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Coady Institute expands reach under new director

John Gaventa, with a lifetime of development work, shares the values of the Antigonish Movement.


From its beginning in 1959, the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University has encouraged citizen participation through an approach to development that promotes self-reliance and practical ways to improve communities. Instead of a top-down stance, it builds from where people already have power in a participatory way.

“There aren’t many institutions in the world that do this kind of work,” said John Gaventa, an international authority on leadership and citizen engagement who became Coady’s new director last August. “I think it is what the world needs. People are becoming disillusioned with top-down development.”

Dr. Gaventa has held true to this approach throughout his career. He joined Coady from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, in England, where he was a fellow and director of the Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability. He had spent the previous 17 years in Tennessee with the Highlander Research and Education Center, credited for its key role in the civil rights movement, both as a gathering place for activists and for its work on school desegregation and voter rights and education.

In an interview this past fall, his office still scattered with unpacked boxes, Dr. Gaventa noted that Highlander’s founder, Myles Horton, is often compared to Moses Coady, the institute’s namesake who founded the Antigonish Movement in Nova Scotia.

“Both institutions grew out of the depression,” recounted Dr. Gaventa. “They both involved charismatic men who used adult education and had a real belief in the power of people to solve their own problems if given the opportunity.”

Dr. Gaventa, a father of three, has always taken a global view. Born in Tennessee, he grew up in the heart of the Niger Delta in Nigeria, where his father, a doctor, set up a hospital. Home-schooled by his mother, he later studied at Vanderbilt University and then, as a Rhodes Scholar, earned a doctorate in political sociology at Oxford University. He has written extensively about ways that marginalized people take political action supporting social and economic justice.

Encouraged to apply for the director’s job at Coady, he was intrigued by the job ad: it wanted someone who shared the values of the Antigonish Movement. The social movement grew out of the 1920s, when many in the region were suffering economically and were disillusioned. A group of priests and educators, including Father Coady and Father Jimmy Tompkins, led the movement from the extension department of StFX. Early mass meetings brought together community leaders, local people and professionals. The meetings aimed to break down people’s complacency about their economic situation and to figure out how they could solve their social and economic problems. Study groups, called the people’s schools, followed. The movement eventually blended adult education, co-operatives, microfinance and rural development to help local communities.

“There is no denying its great significance in its development of adult education, community-based development and the co-operative movement in Canada,” said Ian MacPherson, founder of the B.C. Institute for Co-operative Studies at the University of Victoria.

The Coady Institute’s organic growth from the Antigonish Movement gives it credibility, said Dr. Gaventa. “The fact that we work in our own backyard and then move outwards gives us legitimacy.” He cited the institute’s new Inter-national Centre for Women’s Leadership as an example.

With $1 million in funding from the Canadian International Development Agency in 2010, the institute is leading an inaugural, 20-week Global Change Leaders program this year for 15 participants (out of 420 applicants). Last summer, the first 12 women graduated from the Indigenous Women in Community Leadership program. “There are very few places that are building leadership of women at a grassroots level,” said Dr. Gaventa. “It is absolutely critical.” Studies show that women’s empowerment is closely linked to improving quality of life, not only for women but across society.

Yvonne Marimo, at Coady to take its diploma program in development leadership, understands this intimately. “In Zimbabwe, during the lowest point in our history, it was the women working in unrecognized labour who ensured the survival of their families and our economy,” she said.

In Bulwayo, Zimbabwe, Ms. Marimo works with poor women, many of them affected by HIV/AIDS or victims of domestic abuse. “We are building on their resourcefulness and trying to give them a different world view so that they can get themselves out of poverty and transform their lives.” The Coady program, she said, “has completely opened my eyes to a new way of learning … about how we should be working with communities.”

Since celebrating its half-century milestone, the institute has been expanding. A recent $17-million renovation of beautiful pillared buildings has doubled its previous space. “The building was built by funds raised entirely from the public,” noted Dr. Gaventa. “That shows the commitment from the community.”

CIDA funding accounted for just under a third of the institute’s almost $4.3 million in revenue for operations in 2011. But at a time of government cutbacks, Dr. Gaventa wants to increase Coady’s private funding, especially for international scholarships. During his five-year contract as director, he plans to extend to places like Haiti. In the fall, the Canadian non-profit foundation ONEXONE provided seed funding for a Haitian Centre of Excellence for Leadership and to attract other funders. Initially, several Haitians will attend the institute in Antigonish.

Believing deeply that the world could benefit from what Coady has to offer, Dr. Gaventa is committed to helping spread the word. “The more we can get other institutions to do the work we do, the possibilities are there for greater impact.”

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