Projects & Speaking Engagements in Community (Local, National and International)


1) “Engaging the Disengaged” project:

“Why those who are privileged need to pay attention to those who are not.”   (Prepared for a Herstmonceux Conference)

Written by: Jon M Gerrard and Martin I Itzkow (FRSA)

Our liberal democracy in Canada is at stake.  Many of our communities face complex social problems, even “wicked” problems, conflict between groups, and ideals and beliefs creating societal tensions. We now have many forms of community “resistance” to the status quo. We have demagogues in many places in the world like Donald Trump who are elected and supported because many people in their countries feel they are not being listened to and are frustrated.  It seems that Donald Trump tapped into an existing wellspring of resentment in “middle America” from people who felt they were being left out and left behind by global changes. They feared the loss of good paying manufacturing jobs in the United States and the arrival of many immigrants with whom they felt less comfortable and who they felt did not represent “so-called” “American values”.  

In the past five months in Manitoba we have begun a complex public dialogue and engagement project (5 community “kitchen” dialogues) with people who feel left out, frustrated and not able to engage so that their voices can be heard, listened to and responded to.  Who are these voices? What are they saying? Why should we listen to these people who feel marginalized, disengaged, and are frustrated that they are not being heard, respected and valued, and are being left out?

In Winnipeg, a diverse city of about 730,000 people, we have found many who feel they are being forgotten and not listened to.    They include people from the LGBTQ community.  They include people from the indigenous community.  They include people from the visible minority community. They include people from rural Manitoba who feel our government is too Winnipeg-centred. They include people who are of large or small body size.  They include people with learning disabilities.  They include people who have various other brain and mental health conditions.  They include people who are frustrated with our legal and child welfare system, which has apprehended far too many children so that we have one of the highest rates of children in care in the world.  They include women who feel they are not treated fairly, not rewarded adequately financially, and not listened to in our courts.  They include seniors who feel they are not respected.  In short there are many who feel that our democracy is not working well and not serving them well.  We need to listen to their voices. It is about the social distance between those who are in the majority and those “others” in the minority. The social distance between these groups and communities has been widening.

People with learning disabilities, as we have found, are often marginalized, and infrequently have the opportunity to contribute.  They are far overrepresented among those in our jails, in part because they have difficulty learning and learning is a key to success. It is harder to listen to someone with a learning disability, and yet we must.  With improved understanding of brain plasticity, there are increasingly better ways of helping individuals with learning disabilities to succeed.  When they succeed they can be a very positive force in our society.  When they are rejected, we all lose.

In Manitoba and Canada today, we struggle with the voices of those who were abused in residential schools and with the longer term, intergenerational effects of such trauma.  We are struggling with far too many missing and murdered women.  There remain significant divides in our society which we need to learn about, to bring a better understanding of and to heal.   We all need to listen to the voices of “the other side” to better understand each other’s history and to find a better way forward together.

The voices of the “disengaged” are often “No” voices with alternative views.  Why do we need to listen to these “No” voices?  

We need to listen to the “No” voices because our democracy and our society depends on it. We need to listen to the disengaged “No” voice because we must if we are going to achieve lasting, sustainable progress.

As an example the 1990s national Liberal government of Canada of which Jon Gerrard was a part, failed to listen to the “No” voices with respect to gun control. Tough measures were brought in to ensure better gun control, but there was a failure to adequately respect and listen to those who were opposed to the measures.  The resulting legislation did not adequately account for the opposing views and perspectives.  In the end, the opposition to “gun control” was a significant factor in the eventual defeat of the Liberal government.  But even more significant than this, because the changes were brought in without adequately listening to the “No” voices, as soon as a new government was elected, the “gun control” measures were immediately thrown out, and the results of the time consuming and costly effort were overturned.   If we are going to achieve sustainable progress we have to do better in listening to the “No” voices.

