The Space Between
What colour is the sunset? You are probably picturing hues of vibrant orange, yellow, and red that capture so much of our attention and imagination whenever we are lucky enough to catch one.
In truth, though, a sunset is a gradient going all the way from the white of the sun to the darkness of the night. In between can be all the colours we’ve ever known – if we look for them.
Over the past week, I was fortunate to share several sunsets with a small group of RECODE network members while converged on a little island on Lake Rousseau in Ontario’s Muskoka Lakes region.
Wasan Island (to be pronounced however you desire, according to the caretakers) is a project of the Breuninger Foundation, and is known for its provocative tranquility. Many groups have used the Island for introspection and inspiration over the past two decades, and it’s no wonder: the verdant setting and quiet care put into the experience is humbling.
I took part as a representative of
RECODE Collaborate, a student-led offshoot of the national network that convenes grassroots, catalytic dialogue about the future of higher education on our nation’s campuses. I had a personal agenda, too: to shape my graduate research projects through the wisdom and critique of RECODE’s members.
The undercurrent of humility was evident as participants shared reflections on their own lessons and on the network’s progress over the past two years. The first day focused on the local and personal, as participants had a chance to learn more about the programs and projects of one another and provide peer-to-peer feedback and support.
The day ended with a generative workshop led by McConnell Foundation Fellow Cheryl Rose, where participants reflected on what would be missed in a universe that looked exactly like this one, but without post-secondary institutions. The exercise was a lesson in respect for the system itself, as we realized that many of the things that trouble us about working in post-secondary changemaking actually have great value (including bureaucracy!). At the same time, it helped us to recognize some of the core virtues we look for in the system–community relevance, rigour in innovation, cooperation in governance, and the links between research, education, and impact, for instance (see the illustration below courtesy of graphic recorder
Corrina Keeling for more).
The exercise ultimately reminded us of what we value in our mutual pursuit of RECODE’s vision. The point of our work is not the programs we create or even the experiences that students, faculty, and staff across the nation have as a result. It’s the value of those experiences; the impact made when our institutions connect with their communities in ever more powerful ways. That connection–between school and place, student and experience, staff and changemaking–is one that honours access, plurality, and context in a way made uniquely possible by the universities and colleges of our country.
Day two emphasized a focus on the field itself: social innovation in higher education. Working through the day’s agenda, members realized that the work of the network could be accelerated if they came together to create better ways of advocating, connecting with one another, and evaluating and measuring our progress.
It’s worth noting that we are not beginning from scratch. Much has been achieved since RECODE’s inception in these three domains. The importance of social innovation is
increasingly acknowledged by our governments, institutions, and communities. Webinars, events, and other resources keep the conversation going on RECODE’s website, and the Impact Reporting platform is facilitating new conversations about the measurement and capture of social innovation’s value on Canadian campuses.
Still, these three pillars (plus the tools and resources we’ll need to make them happen) became central conversations on Wasan Island for the network’s next steps. Continuing them is crucial to achieving our collective vision.
But, as lovely as it would be, we can’t always have these conversations together on an island of serene sunsets.
Sunsets weren’t Wasan’s only captivating quality, however. Many of us shared the night’s sky on several occasions as we sought out constellations in the stars above.
Before GPS and Google Maps, the night sky was our most powerful navigation tool. Recognizing simple patterns in the stars gave wanderers and seafarers the capacity to set a destination and muddle their way through to it.
The power of these constellations, though, was not in the stars themselves. It was in the connections we made between them, the lines we saw and drew from Polaris to Kochab. Like the hidden colours of the sunset, these connections enrich an already profound experience.
The true power of a network is not in its membership. Instead, a network is measured by what happens in the space between the people and the organizations that compose it.
How we make the most of the connections we’ve made and the ones we’ve yet to make will be the fundamental measure of RECODE’s future success. Will we exist as a random scattering of stars, or form constellations by navigating the complexity of change together?
This reflection helped me to recognize that this is what RECODE Collaborate really aims to do: facilitate the space between. We strive to bring together people and disciplines who might never otherwise have met – especially not under the pretense of imagining new futures at their school, or for higher education as a whole. We then try to create opportunities for those connections to manifest in real, experiential prototypes of their vision, making the most of those connections.
That’s why we’re returning this fall to the fifteen campuses who participated last year with renewed programs – and we’re hoping to reach a few more, while we’re at it. If you’re interested in making RECODE Collaborate happen on your campus (whether you’re a student, faculty, or staff),
reach out. After all, we love making new connections.
Of course, if you’re a fan of Dave Matthews Band, this reflection has a bonus soundtrack.