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2016 Global Symposium Opening Keynote

Kim Samuel's Opening Remarks at the 2016 Global Symposium
October 25, 2016

Today marks the opening day of the second Global Symposium on Overcoming Social Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness in Montréal, Canada. The 2016 Symposium is being hosted by the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University, and Kim Samuel has kicked off the symposium by welcoming participants who have come from all around the globe to discuss and collaborate on three key themes: Ending Poverty and Fostering Well Being, Enabling Quality Education and Community Learning and Building Resilient Sustainable Communities. Read the full text of Kim Samuel’s keynote speech below:

Kim Samuel

2016 Symposium on Overcoming Social Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness

Institute for the Study of International Development – McGill University

Montreal, Canada

October 25, 2016

I. Introduction & Acknowledgments I would like to thank our amazing Elders and begin by recognizing the traditional territory of the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke. I thank the Mohawk peoples for welcoming and hosting us here within their territory. Niawen’kó:wa

I’d also like to thank Jessica for those kind words. Engaging with such brilliant McGill students on a weekly basis this semester, many of whom, like Jessica, we can now count as allies of this movement, has been a great privilege.

It is my pleasure to welcome you all to the second Symposium on Overcoming Social Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness.

C’est un plaisir de souhaiter la bienvenue à vous tous et je tiens à remercier tous les participants pour l’entrée et, bien sûr, mes partenaires dans l’organisation de cet événement.

I want to thank all of the attendees for coming, and, of course, my partners in organizing this event.

I also want to thank McGill University, and the Institute for the Study of International Development, for hosting us this week.

The support of this prestigious institution is a tremendous benefit to our work.

Over the next two plus days, we’re going to spend some time really looking at some of our oldest challenges through the a slightly newer lens  — the lens of human connection, or the lack thereof.

In particular, I’m looking forward to innovation of collaboration jams – where we do collaborative problem solving that allows us all to benefit from each others’ experience and insight, and to go home with new ideas and renewed energy.

But before we turn to the coming days and the progress we want to make in the future, I also see this as an opportunity to celebrate the progress we have made on our journey thus far.

Two years ago, we came together to share perspectives, stories and to build understanding. We left resolved to build together a global movement on social connectedness.

We committed to “creating safe places for dialogue and providing a voice for those experiencing social isolation as the first step to building connectedness through new on-line resources and dedicated forums”.

Today, we have an important online platform at

Since our last Symposium in 2014, the site has attracted over 22,000 individual users from over 119 countries and this continues to grow.

In 2015, 60 new articles were published to the site sharing perspectives, stories and connecting people across the globe.

With social media also, our conversation had built a solid base of thought leaders and community workers to engage and support one another. During the 2014 Symposium I remember very well our first tweets and hashtags and our excitement when a dozen people followed our conversation.  

Today through slowly connecting and bridging we have grown this to over 3500 active followers with over 2000 tweets sharing articles and ideas.  And I know this is set to continue to deepen and grow as we gather here today.

In 2014 we also committed “to support and encourage academic involvement and the development of a solid research base” and that “we would link research to practice to advance outcomes supporting social connectedness”.

Today, we are joined by senior students here at McGill University who are taking the first ever capstone Seminar in social connectedness in international development.

This opportunity through the partnership with McGill University is building and linking amazing young scholars to our work and effort in very exciting new ways.

With special lectures and guest speakers, every week we explore the very real impacts of social isolation and we examine the strategies, power and potential of individuals and communities to build community.  

As part of the McGill community, we also reach to other Universities and important bodies such as a special keynote I was honoured to give last spring at the Caribbean Development Bank.

Finally in 2014, we committed “to supporting the development of a community of practice to advance specific actions for both program design and policy development shaped by an understanding of social isolation and directly contributing to deepening social connectedness”.

Today, we have many, many examples to share right across the globe and many of you are directly involved in these exciting new efforts.

From Connected North – providing critical linkages between schools in the remote north grounded in cultural reaffirmation to explore and build new possibilities;

– to Synergos in South Africa, in partnership with Indigenous communities, building understanding of traditional models of care, family and belonging;

– to Special Olympics with a rapidly expanding network Unified Champion Schools; and,

– to new dialogue with new partners tackling issues including reconciliation with Indigenous communities here in Canada, disability rights, refugees, and the need to build sustainability and to build for belonging in our growing urban environments.

And of course, we also committed to ongoing participation and to re-convene in 2016.

And here we are my friends!

When we gathered for our inaugural Symposium, back in 2014, we were only beginning to introduce the concept of social isolation to the world.  

Thanks to that initial meeting, and our collective work over the last two years, we have created a real space for thoughtful conversations.

