Global Symposium

Global Symposium 2016

During the Global Symposium on Overcoming Social Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness, over a hundred leading thinkers, activists and community leaders from over 23 countries gathered in Montreal to develop a shared perspective on the importance of social connectedness in community-driven change and development.

From remote regions of Nunavut, to the Masaai homelands of South Africa, participants came together as both teachers and learners to develop relationships and to share insights, experience and strategies to overcome social isolation and accelerate a global movement of unity and inclusiveness.

Based on the principles of respect, reciprocity and recognition, participants engaged in three days of collaborative dialogue which drew together lived experience, traditional Indigenous knowledge, academic research and practice. Perspectives synthesized from Indigenous youth and elders, McGill students, and people within government and civil society came together to connect and support the diverse range of projects and challenges from the communities represented at the Symposium.

Continue exploring the 2016 Symposium

Overview and Objectives

Aiming to bridge academic research and community practice, we examined how stories are central to our understanding of the world, and how research needs to be made more compatible, accessible and valuable to the communities with whom it is generated. We learned that our relationships are the greatest overall predictor of our health and that the outcomes of research need to be communicated through art and stories in order to reach beyond the ivory tower often associated with the academy.

The Symposium helped to reveal and strengthen the commonalities between Indigenous worldviews across Canada and around the world. It provided the opportunity to align and define a common vocabulary, to advance each other’s’ projects through collaboration and to celebrate the diversity and creativity across the network of participants.

Challenging perspectives were presented to illustrate concepts we may not be familiar with and to inform our practice and work.

These included:

  • That many ‘States’ are an imposed idea, responsible for advancing a dangerous and hurtful commodifying culture,
  • how legislation and policy have been used as a tool of the State to intentionally isolate, divide and remove the connection of peoples from their lands and resources
  • ‘Poverty’ as a foreign concept for peoples who see the Earth as a sacred provider of all the things we need in order to survive on this planet.

Through an appreciation and honoring of the inter-connectedness of all peoples and the natural world, we examined effective, sustainable and successful strategies to tackle our shared global goals such as those expressed through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Social isolation is a critical dimension which lies at the intersections of key challenges relating to poverty, health and community resilience, either causing or reinforcing some of the most pervasive aspects of development challenges.

Education is both an essential aspect to overcoming isolation but also one requiring particular focus, care and respect for cultural affirmation, community capacity and enabling self-determination.

During the Symposium participants confirmed that strategies embedded in listening, awareness and solidarity are the most effective methods for building cohesion and connection in and across our communities. We must respond to challenges and build social connectedness on many levels and also work from a spirit of equity to ensure we rebuild and balance in a way that allows every individual to achieve their greatest potential.

The 2016 Global Symposium Objectives:

  • To improve our collective understanding of the costs of social isolation and the benefits of social connectedness through sharing best practices and lessons learned.
  • To connect the needs and experiences of the isolated and excluded with key influencers, including policy makers, to effect positive social change.
  • To identify measures and indicators for evaluating interventions in social connectedness, and identify areas for further research and collaboration.

The 2016 Global Symposium Outcomes:

  • An agreed vocabulary to communicate about and act to increase social connectedness.
  • Strategies that foster connectedness through community-driven social change and by mobilizing key influencers to adopt inclusive policies and practices.
  • A framework and process for evidence-based, inclusive policy making.

Key Themes
These themes are framed within and consistent with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This approach will ensure relevancy and timeliness to key discussions and actions globally.

Symposium Outcome Report

During the 2016 Global Symposium, we examined how stories are central to our understanding of the world, and how research needs to be made more compatible, accessible and valuable to the communities with whom it is generated. We learned that our relationships are the greatest overall predictor of our health and that the outcomes of research need to be communicated through art and stories in order to reach beyond the ivory tower often associated with the academy.

The Symposium helped to reveal and strengthen the commonalities between Indigenous worldviews across Canada and around the world. It provided the opportunity to align and define a common vocabulary, to advance each other’s’ projects through collaboration and to celebrate the diversity and creativity across the network of participants.

Download the full report of the 2016 Global Symposium on Overcoming Social Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness to learn more.

Participant Reflection

Following the 2016 Global Symposium we encourage all participants to stay in contact to facilitate our continuing work together as a movement to build social connectedness across the globe. Below you will find reflections from participants on their experience of the Symposium and how this time spent with others is shaping their future work in this movement.


