From April 3-10, I attended the Global Engagement Summit at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The annual Summit connects and empowers young leaders from across the US and around the world to inspire and nurture social innovation. In a mix of workshops, seminars and speakers, the Summit deeply inspired me, allowed me to build my networks, connected me with mentors and gave me opportunities to build specific skills important for working in global health.
The GES is not an academic conference. Rather, young innovators bring projects to share, workshop and improve with the help of GES staff, guests and peers. The project I have been working on is called Skátne Ionkwatehiahróntie’ (“Our families grow together”).
The Summit was an opportunity to find solutions to project-related challenges, especially through our small group sessions. In groups of 4-5 Delegates and 2 Facilitators, we each presented our projects, answered others’ questions, and received feedback on project strengths and weaknesses. On another level, the GES was also an opportunity for personal and professional development. In particular, I developed my public health skill-set by learning about social impact assessment and practicing my public speaking and grant-writing skills.
For the first few days of the Summit, the International Delegates toured Chicago in a pre-conference session called Engage. We toured the underground Pedway, visited the Shedd Aquarium, appreciated the modern art collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, and learned about past activists at the Hull House. I took this opportunity to get acquainted with my fellow Delegates before the rush of the conference started and to reflect on my intentions for the GES.
After three days of Engage, we kicked off the Summit by getting to know each other through theatre exercises. This set the stage for the rest of the Summit: we all came from different places, with different experiences, and at different points in our projects. I soon realized that despite all these differences, what we all had in common was our willingness to make a positive change in our communities.
For the next three days, I attended many workshops, seminars and talks. In our session on Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) with Seva Gandhi, we learned how to look for solutions by focusing on community strengths rather than deficits. In my reflections on this workshop, humility and respect were central values in this approach. It’s easy to perceive a problem when we are looking from our particular perspective – especially when we are trained to assess the social determinants of health. When we take the time and make the effort to question our own position and put the preferences and needs of those we wish to serve first, we can arrive at more sustainable and ethical collaborations. Asset-Based Community Development is one tool we can use to engage with communities. More tools like ABCD can be found at the University of Kansas’ Community Tool Box.
I also took away valuable lessons for global health work in a seminar on Social Impact Assessment, led by Joanna Cohen. Here we learned about how to build measurement mechanisms into the design of our innovations in three steps: by understanding our issue, by determining our approach to solving the issue, and by identifying our intended results through a results framework. Here my biggest take-aways were not to impose my own beliefs on other people, to redefine my own concepts of success, and to always hold respect at the centre of my work.
A highlight of the GES was my mentorship session with Erica Colangelo. The Summit staff match each Delegate to a Mentor with relevant experiences and passions. Erica connected me to excellent resources, and helped me develop ideas to generate sustainable funding for my project. Another memorable part of the Summit was the Pitch Competition. The GES staff selected three outstanding project pitches to compete for a $500 prize before a panel of judges and Delegates.
There are so many more moments from the GES that I could write about. If you would like to read more about this year’s facilitators and speakers, you can check out the GES blog.
I am grateful to have been able to attend the GES, with the generous support of Global Health Programs and the Office of the Dean of Students. I connected with incredible young change-makers who share my values, I got thoughtful feedback on my project, and I deepened my understanding of global issues affecting health. To top off an amazing week, I also returned to McGill having won the $700 Open Shutter award for Skátne Ionkwatehiahróntie’s engagement of media and arts. I encourage anyone with an idea or with an existing social change project to apply!
Vivienne Walz is a Masters in Public Health student at McGill University.