Could there be a more inspired and timely way to illustrate one woman’s journey toward, as she put it, “stepping up and standing out?” The day before Marci Ien was to speak at a keynote session of the National Coalition of Girls' School’s (NCGS) Virtual Educating Girls Symposium, she learned she’d been appointed to the federal cabinet by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and will serve as Canada’s new Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth.
“Be who you are and stand up regardless of age,” said Ien, Member of Parliament for Toronto Centre since last October, and a longtime friend of conference co-host Branksome Hall. Stressing the value of intergenerational collaboration, she told session moderators, Grade 12 students Amonda and Vita, “When you hear, ‘You’re too young, or it isn’t your time,’ the answer is no. Now is the time to step up and stand out because the world needs you… This country, this planet, needs your voices.”
Indeed, it was an overall conference theme that, particularly following the pandemic and global reckoning around racial injustice, educators are passionate about discussing their commitment to much more than content delivery. They’re entrusted with nothing less than teaching girls they’ve never been better positioned as future instigators of societal change.
“Our thinking needs to shift to teaching girls how to position themselves in the world,” said Lisa Starr, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Integrated Studies in Education, at McGill University, at the first day’s keynote on October 25. Her departmental colleague, Claudia Mitchell, Distinguished James McGill Professor, concurred. “The future is now—the engagements that happen between our girls today are what inform their future.”
The thoughtful conversation, moderated by Dr. Mira Gambhir, Head, Research and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), touched on disruptions and transformation wrought by the pandemic. These include a new sense of our relationship to home and school, i.e. that school wasn’t a “place you go,” but rather a “centre of psycho-social development”; greater awareness around well-being and one’s agency to control it; a reinforcement of the value of collaboration, for example the speed at which vaccines were developed; a recognition of shifting boundaries in terms of what we characterize as local vs. global relationships due to connectivity; and the importance of bringing all voices into lived student experience and program innovations.
Notably, many shifts were positive. “It was an opportunity for us to reevaluate what we were doing as educators,” says Starr. “And we were all surprised at our capacity for change.”
Indeed, it was also an opportunity for this conference to expand its scope, with attendees from Australia, England, the United States, South Africa and Canada, marking the first time NCGS has hosted a symposium or conference outside the U.S. This year’s theme, “Girls as Ethically Minded Changemakers,” was a natural progression from last year’s focus on DEI, justice and belonging, said Megan Murphy, NCGS Executive Director, in her opening remarks. “We’re repositioning to be an international coalition of global citizens, innovators, social activists and political activists,” she said.
Many breakout sessions carried on the visionary work of the conference theme. For example, a session on creating an ethical climate in your school focused on the importance of listening generously and what it means to be truly authentic. It was led by Karen Rezach, Director of The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School, along with Ariel Sykes, Assistant Director, who showcased a rubric, developed for Middle School students, to appeal to a set of values before choosing what side (perhaps neither) to pick in a fight.
In a two-day conference of visioning, sharing and reflecting, a final word is best left to Ien, who shared clear and valuable lessons with two Graduating Year students who are poised to be the changemakers of tomorrow.
When the former broadcast journalist was asked what it takes to be a changemaker, she had a one-word answer: “Courage.” “We tell ourselves we aren’t enough and can’t make it, and we make ourselves small in a room instead of owning who we are.” She credits her Grade 2 teacher, Ms. Kerr, for “investing in her and giving the voracious young reader all the books she wanted.”
When the student moderators asked her how best to foster meaningful inclusion so all feel safe and seen, again her answer was quick and clear:
“If we lead and act with empathy it can change the world. During the pandemic we have seen who fell through cracks; we can’t say we haven’t. Inclusion starts with real empathy, policies and administrative decisions that are inclusive.”