Our Journey to “Overcoming Social Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness”

Submission from: Beatrice Mgaya, Social Action Trust Fund, Tanzania 

One of the objectives of the Symposium for 2016 was to improve collective understanding of the costs of social isolation and the benefits of social connectedness through sharing best practices and lessons learnt throughout the world.

As a participant from Africa, I had come with a pre-conceived notion that social isolation was rampant in our continent due to the social, cultural and colonial practices. Alas! This was not the case as more unfolding stories from fellow participants proved that the issue was prevalent in their countries too. The culmination of it all was my realisation that this was a Global issue. That was my “AHA Moment”; it provided me a moment to reflect and understand that we’re one regardless of colour, gender, religion, tribes and geographical boundaries. Therefore we can talk one language and build a movement to overcome the social isolation, just like what myBrothers and Sisters from South Africa refer to as UBUNTU. The world will be much lighter if we break the barriers between us.

My organization is struggling to support children born with Albinism, who have been abandoned at the centres, to avert from brutal killings exercised by people with ill-beliefs. These poor kids are deprived of their right to be raised in family set-ups, some of them from less than a year old. The isolation exercised on these vulnerable groups is highly unacceptable and it amounts from the place they live, the schools they attend, the stigma and the love they miss as members of our communities.

It is time we shine a light through education to the respective communities to stop these inhuman practices in a collective manner. Quoting words from Kim Samuel’s keynote speech, “overcoming social isolation is always done with and not for”.

Surely, a windmill can light up a home.  But when those windmills are connected to each other… connected to a grid… they can light up the world”.


Reflections from 2016 Global Symposium on Social Connectedness at Montreal

Submission from: Mamta Borgoyary, CEO, FXB India Suraksha

An inexplicable excitement seemed to shadow me as I pirouetted through immigration. I am a frequent traveller resigned to the tedium of questions but I was taken by surprise at my own anticipation of visiting Montreal for the Second Global Symposium on Overcoming Social Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness. The secreted hope of running into Justin Trudeau, the young and progressive Prime Minister known for his candour and walking into public spaces without notice also added to the excitement.

The Symposium was to be held from the 25th till the 28th of October 2016 at McGill University. I am thankful to the Synergos Senior Fellowship community for giving me an opportunity to attend the Symposium. More than a 100 thinkers, activists and community leaders from across 23 countries gathered to develop a shared perspective on the importance of social connectedness in community-driven change for development. Waiting to board I surfed through the event website and was struck by the simple yet artistic logo.

Curious and anxious at the same time, I stepped into McGill University. Away from the refreshingly clean yet chilly wind I found myself scouting the hall for my colleagues from Synergos. I was once again struck by the unadorned hall designated for the meeting. The effortless set up with only rows of chairs and blank white boards lurking in the background once again drew my attention towards the colourful logo of orange, green and blue. The colourful convergence of shapes towards the centre seemed apt for the event and its location. McGill University is located on the traditional territory of the Kanien’kehaka, a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange among peoples.

The symposium started with an Indigenous ceremony led by Native elders and leaders of the First Nation of Canada. This session set the tone for the rest of the symposium and for each one of us, a reminder of how disconnected we have become as a civilization. Their simple and humble mannerisms in tune with nature exposed how in the name of development we are socially disconnecting those who are voiceless or in minority, and how aggression has eroded humanity of its humaneness. As I heard the Elders thanking Mother Earth and recognising the values of family, reminding us of the importance of compassion and empathy, I realized how badly we are caught in a web of complexity created by ourselves.

The next few days, through firsthand accounts I was exposed to the anguish and pain that the Native people of Canada went through when they were annexed by the ‘Canadians’. Using the rationale of  education and development, children were taken away from families and put in residential schools where they suffered terrible mental and physical traumas. The sensitivity around the extremely emotional reconciliation process was a major learning for me as someone who works in an organisation, FXB India Suraksha that is striving to give voice to the marginalized. Development needs to be enmeshed with dignity and rootedness and not superimposed by external experts who believe their knowledge is the best solution.

