At a September reception for SFU’s Centre for Dialogue, Shauna Sylvester shared a firsthand experience of the power of true dialogue and communication. She was meeting with two parties of powerful people holding vastly different ideologies — the goal was to find a way for them to work together in order to end a war and advance peace and development in their region.
It wasn’t until two members from the opposing parties realized that they were blood relatives that the tension between the groups faded and a dialogue began to emerge. Both parties were able to find a common ground and use it to create a platform for negotiation, acknowledgement, and resolution; this resulted in the 1999 Kathmandu Accord between India and Pakistan.
“My new motto became ‘walk to the opposition’ — talk to them and really understand their position,” she told the crowd. “It was at that point, I put away my debating robes and started to study dialogue as a tool for social change.”
“Dialogue requires [. . .] being aware that you have things to learn from others.”
Throughout most of her life, Sylvester has focused on promoting social change. She helped to found Carbon Talks, — an SFU-based program that collaborates with local municipalities transitioning to a low-carbon economy — as well as the Institute for Media Policy and Civil Society, a charity that promotes democracy and advocacy in Canada and elsewhere. In 2003, she was named one of the country’s Top 40 Under 40 by The Globe and Mail.
Sylvester is a master of argument, having spent plenty of time on debate teams in high school and university. However, she eventually realized that she would rather encourage discussion than dominate it. According to her, a debating mindset will often deepen a conflict rather than resolve it — it emphasizes our differences rather than our similarities.
This September, Sylvester took over the directorship of SFU’s Centre for Dialogue. She now oversees all programs relating to the centre, including its many fellowships with local educators and diplomats, as well as the SFU Public Square.
The Centre for Dialogue is unique in that it’s both a program and a physical space. “[It] is a centre within SFU that promotes conversation on issues of concern for the public,” explains Sylvester. “So really, it’s a centre that supports difficult conversations.”
In particular, the Morris J. Wosk Centre, located in the Segal Building on Seymour Street, is a place where people can come together and hold a meaningful discussion on difficult topics in a safe environment. Opened in 2000, the centre regularly attracts hundreds of visitors from across the globe.
Having already introduced several new initiatives during her time at SFU, Sylvester has even bigger plans for the centre’s future — within five years, she hopes to turn it into an important global centre for knowledge and practice in dialogue, with a focus on international diplomacy, environmentalism, cultural interpretation, and civic engagement.
It’s a large task, but Sylvester is up for the challenge. In particular, she hopes that the international community sees the Centre for Dialogue as a space in which they can feel free to share and discuss ideas. According to her, dialogue is one of the most important practices one can have in our modern age; it begins with the establishment of connection, and finding common ground.
“Dialogue is about seeking the centre of a discussion, and trying to find those places where you can build on other people’s ideas,” she says. “[It] requires listening, understanding, having curiosity, having humility, and being aware of not holding all the pieces, that you have things to learn from others.”
Whenever groups seek out the centre to host dialogues, the discussion is specifically tailored to the people involved and the space in which it’s held. In the Morris J. Wosk Centre, parties are seated at a large round table; this enables speakers to be on even ground, where everyone is considered an equal.
Sylvester hopes that the centre helps students see the value of formal discussions and exchange of ideas. “It is formal [dialogue] that guides our policy and frames our public lives through regulation and legislation,” she says.
Sylvester’s connection to Simon Fraser goes back to her childhood; her father attended SFU as an undergrad, and she did the same. To her, there is something unique about our university; the need to be engaged within the community is, to her, “a part of [SFU’s] DNA.” It’s this quality that makes our university an ideal environment for initiatives which strengthen our democracy and advocate for environmental change.
Ultimately, she’s looking forward to increasing the centre’s reach, and introducing more students to the benefits of open dialogue. “I love to work at SFU, because I get to work within that framework and how many of us can actually say that we get to do that in our world. It’s a highly privileged position to be in.”