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Michael Clague’s guest speech to graduates at the 2017 Graduate Ceremony June 29th

We were thrilled to have Michael Clague address our graduates at the recent Graduate Ceremony celebration on June 29th. Michael is one of Canada’s best known and widely appreciated leaders in the fields of community development, social policy and planning and adult education. Here is his speech in its entirety.

Where to From Here? Practice in Breath-Taking Times

Vice President Henley, thank you for the invitation to speak to this year’s graduates. Through my participation with you and long-time friend and colleague Gerry Zipursky in the University’s non-profit leadership program I became an admirer of the educational contribution CityU is making to this community, and beyond. President Frisch, I am sure you are justly proud of the Canadian Programs in your university family.

Congratulations graduates. We need you. We need you for the professional skills and commitment you will be bringing to your practice and their impact on community. We need you for the personal engagement you are and will be making as contributing members to society in addition to the skills and knowledge you have acquired at CityU.

I have titled this presentation Where to From Here? Practice in Breath-Taking Times. To arrive at this point in your “life long-learning” path you have already past through many doors and have no doubt overcome some obstacles too. So while this evening you are indeed embarking on a new phase in your work life, by now you will know there is more to come. It will not be, nor should it be the last.

I say Where to from here” to recognize that you have set an education and career path for yourself. Now you are confirming either that you will be continuing within the job you already have, or are advancing within your organization, or are striking out to create an entirely new career map. I say Practice in Breath-Taking Times because it is a world full of surprises, of uncertainty, and of opportunity all converging and impacting our personal and work worlds; science, technology, the environment, local and global politics.

Here is a story of another graduating class, this one in adult education. It was the end of year and soon degrees would be confirmed. The grads, a group of about 20, were thinking about what the future might hold for their jobs and careers. They asked if the department head would meet with them to provide advice and assistance. He did. Normally, a gentle, mild-mannered man, he was visibly agitated; “If you have only learned one thing here,” he said, “It is that there are important social and educational needs in the community. Your job is to identify them and to figure out how you can contribute.” And we all did. It was 1968 at the University of Toronto. And of course the department head, Roby Kidd, one of Canada’s pioneer adult educators, was generously available and helpful as we did so, with advice and contacts.

Why this story? Because you have chosen fields of practice which change lives, and change communities. Yours is not a career where you show-up and deliver from a prescribed template prescriptions for how people should live their lives, should fit into society.

You have and are acquiring knowledge and skills to enable people to live well, to live to the full. These are based on an understanding of how people learn, of human behaviour as individuals, as members of families and groups and organizations, and as members of society and community, and these days, of the global community.

Learning is the interplay of what nature has given us (our DNA) and of our environment – family, social, political, economic, and particularly these days the environment. We can’t be engaged with enabling others unless we understand these other contexts. And we need to be modelling them in our own lives.

Here are a few basic things we know about ourselves as human beings:

  • “Life” presents us with our circumstances. Circumstances which we can never fully control
  • Our opportunity, and our responsibility is with what we do with our circumstances, no matter how limited or constraining they may be.
  • Self-awareness of ourselves, of our behaviour, of our impact on others, of our strengths, our weaknesses and vulnerabilities is the first step in being aware of the environment in which we live and of acquiring a measure of control over how we live.

I have long referenced American social scientist Margaret Wheatley’s statement that The one thing that can never be taken from us is our attitude toward a situation. If we search to create meaning, we can survive and even flourish. (paraphrasing the psychiatrist and originator of “Logo therapy” and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl in Leadership and the New Science P.134).

The “helping professions” – probably an outdated term for education, counselling, and social work when we were seen as “prescripters” for people’s problems – have come to learn and to appreciate there are not always simple solutions, that we do not have all the answers to personal issues, nor are the issues themselves always confined to the person. They may stem from external factors. Two lessons in particular stay with me:

1. Acknowledging our own vulnerability

We need to acknowledge our own vulnerability (self-awareness again). And here, another story. I was a resident resource person at the Prairie Summer School for Health Professionals. Mainly the students were nurses and doctors working in public service. I shared with them my initial months on assuming the job of director of the Carnegie Community Centre in Vancouver. At first I took time to simply soak up this amazing, wonderful place, which was such an important home for those who are poor and marginalized. I discovered that, because I was the director, some wanted to place me on a pedestal and to help them as the “expert” to solve their problems. It could have been tempting, but I had already been in adult education and community work practice long-enough to not fall into this trap. It was an easy way to dispense advice but little else. As well I was a middle class person far from the daily struggle for survival in which they lived. It would have been artificial to attempt to over-identify with them in their circumstances. Instead, though our life situations were different, I found it possible to relate as one human being to another, reminding myself of my own frailties as well as strengths, and then see what we could do together to address their situation. I found this approach freeing, and through it developed some good friendships.

