Jan. 27, 2023

A retrospect of the UCalgary Pluralism Initiative in anticipation of what’s to come

UCalgary’s Pluralism Initiative leadership to build on past successes in 2023
Pluralism Initiative graphic
The UCalgary Pluralism Initiative continues to bridge divides and promotes social innovation

When the University of Calgary first launched its Pluralism Initiative in 2019, few could have predicted the pillar it would become in the universitys pantheon of values and practices. Now, three years into the initiative, UCalgarys future-focused Pluralism Initiative continues to build upon and expand its successes.

The UCalgary Pluralism Initiative is committed to helping the campus, city and wider communities address current social challenges: social distrust and disconnection, xenophobia and dehumanization, religious intolerance and political strife. Pluralism is inextricably concerned with depolarization, bridging divides, social healing, collaborative problem-solving social innovation, and interfaith engagement. 

The Pluralism Initiative calls for a paradigm shift, bold solutions, culture change, shifting values, norms, skills and behaviours. It focuses on how people understand and engages with social diversity, and how individuals see themselves generally and in relation to others with real or perceived differences.

In a pluralist campus and society, diversity is not “left at the door.” Instead, diversity is “invited in” because it is constitutive of UCalgary’s campus and larger society. A university and knowledge-based society also recognize the importance of epistemic pluralism, cognitive justice, ecologies of knowledges, and transdisciplinary research and scholarship that enable and ignite these connections and, in turn, ignite ingenuity, creativity and innovation.

“The University of Calgary aspires to be a great university in a pluralist society in which peoples, cultures, and entities of diverse backgrounds coexist. In our rapidly transforming society and world, marked by hyper-diversity, we are interested in pursuing institutional initiatives and strategies about how we learn, work and live well together,” says Dr. Malinda Smith, UCalgary’s vice-provost and associate vice-president research (equity, diversity and inclusion).

We encourage pluralism in research and scholarship, teaching and learning, engaging with diverse communities on our campuses, in our city, country and globally.

Pluralism acknowledges that we have different histories, perspectives, and experiences; we each see the world differently,” says Dr. Aleem Bharwani, MD, an associate professor and director of public policy and strategic partnerships at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). Bharwani co-founded UCalgarys Pluralism Initiative.

According to Bharwani, the goal of pluralism is to appreciate and understand those differences such that they might even become qualities we admire in others. That admiration opens a box of potential creativity and innovation.” These are qualities UCalgary endeavours to build in its students, faculty and staff on their path to discovery and embracing entrepreneurial thinking.

Bharwani explains that pluralism acknowledges that people wear many hats coming from different sectors, industries, geographies, disciplines, and identities — but that if individuals can understand each other and learn to work across their differences, they can more effectively pursue common goals. He believes those goals become easier to achieve when every individual and community can be unmuted to safely and constructively bring to bear their unique capacities to solve shared problems.

One of UCalgarys key steps in advancing pluralism was creating the embedded certificate in Pluralism and Global Citizenship, which launched in 2021. The certificate focuses on giving students an edge in the employment market by teaching them how to solve the worlds toughest problems by identifying and convening ideas and perspectives from multiple disciplines, sectors, and communities. Through the certificate, they can develop the skills and attitudes to live and lead with creative problem-solving that blends empathy, creativity and productivity. The certificate is a precursor to a future degree program that remains on the horizon.

The Pluralism Initiative has empowered so many members of the UCalgary community to go beyond mere tolerance and even the idea of celebrating diversity,” says Smith. We want to focus on the power and possibilities of diversity itself, and to encourage social and intellectual growth through academic avenues like the diploma program and a future degree.”

In 2021, UCalgary expanded the mandate of the vice-provost and associate vice-president (research) to include pluralism. The Faculty of Arts, the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and Werklund School of Education have stepped up to address the need for pluralism within their own faculties.

The Faculty of Arts has created a new associate dean for pluralism and inclusion. The faculties of medicine and education have committed to adopting an inclusive governance model that seeks to identify and remove systemic barriers experienced by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. The model will be co-designed with diverse Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities — to reorient the faculties' research, innovation, education, and student services to better meet everyones needs and aspirations. The schools predict the new model will be in place in 2024.

CSM spearheaded the only award of its kind — the Social Innovation Award, which provides up to two annual microgrants for medical students to transform the ideas they generate in class into action through real-life solutions co-constructed with the communities whose quality of life they seek to improve. Inspired by four medical students, the award was created in partnership with Innovate Calgary, CSM Indigenous, Local and Global office, and the UCalgary Pluralism Initiative.

The Government of Albertas Alberta Foundation for the Arts (AFA) has collaborated with the UCalgary Pluralism Initiative as part of the AFAs transformative pluralism policy. The policy shapes AFA-funded grants, art collections, and research activities in Alberta to foster pluralism in the arts toward more equitable, diverse, inclusive and accessible artworks for creators and audiences.

Through the arts, the AFA can enable dialogue across differences, promote a sense of social trust and belonging, and pave the way for innovation, vibrancy, and meaningful structural changes in Alberta society. Art becomes a pathway to combat polarization by sharing stories and building relations across polarized and disconnected communities in Alberta who may otherwise not know or understand each other. The AFA connects diverse artistic practices to create new kinds of experiences to tantalize audiences and to help reframe creative blocks for all kinds of innovators across sectors, industries and identities.

In September, UCalgary unveiled a nearly 15-metre-tall mural at the Foothills campus in the Health Sciences atrium. The artwork was borne out of months of dialogue with Indigenous Elders, community members and artists from the Treaty 7 (Blackfoot Confederacy, Tsuuttina and Stoney Nakoda) and Métis Nations who determined the content and process.

The mural demonstrates local Indigenous perspectives on healing and health — and intends to foster dialogue and understanding across Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities about their shared past and potential future. Augmented reality will bring the mural to life on visitors' smartphones through 3D animations, songs, stories, and links to educational materials.

Looking ahead, the Offices of the Vice President (Research) and of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion have plans to continue working with faculties to activate the Pluralism Initiative. UCalgary is currently working with The City of Calgary to build a diplomacy platform that would help steward, renew, and uphold a common purpose and help to prevent and resolve intractable policy conflicts and polarization, among other issues.

Through the platform, the university serves as a detached third party that can steward conversations around pressing community-wide issues and facilitate discourse to de-politicize conflicts. This initiative is just one of many emerging projects that aim to drive social cohesion and innovation that will position Calgary as a leader in diversity, ingenuity and living well together. 

The UCalgary Pluralism Initiative has a very clear mission: To create mechanisms that help people understand each other and learn, work and live well together in a world increasingly shaped by differences.

Learn more about the UCalgary Pluralism Initiative and how to enrol for the certificate program.