The 48th St. Gallen Symposium marked the first collaboration with the 6 Degrees event, organised by the Institute of Canadian Citizenship. The goal was to provoke conversation about inclusion and exclusion, and what steps we should be taking in order to create more ethical and tolerant societies.
The 6 Degrees conference itself included workshops and panels on a round stage. The main aim was to include the audience in the conversation. To that end, 6 Degrees staff threw around mobile microphones encased in soft, plush cubes.
In keeping with the symposium’s topic, the day began with a panel on “Economies.” The conversation revolved around diversity and inclusion within businesses and the workforce, with the speakers dedicating their mic time to talking about why such ideas are beneficial to companies and employees alike.
One of the speakers was Yulkendy Valdez. Her organization, Project 99, is focused on fostering millennial talent. She was enthusiastic about the 6 Degrees concept. “As someone who has lived this, as an immigrant to the United States, but also through the work I do, it’s important,” says Valdez.
Though 6 Degrees had featured speakers, it was unusual in its efforts to share the floor with the audience – many of whom had criticisms that needed to be discussed openly. One audience member, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, raised the issues she had working as an engineer for Shell, where panelist Peter Voser once worked as CEO. As a black, Muslim woman, Abdel-Magied found the claims Voser made on stage in regards to the inclusivity and diversity in his workforce to be somewhat off the mark in regards to her own experience.
This dramatic exchange set off a conversation around the room about what it means to fill hiring quotas and how, in fact, we must look beyond diversity numbers to make workspaces inclusive in a much deeper, rooted sense, such as working on diversity, acceptance beyond who you hire, and listening to workers about their issues and experiences. “Talk to me, not about me,” Abdel-Magied said, a line which yielded applause from the rest of the room.
The unusual format and engaged audience got rave reviews. “This is exactly what needs to happen,” Valdez says. “Often you go to a conference or a panel and listen. Maybe you get to ask a few questions at the end. But this is the kind of beautiful chaos that we need. I’m sure not everybody walked out satisfied, but that’s better than not having the conversation at all.”
The conference – which began as a three-day event in Toronto last year – is partly the brainchild of Adrienne Clarkson, a former Governor General of Canada. The intent is to be more inspirational than academic. “This is not a study of anything,” Clarkson says. “It is involvement, it is a movement.”
Clarkson describes the symposium as “super-national” – and as a perfect fit for a “super-portable” event like 6 Degrees. “I think it’s very interesting to have points of view that are very different [among] people who are thinking about the same things, people want to share their ideas about belonging and inclusion, with or without natural borders,” she says. “That’s what it’s all about: the movement of people, the movement of ideas.”
The collaboration originated with Scott Young, one of the symposium’s former Leaders of Tomorrow, who now works for 6 Degrees. After Young suggested a collaboration,
the organisers saw the promise of working together. “Inclusion is something that should matter,” says Rolf Bachmann, the St. Gallen Symposium vice-president.
In the next panel, on “Societies,” the audience was asked whether people are naturally inclusive or exclusive. At one point Aya Chebbi, founder and chair of the Afrika Youth Movement, handed the mic to Abdel-Magied, who spoke articulately on the subject of representation. Her speech detailed the systemic discrimination Abdel-Magied had experienced in her line of work. “I’m tired,” she said – tired of being the only black Muslim woman in her office, and tired of being “expected to be grateful.”
Abdel-Magied had the eyes and ears of every member of the room glued to her. “The things that we are talking about are not abstract, they are our, they are my lived experiences. This stuff matters. This stuff is important. This stuff destroys people’s lives,” she said. “It’s about history. It’s about people saying ‘Pick yourselves up by
your bootstraps,’ when there was a systematic, concerted campaign by colonists over hundreds and hundreds of years to destroy people so they would not be able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps.”
Later in the session, Abhijit Sinha, co-founder of Project DEFY, a company which builds “nooks” of technology in developing communities to show people how to teach themselves – gave an impassioned presentation of his observations on how societies exclude refugees. He was impressed that there was room for dialogue during the event. “The interesting thing about the programme is that it actually does allow for difference of opinion, and there was difference of opinion,” he said. “It is great to let that happen, and allow challenging points of views to come forward. I would like to see this happen in the very grassroots, where people have not been allowed to have an opinion.”
The wide-ranging discussion at the event did not cover everything. For example, one audience member pointed out that the St. Gallen Symposium and its participants are very much part of the global elite. In such an elite room, perhaps the topic of inclusion should have elicited more discussions on economic redistribution. But that seemed to be lost amongst other, equally vital conversations.
According to audience member Celia Ramirez, a health practitioner from Mexico, 6 Degrees was an important space for listening and hearing different perspectives. “But this is just the first step,” she said. “The second step would be a 6 Degree analysis of what happened afterwards. Let’s meet again, let’s follow up on what was said and what happened afterwards. Let’s not just leave it there.”