At the summer school, after telling this story I nurse came up to me and said, with a mixture of sadness and relief, that it went against everything she was taught, which, in summary was to be ‘professionally detached.’ Instinctively, and from her own work, she knew this was not the way to work effectively with people as a health practitioner.

2.Knowing our external environment

The millions and millions of micro processors in our brain and nervous systems are constantly helping us change, adapt and adjust to the changing dynamics of our environment. As practitioners we need to know the context in which people live their daily lives; their economic circumstances, their social circumstances, their cultural context, and their physical environment circumstances. This information informs how we work with people to deal with their psychological, emotional and behaviour challenges. We do this as educators, enabling people to see the connection between the two. We also must be equipped to identify and analyze systemic issues of injustice and unfairness that create inequality in society. And, again, as educators and counsellors, we assist those we work with to achieve similar awareness (though often they need no reminding), and we can support them in taking courses of action that can give greater psychological and practical control over their lives:

  • Connecting to self-help groups for family support, work-place issues, personal finances, health
  • Connecting to groups that are engaged in social justice actions regarding social assistance rates, housing, the environment e.t.c.

We can ourselves, in our personal and professional lives become involved with important causes for social improvement in society, through voluntary associations and through unions and professional associations.

One of the jobs of the speaker at a celebration of graduation is to push our minds to the larger picture, and what the future may hold. From my perspective, one cannot reference the external environment these days without recognizing two large issues; climate change and today’s global, geo-political instability.

What place do these topics have for graduates in education and counselling? Put simply, they infiltrate and permeate our daily lives, and the lives of those with whom you are and will be working. They have a psychological impact which affects people’s will to live with purpose and energy. They impact our readiness to build better communities, better societies, a better world.

Climate change is requiring massive adjustments to global economies, to our food and water supplies, to the built environment, to how we inhabit the world. It raises the question of equity: how to ensure that the necessary change and adaption do not occur in ways that some benefit at others’ expense?

The rise of populism in the western world – in part because of inequities – is eroding the post-World War II geo-political international order, which, however imperfect, has maintained global peace and raised living standards. There is the danger that a virus of fear will take hold undermining democratic institutions, fueling prejudice, discrimination and inequality.

In so many ways human kind, overall, has made remarkable social progress over the past 75 years on matters of the democratic franchise, on gender and disabilities, in health, in raising millions out of poverty, in choice for how people live their lives. Is the present turmoil and political instability (the United States election, Brexit, terrorism, and stark inequality between the very rich and everyone else) a last and ultimately unsuccessful throwback to an old, more destructive order or will it undermine and destroy all that we have achieved?

These big issues may seem far from what you will be doing as educators and counsellors. But you are the canaries in the coal mine. Every day you are working with people directly and indirectly impacted by these issues, whether they realize it or not. Your challenge is to help people make sense of how they live their lives, to enable people to find meaning, and to contribute to their communities and to society. Indeed, it is through engagement in the world that one is fulfilled.

In 1959 Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, and founder of “logo-therapy” wrote a powerful book called “Man’s Search for Meaning,” based on his experience surviving four concentration camps. He has an important message for those of us who are committed to helping people live their lives well:

By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have called this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. (p110)

Another fine human being, Jean Vanier, a Canadian and founder of the L’Arche Movement” for people with intellectual disabilities has expressed a similar view:

People can only get involved in the common good of a nation if they discover how we are called to be people of service, of peace, and of justice. The common good is that which helps us all to have a better life.” (1998 Massey Lectures: “Becoming Human.”

I applaud your choice of career as educators and counsellors. You are engaged in the work of helping people to change their lives. They are one of the most trusted roles that one can have in society. Act with integrity. Without it, you have no credibility.

Thank you for your commitment to public service. I wish you well.