I learnt connectedness is a two way process- something that in our hurry to achieve our targets, we forget. I realised how short-sighted we have been in designing the development agenda in a world- where those who are privileged decide who is and what makes them poor. When the group of elders stood up during one of the session and said- ‘you think we are poor and steeped in poverty, but we do not agree, we are rich, we have enough and we are grateful that Mother Nature takes us care of us. We do not need what you think being rich is all about- did you ask us when you were deciding that for us?’ They reminded us how in the name of education, Native people lost their language as currently only 7 of 23 languages are known and spoken.

Drawing similarity with the conflict around indigenous movement in India, this symposium made me understand, at least in part, the complex issues surrounding identity and existence, which seem to instigate and sustain conflict. The 461 aboriginal groups called “Scheduled Tribes” in the Constitution, a designation invented by the British, are considered to be India’s indigenous peoples. In mainland India, they are referred to as Adivasis, literally indigenous peoples, account for 8.2% of the total population at 84.3 million. Unofficial estimates however state the number of such groups as high as 635. These tribes live mostly in the seven states of north-east India, and the so-called “central tribal belt” stretching from Rajasthan to West Bengal. India has had a long history of indigenous peoples’ movements aimed at asserting their rights. India has several laws and constitutional provisions, such as the Fifth Schedule for mainland India and the Sixth Schedule for certain areas of north-east India, recognize indigenous peoples’ rights to land and self-governance. The scheduled tribes are represented in the central parliament and state legislatures in proportion to their population in each state; there are reserved service posts for them, seats in professional schools and colleges, and other examples of “affirmative action”. In the last few years, massive uprisings around identity and rights between mainland and tribal communities across different pockets of the country has been a frequent reality. Their demands range from a separate state to separate nation.

Those who are determining rights are socially disconnected to the identity and culture of those for whom they are intended. ‘What is to be reconciled and seek forgiveness for what?’ they say. The word ‘reconciliation’ is not even entertained by those in charge of this development.  The fact is that in the garb of growth, we have taken over land and resources, and tried to modernize ‘culture’; as a result, we have created a web of isolation for a rich, rooted and connected community, for which we as a country might have to pay a big price.

I thank the Native Elders, leaders and youths whom I heard and interacted with for reinstating faith among us who believe in connectedness for change. The magic and beauty of the Special Olympiads left me immensely inspired. I also thank Kim Samuel for giving this opportunity to be a part of this movement on social connectedness, that she started to ensure – “No one should even be made to feel as if they are sitting at the bottom of the well”.

Collaboration Jam

These sessions represent an open, inclusive model for co-creation and collaborative problem-solving, designed to harness the collective wisdom, knowledge & lived experience of diverse stakeholders, demonstrating a principle of designing strategies with people rather than for them.

Each session is intended to:

  • Offer strategies and inspiration related to a specific problem or question brought forward by a partner organization
  • Create the opportunity to draw broader les­sons on social connectedness which can be applied to other areas of practice
  • Demonstrate an inclusive, stakeholder-driven model of decisions and strategy
  • Establish points of future collaboration, movement building and advocacy


Education and Social Connectedness

Inclusive and Quality Education

Lead Partner: Special Olympics

Driving Question: How can decision-makers and key influencers in the field of education be identified; then effectively motivated and mobilized to adopt inclusive strategies (policies and practices) in schools so that more inclusive and accepting school settings become the norm?

Purpose and Objectives of this Collaboration Jam
In support of UN Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning, Special Olympics seeks to engage with social connectedness stakeholders to better understand the barriers and influence the factors that could create a tipping point for inclusive school environments to become the norm. Specifically, a key question for exploration is: How can decision-makers and key influencers in the field of education be identified; then motivated and mobilized to adopt inclusive strategies (policies and practices) in schools so that more academically and socially inclusive and accepting school settings become the norm within North America and around the world?

Background and Case Study
Special Olympics is the world’s largest and most effective organization dedicated to developing and enhancing the unique talents and abilities of children and adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) through sports and competition.  Having expanded its reach to over 5.3 million Athletes and Unified Partners worldwide, the organization has evolved since its inception almost 50 year ago to meet the continuing and growing needs of the population it serves.