Conversations about how we can work together to better explain, confront, advocate around and ultimately overcome the problem of social isolation.

II. Small, large, connected

The poet and novelist Alice Walker wrote that, and I quote, “To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves, that the line stretches all the way back, perhaps to God; or to Gods.

“We remember them because it is an easy thing to forget: that we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die.

“The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrow, is always a measure of what has gone before.”

When I read these beautiful words, I am struck by my place in the world.

I feel both impossibly small and impossibly large.

Deeply humble, and massively powerful.

I am reminded that I am small in the grand scheme of the universe, in its history and its future. We are not the first; others before us have confronted brokenness and isolation. So we “suffer, rebel, fight, love” often with no knowledge of those who have come before us.  We don’t draw lessons from their failures, or inspiration from their successes.  They fought alone. And that solitude makes us all smaller.

But, from these words we can also draw great courage—because while we are small in the grand scheme of things, we are large in our ability to shape our own lives and the lives of others.

You just met Jessica, who, as I alluded earlier, is just one of the 35 students enrolled in the capstone seminar I am teaching this fall here at McGill.

The course is called Lessons of Community and Compassion: Overcoming Social Isolation and Building Social Connectedness through Policy and Program Development.  

I know that I am preaching to the choir here when I say that teaching is difficult work!

Preparing the syllabus and lesson plans, organizing speakers, anxiously awaiting the first day of class… And that’s all before you have to start grading anything!  

But I think Alice Walker’s quote takes us to the heart of what teaching is supposed to do.

We educate our students about what has come before them and, at the same time, empower them by demonstrating that they can shape their lives and the lives of those around them.  

III. Sharing, Teaching, Listening, Learning  

Each of us cares deeply about overcoming social isolation.

Part of why I love this gathering is because it gives us the opportunity to turn that personal passion into a shared passion—and, to turn a shared passion into a movement.

We do this by sharing, and inspiring others to engage. By educating, and motivating others to teach. By listening, and encouraging others to learn.

This is what allows us to open minds…  and eyes.

Because when we do, we realize that isolation, ironically, does not exist alone.  It lives within our world’s greatest challenges.

First, we have to be willing to share.

We have started a conversation. But outside of these walls, social isolation is still not widely understood or readily identified.

The knowledge we have—whether from firsthand experience or from our work—is the foundational knowledge for this area of study.

And that’s why it’s on us to call out social isolation as we know and see it. That’s why it’s on all of us to spread the message of connectedness.

Second, each of us can—must—be a teacher if we are to truly build social connectedness.

We know that, as human beings, we have always had an innate desire for connection.

But not all of our newest technologies actually help fulfill that oldest of needs.  

Yes, it’s easier than ever to know of someone—but have we made it easier to actually know a person? To see a person for who they really are?

So technology, like so much else, must be a tool:  a tool that all of us as teachers must use to call out just how serious social isolation is, and acknowledge how devastating its effects can be.

And so it is crucial for all of us to serve as teachers—but, at the same time, we must also be engaged students.

Which brings me to the third key. We have to listen to and learn from the communities with which we work.

I say with because overcoming social isolation is always done with and not for.

That’s why there’s such power in truth and reconciliation commissions we’ve seen around the globe.   Because it is not simply one group saying: “I’m sorry you have experienced this, here let me fix it.”

Rather, it is everyone saying “This is how what has happened has impacted me, and this is the remedy that I need.”

Here in Canada, we have just concluded the first phase of such an initiative with Indigenous Peoples through Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

As Chief Commissioner, now Senator Murray Sinclair noted when he delivered the final report:  “This has been a difficult, inspiring and painful journey.  The residential school experience is one of the darkest, most troubling chapters in our collective history. As difficult as this journey has been, the next part of moving towards reconciliation will be more difficult.  At its heart, reconciliation must be about forming respect. ”[1]

Building social connectedness, as I have said before, is about recognition, reciprocity, and, yes, respect.

It also requires listening and learning across disciplines.

And so, when I set out to design a syllabus that gave students a broad sense of the many instances of social isolation—the result was an overview of the defining challenges of our time.

Climate change. The refugee crisis. Rapid, unchecked urbanization. Devastating prejudices like ableism and ageism. Painful legacies of colonialism in Canada and Africa and elsewhere.

I’m not the only one who has come to this realization.

When the United Nations decided to put together a list of the defining challenges of our world, and assemble a development agenda to tackle them, they developed 17 goals for the international community to achieve by 2030.

