The timing of last month’s Together|Ensemble summit — a gathering of Canadian private sector, academia, government, and civil society leaders on the path toward achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — presented a challenge and an opportunity at once. While on the surface, the COVID-19 pandemic may have taken some focus away from the SDGs, speakers and attendees of the digital summit agreed that it’s also done us the favour of illuminating even more clearly just how much progress Canada needs to make before we can say we’re on track for Agenda 2030.
We asked four leaders in the social impact world who attended and spoke at the summit to weigh in on what they learned, and how COVID-19 is changing the landscape for their work on the SDGs moving forward.
Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Leading Change Canada
“The biggest revelation this year has been that institutions and beliefs that have been so resistant to change are not limited by circumstance, but rather by perceived limitations,” Zowmi says, adding that the pandemic has proven what’s possible for the future of accessibility.
“One thing that strikes me most is the rapid response to COVID restrictions, specifically, and the way institutions and companies transitioned to online and remote capacities. From an accessibility standpoint, this is fodder for cautious optimism: for so long, organizations and institutions have cited high costs, tradition, and other limitations as the reasons for why online/distance — and, by extension, flexible and accessible — learning or work was not possible. It turns out that the capacity has always been there.
“I hope that these situations will allow us to sit with this reckoning and acknowledgement, and realize that the systems we’re a part of aren’t as rigid as we’ve been led to believe and that, instead, we have both the capacity and responsibility to shift, grapple with, and change the circumstances and institutions that for so long have intentionally and systemically disenfranchised so many people.”
For Zowmi, this insight was bolstered by Thomas Homer-Dixon’s presentation during the Together|Ensemble summit, which “outlined how interrelated the pandemic, the climate crisis, systemic racism and inequalities, and the SDGs are,” she says. “The way that Homer-Dixon presented a series of shocks and the cascade that follows from a small (or big!) shock allowed all the puzzle pieces to come together in my mind. This has reinforced my conviction of social justice and activism work in pursuit of the SDGs, because the impacts are so much bigger than we can even conceptualize – and every little step forward can cascade to infinite impact.”
S. S. Ahmad
Founder and CEO, Green Beacon
For Ahmad, COVID-19 hasn’t changed much of the way Green Beacon approaches their work, as a social enterprise working with municipal governments and organizations to help localize the SDGs — it’s simply allowed others to see more clearly the immediate need for this work.
“I am a member of several marginalized communities. To me, the SDGs are designed specifically to rectify and better the everyday lived experiences of the people who become conveniently invisible to the more privileged members of the society when reality starts to become uncomfortable. The need for SDGs has always been there. The current events have just shone a spotlight on the trials and tribulations of marginalized communities that others never took the time to see or understand,” Ahmad says, adding, “Attending Together|Ensemble has made me realize the long and arduous path we have in front of us. There are many great initiatives taking place and the sheer number of people in Canada alone committed to the implementation of SDGs is a hopeful sign.
“However, we must not ease up. In order to ensure that we leave no one behind we will have to build up SDGs champions and intentionally prepare our youth to carry on the mantle. We will also have to prove the value of SDGs and win the hearts and minds of the naysayers and those who are indifferent. There is much work to be done, because the Sustainable Development Goals envision a world that does not exist yet. In order to be a society we have never been before, we should expect to do things we have never done before.”
Youth Advocate, OCIC Youth Policy-Makers Hub at the Ontario Council for International Cooperation
Seucharan agrees — for those who have been working on the SDGs all along, she says, the problems the pandemic has exposed came as no surprise, “and many groups have long advocated for changes such as expanding access to healthcare or increasing anti-racism initiatives in workplaces. We are now finding the spotlight on us, but we need to keep the momentum going in the future as true change takes time. I now hope to dedicate some of my energies toward creating more partnerships, as there are many organizations that would be best served by joining forces with others — after all, there is power in numbers. Coalitions have been fruitful in lobbying for change in the past, and now, with societal support increasing for the aforementioned changes, we have the opportunity to both expand the number of new advocates on key issues while collaborating with groups who have long been active (and whose experience we need).”
Seucharan echoes Zowmi’s emphasis on what the pandemic has revealed about accessibility capabilities, and says the Together|Ensemble summit was a prime example. “For years, the disability community has been advocating for more activities to be run online, as this can make them more accessible, not to mention eliminating the cost of travel, which serves as a barrier to many. In many cases, we were told the technology was simply not ready, or that online programs have far less people in attendance than in-person programs. The Together|Ensemble summit has shown that this is not necessarily the case — sessions were well-attended, and the online format helped guarantee attendees who would not otherwise be there could be.”
While the Together|Ensemble summit organizers recognize that there’s much progress they can make on ensuring true accessibility of future summits — captioning and ASL interpretation are two examples — the event showcased a portion of what’s possible for digital gatherings of this kind. Now, it’s time for policy to catch up, says Seucheran: “We need to organize to expand Internet access across Canada, and globally as well, and make sure that when programs do expand their online access, they are accessible to all, which includes using subtitles for those who may need it, including hard-of-hearing and neurodiverse populations. After all, we now know it can be done.”
Ivan Ngandjui Touko
Event MC, Together|Ensemble Conference and founder, La Connexional
For Ivan Ngadjui Touko, the pandemic’s gendered impacts have shown clearly how “the fight for a better tomorrow has consistently been carried on the back of Black, Indigenous and underserved womxn*, who have never hesitated to be in the frontlines of change. There will be no gender equity until Black and Indigenous womxn are seeing as human beings and are truly protected in our society. Going forward, I intend to consistently do my best to approach the SDGs through a gender lens while understanding and being aware of how I benefit from the current system. I intend to learn more, listen more and co-create more with Black and Indigenous womxn. The future is female, the future is femme.”
Ngadjui Touko says the summit emphasized the need to decolonize Canada’s pandemic recovery: “There is an urgent need to learn, acknowledge, and better implement indigenous ways of knowing and thinking within the policies and framework that we develop both locally and internationally. Furthermore, the leadership and execution for these implementations have to be given to Indigenous elders, activists, and organizers that have been doing this work. Canada as a country and as individuals have a lot of work to do to not only acknowledge its history of genocide towards indigenous people but also realize that the work that is being done through the SDGs isn’t new at all and has consistently been advocated for and done by Indigenous folks for centuries in this country. We must wake up to the fact that when Indigenous communities win, we will all win.”
* Ngadjudi Touko uses the term womxn, which is often used to signal inclusion of non-cis-gender women.