Checking-In with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals: A Human Library Experience

by Myra Lisselle Wein

On Thursday, November 22, 2018 the Gender, Diversity, and Public Policy Initiative (GDPP) and the Intersectional Feminist Collective (IFC) at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy hosted a Human Library for Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Both the GDPP and IFC are student-led initiatives out of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy that promote an intersectional lens in policy through the facilitation of various events including roundtable discussions and speakers series. The sustainable development goals are a collection of global goals set by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. They include clean water and sanitation, zero hunger, affordable and clean energy, and gender equity, amongst others. Canada, alongside 192 other UN member states, adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In 2018, the Canadian Federal Government announced $49.4 million over 13 years, earmarked to help establish an SDG unit and fund monitoring and reporting activities from Statistics Canada, making this event an important opportunity for students to learn more about these goals and the work at hand to achieve them.

The Human Library event featured policy practitioners and influencers from diverse backgrounds and organizations, set up in ‘speed-networking’ fashion with 17 tables around the venue, one for each of the sustainable development goals. Hosting this at a global affairs and policy school is important because it exposes students to the work at hand in the global affairs and public policy world while at the same time exposes practitioners to the ideas and capabilities of the new generation of practitioners. The tables held experts pertaining to each goal and through timed intervals, the approximately participants took a seat to engage with the experts, ask questions, and share ideas on the goal at hand. Among the experts were former Ontario Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development MPP Mitzie Hunter, City of Toronto Councillor and former Chair of the Health Board Joe Mihevc, and representatives from the Aga Khan Foundation, Plan International Canada, and Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit. These experts contributed unique perspectives to addressing the SDGs with their diverse levels of authority, varying funding resources, different scopes of reach in their organizations, and mandates of engaging with and achieving the SDGs.

Education Table with Mitzie Hunter and Alison Costa (Sustainable Development Goal #4)
Photo Credits: Hiba Siddiqui

A major takeaway from the event included a framework highlighted by Anthony Morgan, a lawyer and community development officer in the City of Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit, the unit responsible for rolling out the Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism and responding to the priorities identified by Toronto’s diverse Black communities. Morgan highlighted a framework called “targeted universalism”, the concept that through the design and implementation of programs that help the most marginalized, transformative changes will positively impact everyone. Another major takeaway from the Quality Education, No Poverty, and Zero Hunger SDG tables, was the importance of visibility and front-line representation when it comes to implementing interventions and strategies for marginalized groups. Increasing diversity in the leadership and management of governmental and non-governmental services like schools or soup kitchens enhances the uptake and engagement of the most marginalized, especially in a multicultural nation like Canada.

The event provided a unique and intimate experience for students and alumni from the Masters of Global Affairs and Master of Public Policy programs to interact with practitioners in a relevant policy field and engage in conversation about the future of sustainable development on the local, national, and international levels. Students in both programs need these opportunities to broaden their perspectives on policy development considerations and implementation implications beyond the classroom. The short sessions kept the flow of the event going with high energy and the table set up allowed for a less intimidating experience for participants to approach and engage with the experts. However, one potential point for improvement would be increasing the time so participants could sit with all 17 of the goals, but of course that would be a very lengthy event.

Executive Director Steve S.J. Lee from the Foundation of Environmental Stewardship
Photo Credits: Hiba Siddiqui

Initiatives like the GDPP provide opportunities to gain awareness and engage with these important intersections of policy that are typically minimized or neglected by normal policy curriculum and dialogue. Unless addressed by a student or group in their individual analysis, equity, sustainability, and development are not consistently engaged with on a day to day basis in the classroom. The social context of policy should be promoted more consistently in both qualitative and quantitative professional development to contribute to a more well-rounded and comprehensive public policy practice. Events like the Human Library, put a face to the spectrum of policy roles that play a part in promoting gender equity and diversity.

In the public policy world, it is becoming increasingly evident that policy issues are multi-faceted. Poverty, climate change, safe and secure institutions are all gender and race issues. Addressing these issues in isolation is detrimental to holistically solving these issues from their roots because policy interventions show that social issues are complex and cannot be separated from one another. For true sustainable development, governments that have committed to this agenda must look to those impacted by policy from multiple intersections. With client-center design and technology on the rise, this event illuminated the many social elements to be considered, to effectively meet the service standard priorities set out by governments and the private sector. The benefit of bringing students together with the experts was not unidirectional, but mutual and filled with synergy, a human library that worked both ways.

Myra Lisselle Wein is a Master’s of Public Policy Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts Degree with High Distinction majoring in Diaspora and Transnational Studies and minoring in Political Science and Canadian Studies from the University of Toronto. She has experience in parliamentary protocol and public relations, the Ontario Public Service, non-profit and private sectors. Her policy interests include digital governance, migration and diversity, and social policy. In her free time, you can catch her skating or talking about Shania Twain.