Reflections on the Ottawa Trip by Taliya Seidman-Wright

Students networking in Ottawa on the Ottawa trip

The world is a big place. Though this is an obvious fact, I am constantly struggling to comprehend my own inconsequentiality in the grand scheme of things, while at the same time trying to imagine the ways I can use my passion and drive to create real change. As a student, I often feel overwhelmed by the wide scope of issues we are trying to tackle. Being in such an intensely academic mindset so much of the time, it can be hard to imagine the tangible ways of working in the real world of development. This week I had the pleasure of attending the annual co-op networking event in Ottawa, which was a great opportunity to meet with and learn about people working in the field.

When I tell someone I’m studying International Development, I often see a blank face and hear a “what’s that?” To be honest, I am often at a loss as to how exactly I should respond because there are so many forms of development, locally and globally. Though this vagueness makes for a somewhat awkward conversation with people who don’t understand those two arduously long words, the broadness of development is actually one of its greatest elements. At the networking event, I met scholars, journalists, project managers, co-op coordinators, directors, analysts, and the list goes on. This was exciting for me, especially being a fairly indecisive and interested-in-everything-sort-of person. I think beyond development, this diversity is an essential part of being human. This event was an interesting space in which people of differing opinions and backgrounds either agreed or clashed but, in that, the beauty of diversity in perspectives became recognized and valued. To me, this is perhaps the most important thesis of not just our major in university but also of our lives.

Growing up, I was always involved in the arts. For me, without the arts, I would not have learned to appreciate so deeply different perspectives and cultures; something that I think is essential to contextual development. I am always wondering how to incorporate my love for the arts into my passion for development and learning about the Aga Khan Foundation’s intersectional and inclusive approach was truly inspiring in this way. The very first thing that struck me about the AKF was the design and meaning of the building. It was designed in the shape a rock crystal, symbolizing transparency with the different sides representing different perspectives. To me, this complete embodiment of the organization’s ethics and values in even the architecture of the building spoke of intense integrity — a thing that is sometimes hard to find in bureaucratic institutions.

As a woman, it is always inspiring to meet other women working in a field (like most fields, to be frank) that has historically been dominated by men. I think as I enter the work world, it is vital for me to remember how important my positionality as a woman is in claiming and supporting women’s empowerment. Many of the panelists I had the pleasure of interviewing made insightful points about the importance of women’s health and empowerment as the most significant investment in human capital a country can make. Though I have heard that many times before, I am always amazed at the extreme relevance of gender equality to development and how far we still are from achieving it in so much of the world.

One of the organizations I learned about at this event that really resonated with me was Inter Pares. Inter Pares, based in Ottawa, identifies as a feminist social justice organization. The executive director explained that by choosing to identify as a “social justice” rather than a “development” organization, the power relations that often come with development are rejected through the language they use. I thought this was a really important point. I often hear people critique Canadian development efforts overseas, saying we have enough problems to deal with in our own country, which is very true. By changing the language in this way, we place all injustices on equal footing, as they all truly should be.

The second day of the trip, we went to Global Affairs Canada to meet with past alumni of the UTSC IDS Co-op program. This was really interesting for us critical development students to see people from our critical perspective working within the system that we so often criticize. A lot of the time, I feel an impossible bind between being a radical leftist ideologically, but also wanting to work within our current system for more realistic reform. I think it was a good reality check for us all to see how working for the government is not at all a bad thing. Our program is great, as we get the chance to do a placement overseas and get the transformational experience of connecting to and learning from another culture. However, as all the alumni at Global Affairs agreed, our main role coming out of this program is to become development workers based in Canada, rather than traveling to obscure rural places to “save” poor people from poverty. I think this is important for us to hear early on in our studies so we don’t sugar coat the idea of doing work “in the field” as the main act of development, and also so we understand the importance of local development by local communities themselves.

I am always amazed by the wealth of brilliant people I am so privileged to meet. This trip was nothing short of that, learning from and connecting with people working in the field as well as my fellow students. I have only been in this program for 6 months and I feel so excited to be around such passionate and genuine individuals, all with interesting backgrounds and perspectives. Though it is easy to feel overpowered by the amount of injustice and inequality on our planet, I feel re-inspired from this trip. The world is indeed a big place and I can’t wait to learn from it.