Diversity at Congress

Author: Jinali Shah

On February 14, 1969, the first Congress was held at McGill University. On January 2, 2017, I attended my first conference in London, Ontario, hosted by the University of Western Ontario. This was my first engineering conference at the national level, and it turned out to be one of the most valuable opportunities I have ever received. 
The CFES conference initially felt similar to a first year’s orientation week experience, filled with like-minded individuals eager to absorb the excitement around them and bring forth fresh ideas. The theme for this year was, “The Entrepreneurial Engineer”, but the theme of inclusivity resonated more with the delegates. Whether a delegate was a seasoned conference-goer or a first-timer like me, made no difference, as everyone shared stories and policies regarding their school’s engineering society and networked to their heart’s content.  The Congress environment was like an open system, with ideas, suggestions and excited chatter floating around in the air, and then being diligently recorded in notebooks or Word documents. 

Although most programmed activities were open to all delegates, for learning sessions, delegates were split into four separate streams. I was placed in the Leadership Stream, which had sessions revolving around concepts including event and meeting arrangement and management, leadership skills development and networking.  While all the presentations were useful, one specific presentation stood out to me. Esther Te Linde led a session on Leadership Inclusivity, which touched on the concept of diversity awareness and the creation of a Safe Space.  In a few words, awareness means to have increased empathy and respect for people with different backgrounds and perspectives than you.  It means using caution and consideration when addressing controversial topics, and being open and non-judgemental when hearing out the suggestions of others.  Often times, when planning events or discussing the future direction of a council or engineering society, people get very passionate, and that can get disrespectful and ugly. To ensure that a positive environment is kept intact, a Safe Space is formally created. It is defined as a forum for individuals to express themselves without fear. This benefits of this forum are not reserved to just council meetings, but rather the university environment in general. This model is currently present at a number of universities across Canada, one of which is Carleton University. They report great success regarding the implementation of a Safe Space, which is currently present not only within their EngSoc, but has spread to other parts of the university as well.  Formal administration of a Safe Space in an engineering society does not require a great deal of resources, simply some awareness posters and education presentations, clear indication of Safe Space areas, and regular updates on practices. It would also be beneficial to outline consequences for failure to abide by Safe Space rules. Overall, the benefits of this forum undoubtedly outweigh the start-up costs.

The concept of a Safe Space is certainly one I would like to bring back for my university, but the overall conference experience is definitely one that I am bringing back for myself. The lessons learned, the ideas shared, the friends made, and the networking connections formed, are all positive takeaways of the annual CFES Congress. They will lead to better shaped engineering students, and better led engineering societies all across Canada.