By Jessica Farber and Kim Boucher Morin
On Sunday November 5th, 15 bold speakers and 3 performers graced the stage of Théatre Saint-Denis in downtown Montreal during the 4th TEDxMontrealWomen event. Building on the 2016 event, “It’s About Time,” this year’s theme of “Bridges” provided a platform for women (and one man) from diverse fields to share messages about bridging communities, local and global issues, and understandings of ourselves.
In a period marked by nationalism and polarization, the event showcased the desire of many in the Montreal community to extend a hand to those who may look differently, think differently, or hold differing political or religious beliefs. Topics ranged from health, humanitarianism, violent extremism, posturology, psychology, climate change, activism and the subconscious mind. Several common threads emerged, such as the need to live life with compassion, the powerful impact of reaching out to those perceived as “other”, and the importance of solidarity with our fellow human beings. In their own way, each speaker conveyed the message that we all have the power and responsibility to build the bridges we want to see in society and in our own lives. At a time in which “manels” (i.e., panels of experts that are either all, or predominately, male) remain commonplace in corporate, academic, and even non-profit circles, “Bridges” demonstrated the unique collective and individual potential of a chorus of female voices.
Memorable moments from the event included a talk by Sabrina Sassi, whose research focuses on preventing violent radicalization of youth through what she calls the “empathy approach”. Sabrina discussed the failures of the “muscle approach”, whereby state policies employ force to stifle the symptoms of violence rather than addressing the social exclusion at its root. Ultimately, as she explained, these approaches serve only to further marginalize and perpetuate the cycle of fear. In Sabrina’s words: “We must upgrade from tolerance to empathy. Empathy is not sympathy. Tolerance is only passive rejection, and we can no longer afford a system that runs only on tolerance.”
Humanitarian, lawyer and activist Rachel Kiddell-Monroe spoke about the power of choice. She detailed her own journey and the experiences that motivated her choices along the way. In describing the failures of the international community in times of humanitarian crises, she employed the imagery of a fishbowl with two worlds on either side, “one with everything to give, and the other with nothing to lose.” Rachel urged the audience to reflect on our own prejudices and contributions to both problems and solutions. As she stated so eloquently, we can be “islands of humanity in a sea of atrocity.” We, as humans, have a choice to make, she argued: we can allow ourselves to fall into apathy or we can stand up for our fellow citizens.
Another speaker, Nakuset, Executive Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montréal, works to improve the lives of urban Indigenous people. Being Cree herself and adopted by a Jewish family in Montreal during the “60s scoop,” Nakuset spoke about her work with Indigenous children in the foster care system, one of many focuses of her organization. She spoke of both cultural shame and cultural pride, and the ways in which they are impacted by intergenerational learning and knowledge. She ended her talk with a clear prescription to better the lives of generations to come: “reach out to communities and build bridges.”
Joanna Kerr, Executive Director of Greenpeace Canada, gave her first talk on the subject of compassion at “Bridges”. She defined compassion as “the awareness of the deep connection between all living things,” and emphasized its importance in effecting change. Joanna reflected on the earlier days of her career, pointing out that activists first learn how to fight and confront, rather than practice compassion. Learning from her own experience, she concluded with the message that the best activist is not necessarily the warrior who fights; it is someone who uses compassion to understand both those who they aim to help and those they claim to oppose.
Alpha Gumboc, a field program specialist, motivational speaker, and volunteer at the St. Nino Decarie Center shared her story as a domestic abuse survivor, declaring, “I am not a damsel in distress. I can save myself.” She spoke about her journey of personal development and healing, and how it inspired her to work to empower other women. Alpha emphasized the inherent strength women possess within themselves and its importance in defining our own futures. Importantly, Alpha reminded us that there are some bridges in life that we must have the courage to burn.
The excitement from audience members of all ages during the event was palpable, and was evidenced by several standing ovations throughout the day and the sounds of new connections being made in between sessions. Rebecca MacLeod, a fourth-year student at McGill University, appreciated the diversity of women in the line-up and the breadth of subject matter. “I loved the way Courtney framed climate change as a public health issue. I’d never heard it presented from that perspective,” she exclaimed. “The laughter lady [Liliana] was also inspiring. Prescribing laughter is not only a fun way to talk about mental and physical health, but it’s also radical and accessible.”
Seventeen-year-old Wentanoron Roundpoint from Akwesasne was also inspired by the day. “The trials and tribulations that some went through, and still go through, prove that there is strength in all of us. The stories showed me that we are not alone. We are all in this together, and together we can make a difference.”
While the curtain has closed on this year’s TEDxMontrealWomen event, all of the speakers, volunteers, and attendees alike understand that it is just the beginning of a greater dialogue on what it means to be part of a community. Now, it is up to all of us to honour the messages in these talks. The first step is to build the bridges. The second, and arguably more difficult step, is to have the courage and humility to walk across.