Many of you have heard of them, they’re called the Sustainable Development Goals.
Those 17 goals include things like:

  •  End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  • Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.
  • Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

The list continues.  But when you look at them all together you realize that they are in “vertical” categories – poverty, energy, infrastructure, civil society – the challenges of social isolation cut across nearly every one.

When they say we will end poverty in all forms, ensure safe and affordable housing, and guarantee all people equal rights to economic resources, no matter their gender or socioeconomic standing…

They are saying we will change the global economy so that it doesn’t divide us into groups of “winners” and “losers.”

Or that when they talk about building resilience among impoverished people vulnerable to climate change, and adopting sustainable methods of food production…

They are talking about the safety of every person on the planet in response to humanity’s most pressing threat.

You may notice that when they promise to end the AIDS epidemic, and strengthen substance abuse treatment…

They are promising to eradicate stigmas that make millions feel like they are less than.

Or that when they state we will guarantee all children, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or ability, will be able to get a free, equitable, quality…

And that anyone who seeks out decent work will be able to find it…

They are guaranteeing everyone the chance to make connections, and to learn from each other about the world we share.

When they proclaim that they will knock down the barriers to full participation in government and equal opportunity in political and public life…

They are proclaiming that all voices must be heard and accounted for in our policymaking.

From recognizing the need for greater access to transportation and information technology…

To targeting an end to forced labor and human trafficking…

To promoting peace through strong and inclusive institutions within and among nations…

They’re talking about responding to our most urgent problems by building cities that welcome everyone, communities that protect everyone, and economies that work for everyone.

In other words—by creating a world characterized by connectedness.

And it’s no coincidence: social isolation is not only driven by the existential crises of our era. Social isolation drives them.

Let’s take the case of Syrian refugees.

These are people traumatized by brutal war, forced to live in swelling refugee camps or struggling to live in a new culture, with the knowledge that they will perhaps never return home.

In my class, we’ve heard their voices.  And they tell us what we all know to be true:  their plight is worsened when so much of the rest of the world answers their pain with a shrug of the shoulders, an eye raised in suspicion, even a heart filled with hate.

Isaac Newton is often quoted as saying, “We build too many walls, and not enough bridges.”  How true those words ring today.

When we see people turning away from the work of building a global community, and we hear calls across the West for closing doors and erecting dividers, real and symbolic… Is it any wonder that the bonds of social connectedness fray and the darkness of social isolation descends?

Social isolation is too often overlooked in discussions of the refugee crisis.

Even more so is the fact that social isolation is at the core of the conflict driving it.

There’s a brilliant young Syrian architect named Marwa al-Sabouni who gave a TED talk this past summer.

She argues that colonial planners divided a once bustling, harmonious, and diverse city of Homs along the lines of ethnicity and faith.

The colonial planners didn’t just divide blocks and streets—they splintered neighbourhoods and fractured the city’s sense of community.

People no longer saw one another as neighbors—instead, they saw them as Other, creating the conditions for conflict.

Our greatest challenges will be interdisciplinary. And that means our approach to social isolation must be interdisciplinary, as well.

In some ways, I think of us as windmills, dotting the countryside.  Alone, 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.  

So we need to connect, ourselves, in service of connecting others.

That’s why I want all of you to talk with each other.
And, most of all, that’s why I want all of you to talk to the young people here today.

Because they are the voice of tomorrow—and they must be the backbone of our effort today.

IV.Bricklayers and Architects

The work ahead reminds me of an old story.

There’s a man who comes upon a construction site. It’s a huge project, and the size of it sparks his curiosity.

So the man goes to the first person he sees at the site—someone moving a large pane of glass.

He asks this person, “What are you doing?” and he replies, “I’m installing a window.”

He looks beyond the man working on the window and sees a woman hammering nails.

So he approaches her, and he asks, “What are you doing?”

And she tells him, “I’m framing a door.”

Another person walks by carrying plasterboard, and the man asks, “What are you doing?”

“I’m putting up a wall.”

He does this with everyone he encounters at the site, and then he sees a man, quietly sweeping some debris in the background of this activity.

He walks up to the man and asks him what he’s doing.

And the man replies, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Whether you are personally impacting the life of just one person, or one million, you are playing an essential part in our movement.

No matter what you do to contribute, no matter how large or small the task, you are helping us build something much greater—you are building a cathedral of belonging, for all of us.

In this work, we all need to be both the cathedral’s bricklayers and its architects.

At a time when there seems to be so much darkness in this world, our everyday work can be difficult and, at times, discouraging.

As bricklayers, we must persevere.

But we can’t do it unless we’re driven by the vision of the cathedral—a vision of social isolation overcome and social connectedness deepened.

We are each bricklayers and architects. We are each small and large. And we are all connected.

Thank you.