when we care for everyone, we all win. However, if we disrespect or neglect any members of our community and society, as Meryl Streep recently said in her 2017 Golden Globes acceptance speech, “we all lose”.
McMaster’s Student Leadership Conference 2017 was an enriching experience for me. From becoming more aware of social injustices to learning about how white privilege can lead to Donald Trump being elected president of the United States, it provided a wealth of knowledge for myself and others who attended on how to notice subtle signs of oppression and cultivate a culture that strengthens each member of a team instead of only a select few. If leadership education continues this work to serve and support all populations within a given community, I’m extremely excited to see how those involved this year and in future years will make a positive impact on those around them moving forward.