In another example, across Canada measures have been taken in the last 25 years to better recognize same-sex marriage.  Jon Gerrard remembers talking with Andy Scott, the longtime Liberal Member of Parliament for Fredericton in New Brunswick.  He supported same-sex marriage, but many of his constituents were strongly opposed.  Andy took the time to listen to people and to hold town hall meetings to discuss the issue openly.   Though there were many who still disagreed, it was much appreciated that he had taken the time to talk openly and frankly with people and to hear the “No” voices. In part because of people like Andy Scott, same-sex marriage is now broadly accepted all across Canada.   It is also, I believe, because people like Richard Florida wrote persuasively about the positive contribution that people in the LGBTQ community are making to the life and work of creative modern cities, and the lived experience of many citizens who have children who are part of the LGBTQ community.  Yes, it is a human rights issue.  But progress has been made, not just because it is a human right, but also because those who led the way were ready to listen to the “No” voices and to make a strong positive case for change. 

There are those who want to speed ahead without listening to the “No” voices. Often, doing the listening and applying new perspectives through the adoption of new public engagement tools and approaches can break impasses, can actually be faster in getting results, and can achieve results which will last.

It is tough to listen to the “No” voices.  The stories told by the “No” voices are often difficult and complex and can challenge our view of our world and who we are.  But we need to listen to these voices.  We need to understand others. We need to do it better through improvements in our democracy. 

We live in a challenging time.  With social media and fractured news sources it is easy to get information and to find people who support our own worldview.  It is easy to live in our part of the world, and not to deal with “others”.  But, if we as a society are to survive and thrive, we must be open, understand how we need to adapt and hear the world in many different ways. We need to see that conflict if handled well can be productive. We must bring all the voices of our communities to the work of community building.   

From the work we are doing, we see that an effective way to listen to the “No” voices is through more meaningful and evolving public dialogue, more meaningful listening, and through empowering people with “No” voices to be part of the solutions we seek – improving our quality of life, improving our economy, improving our environment. 

In January of this year, Jon Gerrard and his wife Naomi were in South Africa.  42 years ago, in Soweto, Hector Pietersen a thirteen-year-old boy, was shot during a student protest.   While in South Africa Jon and Naomi met Antoinette Sithole (Hector’s sister) and her husband Meshack Sithole.   Visiting Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, it was appalling to learn of the treatment of fellow human beings in the jails of that time.   Meshack is still asking the question “Why” did they do this?  As we look around us today, we need to see our fellow human beings for what they are – fellow travelers on our planet.  The “others” are like us, but they come from different backgrounds and have different abilities and skills.  If we can better recognize the value in those who are “the others” we can all benefit.

2)   Speaking Engagement:
“Ethiopian-Canadian Communities Together: Coalition Building”, January 2018 (Winnipeg)

3) Speaking Engagement at the Ethiopian Gala Dinner – “Leadership and Collaboration Alignment“, November 2018 (Winnipeg)

4) “Purpose and Envisioned Future” Workshop for the Kurdish Association of Manitoba Board of Directors, November 2018

5)  Royal Society of Arts Blog posted on 23rd of November 2015

Can we really teach empathy and compassion? Can we measure empathy and compassion? And if we can, will it make a difference that matters to the individual and the collective in our communities?

Martin Luther King (MLK) once said:

“In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever effects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I’m what I ought to be.”

We see through our eyes the horrific pictures of refugee children dying in the water, then hear through our ears the words of our leaders saying “not in our countries”, and then feel in our souls the terrible angst and horror of knowing that other human beings are suffering. We recognize that hundreds of thousands of people long for a space of freedom, safety and security on this earth. How do we experience our own forms of compassion and empathy? And how do we live these two values for others in the 21st century in Europe, North America and other parts of our shared planet?

Or do we simply turn off, disengage and remove ourselves from this reality and live our lives and other (potentially limiting) values by channeling our senses into our thoughts without any consciousness of our interrelatedness to others on this earth? Where and how (if we did at all) did we learn to think and act compassionately?

I have this deep longing to understand our own minds, consciousness and thoughts related to our values and deep beliefs about “others”. How did we form our models of our worlds? What do we need to do to socially innovate in educating and helping people to learn about the whys and the hows of compassion and empathy?