In recent years, Special Olympics has devoted itself to exposing and addressing the stigma, stereotypes, isolation and discrimination that people with ID face; especially youth in schools. In many cases, school students with ID face extreme social isolation; this fact is magnified by studies indicating that young people with ID are almost three times more likely to be bullied than their typically developing peers as well as youth attitude surveys indicating that less than 30 percent of typical students state they would be comfortable even speaking to a classmate with ID. Such treatment and attitudes create negativity that impacts the learning environment in schools. While progress has been made in meeting the needs of students with disabilities by many educational systems, and numerous programs and interventions have been developed to address their social isolation and exclusion, the problems persist as students with disabilities continue to be marginalized and isolated. This compromises their social and emotional well-being, and in many cases students with ID still struggle for the basic right of receiving any education at all.

This social isolation in education environments is not always exclusive to individuals with ID: typical students today also face many challenges, from achieving personal and academic success to feeling emotionally and physically healthy and safe. Unfortunately the typical school environment for virtually all young people can be fraught with obstacles that hamper their day-to-day learning and that detrimentally impact their overall happiness and development.

Overcoming social isolation and deepening social connectedness

With sports as the foundation, Special Olympics Unified Schools (formally Project Unify) has offered a unique combination of effective programs and activities that equip young people with tools and training that help combat the aforementioned issues. Initially focused in the United States, these programs have been designed to facilitate sports, classroom and community experiences that reduce bullying and exclusion, promote healthy activity and interactions, combat stereotypes and negative attitudes, eliminate hurtful language in schools, and engage young people in pro-social activities that lead to improved behavior and school climate. The Unified Schools Strategy promotes social inclusion by combining students with and without disabilities on sports teams (Special Olympics Unified Sports), through inclusive student clubs, together in school or community-wide initiatives, and by fostering student leadership. At its core, this Unified Schools strategy is not just about including students with disabilities, but unifying all students; from adult-led programming to student-led mobilization and action; from sports as recreation to sports as a catalyst for social inclusion and attitude and behavioural change.

Challenges and Opportunities
Seven years of extensive evaluation and data collected by the University of Massachusetts on the impact of Unified Schools programming in the United States demonstrate a positive impact on attitudes and acceptance of youth with ID in participating schools, and greater inclusion in school activities. Data also show that the program has more broadly led to increased tolerance and acceptance of differences (gender, ethnicity, etc.).  There is additional if less extensive evidence from some other regions to establish that this effect is not unique to North America, or western cultures and communities.

Building on this proof of concept, continued growth of the Unified Schools Program in the US as well as a renewed focus on global implementation of Unified Schools is a key objective of the Special Olympics Global Strategic Plan 2016-2020. To contribute to an understanding of how the Unified Schools model can be successfully replicated in more difficult to penetrate communities within the United States, and especially in more countries outside the United States, the Collaboration Jam will focus on addressing the following question:

How can decision-makers and key influencers in the field of education be identified; then effectively motivated and mobilized to adopt inclusive strategies (policies and practices) in schools so that more inclusive and accepting school settings become the norm inside and out of the US?

In the majority of the nearly 5,000 schools in the US where Special Olympics is employing its Unified Schools strategy, leadership by key influencers (e.g., student leaders, parents, coaches, teachers, school administrators) has been found to be a key contributing factor to introducing strategies that result in more inclusive behaviours and more tolerant attitudes and behaviours. Consistently identifying, then motivating and mobilizing these individuals to adopt more inclusive education policies in general and to implement our programming specifically will be a key component of Unified Schools Program expansion in various parts of the world in the years ahead.


Education, Community Learning and Technology

Strengthening Connectedness while Supporting Community Culture

Lead Partner: TakingITGlobal

Driving Question: How do we ensure that our principles of co-creation, cultural relevance and community ownership scale along with our education program for remote communities and the technology which supports it?

Program Summary
Connected North is a leading edge program that supports education in remote and underserved northern communities, through high definition videoconferencing technology. The goal of the program is to provide participating schools with access to content that is engaging and innovative, with the hope of increasing feelings of empowerment in school and in life. This includes virtual guest speakers, field trips and cultural sharing between schools across the country.

At the heart of the program is TIG’s commitment to an approach that holds Indigenous perspectives and reconciliation at the centre of both content and process. As the program expands we aim to stay true to this approach, adapting to serve the unique needs of each school, finding meaningful ways to incorporate local knowledges through culture and language. The program is made possible through a strong ecosystem of cross sector supporters including NGOs, corporations, government and Indigenous communities.