In reading Towards the Compassionate School[1] I am even more interested to know if the 10 declared “truths” about compassion are actually true for all of us. If so, how do we actually live these “truths”?

In his RSA video, Roman Krznaric (Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution) confirms the focus of the future must be outrospection – who are we in relation to the “other”. He sees this focus as the foundation of radical social change.  Click Here:

Even though we have a central theme in all religions and faith communities about treating others as you wish to be treated yourself, do we actually have the insight and consciousness to pay attention to the following:

  • Are we wired for compassion and empathy?
  • Does the “Golden Rule” still have value as an approach to treating people as you wish to be treated?
  • Are compassion and empathy essential for good mental and physical health?
  • To be successful, do our NGOs, private and public sector organizations need to be compassionate, hold a space for empathy and live by a moral code?
  • Will technology become the next conduit to share and grow individual and collective compassion in society?
  • Do we value our world cities as places of hyper-diversity where compassion is our currency to live and develop harmoniously?
  • Do human-made and natural disasters (evils of this world) undermine all the forces of compassion and empathy?
  • Do our current economic systems fail to encourage all forms of compassion in our communities and the private sector?
  • Can compassion and empathy be taught by focusing on how to support the development of a compassionate and empathic mind?
  • Are compassion and empathy central to education and learning? (Are they unifying meta-values as central organizing principles?)

I am one of the international associates (Canadian) of the CoED Foundation, a non-profit charity based in England, dedicated to bringing compassion into education and learning. We are designing an initiative to understand how compassionate schools in six countries are advancing compassion in their students and developing them as future community leaders.

We are building this innovative approach to understand compassionate education, and to learn how to measure values in action.

It is with this in mind, that we wish to answer a few important questions, going forward:

  • How does compassion value’s education impact the students, the schools, their families and their communities? (What is the evidence of change?)
  • How will we understand the similarities and or differences cross-culturally when compassionate education is implemented by country, and by school?
  • What are the compassionate behaviours/actions demonstrated once the students complete their education.
  • How do these compassionate values and their behaviours/actions impact community both positively and potentially limiting in the long-term?

As this ambitious initiative is at the very beginning of the design cycle, our team has identified its desire to have numerous partners in the 6 countries, including:

  • National education networks and their local schools; (Faith and Non-Faith-based)
  • Community engagement consultants contributing their time and energy;
  • International values consultants to measure compassion (i.e. Barrett Value Centre- survey instruments); and
  • Individuals with expertise in many disciplines who wish to participate in an international, national or locally engaged action teams.

We are influenced by a number of compassion educators, authors, schools and foundations such as the Tara Redwood School in California with Pamela Cayton, Marshall Rosenberg (Non-Violent Communication and “The Compassionate Classroom”, The Foundation for Developing Compassion and Wisdom, “MindUP” with the Hawn Foundation, and Roots of Empathy Foundation.

There are so many more examples of people, organizations and thought leaders in this emerging field focusing on compassion in education, with which we wish to co-create our initiative.

We encourage RSA Fellows and other international partners to engage with us in this design stage to play important roles in countries where our initiative will take root over the next three years. We are looking at implementing this initiative in England, Canada, the United States, Pakistan, Jordan and Nigeria as countries where we know compassionate education programs have been developed.

In the next three to five years, we believe that we will see, hear and feel that there will be more contributors to this conversation in more schools and community organizations positively impacting community.

Perhaps we will play a small role in energizing others to place themselves centrally on the world compassion map and make a difference that matters to them. Perhaps individually and collectively, we can live the values of compassion and empathy.

[1] Towards the Compassionate School will be presented at the RSA in London in December by Maurice Irfan Coles, CEO of the CoED Foundation. (

6) Canadian Values Alliance Winnipeg Hub: National Values Cafe (October 19, 2017)





7) Canadian Values Alliance, Winnipeg Hub: International Collaboration Initiative (2018-2019)  (Stay Tuned to the information about this international collaboration driven by us as a group of community volunteers)