We invite Symposium participants to help us reflect on the following questions:

  • How can participatory approaches to education increase student engagement?
  • How can interactive technologies be leveraged enhance culture and language rather than detracting from it?
  • How can cultural sharing and collaborative learning support identity and empowerment?

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Community Wellbeing and Ending Poverty

From Community Experience to National and Regional Practice

Lead Partner: Synergos

Driving Question: How can community knowledge about strengthening social connectedness be surfaced, supported by government/large NGOs, and incorporated into the practices of those large actors?

A hidden dimension of poverty that greatly affects children who lose parents or live in poverty is the sense of isolation and lack of meaningful social connections. Children’s psychosocial development depends on the number and quality of relationships they have with others, in their families, peer groups and communities. Through their interactions with other people, children learn to speak and think. The quality and kinds of social connections they experience also shape the development of their sense of self and their respectful sense of others.  Studies show that social isolation impedes their learning, health and capacity to function successfully as members of society.  Widows and elder people can also be vulnerable in this way, and may also experience social isolation as either a cause or as a consequence of poverty.

Meaningful relationships are a foundation for social cohesion. They help children, as well as older people, to value others and to feel valued by them. They enable a sense of belonging to a community that children can trust and care about. Social connectedness also gives them access to the opportunities, services and resources they may need on their journey through different stages of their lives.

Synergos, in partnership with Kim Samuel and a group of national, regional and international partner organizations, is working to overcome isolation and deepen social connectedness for children and youth in Southern Africa. The focus of this effort is research on indigenous knowledge and care systems; education and training for those who most impact children and youth (families, communities, schools, and child care professionals); community-based models to prevent, identify, and address isolation; and informing and influencing public policy impacting this problem. This work is supported by the Samuel Family Foundation.

These efforts have found that communal capital, a focus on mutual well-being livelihoods, and indigenous knowledge and practices can provide a strong foundation for policy and interventions.


  • Share Southern African experience
  • Share global experience
  • Identify common/successful approaches

Case Study:

  • Surfacing of traditional/indigenous social connectedness practices in Southern Africa (with visual display)
  • Operationalizing social connected practices in large NGO and government programs in Southern Africa

Scaling Up / maximizing Potential and Impact:

  • Modelling bottom-up information flow to government/large NGOs on other issues (SC in education or SC in community health)
  • Further Improving government/large NGO practice in Southern African and globally


  • Surfacing local/indigenous experience and sharing for others in ways that respects and even empowers communities, as opposed to simple “extracting” it from them for the benefit of others.
  • Providing guidance to government/large NGOs that is usable within their systems – speaking their language and meeting their needs


  • Holistic (multi-dimensional) approach to development increasingly recognized in the SDGs and other government/intergovernmental commitments such as the constitution of South Africa
  • Connection between mental/psychological wellbeing and physical wellbeing increasingly recognized in many aspects of life, so time is ripe for development community and governments to incorporate it more fully

Questions for Jam discussion:

  • Are there common aspects to local/traditional knowledge in different parts of the world that we should build upon/share more widely?
  • How can we (both panel participants/organizations and all participants/members of the global SC movement) better engage government/large NGOs
  • What are obstacles to government/large NGO adopting SC practices?
  • How can SC work support and benefit from other anti-poverty programs?
  • Others identified by participants


Fostering Sustainable Resilient Communities

Applications from Local Research to Global Policy
Lead Partner: Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University

Driving questionsWhat’s the business case for inclusive policy making for sustainable community development from relevant research? How can we best mobilize participatory approaches to policy and program development?

Purpose and Objectives of the Collaboration Jam
In support of UN Sustainable Development Goals addressing the need to foster sustainable and resilient community building, McGill ISID seeks to engage Symposium participants to share research findings and to better understand and build access points to policy makers grounded in social connectedness.

This session will aim to explore community-centred development models and the related policy outcomes and outputs; will discuss strategies for community engagement and participation and will promote linkages across multi-sectoral interests – environment, social and economic sustainability

Professors from McGill will draw on their research, fieldwork and publications to underline the important role which individuals and community organizations play in building resilient communities.

Specific cases around the provision of childcare in the slums of Nairobi and the adaptions required for Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon to deal with climate change will be examined.

Symposium Partners